Exchange 2000: Better messaging, for a price

Agencies that want to upgrade to the next release of Microsoft Corp.'s electronic messaging and collaboration platform likely will gain many important benefits, but they will have to make significant commitments in return. Exchange 2000 Server — due to ship in the first half of this year — will rely on Microsoft's new server operating system, Windows 2000, and agencies that want to upgrade to Exchange 2000 Server also must adopt Windows 2000 Server.

This early look at Exchange 2000 Server is based on code released to open beta in October at the Microsoft Exchange Conference in Atlanta. Although the product is still in early form, the beta release we tested shows several major changes compared with the current version, Exchange Server 5.5. Taken together, the enhancements in this version promise to bring greater scalability to the product's messaging infrastructure and enhance its capabilities as a distributed groupware applications platform.

Windows 2000 Integration

Be aware that making a commitment to Exchange 2000 will mean committing to Windows 2000 Server as a server operating system platform. In fact, Exchange 2000 Server will use Microsoft's forthcoming Active Directory (to be delivered in Windows 2000 Server) to replace several critical functions currently included within the Exchange Server core architecture. Among the components to be replaced by Active Directory are the underlying user directory, the directory replication function, and part of the "Site" replication and communications infrastructure of Exchange.

Overall, this bold integration promises to reduce administration chores by providing a single user-management and inter-site communications infrastructure for Windows 2000 Server and Exchange 2000 Server. However, for some organizations, this approach may pose challenges. For example, since the two products will be so tightly joined at the hip, many of the decisions that govern Windows 2000 domain architecture design will now have to take into account Exchange 2000 Server site architecture decisions as well. For most large organizations that have separate network operating system and messaging architecture teams, this model will force greater collaboration between the groups.

Once these hurdles are overcome though, you most will likely find that the single-directory solution that the combination provides adds great administration benefit.

Overall, we felt that the Exchange enhancements to the Active directory toolset snapped in nicely. We were able to perform both Active Directory and Exchange user adds, moves, and changes from a single tool and interface-the Windows 2000 Server Active Directory Users and Computers administration tool. In addition, Active Directory and Exchange directory replication and architecture administration tasks were combined in the Active Directory Sites and Services tool. Meanwhile, all other Exchange administration tasks where confined to a separate administration Microsoft Management Console based snap-in software module.

For current Exchange 5.5 customers, we did notice a few unsettling side effects the new Exchange 2000 Server architecture poses. First, every user in Windows 2000 represents a potential Exchange 2000 mailbox. But mailboxes cannot be created independently of a Windows 2000 user account, as they can in Exchange 5.5. So customers who are in the habit of creating multiple mailboxes and associating them to a single Windows NT account, as with a generic service mailbox (i.e., [email protected]), will no longer be able to use one-to-many account-to-mailbox mappings. This is a minor setback but one worth noting for migration and licensing concerns.

Next, the typical import/export tools available for Exchange 5.5 customers are rendered useless when migrating to Exchange 2000 Server. So, if you are relying on the current import/export tools to automate administration or run scripted directory administration jobs, you will need to rebuild those processes to use new Active Directory Services Interface- or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol-compliant import tools that work with Active Directory.

Product Convergence

Microsoft also is taking a clear stab at improving system scalability in this release of Exchange. Much of the work that has been done to improve these metrics is a result of combining the Exchange Server architecture with that of the Microsoft Commercial Internet System (MCIS) products. The MCIS Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3)/Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP)-based messaging system that Microsoft targeted at large Internet service provider-level messaging customers is the centerpiece of this convergence. The result of this union actually abstracts all of the Exchange Internet Protocol services (such as POP3 and Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) support) out of the Exchange Information Store and into Microsoft's Internet Information Server (including the SMTP Message Transfer Agent, which ran as a separate Exchange service in Exchange Server 5.5).

Short of actual benchmark testing, it is unclear as to whether this architecture move will produce performance improvement or degradation on a per message basis. However, it does allow for isolating the protocol layer from the data store on separate processors, thus producing greater scalability through process distribution.

One scalability improvement that we found a welcome enhancement for just about any Exchange site is the ability to partition the Exchange mailbox (private store) and public folder (public store) databases across multiple databases files. Exchange 2000 Server implements this feature as "storage groups." This addition to the product will add great flexibility for administrators and enable them to effectively partition the information store for better performance, fault tolerance and faster disaster recovery.

The New Web Store

Exchange 2000 Server also implements other new features pertinent to the underlying Exchange Information Store, such as content indexing, a richer object model for developers and the ability to access the information store as a typical file system from the Windows Explorer shell or other applications. All of these features are made possible through the evolution of the Exchange Information Store into what Microsoft has termed the "Web Store."

The Exchange 2000 Server Web Store leverages the Windows 2000 Installable File System (IFS) architecture to enable direct access to the product's data store from various applications, such as Document Authoring and Versioning (DAV) compliant Microsoft Office applications, Web publishing tools, the Windows Explorer interface or the command line. This design brings about huge potential for how Exchange 2000 Server may evolve to play a larger role in the modern enterprise. However, even though security is controlled through typical Windows 2000 Server access control lists, certainly some sites will raise an eyebrow to the potential security concerns of opening up all the back doors to the messaging and collaboration system.

We found the Web Store to be a fairly spiffy addition to the product. However, Microsoft still has a ways to go to iron out some of the feature implementations.

Collaboration Enhancements

Combining traditional enterprise messaging with more modern collaboration and communication technologies is a trend that continues to grow in the enterprise messaging market. Consistent with this trend, Exchange 2000 Server sports several more advanced collaboration facilities, such as multimedia (voice, video and data) conferencing, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Instant Messaging.

Exchange Server 5.5 offers an IRC server component and an Internet Location Service (ILS) component, which is used by NetMeeting clients to locate other NetMeeting users. However, Exchange 2000 Server tightens the integration of scheduling online multimedia collaboration meetings with other communications and meeting scheduling functions.

After setting up a few virtual meeting rooms, we were able to schedule videoconferencing meetings via Outlook/NetMeeting. However, enabling this capability requires that you perform a client-side registry edit first so that Outlook 2000 can accommodate scheduling an online meeting through Exchange. While the process of completing this minor adjustment was painless, we hope Microsoft will automate this adjustment prior to shipping the product so that you won't have to.

Similar to America Online's Instant Messenger, Microsoft's Instant Messaging server component and corresponding client piece offer the ability to locate and immediately converse with colleagues when they are sitting at their computer. This capability is similar to IRC, with the exception that communications are not necessarily brokered through a single, designated chat room on a single server.

The new complement of rich communications tools that will ship with Exchange 2000 Server certainly adds value to the product. However, whether many government installations will begin to utilize the extra tools will remain to be seen.

All in all, Exchange 2000 Server looks to offer some nice benefits, such as integrated account and security administration with Windows 2000, more flexible deployment options, better storage management and a battery of modern communications mechanisms, compared with Exchange Server 5.5. Based on the beta release, Microsoft still needs to spend some time tightening this product up before its anticipated ship date.

IT managers probably should be less concerned with Exchange 2000 Server delays than with planning and deploying the Windows 2000 infrastructure to support the product. Finally, one more parting concern for Exchange 5.5 customers: Although this beta release of Exchange 2000 Server did provide a means of coexisting and replication with Exchange 5.5 sites, it did not offer any real upgrade tools for existing installations, short of performing a full migration.

—Jeff Symoens is a free-lance analyst and a senior IT systems engineer at Advanced Micro Devices Inc. He can be reached at [email protected].


Exchange 2000 Server

Microsoft Corp.

(800) 426-9400

Remarks: This beta release of Exchange 2000 Server (formerly named Platinum) demonstrates a wholly revamped product architecture designed to bring greater scalability, improved management and improved communications facilities to the messaging and collaboration platform. The product offers tight integration and management with Windows 2000 features, but it also will require deployment of Windows 2000 servers and infrastructure.

BY Jeff Symoens
January 12, 2000

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