Summer is traditionally a slow time. As we near the middle of July, you might expect a lull--after all, the World Cup is over, many IT staffers are taking their (well-deserved) annual holidays, kids are out of school, and so forth. However, anticipation is building among Exchange administrators because of Microsoft's commitment to release Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Beta 2 by month's end. What should you be doing now to get ready for the beta release?

First, it helps to understand how Microsoft has typically handled Exchange betas. There are usually two or three stages in the beta program. Beta 1 is typically made available only to a limited number of people outside Microsoft. With Exchange Server 2003, Exchange 2000 Server, and Exchange Server 5.5, Beta 1 went primarily to large Microsoft customers who joined programs such as the Technology Adoption Program (TAP) or Joint Development Program (JDP); in exchange for their willingness to test such early versions, TAP and JDP participants get a high level of support directly from Microsoft. Somewhat unusually, Microsoft made Exchange 2007 Beta 1 available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers earlier this year, although the Beta 1 build was still missing some key features.

Beta 2 has historically been a more widely available beta. For Exchange 2007, Microsoft has announced that Beta 2 code will be available for download from its Web site; I also expect company representatives to pass out DVDs of the product at events such as the upcoming Microsoft TechEd: IT Forum in Barcelona and Microsoft Exchange Connections 2006. If you're planning on downloading the product, Microsoft recommends that you preregister to download it at http://www.microsoft.com/exchange. For the Beta 2 release of Windows Vista, Microsoft made only a fixed number of downloads available. I don't know whether the company will use the same policy for Exchange (I doubt it), but it's still a good idea to register now so that you'll get immediate notification of the beta release.

After Beta 2, the next step usually involves one or more release candidates (RCs). The Exchange product group hasn't said what its RC plans are, and it probably won't until after the Beta 2 period has begun. However, Beta 2 is feature complete, meaning that it contains all the features Microsoft plans to ship in the release to manufacturing version.

The second thing you should do to prepare for the beta release is to review the documentation. There's a lot of it, and you can be excused the typical administrator's response of "You want me to read what?" You don't have to read the entire documentation set, but it's a good idea to review the sections on server roles and architecture because Microsoft has introduced some significant changes to this version of Exchange. I've had access to preliminary versions of the documentation for a while, but the Beta 2 set is much more complete. I applaud Microsoft for releasing the beta documentation before the actual software, and I challenge other vendors to do the same with their own betas.

One thing you don't have to do is rush out to buy 64-bit hardware for your test lab. Microsoft has already said that it will make 32-bit builds available during the beta release and for use in test and evaluation environments. This assurance is important because one great way to test Exchange 2007 is by using virtualization software such as Microsoft Virtual Server, which doesn't yet support 64-bit guest OSs. Consequently, you'll have to stick with 32-bit builds for the time being if you're using virtual machines.

The third thing to do to prepare for the beta release is to answer the inevitable question that comes with every Microsoft beta: "Can I run this in production?" My answer would be "no," because earlier releases of Exchange haven't always had a clean upgrade path from beta versions to the RCs. Beta 2 already supports large numbers of mailboxes both at Microsoft and at other companies (through the TAP), and Microsoft obviously believes that the beta is stable enough for realistic testing. However, I wouldn't necessarily put it into production immediately, tempting though the idea might be.

What kinds of gotchas should you watch out for in Beta 2? First, remember that it's beta code. Just like betas from every other vendor, the beta of Exchange 2007 contains bugs. Microsoft knows about some of them, but the whole point of a beta is to find the ones that it doesn't know about yet. Don't bet your operational environment on a beta from any vendor. Second, remember that the beta code won't be optimized for performance, so don't rely on it to give you final load-handling or scalability data. Third, be sure that any third-party products you use have, or will have, Exchange 2007-aware versions; otherwise you won't be able to run those products with Exchange 2007.

Taking a little time now to prepare yourself for the release of Beta 2 will help ensure a smooth testing process and will get you ready for the final product's release.