Microsoft on Wednesday reset the future of Exchange by finally retiring its grand collaboration plan for the server and laying out a slate of planned features for a new version.
The only thing missing was a date when Microsoft will ship Exchange 12, the code name for the next version of the server.
But what Microsoft did is cement Exchange's return to its messaging roots and confirm that the server will never evolve into the collaboration centerpiece that just a few years ago Microsoft hoped it would become. Instead, Microsoft hopes to trim the cost to run the server, improve security and provide a range of enhanced client options with the release of Exchange 12.
One thing that won't change is the Exchange data store. Microsoft plans to keep Exchange's JET database engine, forgoing previous plans to incorporate either SQL Server 2005 or the futuristic WinFS.
Not coincidentally, Microsoft's attempt to resurrect an Exchange roadmap that has been crumbling for the past few years comes a week before chief rival IBM hosts its annual Notes/Domino user conference, Lotusphere, where it plans to show off its forthcoming Notes/Domino 7.0 and its new Java-based Workplace platform.
The unraveling of Exchange's roadmap began in 2003, when Microsoft had hoped to ship a version of the server code-named Kodiak, which featured a universal data store that would support collaborative applications built using Exchange technologies like public folders and forms.
Last May, Microsoft finally wiped Kodiak off the board and then followed it up by recasting other promised Exchange products, including tearing apart its Exchange Edge Services security offering and adding its piece parts into Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2, due the second half of this year, and holding others for Exchange 12.
With Exchange 12, Microsoft has positioned the messaging server as a cog in a much larger set of servers, clients and services Microsoft is stitching together for collaboration including e-mail, online workspaces, real-time communication and document management.
"Exchange is not self-contained. We made a conscious decision to change strategy there," says Dave Thompson, corporate vice president for Microsoft who took over responsibility for Exchange a year ago. "We are aligning the development of Exchange 12 with our broader collaboration vision." Thompson says that includes such technologies as Office, Windows Server, SharePoint Portal Server and Windows SharePoint Services, Outlook, Live Communications Server and mobile devices.
"The bottom line is that they spent a lot of time touting Exchange as a Notes killer, and it wasn't," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with Burton Group. "They have almost been apologizing for Exchange for three years now, partly because all the things touted for Exchange 2000 [collaboration, instant messaging, Web conferencing] did not work out. Then they got ahead of themselves and started touting features for the Kodiak release. They retired the code name because they had managed to confuse so many people, including themselves."
But O'Kelly says Microsoft is confused no more.
"They have gone back to the drawing board, and I think the Exchange team has done a good job re-factoring the product with its plans for 2005 and Exchange 12," says O'Kelly.
In 2005, Microsoft plans to release a set of tools via the Web for sizing storage needs in Exchange, troubleshooting SMTP configurations and a public folder usage analyzer. Also planned is integration of the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer tool with Microsoft Operations Manager 2005, and Service Pack 2 featuring mobility upgrades, support for SenderID anti-spam technology, and management and interface enhancements to public folders.
Exchange 12 has three focus areas: cutting the cost of operation, security and expanding client options.
In terms of operational cost cutting, Microsoft plans to offer a wizard to configure Exchange 12 in six distinct roles: a bridgehead server, edge server, mailbox, client access server, unified messaging server and legacy server to host public folders.
"This is one of the biggest areas of investment, structuring the product into roles," says Microsoft's Thompson. Microsoft is adding similar pre-defined configuration options to its other servers.
In Exchange 12, Microsoft also is improving management with new scripting and user interface upgrades, improving the search feature, and adding Web services APIs and 64-bit support. Also new will be continuous backup, which is a new replication feature that copies data from an active-mode server to a passive-mode server.
"The important thing is you do not have to use a storage-area network like you do today with an Exchange cluster," says Thompson.
In terms of security, Microsoft plans to add what it calls a policy compliance infrastructure using technology from its aborted Edge Services release that will enforce compliance with messaging policies centered on regulatory requirements. Microsoft also plans to introduce folders that can be defined by a policy such as encrypt all messages placed in the folder, and process and archive messages based on their content.
In terms of client options, Microsoft will add features for connecting devices to the server including improvements to ActiveSynch and the ability to provision devices directly from Exchange.
Enhancements to Outlook Web Access will include the ability to access other servers, such as SharePoint, when coming into Exchange through a firewall. Exchange 12 also will integrate with corporate PBXs, allowing users to receive voicemail and fax in their in-box.
"I think the battle for Microsoft these days is less against Notes/Domino and more about getting the install base to feel good about paying for maintenance and getting them to upgrade to the latest version," says Matt Cain, an analyst with the Meta Group.
Missing, however, is when the next version ships.
"In our estimation, the release will coincide with Office 12, which we think is in the second half of 2006," says Cain. "Clearly they want to be in sync with Office system components, because there will be greater affinity with things like SharePoint, the new version of Outlook and maybe with Live Communication Server as well."
Microsoft officials would only say that they ship a new version of Exchange every three to four years.