Ed Banti, technical product manager for Microsoft, briefed me on Exchange Server 2007 SP1 Beta 2 a couple of weeks ago, but the information he gave me was under embargo until August 14. Now that I can, I want to share a few notes about things we discussed.

So far, Microsoft is quite satisfied with the number of customers evaluating Exchange 2007: more than 900,000 downloads, resulting in more than 300,000 full evaluations, and 260,000 trial usages of the packaged virtual machine demos Microsoft has been shipping. The Unisys-hosted trial system has been hosting an average of 1000 trial accounts per week. These numbers all exceed the product team's expectations. However, many customers are waiting until SP1 is available to begin their deployments.

The Exchange team focused on two primary areas when deciding what to include in SP1: general planning inputs (including customer feedback and features that were in early Exchange 2007 betas but didn't make the release) and feature criteria (including improving the OWA feature set and hitting particular customer scenarios for high availability and management, among others). The result of this focus is a set of features that cover the "three pillars" originally used as the rationale for Exchange 2007's development: anywhere access, operational efficiency, and built-in protection.

What does this focus mean in practical terms? Here's a partial laundry list of the new features and changes in SP1:

  • Improvements to unified messaging (UM) and support for Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS), including using Exchange UM to provide voicemail services for OCS calls. The big burrito here is the fact that Exchange can generate a message-waiting indicator for Microsoft Office Communicator clients, although the new security features (including Secure Real-time Transport Protocol and secure Session Initiation Protocol support) are welcome, too.
  • Public folder management tools in Exchange Management Console, plus public folder access from within OWA.
  • Support for Windows Server 2008 (formerly code-named Longhorn), as well as support for Windows Vista for the Exchange management tools. One major change from the original SP1 plan is that the UM server role can now run on Windows 2008; the original plan called for it to run only on Windows Server 2003.
  • Expanded support for clustering, including clustering support in Exchange Management Console.
  • A greatly improved OWA, with support for custom forms, a server-side rules editor, the return of Secure MIME (S/MIME) support, and better support for self-service functions such as remote device wipe and deleted item recovery. Bonus item: The HTML document transcoder now displays Microsoft Office 2007 documents properly.
  • Support for slipstreaming, which lets you roll patches and service packs into your standard Exchange 2007 installation.
  • Several new Web services, including public folder access, delegate management, delegate access, and folder-level permissions.
  • A whopping 28 new Exchange ActiveSync policies for various aspects of device behavior, including encryption; authentication; and device, network, and application control. Note that these policies require Windows Mobile 6.0 devices, but they give you some nifty new features, such as policies to turn off Wi-Fi or cameras, or to enforce the use of S/MIME.

One of the biggest additions in SP1, of course, is the long-awaited standby continuous replication (SCR) feature. Beta 2 of SP1 includes SCR, so you can begin testing it in your environments. Because SP1 supports Windows 2008, you can also take advantage of Windows 2008's clustering changes to build cluster continuous replication (CCR) clusters whose nodes are on different IP subnets. These changes provide fertile ground for experimentation, so if you have any plans to deploy CCR on Windows 2008, now is a great time to start getting experience with the combination.

Exchange 2007 SP1 Beta 2 is now available to MSDN and TechNet Plus subscribers. I wouldn't be surprised to see it distributed through other means as well, although Microsoft hasn't made any announcements along those lines yet.