Last week, I met with Microsoft Corporate Vice President Dave Thompson and Senior Director of the Microsoft Exchange Server Group Kim Akers to discuss the Exchange Server road map. Thompson, you might recall, joined Microsoft's fledgling Windows NT team in 1990 and has been working on Windows ever since (I previously chronicled the story of the early NT days in "Windows Server 2003: The Road to Gold Part One: The Early Years" on the SuperSite for Windows; see the URL below). But after helping ship Windows 2003, Thompson took 6 months off and reevaluated what he wanted to do. Upon his return in late 2003, he joined the Exchange Server team to focus on Microsoft's communications and collaboration strategy.

"I've always been involved with communications, even in Windows Server," Thompson told me. "It's always been an area of interest to me. The Exchange business is critical to our customers, and it impacts people's lives. I wanted to come back in an area that would have impact. Since then, we've been building up the team and figuring out the plan for \[the next major Exchange version\]. It will be the most customer-focused product \[the Exchange team\] has ever put together."

The year 2004 was a transitional one for Exchange. For the first time, Microsoft's Exchange business hit the $1 billion revenue milestone, and its Exchange Server 2003 product--released in late 2003--has seen the fastest uptake of any Exchange version to date. And Exchange Server 5.5 holdouts were reduced by 25 percent in 2004 to 30 percent of the overall Exchange Server user base, thanks to strong reviews for Exchange 2003. However, Microsoft also stumbled a bit with Exchange last year, canceling the high-profile Kodiak project, which would have replaced Exchange's outdated Jet-based data store with a more modern and extensible Microsoft SQL Server-based data store. Also, Exchange Server Edge Services, announced in early 2004, was recently cancelled, and the company now plans to ship Exchange Edge Services features over time, starting with Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2), due later this year.

Although we could lump Microsoft's few missteps with Exchange into a larger discussion about the software giant's product-shipping woes, I think it's fairer to chalk them up to the ever-changing nature of email. When Exchange 5.5 shipped, email wasn't yet the mission-critical infrastructure product that it is today, and email-based malicious software (malware) attacks were uncommon. Today, the situation is different. Email, according to Microsoft's customers, is more important than the telephone, and email volume is rising in companies large and small at an almost exponential rate. Malware and server outages, at one time just annoyances, can have devastating effects on businesses. Exchange has had to adapt to the times more than, perhaps, any Microsoft product. And looking forward, Exchange will be changing even more to meet emerging needs for email availability, device compatibility, and more advanced collaboration and communications functionality.

After stepping back from the Kodiak project, Microsoft is now moving forward in measured steps. And even customers who believe they're familiar with Exchange 2003 might be surprised to discover how much has changed--and will soon change--with that product. As with Windows 2003, Microsoft has been busy improving Exchange 2003 in small ways--with add-ons and service packs--that add up to some pretty serious improvements. The best example is the Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer Tool, which first shipped last September but was updated to version 1.1 in December. This excellent tool uses a built-in database of Exchange knowledge and can connect to the online Knowledge Base for up-to-date information to analyze your Exchange environment and make suggestions for improving your security and configuration settings. For more information about this tool, see the URL below.

Two major Exchange releases are coming down the pike. The first, Exchange 2003 SP2, will feature updates to the Exchange Intelligent Message Filter (IMF) and will implement the Sender ID email framework, which is designed to lessen junk mail. Exchange 2003 SP2 will also include mobility enhancements and improved public folder management, Thompson told me.

In 2006, Microsoft will ship the next major version of Exchange, code-named E12. Microsoft is developing E12 alongside major new versions of Microsoft Outlook and Windows Mobile (the OS that Pocket PCs and smart phones use), and E12 will ship nearly simultaneously with them. E12 is going to be a huge release, focusing on several areas. At a high level, Thompson touted E12's benefits to the IT professionals and administrators who manage Exchange, the information workers who rely on Exchange, and to security. But when you delve into the details of the planned improvements for E12, you begin to see what a big change it is.

E12 will use the roles-based architecture that Microsoft debuted in Windows 2003 to help Exchange administrators more easily configure Exchange boxes for specific tasks. E12 roles include edge server, bridgehead server, unified messaging (UM) server, client access server, mailbox server, and public folder server. And as hinted at by the UM server role noted above, E12 won't be about just email. It will also manage PBX voice mail, Voice over IP (VoIP), and fax messages.

Although the company hasn't revealed the specific product editions yet, each E12 edition will ship in a 32-bit version and a 64-bit x64 version. That is, if Microsoft creates enterprise and standard versions of E12, both will also ship in an x64 version. Microsoft is also overhauling the Exchange System Manager (ESM) interface, and E12 will support new Web services APIs and scripting.

Thanks to its edge server functionality, E12 will support message hygiene and scanning at your network perimeter. This feature should reduce the number of unwanted email messages that traverse your network and suck up employees' time. For businesses with an established trust relationship, E12 will support secure messaging between companies over an encrypted Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) pipe across the Internet. This setup requires an E12 edge server at both locations, but it will be a boon to businesses that need to meet Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and other regulatory requirements.

For the end user, E12 will include a dramatically overhauled Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA) version. E12 will also offer more seamless support for Windows Mobile devices, as well as other portable devices from palmOne and Motorola. Thompson also noted that E12 would include a vastly enhanced and simplified meeting-scheduling function.

Links
"Windows Server 2003: The Road to Gold Part One: The Early Years" http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-server-2003-the-road-to-gold-part-one-the-early-years.aspx

Microsoft Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer Tool http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/downloads/2003/exbpa/default.asp

Exchange Server Best Practices Analyzer Tool (download) http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=dbab201f-4bee-4943-ac22-e2ddbd258df3&displaylang=en