Last week, Microsoft released the first beta of the next version of Exchange Server, code-named Exchange 12. The company hasn't said much about specific Exchange 12 features, but enough information is trickling out to give us some intriguing glimpses.

Like most other Microsoft beta 1 releases, the Exchange 12 beta is limited to a small group of testers--about 1400 organizations. This group is apparently a larger group than the equivalent betas for Exchange Server 2003 and Exchange 2000 Server.

These testers get a fairly extensive list of goodies, all grouped into three themes: better control, better Inbox value and access, and active protection.

On the control front, the thing I'm most eager to see is the new administrative interface, powered by Exchange-specific extensions to the Monad scripting shell. Monad is a terrific scripting environment that greatly simplifies everyday tasks, and I look forward to writing more about it. Microsoft has also juggled some of the server roles. Instead of front-end and back-end servers, several new roles exist:

- Edge servers provide message hygiene and security at the network perimeter.
- Client access servers are roughly similar to today's front-end servers; they provide client access to message data.
- Hub transport servers are messaging bridgeheads that route messages internally.
- Unified messaging servers provide telephony integration, fax support, voice access, and other non-text-related email services.
- Back-end servers becomes mailbox servers...well, you can guess what those do.

For our Inboxes, beta 1 delivers unified messaging (including a capability to get your Inbox contents from any phone--something I can't wait to try), an improved version of Outlook Web Access (OWA), and full support for Web service access to mail data. This last one unleashes a new front for developers, who will have straightforward tools to access any data in the Exchange store. Many of the improvements in this area are driven by the forthcoming new version of Outlook, which Microsoft still isn't discussing much with the public. Look for more coverage about the new Outlook version as Microsoft discloses more details of how Outlook 12 and Exchange 12 will work together.

The active protection theme is interesting, too. Microsoft now owns the Sybari AV solution, and clearly Exchange 12 will tightly integrate with it. I also expect to see some improvements in the integrated spam- filtering solutions we now have with the Microsoft Exchange Intelligent Message Filter (IMF). Microsoft has also committed to providing better integration with FrontBridge email services, although the company hasn't released any details.

Microsoft has said that it will release Exchange 12 in late 2006 or early 2007, and that in mid-2006 we'll see broader, more-public betas for Exchange.

What does all this tell us? Microsoft always runs beta code internally; as of now, according to the Microsoft Exchange Team Blog ( http://list.windowsitpro.com/t?ctl=1CA28:10344 ), the company has about 3000 internal mailboxes hosted on Exchange 12. That's a good start, and if past history is any indication, that number will grow rapidly as we move from beta 1 to beta 2. Along the way, I expect more details to appear to flesh out the public roadmap for Exchange 12 that Dave Thompson first presented in January 2005.

Happy holidays!