Over the past several weeks, I've had the opportunity to present interviews with members of the Microsoft Exchange Server team, talking about topics such as the Personal Archives feature of Exchange Server 2010, improvements to unified messaging (UM) and Exchange Online, and the importance of the Exchange ActiveSync protocol. To round out this series, I spoke with Microsoft corporate vice president Rajesh Jha about what the future holds for Exchange Server. Of course, much of this conversation focused on the role Exchange plays in Office 365 and the cloud, but Rajesh also had a lot to say about the importance of listening and responding to the requirements of customers and embracing changes in technology as a way to move the Exchange team forward.

BKW: As corporate vice president of Exchange Server, how much oversight do you have on Exchange Online? What's your role with the online side of things?

Rajesh: With Office 365, that's a fairly deep transition for us. So with Office 365, we had each of the core server engineering teams take accountability for the online version as well as the on-premises version. We believe this is exactly the right thing because the engineers who take our products to the enterprise, whether it be in the cloud or on premises or a combination, should be the same engineering team because that way we can provide a seamless experience for our customers.Rajesh Jha, Microsoft corporate vice president for Exchange Server

I have accountability for Exchange Server, Exchange Online, customers that might be in a hybrid mode. My peers here at Microsoft for Lync and SharePoint and the Office clients—they have the same model where they have accountability in the cloud and they have accountability for on-premises. This is a little different from the way we run the existing BPOS \\[Business Productivity Online Suite\\] services where we had a BPOS team that took our enterprise products and hosted them in a multi-tenanted environment for our customers. Going forward with Office 365, the engineering teams have both the servers and the service.

BKW: You hear a lot of numbers about how many Exchange mailboxes are or will be in the cloud versus on premises in 3 years, or 5 years, or whatever. How much attention do you pay to statistics like that? Or is it more the case that Microsoft is driving those numbers by the focus you're giving to putting Exchange in the cloud?

Rajesh: I'd say we don't really focus on the numbers. We focus on what our customers are telling us. And our customers have shown a lot of interest. Not all customers, mind you—different customers at different rates. But they have shown a lot of interest in moving to the cloud for a variety of reasons, whether it be flexibility, whether it be cost-savings, whether it be new features and new functionality. The customer interest is very much there.

Personally, I feel that we'll see different customers move at different speeds. But by and large, in the aggregate, we'll see a lot of customers move to the cloud. We do believe the cloud is a very attractive proposition for many customers. But I'll be the first one to say that it's not going to be the solution for all our customers. We provide choice there. I think we'll see an acceleration in how customers move their IT infrastructures into the cloud.

BKW: What specifically do you think is driving that move?

Rajesh: For small and medium businesses, the cloud provides scalability of skills. For them, it’s hard to attract and retain the right talent to keep their servers running at a high level of functionality and availability, go through the migration process, deployment process. In the cloud, we have Microsoft taking care of all of that for you, and the customers benefit from that. That's what I mean by scalability of skills. For some customers, it's just a cost savings. They get a modern experience, they get a modern infrastructure for collaborations and communications, and it's always up-to-date. They don't have the accountability of actually updating it. They focus on their business needs.

For large customers, it comes to both cost savings as well as flexibility. If you acquire another company, it's often more efficient to move these new employees to the cloud rather than to standardize an infrastructure across the new company that you acquired. If I'm from a large company and I have deskless workers that haven't had email before, and I want to give them email, maybe I keep my existing infrastructure on premises, and I choose the cloud as a means to quickly provision a bunch of my deskless workers with the new communications and collaborations.

For some customers, it's just the new set of scenarios that we've enabled with Office 2010, Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and Lync 2010. It's a very complete communications and collaboration stack, and by moving to the cloud they're up-to-date with our latest stuff.

BKW: Here's your chance to give us your perfect vision of what Exchange Server will be in the future, whether that's in 5 years, or 10 years, or however far out you think about these things. What do you envision for the Exchange Server of the future?

Rajesh: I think the Exchange engineering team has always done a great job of listening to our customers. I'd like to take a little bit of a tour into our history and use that to inform where we're going to go in the future. You know, Exchange was the first product that built a modern web application with the Ajax programming model. We did that with Outlook Web App. Our ActiveSync protocol today is the de facto industry standard, and we invested in that because we heard from our customers that mobile access, anywhere access, was a big need. We've been invested in adding a bunch of policies around ActiveSync because customers wanted manageability.

Fast forward to 2010, we've added a bunch of flexibility around storage options. Some customers continue to be on SANs, some want to get the cost savings they get from being on direct attached storage and JBODs. When I take a look at our work with Office 365, again, we're listening to our customers—they want choice, but they want the full enterprise platform. If you take just a simple example, look at our deployment record. We've updated that in the past few months after talking to customers who said, "Hey, make it easier for me to move from on prem to the cloud and stay in a hybrid mode." So we've added that capability through the deployment wizard.

I guess what I would say, when I think to the future, these attributes are going to continue to hold for the Exchange team. We want to listen to our customers. We want to give them flexibility. We want to give them the best-of-breed experience on any device, anywhere access. We want to give them world-class manageability. And we want to make it easy for their move to the cloud on their terms. These are the principles that will continue to inform our future investment.

BKW: With an increase in cloud computing, and particularly for messaging, security remains a top concern for many businesses and IT pros. Can you talk about some of the specific steps Microsoft is taking with Exchange Online and with Exchange Server itself to address these security problems?

Rajesh: Security and privacy, of course, are top considerations for any organization. With Exchange Server, we’ve talked in the past about soft controls and hard controls around security—controls, as in data protection. We have rules, a transport layer, that customers can customize to their specific needs. If they have certain sensitive information that they want not to leave their enterprise, they can put in rules to help with that. We have MailTips in our client, which is more in the realm of a soft control where we give people a quick reminder that perhaps they're mailing to somebody outside their organization, or their mail is going to a large distribution list. We have rights management capabilities that allow customers to restrict how mail gets forwarded around. So we have built-in capabilities in Exchange Server.

With Exchange Online, of course, we are going through the most rigorous certification processes. We take a look at the way we operate the service, the way we protect customers' data, and that we have industry certification to give our customers that peace of mind. And then there are customers who, despite all of this, decide that it's too much of a leap for them to move to the cloud. They still have the option to run Exchange Server on premises, and they can run that in a way where perhaps the folks whose data they are most concerned about preserving stays on premises, and folks who feel they have less of an exposure can be in the cloud. So we've looked at it from a bunch of different options. We continue to talk to our customers about this. It's not lost on any one of us that this is a prime consideration for our customers.

BKW: You mentioned going through online certification processes. Is that, for instance, the SAS 70? Can you talk about what's involved in these certification processes?

Rajesh: These certifications take a look at a lot of different aspects. Is the vendor good with patching their servers with security updates, security patches? Are operational processes rigorous in terms of who has access to the data and how access is monitored and controlled? They look at the engineering processes that go into building a service. So it's pretty exhaustive—and I think it's a great idea because it gives our customers a uniform frame of reference. But for us it's not enough just to go through the process—we want to go above and beyond that. So we’re building capabilities into the product that go above and beyond just the certification process.

BKW: Mobile communications and mobile devices are on the rise everywhere. Are there particular challenges with Exchange Server, either on premises or in cloud deployments, that are cropping up as a result of additional mobile connections? What do you see happening in coming years as a result of increasing focus on mobile computing on smartphones and tablets, regarding the way that we get our information?

Rajesh: I think the device proliferation is a real phenomenon. The average number of devices an information worker carries today is definitely not a single device. We all have our laptops, we might have a tablet, we might have a phone, we have our desktops. Some of us carry more than one of these. That’s a real phenomenon. Ultimately, it's a really good thing because one of the principles that we have is that we should allow end users to get access to their information from wherever they are. We have so many mobile workers in our workforce. We have so many workers that are working in an office that's removed from the corporate headquarters. These workers want to get to their information, whether it be on a PC, the phone, or a browser on any platform.

So we're engineering to make all of that possible. OWA works on multiple browsers. Our Exchange ActiveSync stack has been implemented on pretty much any model of smartphone. And of course with Outlook, we've got a fantastic desktop client, and with the Mac Outlook, we've given that to the Mac platform as well. There's a flip side to this, of course, which is to give IT admins the peace of mind that they can manage the devices, that they have a set of policies around these devices in terms of how they connect to the corporate data. So in the ActiveSync protocol, we've got those policies built in. I think this phenomenon is here to stay. People want access to their data on the go, whether it be in the browser or a rich device experience.

BKW: With Exchange ActiveSync and what you're doing with Exchange already, do you feel like you're pretty well set to handle whatever comes next?

Rajesh: I think so. I think we have a great story here between Outlook and Outlook Web App and ActiveSync, and one uniform experience no matter what device you're on.

BKW: In some ways, Exchange is so mature, so well adopted, and so well understood that it's really easy to talk about it. Of course, you never know what changes are just around the corner that might blow you out of the water—changes in technology, or the way people work, legal requirements, whatever. So you kind of hope change doesn't come and disrupt a good thing you've got going, but at the same time, you kind of hope it does because new things are always exciting.

Rajesh: I think we've had a lot of exciting changes in the industry. It's not lost on us at all. One of the things we've done with the Exchange team, we've embraced these changes. The cloud was a pretty big change. To take an enterprise product and take it to Internet scale was a substantial amount of engineering. We saw this coming 7 years ago. We didn't know it would be called the cloud. But in Exchange 2007, we reduced our I/O footprint by 70 percent on Exchange 2003. The reason we did that was we knew people would want large mailboxes. We were seeing the consumer cloud and the fact that the consumer cloud was setting expectations on large mailboxes. Then in Exchange 2010, we reduced the I/O by another 70 percent, so a 90-percent reduction over two releases. And that’s what has allowed us to actually offer the giant mailboxes on Exchange Server.

ActiveSync is another example of us really seeing the device proliferation, and we embraced it. We've put in the controls and the knobs for the IT pros. Going back to the cloud, that has been something that we spent a good part of the past 3 or 4 years engineering for. Getting coexistence to work where free/busy works whether the user is on prem or whether the user is in the cloud—they don't see the seams, they see one organization. Mail flow goes back and forth. It sounds for a minute like we think communications is a slow moving thing, but we think it's fast moving, and we’re embracing it.

BKW: You mentioned Lync a few times, since it's part of Office 365. In a recent commentary, Paul Robichaux was making predictions for messaging in the coming year, and he wrote, "Microsoft corporate vice president Rajesh Jha, who owns responsibility for the Exchange team, will hold an arm-wrestling match with Gurdeep Singh Pall, the corporate vice president who owns the Lync team. The loser will have to turn his product into a server role for the winner's product, so we will either have Lync as a new Exchange role or vice versa." What do you think about the possibility of Lync and Exchange merging, and what would that mean?

Rajesh: That was funny. I think somebody did talk to me about that. And I actually talked to Gurdeep and told him, "I'm pretty sure I'm going to win, Gurdeep." I was talking about the arm wrestling, of course. Gurdeep probably has a different point of view on that. I think what Paul talks about is really interesting. More than Exchange being a role of Lync or Lync being a role of Exchange, I think what he's talking about is that people expect their communications and collaboration and productivity stuff to interact better. With Office 365, of course we're going to have to do that.

Our customers don't see any of the back end. They should see one common manageability experience, one common licensing experience, one common user experience. We are absolutely working between Lync and Exchange and SharePoint and Office to make our servers be better integrated, the user experience be better integrated. With 2010, we've done a lot of work to make the whole be greater than the parts, and that’s something we'll continue to do.

If Paul was talking about the fact that our customers don’t expect silos of experiences, we get it. That's why in 2010, we've done a lot of work across all of our servers and our clients to provide one seamless experience whether you're communicating in real time, whether you're using email or SMS, whether you're using a browser or PC at home, whether you're conferencing, whether you're in a meeting, leading a meeting from a document or bringing a document into the meeting. That's what we do in our office—we think about the experience across all of these different modalities.

BKW: And you're working closely with the Lync team to make these things happen?

Rajesh: Yes, of course. The Lync team, the SharePoint team, the Office team. That's why it's called Office 365—it's everything from our productivity and communication and collaboration experience integrated into one suite.

BKW: So what's next for Office 365? I believe at this point it's still a private beta.

Rajesh: What's going to happen next is we've got a lot of customers that have expressed a lot of interest in getting onto the service. We want to have our customers come on board and be happy customers. We'll take their feedback and get back to work. We'll keep integrating. I'm very excited about the value proposition of Office 365. I'm very excited about the feedback we've gotten from the beta customers to date. It's a big responsibility for us in terms of taking over our customers' IT infrastructure. We understand the relationship of trust that we have with our customers. So we've got a lot of work ahead, but we're excited about the opportunity.

BKW: And in the meantime, you're no doubt working on whatever the next version of Exchange will be?

Rajesh: I would just say: Of course. We are always working. Our engineers are working to make our existing products and services better. And they’re working with customers to try and see what their needs are and what the industry trends are. So we’re always at work.

BKW: Sounds exciting! Thanks, Rajesh.

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