This week, Microsoft announced the release of Exchange Server 2010 Service Pack 2 (SP2). Earlier in the year, Microsoft promised that SP2 would be released before year's end. Sure enough, there's still plenty of December left and SP2 is available for download. You've probably already heard about its major features: OWA Mini (which I suppose can be considered "major" despite its lightweight nature), address book policies, and the new Hybrid Configuration Wizard (HCW). Of these, the HCW is probably the most interesting, both from a technical standpoint and the standpoint of Microsoft's strategy to make Office 365 more appealing.

Microsoft has always used a specific vocabulary when talking about moving from one version of Exchange Server to another. For example, migration and upgrade have different nuances. In the same vein, what Microsoft considers a migration to Office 365 involves moving all of your mailboxes, Lync users, and SharePoint data to the hosted service. By contrast, coexistence means what the name implies: two systems happily exchanging mail with each other. In Microsoft lingo, hybrid mode means coexistence between your own on-premises Exchange 2010 servers and Office 365.

When you understand that distinction, the rationale behind shipping a wizard to ease the process of hybrid set up makes perfect sense. Smoothing the hybrid path makes it easier for organizations to sample Office 365, as well as possibly lowering the entry cost and support burden for new Office 365 customers-both for the customers and for Microsoft itself.

In a presentation at TechEd North America earlier this year, Microsoft's Jim Lucey claimed that there were roughly 50 steps required to set up full hybrid coexistence between an on-premises Exchange 2010 environment and Office 365. I never counted the steps, but this number certainly seems plausible. Many of these steps are things you would need to do anyway, such as correctly configuring Autodiscover, but some are unique to setting up hybrid mode. The HCW cuts the number of required steps to about 6.

The HCW can actually be run in two distinct phases. In the first phase, the wizard creates a new Active Directory (AD) configuration object that's used to hold hybrid configuration information. In the second phase, the Manage Hybrid Configuration wizard configures the actual parameters you specify on that AD object. This two-step approach means that you can run the HCW now, well before you're ready for hybrid operation, so that your directory changes are made and have time to replicate and stabilize. Now would probably be a good time to point out that SP2 requires an AD schema update, with all the attendant planning and testing that such updates involve.

So what does the HCW actually do? The changes it makes are all fairly simple. It adds an accepted SMTP domain for your Office 365 domain (which has the form domainName.mail.onmicrosoft.com) so that your servers can interchange email with the cloud. If you have a federation trust with the Microsoft Federation Gateway, it's added to the hybrid configuration object; if not, a trust is created. Either way, the necessary organizational relationships are added to the trust so that your organization can share calendar data, MailTips, and so on.

The wizard also turns on the proxy necessary for the Mailbox Replication Service (MRS). This step is critical because without the proxy, you can't move mailboxes between your organization and the cloud. In addition, the HCW makes the necessary changes to enable mail flow between your organization and the cloud; this process consists of setting up send and receive connectors to funnel mail back and forth to the cloud through Forefront Online Protection for Exchange (FOPE).

None of the steps the HCW takes are particularly difficult; they do, however, require a pretty good understanding of both on-premises Exchange 2010 and Microsoft's Office 365 implementation, whether or not you're using the wizard. Packaging the configuration process into a simple wizard is a smart move on Microsoft's part, and I believe it will nudge customers who've been considering testing Office 365 in hybrid mode to do so. Clearly, Microsoft hopes to convince many of these try-before-you-buy customers that adopting in the cloud is the right move for their businesses. Anything that helps smooth the path for customers is thus a good strategy for Microsoft to take.

The HCW documentation is available from the Microsoft TechNet article "Understanding the Hybrid Configuration Wizard." If you're considering using the HCW, understanding what it does and how it works are critical.

As for the rest of Exchange 2010 SP2, I'll have more to say after I've spent more time working with it in production. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether Microsoft's focus in SP2 matches the things you most hope to see. Drop me a line and let me know what you think.