Microsoft's Exchange 2000 takes aim at Lotus Notes

Until now, Lotus Notes pretty much had the groupware space sewn up. But with last week's announcement of Exchange 2000 Server, Microsoft became a major player.

For IT managers, Microsoft is positioning Exchange 2000 Server, which runs only on Windows 2000 Advanced Server as a key part of its new BackOffice Server suite and - at last - a real Microsoft alternative to groupware platforms such as Lotus Development's Domino.

Eric Lockard, Exchange general manager, said Microsoft targeted the following goals for the new product:

* Enhance its current messaging and collaboration platform.

* Increase productivity via Web-based collaboration and storage.

* Improve communication and add new methods.

Exchange 2000 provides a base for collaboration and interactivity. Built with code from Microsoft Commercial Internet System, it should scale to tens of millions of users, said Lockard.

The server offers enhanced performance and supports active/active clustering. There's better routing, and Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) messages are stored in native form instead of as rich text.

Windows 2000's Active Directory provides the access model. Exchange Server 5.5's unlimited transaction database can now be distributed over multiple servers. An Active Directory Connector handles bi-directional replication.

Exchange 2000 stores all data in the Web Store, which can be distributed. Every Web Store item has a unique address, regardless of format or data type, which makes content accessible over an intranet or the Web via a browser or Outlook Web Access. It also simplifies full-content indexing.

Internet Explorer 5.0 is an important part of the package; active server pages run directly from the Web Store. Nat Ballou, a program manager at Microsoft, said the company has made an effort to provide complete functionality and data to non-Internet Explorer browsers.

The Web Store uses the fast and well-developed navigation of Active Data Objects and OLE/DB to find an item, then passes it to the Collaboration Data Objects (CDO) 3.0 for processing. That's a bit like adding object-oriented data handling to a relational navigation structure. The Web Store isn't truly object-oriented, Ballou noted, because it lacks inheritance properties.

Users access the Web Store via HTTP and Distributed Authoring and Versioning, a set of HTTP collaboration extensions. The data/response format is Extensible Markup Language. CDO also works with other tools.

Exchange 2000 adds new communication formats: instant messaging, videoconferencing and a T.120 conferencing server for voice and whiteboarding. Exchange 5.5 had limited messaging abilities, but Exchange 2000 handles voice, video and fax. As new forms of communication appear, they, too, must be served without impeding network performance. They must be handled without conversion or translation.

Microsoft considers instant messaging important, said Microsoft program manager Sonu Aggarwal. "It's different from other messaging types because it carries 'presence' information about which colleagues are online right now, and it facilitates fast communication and prompt turnaround."

A Corporate Preview Program will provide a beta release of Exchange 2000 Server with Windows 2000 Release Candidate 2, Outlook 2000 and training materials. It can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site or ordered on CD.

Your watchword should be: "Wait and see." This new server is much more than a simple version upgrade or point release. Microsoft has addressed many weaknesses and gaps in Exchange 5.5.

Exchange 2000 seems robust and well designed, but it will be some time before the marketplace weighs in. A big factor will be the requirement for Windows 2000 Advanced Server. IT administrators finishing year 2000 makeovers and Windows NT 4.0 deployments won't get excited about rolling out another new operating system. Maybe in 2001?

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