Microsoft pulling back on some MEC commitments and a rather delicious rumour

Oh what a twisted path we weave through life, technical innovation, and discussions at technology conferences. On the one hand there's the possibility that Microsoft might turn up at TechEd EMEA in Barcelona with a new version of Exchange, on the other they're busily retreating from some promises that I believe were made to the on-premises customer base at MEC last month. Maybe my hearing is deficient, or maybe it really is that machine learning is too heavy a load for on-premises customers to take.

Listening to last week’s edition (#362) of the “Windows Weekly” (featuring Paul Thurrott and Mary-Jo Foley) broadcast, I was intrigued by the rumor that Microsoft will make a trial version of the next major version of on-premises Exchange at TechEd EMEA in Barcelona (October 28-31).

I certainly haven’t heard this rumour before and have been operating on the basis that Microsoft will do what they said at MEC and deliver Exchange 2016 or whatever it will be called towards the end of 2015.

If Microsoft does show up at TechEd EMEA with a new on-premises version of Exchange, I imagine it will be a very early test build. However, I think it unlikely simply because it would be so out of the ordinary for the Exchange development group to show up with a brand new version two years after shipping the last release. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the accelerated cadence of software development and feature ship that we see in Office 365 and other cloud systems, but I have my doubts.

One reason is that I don’t believe that on-premises customers are clamouring for a new version. Most of them are quite busy enough either figuring out whether to upgrade to Exchange 2013 or move to the cloud, or if they are already using Exchange 2013, they’re busy keeping up to date with quarterly cumulative updates. But we’ll see…

Among other things, Exchange 2013 SP1 delivered support for Windows 2012 R2. I don’t think a major new release of Windows Server is in the immediate offing, so that removes one reason for Microsoft to update Exchange in the near future.

Another is that it is hard for Microsoft to convince customers to adopt a new version of any server application. They have only just managed to shut down Exchange 2003, albeit only in an officially supported sense as I think that many companies will continue to run Exchange 2003 (and even earlier releases) for a few years yet. Some Exchange 5.5 servers are still in use, 17 years or so after that version shipped. After all, if a mail server works and can send and receive mail and that’s all you want it to do, there’s no great imperative to spend a lot of money just to have the latest version.

By any traditional measure, Exchange 2013 has lots of runway left. The first service pack is the traditional point at which enterprise customers swing into serious deployment mode and that landmark was only reached on February 25. Normally, at least one more service pack would appear before Microsoft would release a new version.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Microsoft’s marketing gurus have come up with some stunning reason to ship a new on-premises version of Exchange sooner than we expect and some whizz-bang-wallop feature is ready in the wings to be delivered. Unfortunately an interview with Julia White (Head of Office Technical Marketing) last week makes it pretty clear that it won’t be the code required to support the Office Graph or Clutter, both features that received a lot of coverage at MEC last month.

In fact, quite a turnaround seems to have occurred in Microsoft’s plans to these features because a strong impression was given by Microsoft speakers when highlighting the features at MEC that while the features would be delivered in Office 365 first, they would arrive later for on-premises customers. I've spoken to a number of other people who were at MEC and all agree that they expected to see these features in the next major release of Exchange. It seems like a realization has set in that the processing required by the two features is “too compute intensive.”  Machine learning is used to determine the links between people and data that underpins the Office Graph or to understand the importance of messages within an individual’s mailbox that “Clutter” needs to be effective.

I wasn't too surprised to hear that Office Graph won't be coming to on-premises customers anytime soon because I imagine that it involves a very complex configuration of different components to deliver the kind of view of information that Office Graph promises. I imagine that quite a lot of data needs to be generated and retained too, which adds cost to the solution even when JBOD is used. There are plenty of places where Exchange 2013 tasks are overly complex (like connecting with SharePoint to make site mailboxes work) and it makes sense to debug and refine Office Graph thoroughly inside the highly structured and automated Office 365 environment before attempting an on-premises release. Hopefully that release would be easy to install and configure and build on the experience gained in Office 365.

However, I was surprised to hear that "Clutter" seems to be heading along the same road. I guess we shall learn more about this situation as time unfolds.

For now, both features will be restricted to Office 365 customers and will therefore be a major point of differentiation between the cloud and on-premises versions. No doubt the on-premises community will be reassured by Julia’s statement that this development is “not capricious favoritism toward Office 365 customers.” To be fair to Microsoft, it's better that they set clear expectations so that we can plan on that basis. It's also fair that they should take whatever time is required to sort out the software before launching it into the on-premises community. No one wants a disaster.

In any case, the rumour about a new version of Exchange has me baffled and bemused. Barcelona is a nice place and TechEd EMEA is supposed to be a friendlier event than its U.S. counterpart. Should I be packing to go there? Is on-premises Exchange now moving to a more rapid release schedule? We live in interesting times.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on May 20, 2014

I agree 100%. They can test it in the Microsoft Hosting / Office 365 100X, before launching it into the Exchange on-premises community.

on May 20, 2014

Yep, it's so much better when a feature is delivered and it is fully debugged, automated as much as possible, tweaked to be as functional as possible, and solves a real business problem. My hope is that Microsoft will use Office 365 to sort out as many issues as possible before transferring the technology to on-premises customers. It looks rather like they are heading that way.

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On-premises and cloud-based Microsoft Exchange Server and all the associated technology that runs alongside Microsoft's enterprise messaging server.


Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro. His latest books are Office 365 for Exchange Professionals (eBook, May 2015) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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