After years of trying, it seems Microsoft has finally delivered a platform that IT shops can use to support and build collaborative applications.
At the Exchange Collaboration and Solutions Conference last week, end users, analysts and independent software vendors said Exchange 2000 is ready to move beyond its e-mail roots.
E-mail is the heart of Exchange, but the server's new Web Storage System (WSS), along with workflow, document management, conferencing, instant messaging, offline support and other features, have users mulling the possibilities.
To punctuate the potential, a handful of Lotus business partners who had previously ignored Exchange are now actively developing applications for the platform.
Nearly 65 collaborative applications were on display at the conference, as compared to less than a half-dozen last year.
Of course, there is one big caveat. Before Exchange's potential can be realized, corporations must roll out Windows 2000 and Active Directory. IT executives also have to consider network topology and bandwidth requirements for collaborative applications. Exchange environments will become more complex with additional servers to support such things as wireless access.
Also, observers acknowledged that some of Exchange's capabilities, such as replication, are not as sophisticated as those offered by rival Lotus Development Corp. But they were quick to add that Exchange is turning the corner.
"Instead of building on Exchange public folders, you now build [applications] on a system that is Web from the ground up," said Joel Smith, a vice president for Ascendant, a Lotus business partner for nine years and now developing a set of collaborative applications for Exchange. "The Web Storage System is huge."
WSS is the file system built into Exchange 2000. WSS is a distributed repository for unstructured data that can be accessed through a variety of interfaces, protocols and devices.
"In the past you had to contend with the method of access [to Exchange], but with the Web Storage System many of the things that were difficult from a development point of view have been addressed," says Dee Anthony, an analyst with Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
Organizations such as the World Bank, FleetBoston Financial Corp. and Reuters Group PLC are already running Web-based collaborative applications on Exchange 2000.
"We built a trading engine which is something we just couldn't have done in [Exchange] 5.5," says Chris Lord, director of Global Technology for Reuters. The engine is but one piece of the Reuters Digital Dashboard portal, which is also based on Exchange 2000.
This is a radical change from earlier versions of Exchange. While Microsoft often touted the platform as a rival to Lotus Domino, few serious collaboration applications were available for Exchange.
Now Microsoft has added the ability to work offline, much like users have done with Notes replication for years. Exchange now offers visual design tools, conferencing services and a portal design environment. Microsoft also has improved Exchange's access control model so users can fine-tune security down to specific objects.
"Now Exchange is more than just a nice presentation from Microsoft - the platform is really there," said Lars Johansen, CEO of IT Factory, another Lotus business partner now branching out into Exchange.