Upgrade of the year
Microsoft's Exchange Server 2007 delivers powerful new capabilities for e-mail
In November in New York's Times Square, Microsoft Corp. celebrated a triad of major new product releases: Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer touted the benefits of each product, but of the three, Exchange Server 2007 was probably the least discussed. Nonetheless, it may well end up being the Microsoft product that has the biggest impact on federal agency system administrators.
True, most government employees are only dimly aware of what Exchange does.
They're more familiar with its PC front end, the Outlook e-mail client. They might not understand that Exchange is the back-end e-mail server that organizes and delivers the mail to Outlook, and keeps tabs on their appointments and contacts.
Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, an upgrade from Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, will offer some powerful new features for users and administrators. Users will enjoy the larger mailboxes and the greater ability to schedule meetings. Administrators will dig the new command-line interface and improved configuration management.
'Exchange is the most important upgrade for us simply because it is an e-mail engine, and e-mail is considered by most to be the most mission-critical information system that we currently use,' said Anthony Hebert, principal technology architect for the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, which supplies water for the greater metropolitan areas of Reno, Nev.
At present, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority in Reno, Nev., has six servers now running Exchange Server 2003 for 300 mailboxes. The agency monitors how well the e-mail service is running, and remediates problems using Zenprise, from the company of the same name, located in Fremont, Calif. The agency wants to upgrade to Exchange 2007 in the near future.
'Of course we could run Exchange Server 2003 just fine, but we keep the latest version of code to stay as secure as possible,' Hebert said.
The organization is now testing Exchange Server 2007, running on a Hewlett-Packard 585DL server with quad dual-core AMD Opteron processors and 32GB of RAM. 'We understand this will be a massive upgrade, so we're taking as much time as possible to get ourselves familiar with the product,' Hebert said.
The IT team tests the unit in various ways, by changing the configuration and mimicking various stressful circumstances, such as disconnecting network cables to see how the software reacts to outages, or storming the machine with a million e-mails at once. Thus far, the software has not crashed. 'That surprised us,' he said.
Although Exchange Server 2007 has many cutting-edge features, such as clustering and replication, Hebert looks forward to one that has been long been available in Unix environments: a command-line interface, or shell.
Microsoft's PowerShell is almost identical to the Unix Bash or KSH shells. Administrators can string together commands, so that the output of one job can be an input for another, an act called pipelining. 'The command-line interface is the most powerful way to extract information from a massive information system like Exchange,' Hebert said.
Users also will see a wide variety of new features after their organizations upgrade to Exchange Server 2007, according to Diane Prescott, Microsoft technical product manager. For one, scheduling meetings should be easier. When all the required participants are identified, the scheduler's Outlook client can show all the times that all participants are free. If you have a mix of optimal and required users with conflicting schedules, the software can generate the optimal meeting times.
For organizations with mobile deployments, Exchange also offers mobile clients the ability to view HTML-encoded mail, to search an organization's global address book or search across the user's mailbox. And should the mobile unity get lost, all the e-mail can be erased remotely.
A bit further out on the cutting edge is the ability to show voice messages within Microsoft Outlook itself, as well as listen to e-mail and calendar appointments via your phone. These features that combine computers and telephones have grown out of the Unified Messaging architecture Microsoft introduced a year ago.
Although many government agencies use Microsoft Exchange, upgrading to the latest version will not happen quickly, said Steve Lawrence, director of federal sales for Quest Software Inc. of Aliso Viejo, Calif., which offers software for managing Windows environments. The IRS, for instance, has more than 130,000 mailboxes, so any migrations at this or in other large organizations will be measured in years.
'I think you'll see the same [lag] you saw when agencies moved off of Windows NT. It really takes a business reason for them to upgrade,' Lawrence said. Large-scale deployments could be stretched into 2008 or even 2010.
In fact, the Army's European Command, which uses Quest's software and relies heavily on Exchange, and is currently migrating to Exchange Server 2003. It has no immediate plans to upgrade to Exchange Server 2007, though. 'I can't imagine doing 2007 for at least another two or three years,' said Christopher Hunt, IT specialist for the Army in Europe.
At present, the command is busy consolidating its 250 mail servers'spread across 38 locations and serving 58,000 military personnel'into 50 mailbox servers spread across the four area processing centers.
While Exchange Server 2007 has a plethora of new features, upgrading to this new software will be no easy task.
'Exchange 2007 is unique in the sense that there are very many changes that require IT specialists to understand how the software works and how it will fit into their e-mail infrastructure,' Hebert said.
The biggest change is that Exchange Server 2007 requires servers with 64-bit processors. Organizations with 32-bit servers, which could run Exchange Server 2003, will need new hardware.
Many feel the new requirement is justified, though: 64-bit processors can address a larger range of memory'up to 16 exabytes. An exabyte is a million terabytes'which is much more that the 4G addressable by 32-bit processors. As a result, more (and larger) mailboxes can be called into the working memory of the server. This means faster response time because not as many calls need to be made to storage systems, Prescott said. The normal allotment for individual mailboxes can also be 2GB each, up from 50MB today.
Another aspect large organizations need to keep in mind is that Microsoft has changed how multiple Exchange servers work with one another. 'People need to understand that this is a big change in paradigms. Unless they understand that, they will be confused,' Hebert said. A particular configuration of Exchange Server 2007, called Hub Transport, now acts as the director of traffic, coordinating all e-mail traffic among all the other e-mail servers.
'By having all the mail flow through the Hub Transport server, you can make sure policies are centrally applied,' Prescott said. The system could capture and log sensitive e-mail as it flows through, or apply other actions, based on user roles.
In addition to the Hub Transport mode, Exchange Server 2007 can be set up to run one of four other server roles. For instance, the Edge Transport server handles all traffic to and from the Internet, which minimizes exposure to external vulnerabilities. The Unified Messaging server coordinates phone traffic with the e-mail traffic.
'We were finding that a lot of administrators were deploying a typical type of server, and they really wanted that server [narrowed] down to that type of function,' Prescott said.
Once an administrator understands the new topology, though, setup should actually be fairly smooth. The key is to understand Microsoft Server 2007 before embarking on an upgrade. 'This is one product you really have to read the manual for,' Hebert said.