Exchange Server 2013: Not quite ready for the data center

Microsoft's update has some worthwhile features, but the holes make some wonder if the software's really finished.

Last fall, Microsoft released a wave of products, including Windows 8, a complete Office client refresh and a server-side update to both SharePoint and Exchange.

[To learn more about using Office 2010, or to pass along tips and tricks about it and SharePoint 2010, check out our Cheat Sheet series.]

I have been playing with builds of Exchange Server 2013 since it was in preview, and I have been using a Release to Manufacturing (RTM) copy of Exchange Server 2013 in my lab for a couple of months. I've found some areas of concern, but also areas of welcome improvement.

Let's take a look at some of the new features and capabilities of Exchange Server 2013 as well as some of the gotchas and disadvantages of the new release, at least in its current state.

As with any new software, the IT department needs to consider the update, evaluate it, develop a plan to deploy it if it makes sense and, above all, understand both the product's capabilities as well as the context around the software itself.

Features and capabilities

What does the new version of Exchange buy you? There have been improvements made to several areas, including those for end users, administrators and security personnel. Here are a few of the major reasons why Exchange Server 2013 warrants a look.

Outlook Web App, or OWA, is completely revamped, with a new look and the ability to access it offline as a real mail client.Outlook is the rich desktop client; OWA is also a client but runs over the Web.

(Story continues below screen shot.)

The Metro-style interface of Office 2013 has shown up in the Outlook Web App, or OWA, piece of Outlook 2013.

If you have seen Office 2013, you know the Metro-style look has crept into the client, and OWA is no different. But new to 2013 is the ability for OWA to continue to function offline, which it does via HTML5, making it the most capable mail client for the Windows RT platform at this time. (It works on Windows 8, too, but regular old Outlook would be the clear choice there instead of OWA.) The offline feature works in Internet Explorer version 9 and up, in Google's Chrome browser version 18 or later and in Safari version 5.0.6 or later.

The new OWA is also designed to be more suitable for touch interfaces, which makes it more appealing for smartphones and tablet devices.

In addition, OWA now supports "apps," which are basically tiny pieces of code that try to sense what you are doing within OWA and offer additional, context-sensitive functions. For example, if it sees you have received a message with driving directions, it offers to open up a map; or if it detects a task or an action from a message, it will add it to a Suggested Tasks list.

Developers will be able to create their own apps to bring even more functionality to OWA. These apps will live inside Exchange's "mailbox store" for each user and will be independent of the specific version of Exchange Server, so future upgrades and updates should not break this functionality.

The number of server types and roles has been reduced. Previously there were a few different types of Exchange servers that could make up a deployment, including mailbox servers (where messages lived), hub transport servers (where messages and items were routed between other Exchange servers in an organization, especially when there were multiple physical locations involved), edge servers (which caught messages coming in from other systems, including Internet mail) and unified messaging servers (which hosted voice mails, IP and Voice over IP calling plans, and other voice-related tasks).

In Exchange 2013, there are now simply mailbox servers and client access servers (CASes), and there is no longer a hub transport role or a unified messaging role as there was in Exchange Server 2010. Fewer pieces equal less complexity, a boon for administrators who had to manage multiple server types in a variety of deployments across the world. It also makes patching and regular maintenance easier, with fewer possible points of failure.

The Exchange Management Console (EMC) is gone. The EMC and its Microsoft Management Console-based operations have been replaced by a Web-based console called the Exchange Management Shell, which mimics the controls available in Office 365. Along with the revamp, some operations that previously were handled with the EMC are now possible only with PowerShell cmdlets. For example, the mail flow and performance troubleshooters are gone, as is the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer.

The Exchange Management Shell now also offers access to the improvements in PowerShell 3.0 and becomes the preferred administration environment for Exchange 2013 deployments, with many operations only possible from the command line. This is an advantage for organizations with big Exchange deployments, since you can now script and take advantage of PowerShell command-line operations to consistently administer your environment. (For smaller shops and administrators without PowerShell experience, however, it is no advantage at all.)

A powerful tool to reduce the amount of sensitive data that leaks outside of the boundaries of the organization is written directly into the new transport rules. Many organizations experience data compromise through email: Your users, either on purpose or completely inadvertently, email sensitive or otherwise privileged information outside of your company's boundaries. Not only can this cause a significant monetary loss in terms of your potential exposure to litigation, but it can also involve sanctions from regulators, payment industry organizations and other outfits.

There has been a market for third-party tools that plug in to the mail flow of a company and inspect data going out. However, that has always been an additional expense and one that comes with some complexity in terms of deployment, because it is additional code that is riding on top of an already deployed system. Now, as of 2013, data loss protection (DLP) is a feature that is built into the Exchange platform.

This allows you to set up policies that do one or more of the following:

  • Enforce boundaries by preventing or limiting transmissions between groups of users, including between groups internal to a company
  • Apply different treatment to messages sent inside a company from messages sent outside of a company
  • Stop inappropriate content from coming into a company or leaving it
  • Strip out confidential or otherwise sensitive data from transmissions
  • Archive or journal messages that are sent to or received from users or a group of users
  • Catch inbound and outbound messages and route them to a manager or administrator for inspection and approval prior to final delivery
  • Add disclaimers to messages as they enter or leave the mail flow

Limitations of Exchange Server 2013

So far, the story on Exchange Server 2013 seems pretty good. But there are some gotchas that you should be aware of during your evaluation of whether the new release is right for you.

The first issue speaks to the quality of the software overall, and even puts into question what the word "release" means in this context. "Microsoft made a decision to release all of the 2013 versions of its Office desktop applications and servers at the same time, and it released Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Server 2012 at the same time," says Michael B. Smith, an Exchange expert, Microsoft MVP and author of the blog The Essential Exchange. "I think this decision was seriously flawed."

If you've been in IT for any length of time -- and have witnessed the ability of Microsoft and other software vendors to promise certain dates and then slip them without much trouble -- you could be forgiven for wondering how the software giant was able to achieve shipment of multiple distinct server products, working with individual product groups, using their own codebases, on the same exact day. It is certainly a cause for skepticism regarding just what "release" means.

Smith believes that several products in this wave were released before they were ready. "Exchange 2013 RTM is not ready for prime time," says Smith. "It is obvious that the products were not complete" at RTM back in October 2012.

As proof, Smith says, both Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 had 300MB worth of patches between RTM and general availability; however, Exchange Server 2013 doesn't support interoperability with prior versions of Exchange at either RTM or general availability (GA). It is "easy to conclude that the RTM dates were artificially imposed," says Smith.

Let us unpack these limitations in a little more detail:

Exchange Server 2013 can be deployed only in an environment where there has never before been an Exchange Server deployment. This is because Exchange 2013 doesn't coexist with Exchange 2010. This behavior will be corrected in an upcoming service pack for Exchange 2010. But at the moment, if you deploy 2013, then you must deploy only 2013, and only where there are no coexistence concerns. This pretty much rules out an immediate deployment of Exchange 2013 for the vast majority of businesses.

As of this writing, Microsoft has promised that the service pack allowing for interoperability between Exchange 2013 and earlier versions will be released sometime before the end of March. But this begs the question: Why release a product when you know almost none of your customers can use it without supporting software that will not be ready for several months still?

Keeping the services of Exchange running at peak performance can be particularly challenging. For example, Microsoft has discontinued the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer, which was a tool you could run on your deployments that would compare the state of your installation to known-good attributes of successful deployments and highlight the differences. It also provided practical advice and guidance about rectifying the deficiencies.

There is no equivalent for Exchange 2013.

Also gone are the Exchange Mail Flow Troubleshooter, which was great for determining why messages might not be showing up when you knew they were sent; the Exchange Performance Troubleshooter; and the Exchange Routing Log Viewer. No replacements for these tools have been announced.

There is no support for BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to communicate with Exchange Server 2013. The CDO/MAPI download is not yet available for Exchange 2013 and is "likely the primary reason" BES support is not yet available, says Smith. This download, provided by Microsoft, is the interface that BlackBerry services use to access Exchange, view and compose messaging, and access the transport layers to route messages appropriately.

Unless you are using a third-party solution that rides on top of ActiveSync, or you are using ActiveSync itself, you are probably using BlackBerry, which means your mobile phone users will not have messaging until these bits are released.

There is no current guidance on when this download will be available. The new BlackBerry 10 products generally use ActiveSync or BlackBerry Mobile Fusion, the new server product from BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion), both of which will work with Exchange 2013. However, any older BlackBerry device still requires the MAPI download and there are millions of those devices in use around the world. Another point in the "no go" column.

There is little to no documentation and guidance. TechNet documentation for the new release has not yet been completed, and there is no recommendation or support when it comes to sizing servers and stores, or other advice relating to deployment. One supposes this is to come, but it is odd for the documentation to be this incomplete months after RTM and general availability.

There are other limitations as well, but this is the larger picture for where Exchange 2013 stands at this point.

Other people have noted that Exchange 2010 also shipped without some functionality enabled, such as the inability to manage public folder infrastructure prior to its first service pack.

But it is uncommon for so many entire pieces of the product to feel rushed, incomplete, buggy or simply not ready.

If your definition of "prime time" is "able to run on my current infrastructure," then you will be disappointed with this release as it stands. In my opinion, you would be better off concentrating your energies and focus on upgrading to Windows Server 2012 and letting this new Exchange release ripen on the vine more before digging into it in detail.

The last word

There are a lot of new capabilities in Exchange Server 2013, some oriented toward users with the redesigned Outlook Web App and others meant for administrators, such as the addition of a lot of PowerShell support and replacing the console-based management tool with a website. The data loss-prevention feature is a nice addition for IT directors, security pros and business owners as well.

But implementation is complex and, at the end of the day, it is difficult to make a case that all parts of this Exchange release are ready to be deployed -- especially if you have already deployed a previous version of Exchange in your organization, or you are not ready to move to Windows Server 2012.

My advice: Hang back and wait a year, perhaps 18 months, before taking on this upgrade. Exchange Server 2013 will be a good release -- once it matures.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures LLC, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte, N.C. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him at jhassell@gmail.com.

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This story, "Exchange Server 2013: Not quite ready for the data center" was originally published by Computerworld.

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