Back in December, Microsoft shipped the first beta for Microsoft Exchange 12, its next messaging server. Since then, the company has been gathering feedback and preparing for the next major beta. Because it's been three months since I last looked at Exchange 12, I thought this would be a good time to get an update. So last week, I discussed the product with various people on the Exchange team, talked about the Exchange 12 timeline, and walked through some of its key features.

Although it's an impressive release, Exchange 12 isn't without controversy. Late last year, Microsoft decided that it would ship the product only for 64-bit x64 versions of Windows Server and not for the 32-bit systems that dominate today's businesses. Microsoft has valid if self-serving reasons for this decision, but my gut feeling is that a 32-bit Exchange 12 version wouldn't provide the consolidation and performance benefits needed for such an important upgrade, and by limiting the server to x64, Microsoft can overcome this problem.

At issue, of course, is memory: 32-bit systems can access only 4GB of RAM, and Exchange 12 needs more than that for larger installations. In my recent briefing, Microsoft noted that the benefits of running on x64 would result in a 70 percent I/O reduction, according to the company's internal tests. But this result isn't based on a comparison of identical 32-bit and 64-bit systems. Although the hardware used in each case is the same, the x64 system had more memory. That, and x64-specific optimizations, make Exchange 12 perform better on x64.

Once you get over the need to upgrade to an x64 version of Windows Server 2003 R2, which will be the mainstream Windows Server requirement when Exchange 12 ships, you'll be pleased to know that this upgrade will at least allow you to consolidate servers. With the additional memory capacity, you can serve far more users, provide larger mailboxes, or both.

And the functional improvements in Exchange are impressive. I highlighted a few of them back in December ("Microsoft Ships Exchange 12 Beta 1 to Limited Test Group," see the URL below), but I learned about several more during my recent briefing. As noted previously, the new Exchange System Manager (ESM) GUI is completely redesigned and far less complicated than the current version. But most interesting, the ESM is actually just a front-end to the Exchange Management Shell (EMS), based on Microsoft's Monad command-line environment. That's right. Exchange is built just like a UNIX server.

The point here is that everything Exchange 12 can do is exposed via EMS commands, which can be programmatically accessed directly from the command line, through scripts and commandlets, or via an application or service written in a managed programming language such as C# or Visual Basic (VB). This means that administrators can easily automate tasks like adding groups of new users to both Active Directory (AD) and Exchange. But it also means that in-house development staff can write very specific applications that let IT administrators or power users perform only certain Exchange 12-related tasks. With Exchange 12 Beta 1, the only EMS documentation is in online help, but by mid-year, the company expects to have more and better documentation, as well as plenty of sample scripts and other related tools. This is powerful stuff.

Another highlight is the Exchange 12 version of Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA), which is virtually identical to the Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 (formerly code-named Outlook 12) client application in both form and function. The new OWA version integrates neatly with Exchange 12-specific functionality. So if you use the Unified Messaging (UM) features in Exchange 12 to consolidate email, fax, and voice mail into users' mailboxes, they'll be able to listen to voice mail via OWA by using an embedded media player control, and even forward private or sensitive calls to actual phone numbers (such as a private line or cell phone) so they won't bother cubical mates. Neat.

Microsoft is also significantly enhancing Exchange 12's handling of calendar items so that more information is stored on the server, rather than on various clients. This has a number of positive ramifications. First, scheduling information like free/busy time and even meeting room and other resource availability can now be stored on the server. So when you invite someone to a meeting, you'll know immediately if they can make it, even if they're away on vacation, vbecause their calendar will show that they're tentatively scheduled to attend. And you'll even know where the meeting will be held because you'll have each meeting room's availability at your fingertips as well. These features, incidentally, work as well from OWA as they do from Outlook 2007.

Speaking of Outlook 2007, this upcoming new Outlook version will ease new installations and server failovers with its new AutoConnect feature. Now, you'll simply need to supply your name, password, and email address, and Outlook 2007 will automatically configure itself for the correct Exchange server. Compare that to the current situation, in which the user must know the server name in advance, and then step through a connection process. This feature is handy if an Exchange Server fails over. Outlook 2007 will simply connect to the new server, with no configuration change required.

Regarding the Exchange 12 timeline, the current Beta 1 release is available only via a private beta program to just 1400 participants. But a future beta release, due by mid-year, will open up Exchange 12 to the public, so everyone can get their hands on this product. Microsoft still expects to ship Exchange 12 in late 2006 or early 2007.

Microsoft Ships Exchange 12 Beta 1 to Limited Test Group http://www.windowsitpro.com/Article/ArticleID/48828/48828.html