Understanding the messages from the Exchange Conference keynote

Keynotes at the Microsoft Exchange Conference are always awaited because of their fun element and the messages that Microsoft pass about the future direction of the product. The future seems clear. That is, it's the cloud, if you see what I mean. The fun was less obvious But such is the nature of keynotes at high-profile events.

The keynote at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) in Austin yesterday was a curious mixture of humor (the Greg Taylor and David Espinoza video), failed demos, low energy levels at times, announcements that were posted elsewhere before the keynote got to make them, and discussions of new technology. The new stuff, like Office Graph, enhanced Groups, and OWA for Android can be left for discussion elsewhere. What’s more important is the impression that was gained of the direction Microsoft is heading in for Exchange and associated technologies.

If you are an on-premises Exchange customer, the keynote held out some reassurance in that Jeff Teper confirmed that Microsoft will ship a new version of Exchange sometime in 2015 (Exchange 2016?). It’s reasonable to expect that the timeframe is toward the end of the year rather than the start. Exchange 2013 shipped in October 2012 and October 2015 fits the three-year timeframe for new version releases that Microsoft laid down when they introduced their current release cadence with Exchange 2013.

However, the overwhelming feeling left with many is that Office 365 is where all the action is at present and in the future. That shouldn’t really be surprising because Microsoft has been very candid in saying that new features will always appear first in the service. It’s easier for them to introduce new features into an environment that is strictly controlled than to prepare the same features to ship to customers who will deploy the software into a massive variety of environments. It’s also fair to say that it is much easier for Microsoft to coordinate all the moving parts that are required to make some of the new features like the Office Graph come to life. The complexity that exists behind a demo can be mind-bending.

Few customers can easily deploy the necessary software and hardware that’s necessary to bring information from multiple sources to present the kind of integrated view seen in new technology like the Office Graph. It’s hard enough to keep on-premises servers updated with patches. Being asked to deploy new software products and new versions of existing products like Exchange, SharePoint, and Yammer that are needed to make everything mesh together is a tall ask for companies running on-premises servers. I doubt that many CIOs would be willing to invest the cash and people time to revamp their environment and then keep that environment updated on a quarterly basis.

Cloud computing is terrifically powerful in delivering standardized and commoditized services, like email and it’s an undeniable fact that using a service like Office 365 is just easier in many situations. You get new features faster and without having to do all the mundane work of server and software updates. This is the future and it’s the reason why more companies are attracted to the cloud. CIOs look at the complexity and cost of maintaining their on-premises servers and a growing functionality gap that exists between on-premises and cloud and conclude that the cloud is a better future.

Of course, some companies will never use the cloud. The service is too standardized and inflexible; privacy and security remain concerns for some; and support is not at the level that many companies feel is required. These factors (and others) will keep a certain percentage of current Exchange customers firmly on-premises. These customers will accept some functionality deficiency compared to Office 365 for the control they exert over their IT. Quite how many remain on-premises and when the switchover occurs so that the majority of mailboxes are in the cloud are unclear at this point, but it is clear that we are approaching a flexion point for IT infrastructures.

Change is on the horizon. The question is how well both Microsoft and customers cope with the transition. But it was nice that MEC attendees all received a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet. Presumably a device that will bring us into the future…

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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.

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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