I didn't plan to write another column about SANs for a while, although I was mightily tempted when I saw Microsoft's "Simple SAN for Windows Server" Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/storage/simplesanguide.mspx. Maybe I'll discuss that next week. This week, however, I want to talk about something we've all been waiting for: the release of Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2).

Before you rush over to Microsoft's Web start and start clicking download links, let me qualify the word release. Microsoft has a long tradition of internally testing service packs on the company's production systems; in fact, one of the release criteria for a Windows or Exchange service pack is that it run at a specified uptime level for a specified time period. Any time a candidate service pack build fails during production operation, the clock goes back to zero. Microsoft's environment is quite different from most other companies' messaging systems, however, so the company also makes early service pack builds available to select customers. These early adopters are part of the Technology Adoption Program (TAP) for a given technology (e.g., the Exchange 2003 SP2 TAP); by putting the service packs into a small number of highly qualified environments, Microsoft can get some useful real-world data about how the service pack is performing.

After the TAP builds of the service packs started looking good, the service pack bits are made available to a small set of beta test customers. Their feedback, along with the uptime and quality measurements from the TAP and Microsoft's internal operations, help the product team determine when the service pack is ready to go.

Typically, those of us who aren't in a TAP program have had to wait for the public releases. Microsoft has started to move away from this trend a bit with the release process for the Windows Server 2003 SP1 bits and has definitely changed its process--for the better--with the Community Technology Preview (CTP) program. You can think of the CTP as a super-beta; the Exchange team has taken the unusual--and welcome--step of making an SP2 build widely available for us to use, test, and tinker with.

As you might expect, however, there are some caveats. The first is that this build isn't supported, and Microsoft warns that you shouldn't install it on your production servers. You can't uninstall Exchange service packs, either, so don't make the mistake of installing the build on a production server and planning to repent later. Having said that, you should probably also plan to make full backups both before and after installing the CTP build. This is a standard practice for regular service packs and is especially important in this case.

Not every capability that Microsoft has planned for SP2 is included in the CTP. In particular, some of the DirectPush improvements previewed at Microsoft TechEd aren't available (and, if they were, you'd still need a Windows Mobile 5.0 device to use them). However, a lot of other new capabilities are available, including (finally!) a way to tell which user deleted a public folder, a few new spelling dictionaries for various languages, and the long-awaited increase in database size for Exchange 2003 Standard Edition users.

The CTP version of SP2 has its own release notes, which you should read in detail. The Exchange team blog at http://blogs.technet.com/exchange includes several recent articles that deal with SP2 features, and I suspect more will be coming. In the meantime, I'd like to hear about your favorite SP2 feature. What are you most looking forward to, and what's your experience with the CTP?