Exchange tackles more than messaging

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When IS pros think of Microsoft Exchange, one thing usually comes to mind: messaging. But that is the old Exchange. The new Exchange, coming on the heels of the release of Windows 2000, will be a general-purpose file storage system that supports universal client access.

A recent set of announcements from the Redmond, Wash., company shows that Platinum, the code name for the next release of Exchange, will not only be a messaging server, but also a core file system for Windows 2000 and a broad-based application development platform.

Platinum will also serve as a back-end document warehouse, housing files created by Office 2000's collaboration features.

Meanwhile, according to Microsoft, the platform will act as a highly indexed and searchable Web server that supports HTML and XML as key document structures.

To foster universal access, the server will support HTTP, Microsoft's Mail API and Server Message Block, which even allows access to Platinum from a DOS prompt.

"When Bill Gates said a few years ago that Microsoft almost missed the Internet, well, this is the first release of Exchange that represents that shift in direction," says Greg Scott, IS manager for Oregon State University College of Business. Scott has been testing the Web Store and Platinum code for nearly a year. "With Platinum, we see a fairly important clue to where Microsoft as a whole is headed."

Platinum is expected to ship 90 to 120 days after Windows 2000, which is expected to be available by year-end.

Scott says Platinum has changed the way he thinks about data: "Among other things, you can make Platinum look like an NT File System, but you have all these rich tools like indexing and searching. We call it the developer's release since it is designed to be the back end for applications."

Pretty on the inside

Microsoft has done a lot of reworking at the core of Exchange. The software giant is adding an NT file system called EXIFS that runs in kernel mode and can move objects in and out of the data store with various protocols. Microsoft also is developing workflow and document management tools.

"Platinum really is a radical shift," says Nathaniel Palmer, an analyst with The Delphi Group. "What Microsoft envisions is Platinum as a single point of access."

HTTP support is key because it gives every object in Platinum a unique URL, which eliminates the need for scripting to extract objects. The protocol also means Internet devices, from cell phones to personal digital assistants, can connect to Platinum for back-end services.

The range of new capabilities expands Exchange's features so dramatically that Microsoft believes some will use Platinum without ever invoking its messaging services.

The key developments in Platinum center around its recently announced Web Store. The store can contain documents and objects that previously were stored on file, messaging and intranet Web servers.

The centralized storage of the objects is intended to create a development platform for collaborative applications. Microsoft's FrontPage and Visual InterDev will be the tools of choice, according to Kevin Breunig, group product manager in the applications and tools group. "A key goal with Exchange is to make it more collaborative so you can build collaborative applications on top of it," he saays.

A set of tools for Office Developer -- code-named Grizzly -- allows workflows to be devised that use Platinum and SQL Server, the two core storage repositories for Microsoft's knowledge management framework.

Grizzly is expected to be available the second half of this year.

The revamped Exchange is very similar to what Lotus has done with Notes in creating a centralized store of data that is available to application developers.

"Notes is aware of objects stored within it and can use many applications to read those objects," says Tim Sloane, a research director at Aberdeen Group. "Microsoft understands that capability, and the Web Store is part of that realization."

On top of all that, Microsoft is developing a set of server-side services called Tahoe that will allow for basic document management features including check in/check out, versioning and search capabilities. Tahoe has yet to enter beta-testing.

Russ Stockdale, director of server applications, says the point of the new features is to "make Exchange the back-end home for communication devices." Key applications include Office, e-mail, voice mail or fax.

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