Microsoft has launched Exchange Server 2003, officially starting its quest to convert the large number of users on the aging version 5 of the e-mail server software. The introduction is part of Microsoft's Office System launch, for which events are being held around the world today.

About 120 million people worldwide use Exchange for e-mail, according to Microsoft. The vendor estimates that between 40 percent and 50 percent of those users are on Exchange Server 5, which came to market in March 1997. The introduction of Exchange 2000 Server in October 2000 did not move users to upgrade, largely due to the tough upgrade path.

Exchange Server 2003 is different, said Missy Stern, product manager for Exchange at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. "We spent three years listening to customers and developing (migration) tools based on that feedback. We anticipate a rapid take-up of Exchange Server 2003," she said.

Stern would not detail Microsoft's upgrade targets, but over 200 organisations representing over 330,000 end users have already deployed Exchange Server 2003, according to a Microsoft statement.

Besides a smooth upgrade path, Microsoft promises cost savings and productivity enhancements with Exchange Server 2003. Scalability and remote connectivity have been improved, allowing companies to host more mailboxes on a single server and removing the need to have dedicated servers at remote locations, the vendor said.

Analysts have said that Exchange 5 is beginning to show its age and that upgrading to Exchange Server 2003 is a "no-brainer."

Exchange Server 2003 uses Microsoft's Active Directory and runs on Windows 2000 Server or Windows Server 2003. Some of the features of Exchange Server 2003, such as eight-node clustering and volume shadow copy services, are not supported when used with Windows 2000. Also, some features, such as caching of the mailbox, require the new Outlook 2003 mail client.

Exchange competes with products including Lotus Notes from IBM Corp. and the Oracle Collaboration Suite from Oracle Corp. Exchange Server 2003 was released to manufacturing in June and has actually been available to volume buyers since 1 August.