Microsoft Redrafts Mail Plan With Exchange 12

Office 12

E-12, tentatively slated for 2006 or 2007 delivery, promises voice mail integration, continuous backup, better search, support for WSDL and other Web services specifications, and 64-bit Windows Server.

Also on the list are security enhancements, including promised "Edge Services" incremental updates, as well as new "policy compliance infrastructure," according to Dave Thompson, corporate vice president in charge of the Exchange Server Product Group.

Thompson touted a simpler "role-based" architecture for mail, voice mail and fax, as well as better support for scripting to ease management.

As previously reported, Microsoft had backpedaled from a grand plan, to build a re-architected upgrade, code-named Kodiak, based on the unified WinFS store. It had not, until now, specified how the next release of the mail server would be delivered or what its innards would be.

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Microsoft paints the more incremental upgrade as a positive move based on customer input, but acknowledged that continued delays to WinFS played a role as well.

Thompson said Microsoft can wring more performance out of the current Exchange "JET" engine. (Exchange's JET Engine is internally dubbed JET Blue while the JET engine powering Access is called JET Red.)

"JET has evolved in many ways. It gets refined with every release. It is a database very targeted to messaging and to Active Directory as well," Thompson said.

There will be plenty of improvements to E12 to keep customers and partners happy, he maintained, countering claims, some by Microsoft insiders, that e-mail has become a commodity.

"I've been using e-mail for 25 years, and by now it should be a commodity, but it isn't. People care very much about e-mail," he said. He also said Microsoft continues to ramp up investment in the group.

While Kodiak was an ambitious plan, Microsoft has to be realistic, he said.

"Kodiak was a project, to include a number of new technologies including development technologies, but as we listened to customers we made an adjustment," he said. "We brought some of those [promised] technologies forward into E12, and dropped Kodiak as a project name."

He likened this to recent Microsoft moves that took some improvements that were to be delivered in an Edge Services release and putting them into Service Pack 2 for Exchange Server 2003 instead.

John Parkinson, chief technologist for Capgemini's Americas Region said the newly-espoused evolutionary roadmap suits him fine. "Large corporations want to balance operational stability with continuously improving core features and want to avoid major version upgrades," he said. "As messaging becomes an intrinsic part of business automation, the emphasis has to shift from features to reliability and manageability."

Yankee Group Analyst Dana Gardner, said E-12 will be more modular than its predecessor, with various subsystems that can be enabled or not, as needed. But the key is incremental, not massive, change.

Customers want less dramatic, and less painful migrations, a lesson Microsoft learned from the angst arising out of Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 migrations, he noted. "In the real world, people don't want heartburn. If they can get some benefit but a lot of pain to get there, they back off."

Others were not so kind. Several Microsoft partners said the continuous back-and-forth on Exchange's road map has caused more, not less, anxiety for partners and customers alike.

"They flubbed the whole unified store thing. Their credibility is shot with respect to collaboration on the Exchange platform," said one longtime Exchange partner. He noted the shift some time ago when Microsoft told developers to write collaborative applications for Exchange and then told them to refocus on SharePoint.

But the biggest problem, for both Microsoft and its mail rival IBM Software's Lotus, is the heat they face from low-cost but capable mail systems.

Oracle Collaboration Suite is something of a threat with its low, predictable cost. But this partner said Microsoft's Exchange Group should be watching out for danger closer to home.

Microsoft's own Hotmail service is a huge factor, he said. "In small and medium businesses, Exchange faces Hotmail and Hotmail gives you 250 megabytes of free storage, a calendar that can interact with Office and it's free. If that's not enough you can pay $9.95 a month and get more. That's an appealing story."

Gardner agreed that traditional mail powers must face very cost-effective competition from Gordano, Stalker, and Sendmail. "Microsoft and Lotus used to compete with each other. Now they're fighting with good-enough, low-cost, high-scaling POP and IMAP type mail," Gardner said.

A large Microsoft partner agreed that the whole battleground is shifting beneath the big vendors. "The real battle is to integrate messaging services into everything and that requires a new platform. The Exchange Store is on its last legs—manageability and scalability are issues, search is abysmally slow, and performance takes a lot of engineering. WinFS would have cured everything, but in the interim there's a lot that can be done tactically: Better management tools, easier recovery, better Active Directory integration," he said.