Three years on from the start of its development cycle, Exchange Server 2003 (ES 2003) has finally hit the shelves. As before, ES 2003 is available in two flavours: Standard and Enterprise. Standard edition is pitched at SME-sized organisations, (so storage is limited and clustering is not supported) while the Enterprise edition targets larger organizations with more complex deployments and scaling requirements. Scalability and remote connectivity have been improved in both so more mailboxes can be hosted on a single server and remote locations no longer need their own servers. For the first time, Standard edition supports a variety of front-end tasks that were previously the preserve of the dearer Enterprise version, for example the very useful Outlook Web Access. In many ways, this is the most obvious new feature of Exchange Server 2003. The new OWA client is an uncanny web facsimile of Outlook 2003. It’s now a fully-featured email client, with support for rules, spell checking, secure messaging, and even keyboard shortcuts. Exchange Server has also gone ‘mobile’ in a big way – Mobile Information Server is now subsumed into the mothership, which now features not only Outlook Mobile Access (OMA), which functions like OWA for handheld devices, but also Outlook Mobile Sync, which enables Pocket PCs to perform intelligent synchronisation over a wireless connection. On the downside, several Exchange Server 2000 (ES 2000) features don’t resurface in ES 2003, including chat, instant messaging, conferencing (through Exchange Conferencing Server) and unified messaging. These have been hived off into a separate, real-time conferencing server product, code-named ‘Greenwich’. Performance is also up, compared with ES 2000, thanks to two new features: cached mode and synchronization improvements. Cached mode creates a local data file that Outlook uses for all foreground activity, transparently accessing the server in the background. As a result users will work primarily from their local Exchange mailbox data files. Should the client lose its network connection, it operates without interruption. MAPI traffic is now both reduced and compressed, boosting client performance by reducing the traffic between client and server. MAPI also now supports secure HTTP, reducing the need for a complex VPN for remote workers. Unsurprisingly, given its recent alarming growth, spam controls feature heavily in ES 2003 – the new version allows partners to integrate their own anti-spam modules with the server, hopefully resulting in better content filtering with fewer false positives. ES 2003 is also designed to work hand-in-glove with the junk mail filters in Outlook 2003. Users can now save Outlook 2003 and Outlook Web Access ‘safe’ and ‘block’ senders lists on the Exchange server, allowing the preferences to work for mobile users on any desktop or device connected to the network. It also features an updated version of its virus-scanning API, VSAPI 2.5, which also allows partners, such as Symantec, NAI and Trend Micro, to integrate their AV tools with the product. And thanks to VSAPI 2.5, it’s now possible to prevent infected email from leaving an organization by scanning outgoing mail. Carrot and stick
Microsoft has a sizeable task on its hands if it wants to see a widespread uptake of its new mail server offering. Cast your mind back three years: Exchange 2000 was supposed to be the killer app for the Windows 2000 Active Directory, one that fully leveraged all its cool new features. But for many organisations it proved to be an upgrade too far. Because they fought shy of AD, they fought shy of Exchange Server 2000 as well. As result, perhaps as many as 60 percent of Exchange users are still using Exchange Server 5.5 (ES 5.5), a five-year old product. Clearly, Microsoft is going to have to do a good job of persuading these stick-in-the-mud users to upgrade. The means of persuasion appears to be based on the old carrot and stick principle. Exchange Server 2000 users, having already bitten the AD bullet, will find switching to ES2003 a comparative doddle – brave souls can even perform in-place upgrades. Microsoft has gone to some trouble to make AD easier to use through Windows Server 2003. It’s also provided a wide suite of tools and utilities to thoroughly prepare the way for those upgrading. The story for ES 5.5 users is, superficially, less appealing. Those ES 5.5 users considering migrating to ES 2003 face all the challenges they did with Exchange 2000, and then some. However, they have no real choice here. Sooner or later they’re going to have to upgrade because Microsoft is scheduled to pull the plug on ES 5.5 support at the end of the year. No in-place upgrade is available for these users. The best they can do is to upgrade to ES2000 and then on to ES2003, using the so-called ‘swing server’ technique. However, as they will most likely be running ES 5.5 on hardware dating from the last century, an in-place upgrade is at best not a good idea, at worst, a non-starter. So, it looks like a fresh install on new servers is the most desirable way forward for them. Needless to say, ES 2003 runs better when it’s sitting on top of Windows Server 2003 – more of its clever options, like Volume Shadow Copy and reduced Active Directory replication traffic are only available on this platform – but it will run quite happily on Windows 2000 Server. Exchange Server has never been easy to backup but VSC allows the backing up of Exchange Storage Groups online; there's no need to take them offline. To squeeze every last drop of functionality from ES2003, you’ll also need to be running Outlook 2003 clients. So as well as upgrading your server hardware in order to run ES 2003, to go the extra mile, you could be looking at new workstation hardware and software as well. For some people, upgrading to ES 2003 won’t be cheap. Pricing
The good news, in these straitened times, is that Exchange Server 2003 pricing remains pretty much the same as its predecessor. The Standard edition of the server, recommended for businesses with no more than 5,000 seats, will be priced at $699, while the more-scalable Enterprise edition is $3,999. This is actually a magnanimous act on Microsoft’s part as Exchange Server 2003 offers better VFM than before, based on its lengthy list of standard features. Licensing has, however, changed. Devices or Users can now be licensed individually (i.e. one kiosk device/any number of users or one user/any number of devices). An External Connector License, designed to let customers extend email to non-employees, such as a university that wants to provide email to its students, starts at $50,000. Conclusion
Should you or shouldn’t you? For ES 2000 shops the decision is fairly straightforward – the migration path is reasonably painless and in return you get way better VFM plus improvements in scalability, reliability and security not to mention improvements in Outlook Web Access and built-in mobile access. In short, Exchange Server 2003 offers significant improvements over ES 2000. But as ES 2000 runs quite nicely on Windows Server 2003, those users can afford to take their time over it. ES 5.5 users on the other hand have Hobson’s Choice – they face a demanding upgrade path. However, time is running out for them and they really can’t afford to put off migrating to AD any longer, particularly if they want to move to Windows Server 2003 as well as it can’t run ES 5.5. The upside for them may be even greater than for ES 2000 users but it’ll be very much a case of ‘no pain, no gain’. If all you want to do is send and receive email, well, good old sendmail takes some beating. But if you want to do more than this, things like calendaring, task management and other group-work functions, you have to raise your sights and consider the trio of big guns instead, GroupWise, Notes and Exchange. All three have recently released new versions of their software, the most recent being Exchange Server.