Microsoft is promising a brave new world of lower IT costs, increased user productivity and better risk management to customers that deploy its brand new Exchange Server 2010 (ES10). Can the company's flagship unified communications product deliver on this promise?
Julia White, Microsoft's director, Exchange product management, said that lower IT costs will flow from a number of enhancements to Exchange in its new iteration, including Role Based Access Control (RBAC). Speaking at a Webinar organized by California-based research company The Radicati Group, White said the new simplified administration model is significantly easier, and therefore less expensive, to use. RBAC does away with the need to manage the deeply unpopular access control lists in Exchange, enabling IT administrators to delegate administration tasks by defining roles for other users. Using RBAC, users in the HR department can be allowed to update staff contact information, compliance officers can run searches across multiple users' mailboxes, and end users can make and manage their own distribution groups, thus freeing up the IT staff's time.
Storage is another area where customers will see significant cost savings, White said. Disk I/O activity has been reduced 70 percent compared to Exchange Server 2003, which means a far wider range of low-cost, lower-performance disks can now be used for storage. I/O patterns have also been optimized so that disk writes no longer come in bursts. Hence, low-cost SATA drives can be used in ES10. "One of the top pain points that we are hearing these days especially with the emergence of online services is the desire for large mailboxes," said White. "With Exchange 2010 we can enable very large 5 to 10 gig mailboxes in a very cost effective way."
When it comes to increased productivity, White highlighted some new features designed to make it easier for users to triage their inboxes. "You can now ignore conversations for those long and painful email strings, and with the click of a button you can get them out of your inbox forever as well as any future emails," White offered as an example. Outlook Web Access (OWA) has also been upgraded to incorporate all of the functionality of the Outlook desktop client. It now supports Firefox and Safari as well as Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Another new feature that looks appealing is Exchange's voicemail preview, which uses speech-to-text technology to enable users to read computer-generated transcriptions of their voicemail messages from within Outlook. This could be useful for checking voicemails in situations, such as meetings, when listening to the messages would be inappropriate. Users can also listen to voicemails directly from Outlook, thereby doing away with the need for a separate voicemail system.
Microsoft has gone a long way toward addressing the well-known problems associated with PST discovery and management with which many Exchange administrators (and compliance officers) are familiar, White claimed. That's because email archiving is built in to ES10 using a "personal archive." This looks like a normal mailbox that can be viewed using Outlook or OWA, and it can be searched at the same time as the user's primary mailbox.
The difference is that it is physically located on the Exchange Server. "You can file things to it, and you can move things in and out of it, just like you would your normal mailbox," said White. "Personal folders are expensive to discover, and they are often lost or corrupted. You can now replace them with a personal archive that's managed centrally which means (as an administrator) you can discover it much more easily, there's back up of it and there's controls on it."
White also highlighted the work Microsoft has done to increase system availability. One change is a concept called "database groups," which allows companies to replicate their data across multiple data centers, with up to 16 replicas of each database. "This reduces the need for future backups and has a nice disaster recovery story built in," she said.
Will Enterprises Bite?
It's estimated that about 45 percent of the installed base of corporate messaging users in the United States use Microsoft Exchange. Given that only about 50 percent of these companies are using Exchange 2007, according to Radicati Group, what are the chances that many companies will make the move to ES10? "It's a big deal to upgrade," admited White. However, she said she believes that many companies with aging hardware running Exchange 2003 will want to make the move sooner rather than later. "Our guidance for 2003 users is certainly to skip 2007 and move straight to 2010," she said. "EC10 will appeal to businesses that want the mobile and web experience especially as they become more mobile."
What do others think of the new product? Bryan Cote, group product manager at storage giant EMC, thinks that personal archives have the potential to be very exciting. "The PST thing has always been a big problem for our customers. PST consolidation to user archive is probably my favorite feature [in ES10]."
Andre Franklin, email archiving product manager at HP, said he believes that by sidestepping the management of PSTs by introducing personal archives with low-cost storage possibilities Microsoft has made a very smart move. "Microsoft has hit a home run by addressing that, there's no question about it," Franklin said. "Beyond that, the fact that ES10 supports SATA drives for cheap, low-cost storage makes a lot of sense. Let's manage these large mailboxes in personal archives, as the storage is relatively low cost. Why send the data off somewhere else that's low cost, when you can keep it within Exchange at very low cost and do your own archiving?"
Microsoft has made a big deal about the concept of software and services, and ES10 has been built from the ground up to be run within an enterprise or offered from a service provider's facility, according to White. Brent Rich, director of operations at New York-based service provider Intermedia.net, said he believes this will help service providers offer a more reliable service. "From an architectural perspective as a service provider, we think the new design of 2010 will help us," he said. "We already provide a five-nines SLA for our customers, but we believe we can do better with Exchange 2010."
Right now, ES 10 release candidate code has been released and is available. The final product will launch very soon, said White. "The official line is later this year. We are right around the corner from our RTM, and you'll be hearing some news about that later this month. Our launch will be shortly after that, so we are right on the cusp," she concluded.
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.