First look: Exchange 2010 beta shines

The last big release of Microsoft Exchange, Exchange Server 2007, marked a major change from the previous edition. Exchange 2007 introduced unified messaging, a completely new management client, and improvements to almost every aspect of the mail server, but at the cost of a whopping learning curve for administrators. Admins will have an easier go of it this time around.

Due the latter half of 2009, Exchange Server 2010 is light on wholesale changes and heavy on refinements. On top of noteworthy enhancements for Outlook users, new features also make the operator's life easier -- without introducing entirely new ways of doing things. So if the standby continuous replication feature in Exchange 2007 SP1 improved your operations, or you've been migrating your contractors' e-mail accounts from in-house Exchange 2007 servers to Exchange Online to reduce costs, you'll find much to like in Exchange 2010 as well.

[ See our slide show of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 highlights. ]

The improvements in Exchange 2010 fall into three "pillars," as they are described in Microsoft marketing-speak: flexibility and reliability, anywhere access, and protection and compliance. While I've listed all the new features of Exchange 2010 in the table below, there are a few that stand out, at least in my mind.

Top new Exchange 2010 features

My No. 1 pick is a small thing with a high impact on users: OWA (Outlook Web Access) support for Internet Explorer (IE) 7 and 8, Firefox 3, and Safari 3. When I was involved in administering an Exchange server for a client, the most frequent issue to come up had to do with the requirement to use Internet Explorer for OWA. Users typically ran OWA rather than an Outlook client when they were at home or on the road. Users with Macs wanted to go with Safari or Firefox, and only reluctantly accepted the need to run IE in a Windows VM. Users with Linux wanted to Firefox, as did Windows users, because IE didn't have multiple page tabs at the time, only multiple windows.

My No. 2 pick is the improved storage reliability. This lumps together several discrete enhancements, but the short story is that you can now run Exchange reliably without dealing with Windows clustering, RAID arrays, or fancy Enterprise-class disks. It'll be cheaper to store mailbox databases and faster to recover mailboxes in the event of failures.

My No. 3 pick is MailTips. Are you about to accidentally send a personal e-mail to the whole company? A a time-sensitive e-mail to someone who is on maternity leave for six months? A 30MB attachment to people who have 20MB attachment size limits on their mailboxes? MailTips tells you before you send the message.

And my No. 4 pick is conversation view. Have the arrangements for a company party Friday night cluttered up your mailbox to the point where you can't find the approval e-mail for the urgent customer visit that you need to book today? Switch to conversation view, and collapse those 50 party discussions into one expandable node. This isn't a new idea; we were doing threaded conversations on bulletin board systems 25 years ago. But it is new to Outlook and OWA, and it's more than welcome.

Smoother ops

Reliability has improved in Exchange 2010, while opening up the possibility of reducing costs, through a number of different enhancements. Database availability groups give you redundant mail stores with continuous replication; database-level failover gives you automatic recovery. I/O optimizations make Exchange less "bursty" and better suited to desktop-class SATA drives; JBOD support lets you concatenate disks rather than stripe them into a redundant array. Automatic page patching repairs corrupted database pages from copies.

In addition, Exchange is becoming much easier to manage and more compliant with regulatory and legal requirements. Role-based access control allows administrators to delegate tasks to the appropriate departments for self-service; so, for example, the legal and HR departments might be given the rights to run multimailbox searches to respond to subpoenas and check for regulatory compliance. Additional features to improve compliance include protection rules, personal archives in secondary Exchange mailboxes, moderation of sensitive e-mails, and improved rights management.

Moving a mailbox from one server to another formerly required taking the user offline for at least a couple of hours, not to mention night and weekend hours for the mail administrator. The same task in Exchange 2010 can be done live, with the user online, in a few minutes.

Outlook and OWA

Multiple browser support (Firefox, Safari, and IE) for OWA is my top new feature for users, but that's actually only a small part of the "anywhere access" story. Previously, OWA and Outlook for Windows Mobile lacked many handy capabilities that were built into the desktop Outlook 2007. The Exchange 2010 version of OWA will have full parity with Outlook 2010 by the time they both ship; I'm told that the Windows Mobile client will come close. OWA can even read rights-managed e-mails, which will make it much easier for remote employees and contractors to view sensitive messages without compromising security.

The Outlook 2010 client and OWA both will have conversation view, and both will include integrated instant messaging and voice mail. Voice mail includes a text preview of the recorded message, automatically transcribed using Microsoft's voice-to-text engine. This would have completely blown me away when I saw it, except that Google Voice had just introduced a similar feature a few days earlier.

Role-based access control in Exchange 2010 allows administrators to delegate responsibilities to the appropriate parties. From the user's viewpoint, these capabilities are found in Exchange Control Panel (ECP). Even normal users without any special privileges assigned can update their personal information -- for example, mobile phone numbers -- via ECP. Users can also control who can see their calendar information and in what detail: I might want my supervisor to know when I have a doctor's appointment, but all a colleague needs to know to schedule a meeting with me is when I'm free and when I'm busy.

Exchange 2010 now allows mail federation between trusted companies. This is especially powerful when it comes to scheduling meetings using shared free/busy calendars; suddenly, you can schedule meetings with your business partners as easily as you can schedule meetings within the company. You have the same fine-grained control over the detail that business partners can see in your calendar as you do over what colleagues can see. Another improvement in scheduling is that conference rooms and other meeting resources can be scheduled along with the attendees.

Finally, Exchange 2010 can tell you what has happened to your e-mail, at least within the limits of your company's Exchange servers and all federated servers. In addition, the reply and forward status of each message is maintained by the server so that you will not be tempted to reply to a message several times from different devices.

We know that support for Windows Server 2003 has been dropped from Exchange 2010 in favor of a Windows Server 2008 minimum platform. This might complicate the upgrade calculation for people running older server software. The forced upgrade to Windows Server 2008 shouldn't be as big a shock as the forced upgrade to 64-bit hardware was when Exchange Server 2007 was introduced.

Although pricing for Exchange Server 2010 has not yet been announced, from the initial beta it looks like a very promising upgrade. Because of the major improvements in usability, reliability, and compliance, most Exchange 2007 shops will probably want to upgrade to Exchange 2010 sooner rather than later.

This story, "First look: Exchange 2010 beta shines" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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