After abandoning plans for a future Microsoft Exchange Server version, code-named Titanium, that would have replaced Exchange's Jet data store with a next-generation data storage engine that uses Microsoft SQL Server technology, Microsoft decided to refocus. Rather than follow a purely technical path for the next Exchange version, the company is addressing customers' key pain points and upcoming business trends. The result, code-named E12 (for Exchange 12), will be one of the most impressive upgrades to Exchange that Microsoft has ever released. Here's what you need to know about E12.

A Universal Messaging Store
Microsoft had always foreseen a future in which Exchange is more than just email, offering true universal messaging features. A few years back, it looked like the first non-email functionality the company would add to Exchange would be Instant Messaging (IM) and other real-time communication features. But after moving that functionality to other servers, including Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003 and Live Meeting 2003, Microsoft has once again returned to the notion of Exchange as a universal messaging store. E12 will also handle fax, VoIP, and PBX-based voicemail messages and will do so from within the familiar confines of Exchange's mailbox-based storage system.

Improvements to Core Technologies
After releasing Exchange Server 2003, Microsoft shipped an update called Intelligent Message Filter (IMF) that improved spam filtering functionality. Using SmartScreen Technology from Microsoft Research, IMF examines the content of email messages and uses a scoring system to determine whether individual messages are valid email or spam. IMF's other strength is that it works at the server level, allowing the system to reroute spam before it hits users' inboxes. In E12, a new message hygiene technology will dramatically improve IMF's capabilities. The technology will stop spam at your network's perimeter by using a new antivirus API that third parties can extend. E12 will also use a secure messaging technology based on Sender ID that will help prevent domain spoofing and email phishing attacks.

Most Exchange users were bowled over by the Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA) version included in Exchange 2003, but the E12 version will be even more impressive, further blurring the line between the true Outlook client and the OWA Web client. Microsoft is also overhauling Exchange's meeting scheduling functionality to make it easier for users, though few details are available about this change.

Email and Mobile Devices
Although most users still rely on PCs and notebook computers to access their email, Microsoft recognizes that the future of messaging will need to extend beyond the PC. Whereas Exchange 2003 added rudimentary support for Windows Mobile­based devices—primarily Pocket PCs and Smartphones—E12 will be supported on a wider range of portable devices, including Windows Mobile devices, Motorola cell phones, and devices that use the Palm OS. Combined with the new OWA version, this functionality should make all E12 mailboxes accessible from virtually any Internet-connected device.

Role-Based
Like Windows Server 2003, E12 will have an architecture that's based on roles and ties the system's configuration to real-world scenarios. Rather than force email administrators to go to a cryptic services list and configure the services they want to enable, a simple, wizard-based UI will help you configure the product to serve in various roles. Roles supported out of the box will be edge server, bridgehead server, unified messaging server, client access server, mailbox server, and public folder server.

If you'd like a server to perform multiple roles—say, mailbox server, public folder server, and unified messaging server—it can do so. This architecture also makes it easier to configure different physical servers to perform particular tasks in an Exchange infrastructure. For example, you might have an edge server performing SMPT relay and email hygiene services just inside the corporate firewall, one or more mailbox servers dedicated to storing email, and a unified messaging server that's connected directly to a PBX system. This type of system also makes it easier and cheaper to add capacity and scale to meet the needs of a growing business.

New Tools and Capabilities
E12 will ship with an improved management console that replaces Exchange 2003's Exchange System Manager (ESM) console. It will also feature a full scripting environment, allowing technically adept administrators to easily automate Exchange tasks. A new Web services API will make it easier for developers to programmatically access Exchange services.

Additionally, E12 will ship in various x64 versions, which are compatible with new 64-bit hardware platforms, including machines based on the AMD Opteron processors and Intel's Xeon EM64T designs. Although Microsoft hasn't committed to specific Exchange editions as I write this, I've learned that each Exchange edition would ship in both 32-bit x86 and 64-bit x64 versions.

Coordinated Development
Exchange 2003 was developed in concert with Microsoft Office Outlook 2003. As a result, Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003 work better together. Microsoft will use the same approach with E12 and Outlook 12 and extend it to include the next major version of Windows Mobile. This product, which will likely be called Windows Mobile 2006, will include dramatically improved versions of the Pocket Inbox, Pocket Calendar, and Tasks applications that are designed to work specifically with E12 features.

I've been told that as a result of codevelopment, E12, Outlook 12, and Windows Mobile 2006 will ship nearly simultaneously. Although Microsoft didn't commit to a release date for E12 beyond noting that it would be in calendar year 2006, we already know that Office 12—of which Outlook 12 is a part—will ship about the same time as Longhorn, which is now due in May 2006. So E12 will likely ship roughly in mid-2006. Microsoft hasn't yet released any licensing or pricing information for E12.

Recommendations
Exchange users are a loyal lot, but they tend to put off upgrades. Fully 30 percent of all Exchange installations still run Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5, a version of the product that was built well before today's spate of electronic attacks. To interest customers in upgrading, Microsoft is designing E12 to address most of the complaints and meet most of the needs they have voiced over the years and is trying to anticipate major technology trends that will affect communications over the next few years. E12 will also be more secure than previous Exchange versions.

Whether Microsoft will be successful with E12 remains to be seen, but all Exchange shops should begin evaluating this product as soon as possible. (The E12 beta is scheduled for third quarter 2005.) The sheer number of improvements and new features should make E12 a compelling upgrade even to those who have only recently upgraded or migrated to Exchange 2003.