With all the noise and excitement of TechEd behind us and Exchange Server 2003's release approaching, let's examine the upcoming changes to Exchange Server's conferencing capabilities. Currently, these capabilities revolve around a little-known product: Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server. This Exchange add-on product, which provides voice, video, and data conferencing in conjunction with Exchange, lets users schedule online conferences as they would face-to-face conferences. Attendees can mark the conferences on their Outlook or Outlook Web Access (OWA) calendars and join a conference from any machine that has enough bandwidth. When combined with the Exchange 2000 Instant Messaging (IM) for the server and the corresponding IM desktop client, Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server provides a complete real-time collaboration service. Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server is in use primarily at large enterprises that have high-speed links between offices, but all sorts of organizations use Exchange 2000 IM.

Microsoft has announced some changes to its conferencing lineup with the release of Exchange 2003. Microsoft won't offer separate, updated Conferencing Server or IM products that work with Exchange 2003, although the current products will continue to work in mixed Exchange 2003 and Exchange 2000 networks. In place of these products, Microsoft will offer an all-new--and very cool--solution: Microsoft Office Real-Time Communications (RTC) Server 2003. Let's pause for a second to pick apart that name. First, notice the word "Office." Even though we might think of IM and conferencing as messaging functions, Microsoft is integrating these capabilities into the Microsoft Office System, so RTC Server's functionality is available whether or not you use Exchange.

Next, notice that the product offers real-time communications, not just IM. RTC Server is built around the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), and RTC Server's IM feature uses a protocol called SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE). The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) supports both of these protocols, so RTC Server provides complete IM and conferencing interoperability, which is exciting when you consider how Exchange 2000 IM's business potential has been squandered because of entities such as AOL, which has made ongoing efforts to block other IM services from connecting to its servers. Think of RTC Server as a complete set of plumbing for moving SIP and SIMPLE packets. RTC Server can perform a lot of interesting IM-related tasks (e.g., provide end-to-end Secure Sockets Layer--SSL--encryption for IM chats, log traffic as required by various regulatory and government agencies such as the US Securities and Exchange Commission--SEC--and various arms of the European Commission--EC). When you think of the advantages (from a communications standpoint) of a ubiquitious set of SIP services, it's easy to get excited. Imagine a seamless merger of IP telephony, IM, and conferencing: You could talk to people from your desktop, laptop, or mobile device. We aren't at that point quite yet, but RTC Server is a definite step in the right direction.

The beta version of RTC Server is now available for download from Microsoft's Web site. The company hasn't announced firm availability dates or pricing, but it's fair to assume that the final version will come out not long after the full release of Office System 2003. Astute readers will note that I didn't discuss how to migrate to RTC Server from Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server and Exchange 2000 IM. For the answer to that burning question, tune in next week!