The 2006 Olympic Winter Games are behind us, leaving in their wake a baffling degree of interest in curling and some truly memorable performances from athletes both well-known and unknown. With the Olympics over, you might have been wondering how you could spend your free time--but wonder no more, because Microsoft just announced plans to make Exchange 12 beta 1 available to a much broader audience.

Yesterday, on March 1, Microsoft announced that it was making beta 1 available to TechNet and MSDN subscribers as a Community Technology Preview (CTP). When beta 1 first began, late last year, it was a private beta restricted to about 1400 Microsoft customers, all of whom had to be nominated by Microsoft employees. MVPs and a few third-party developers were also nominated, but--even including participants in the Technology Adoption Program (TAP)--only a relative handful of the tens of thousands of Exchange-using sites were in on the beta. That's about to change dramatically because there are more than 200,000 TechNet and MSDN subscribers, all of whom will have access to beta 1.

This isn't the first time Microsoft has offered an Exchange CTP; you may remember that Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) was released as a CTP in August 2005. As with the SP2 CTP, the Exchange 12 CTP is being released so customers can get familiar with it in their own environments. It's not supported for production use (obviously), and Microsoft has already told beta 1 customers that they won't be able to upgrade from beta 1 directly to the released version.

As part of the CTP announcement, the product team announced that beta 2, coming later this year, will be a public beta, so we'll all be able to discuss it to our hearts' content. Microsoft isn't officially supporting the CTP, although you'll be able to ask support questions in the public Exchange newsgroups or at your favorite online forum or blog. There's no explicit nondisclosure agreement (NDA) on CTP participants, although the end-user license agreement (EULA) for both TechNet and MSDN says you're not supposed to write reviews of the products you get from there.

Microsoft's finally started to talk publicly about the new continuous replication features in Exchange 12. There are two flavors of continuous replication: local continuous replication (LCR) copies transaction log data to a second local volume, essentially giving you a protected local copy of your data. Clustered continuous replication (CCR) is cooler; with CCR, cluster nodes don't have to share disk resources, meaning that geographically dispersed clusters get much easier to design and deploy. Look for more on LCR and CCR in future columns.

Interestingly, the CTP builds will be made available in both 32- and 64-bit versions. This is a smart move on Microsoft's part because customers that haven't decided on their forward path from Exchange 2000 Server (or even Exchange Server 5.5) will be able to evaluate Exchange 12 features (if only in an early state) on the hardware they already have. I don't expect any changes in their previous commitment to release the production version of Exchange 12 as a 64-bit-only product, though.

MSDN subscribers can download the Exchange 12 CTP starting today, whereas TechNet subscribers will get the bits as part of their March delivery. If you're not already a subscriber to one of these two programs, you can subscribe through Microsoft's Web site.

(Oh, and one other announcement: Microsoft released a new version of the Application Analyzer 2006 for Lotus Domino http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?amp;amp;displaylang=en&familyid=D94C5719-570D-4ADB-B449-70E1E42CBFC5&displaylang=en. More news on that next week! )