Microsoft's fuzzy plans raise Exchange concerns

Microsoft Corp. Exchange, which was speeding down a straight road just a few months ago, is hitting some twists and turns that are raising more than a few concerns about future developments.

Three months ago Exchange looked solid and ready to make a run at rival Lotus. But now Microsoft seems to be dismantling key parts of the system in favor of technology that supports Microsoft's .Net platform, a loosely defined strategy to offer software as services over the Internet.

The latest hullabaloo is being raised over Exchange 2000's Web Storage System (WSS), a universal repository delivered three months ago to a hero's welcome. WSS was heralded as the technology that finally delivered the type of data store Exchange needed to support collaborative applications. It was so well-received that many Lotus Development Corp. Business Partners branched out to support Exchange.

Matt Cain, Meta Group Without a clear direction from Microsoft, we recommend users be cautious in developing on top of the Web Storage System.

But now it appears WSS is in line to be consumed by a universal storage system Microsoft is developing for the next version of SQL Server, code-named Yukon.

A month ago, Microsoft yanked the much-anticipated client-side storage system from Exchange that would have let users work with applications offline. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently said that move was made to focus on developing Yukon.

Now it appears Yukon has the back end of Exchange in its sights, and users and analysts are wondering about plans for Exchange and for developing applications for Exchange's WSS.

"Without a clear direction from Microsoft, we recommend users be cautious in developing on top of the Web Storage System," says Matt Cain, an analyst with Meta Group. "The problem is as you write to APIs within Exchange, they call the underlying data store. If they separate the data store, do you still get the same performance?"

The Exchange WSS and the client-side data store - called the Local Web Storage System - were designed to help Microsoft compete with rival Lotus.

But instead of going forward, it looks like Microsoft is going backward.

Instead of a dedicated data store for Exchange, Microsoft plans a universal repository under Yukon that can be a database, a message store and a file system. The idea is to create a single repository for its .Net platform.

"An enormous amount of engineering has to go into creating a single store," says Barry Goffe, group manager for .Net servers. "But the intent is to make SQL not only a relational database but add capabilities so it can be the back-end for e-mail and file systems."

Microsoft is not announcing delivery dates for Yukon, but Ballmer said late last year delivery is two years or so off.

"Having an integrated store has benefits for customers. It could become the back end for Exchange," Goffe says. "Exchange doesn't go away, but you have options."

Just what those options are has users wondering.

"Microsoft needs to start explaining solutions to its end users," says Greg Scott, IS manager for the Oregon State University College of Business. Scott, who has rolled out Exchange 2000, says it is an open question whether Microsoft can craft one mechanism for structured and unstructured data, "that is a high bar."

Users say it could be a bar worth clearing.

"If the single repository is more efficient than what we have, then I'd go for it," says Josh Mitts, IT administrator for the server group at Treasure on the Net, an online gaming company. But Mitts, who is starting to roll out Exchange 2000, says "the key is to have a migration path to easily move mailboxes."

Observers also are wondering about the future of the highly touted WSS.

"If the Exchange team had known this was coming, they would not have emphasized the Web Storage System in the Exchange 2000 collateral," Meta's Cain says.

But WSS won't go away easily, given the complexities around developing a single repository based on Yukon.

Microsoft is trying to solve many issues with Yukon on top of creating a universal storage system, including scalability, data analysis and data warehousing.

But clearly the focus is on expanding beyond a traditional database, and Microsoft has reportedly hired developers from IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc. to help with the work on Yukon.

The trickiest part will be introducing technology called shared-nothing clusters, which let multiple servers work as a single system image. With shared-nothing clusters, each server maintains its own separate processors, memory, storage, record locks and transactions.

"I don't know how Exchange will be integrated into that relational database and partitioned across a shared-nothing architecture," says Mark Shainman, an analyst with Meta Group Inc. "It will require magnitudes of operational complexity."

Shainman says creating a shared-nothing environment in a company is not easy to do or easy to manage.

"If Microsoft partitions the database on base functionality, such as mail, database and file systems, it will be hard to pull off. Management will be the biggest problem even if they can get shared-nothing clusters to work," he says.

The result could be an infrastructure that promises to provide a single point of access to many forms of enterprise data, but that is exceedingly more difficult to maintain than individual repositories.

Some advise taking a pragmatic approach.

"Exchange 2000 needs to get out there first so people can play with the Web Storage System," says Jim Kobielus, an analyst with The Burton Group Corp. "And then people can look to Microsoft to define a migration path."

This story, "Microsoft's fuzzy plans raise Exchange concerns" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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