News

Exchange 2003 -- Is There Enough There There?

Paul Wehner, a systems engineer and mail administrator with the University of Cincinnati, is hoping he’ll get the green light to deploy Microsoft’s forthcoming Exchange 2003 server. Like many shops, the University of Cincinnati still runs Exchange 5.5, which Microsoft first shipped five years ago.

“NT 4.0 and Exchange 5.5 are obsolete, or nearly so, and trying to match the feature level that Exchange 2003 offers” says Wehner, citing native support for wireless devices and spam control, “is either impossible or too expensive.”

Researchers say that as many as 60 percent of Exchange seats continue to run on Exchange 5.5, even with Exchange 2000 approaching its third anniversary. Analysts have traditionally identified a number of impediments to Exchange 2000 uptick, starting with the learning curve associated with its dependence on Active Directory (AD) – and concerns about AD’s maturity.

Perhaps as a result of this, Exchange administrator William Lefkovics suggests that Microsoft might consider making at least one change to Exchange 2003 – its product name. “I think they should rename Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2000 RTM,” he jokes, noting that the transition from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 was a “big step” that most Exchange shops required time to digest. For organizations that have made the move to Exchange 2000, he anticipates, the migration to the new version should be relatively pain-free: “Exchange 2000 administrators will not feel out of place in 2003.”

Chock full of goodies

As Lefkovics points out, the good news in Exchange 2003 is that it’s so much like Exchange 2000. If you’ve been using the latter for quite some time, Exchange 2003 will probably be a fairly straightforward upgrade. If you’re still on NT 4.0, you’ve had three years to get up to speed on Active Directory, which – as implemented in Windows Server 2003 – is more scalable and manageable.

Exchange 2003 packs many new features that Microsoft is betting will entice many customers that have thus far deferred upgrading.

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First up is Exchange 2003’s scalability, which most analysts say has been improved – especially on large systems. As a result, Microsoft’s Jim Bernardo, product manager in the software giant’s Windows Server System group, tells us that customers who deploy the new version of Exchange should be able to consolidate from many to comparatively few servers. “We enabled some fairly significant server consolidation between [Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000] on the order of two to three times the number of users on a server that customers are able to support, what we’re doing with Titanium [the code-name for Exchange 2003] is the next wave of server consolidation.”

Sara Radicati, president and CEO of messaging consultancy The Radicati Group, says that Microsoft has done much to enhance Exchange 2003’s server consolidation story. “The biggest advantage that we see is the possibility for increased server consolidation, and that means much lower TCO for enterprises,” she says.

According to Radicati, the average organization that runs Exchange supports about 10,000 seats on 22 servers. Because Exchange 2003 hasn’t yet been battle-tested, however, Radicati can’t say for sure how much enterprises can shrink that stable of servers: “Based on what we’ve seen so far and heard from Microsoft, we would guess that it is on the order of a 30 percent decrease in the number of servers, on average.”

Microsoft also expects that users will be enthusiastic about Exchange 2003’s new support for wireless and mobile clients, thanks to its decision to drop the Outlook Mobile Access component of its Mobile Information Server directly into Exchange. Aside from its most obvious benefits – the ability to support users of wireless devices – this integration also has the effect of creating a “combined schema” that can facilitate the management and provisioning of Exchange services to wireless clients in the context of Active Directory. “It’s a much more manageable process, because it’s easier to provision mobility and wireless access through [Active Directory],” Chris Baker, lead product manager for Microsoft Exchange, said earlier.

According to Melissa Stern, Exchange product manager with Microsoft, the new version of Exchange boasts a number of other carrots for mobile users, including a substantially revamped Outlook Web Access (OWA); new support for tunneling RPC over HTTP, a necessity for negotiating corporate firewalls; and support for the latest version of Active Sync. “All of these enhancements make it much easier to support wireless and mobile users in Exchange Server 2003,” she asserts.

Next-gen synergies

Exchange 2003 will run on both Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003, although many of its most important new features exploit services native to the newer operating system.

One example is enhanced Active Directory performance and manageability. Exchange 2003 can tap Windows Server 2003 to support cross-forest global address lists and facilitate greatly improved synchronization, along with enhanced caching.

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  • Similarly, Exchange 2003 supports Windows .NET Server 2003's Volume Shadow Copy facility, which allows an administrator to take a “snapshot” of an Exchange environment and save it to disk. In the event of a failure, an IT organization can restore Exchange data on the order of minutes. This is a much faster alternative than restoring an Exchange backup from tape, which can take several hours in large environments.

    For Exchange administrator Lefkovics, Volume Shadow Copy is one of the new Exchange’s strongest selling points: “But for me, [Exchange 2003’s most attractive new feature] is the recovery storage group. Restoring data to a live server is past due. Also when deployed on Windows2003, the potential for Volume Shadow Copy Services [is nice].”

    In terms of clustering, Exchange Server 2003 Enterprise Edition now supports up to eight-node active-passive clusters when deployed on Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition or Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition. For the record, that’s more than IBM’s Domino R6, which supports up to six clustered systems -- although heterogeneous Domino servers can be clustered with one another. Without Windows Server 2003, Exchange 2003, like Exchange 2000, will support two-node active-passive clustering on Windows 2000 Advanced Server, along with four-node active-passive clustering on Windows 2000 Datacenter Server.

    Microsoft argues that this has the effect of dramatically decreasing the cost to deploy Exchange clusters, which were prohibitively expensive on Windows 2000 Advanced Server, where a single passive node could account for 50 percent of the overall system cost. As a result, says Paul Flessner, senior VP of Microsoft’s server platform division, a single passive node in an eight-node Exchange 2003 cluster now comprises just 12 percent of the overall system cost.

    Deliverance

    The University of Cincinnati has taken baby steps on the way to a probable Exchange 2003 deployment. For example, Wehner reports that he and his colleagues have already built a small Active Directory forest and populated it with core applications such as SQL Server. “This has proven beneficial in [terms of] getting acceptance,” Wehner says.

    Moreover, the University of Cincinnati -- a school with 35,000 students -- is now taking a second look at AD to support other services. “The benefits of Active Directory became apparent to colleges when we, the university level IT department, began using terms like ‘single sign on’ and ‘fully automated creation of users and groups,’” he says.

    Wehner is running an Exchange 2003 test system, and says he likes what he sees. “The two things I'm most excited about [in Exchange 2003] are the new OWA and, hopefully, spam control. I've never been much of a fan of [Exchange] 5.5 OWA. It can be unstable, and lacked features users need. Spam is out of control. It's a daily problem that has occasionally impacted performance of e-mail delivery.”

    With renewed momentum inside of his organization in the direction of AD and Exchange 2003, Wehner is optimistic that he’ll finally be able to divest himself of his “obsolete or nearly so” Exchange 5.5 systems. For its own sales and to ease its support responsibilities, Microsoft is certainly hoping that other administrators will see the situation like Wehner does.