Just when you thought you’d got to grips with everything Exchange Server had to offer, a new version of Microsoft’s flagship email/collaboration product looms large on the horizon. Still in beta at present, it nonetheless looked pretty polished when we put it through its paces. Here’s what we found.
The most obvious changes to Exchange 2010 are in how end users interact with the new server. Outlook continues to be the preferred client and an updated version is due in the next version of Office (scheduled to be released at the same time) which will be needed to support many of the new features. However, a lot of work has also gone into enhancing both the Web-based client, Outlook Web Access (OWA), and the Windows Mobile client, the eventual aim being parity of functionality across all three.
An updated Outlook wasn’t included with the beta so we used OWA, and the first thing we noticed was the ability to run the full interface in a lot more browsers. Both Safari and Firefox can now be used whereas, before, only a simpler cut-down implementation was available for anything other than Internet Explorer. The layout has also been tidied up with a single page of messages rather than lots. Support for calendar and contacts sharing has also been added, plus the ability to open and read rights-managed emails using OWA.
A much improved search tool is another enhancement, while support for Office Communication Server means that browser users can now check for presence and send instant messages from the Web client. Telephone answering rules have also been added, both in OWA and the full Outlook client, along with automatic transcribing of voicemail to text messages.
Of course if you don’t use Office Communication Server such features will be of little interest. Two more general enhancements however, will: a new conversation view and MailTips.
The conversation view is, again, available in both OWA and the Outlook 2010 client, to let you follow email trails without having to wade through unrelated messages. A standard feature on bulletin boards and in Google’s Gmail, it’s long overdue, but a very useful and welcome new feature.
MailTips too will put a smile on a lot of faces by displaying warnings to let you know when you’re about to make a boo-boo. Such as clicking ‘Reply to All’ when the distribution list contains hundreds of addresses, for example, or where you’re about to send confidential information outside the company. A variety of other common mistakes can be trapped by MailTips long before you hit the send button, leaving time to re-jig emails before they hit the fan.
On the management front the interface is more or less unaltered from Exchange 2007, but you can perform searches across multiple mailboxes, which is good. As is the ability to move mailboxes from one server to another without a major impact on service. In previous versions, users would lose access to their data for hours at a time, while now it can be done in just a few minutes.
Management tasks can be further delegated in this release, with users able to help themselves a lot more via the Web-based Exchange Control Panel (ECP). Plus new federated sharing makes it possible for users to look at calendars and arrange meetings with Exchange users in other companies.
Unfortunately this and the other extra functionality comes at a price, with some pretty strict pre-requisites when it comes to deploying Exchange Server 2010.
To start with you need 64-bit processors, just as with Exchange 2007, but this time Windows Server 2008 is also required which could add considerably to the cost of upgrading. An issue not helped by the fact that you can’t perform an upgrade in place. Indeed, in order to upgrade from any previous version you need to first configure a separate implementation of Exchange 2010 and then migrate your current message stores and other data across.
Another issue is the sheer size of the product and the time it takes to get it installed and working. It took us best part of a day just to get our one test server up and running. A multi-server setup will take much longer and may well be beyond a lot of small businesses who, perhaps as a result, are now encouraged to go for a hosted implementation of Exchange rather than run the software themselves.
On the plus side, Microsoft claims to have re-jigged the I/O subsystem in Exchange 2010 to enable it to work more effectively with cheap SATA disks. Added to which new database availability groups are now available to deliver automatic failover and recovery without the need for full server clustering.
Archiving has also been added to Exchange although this may not do away with the need for third party add-ons as it’s pretty basic. That said, it does let users archive information held in local PST files as well as server mailboxes, added to which legal holds can be imposed to stop changes being made, for example during an investigation.
And there’s a lot more which you can check out yourself, with the beta freely available to anyone interested. It’s not a major re-write, more a spit and polish update to the previous release, but it looks good and could well tempt those still running old versions of Exchange to finally upgrade.
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