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Exchange Server 2003 Beta 2 Version Released

Microsoft Corp. formally named the next version of its Exchange messaging server "Exchange Server 2003" and released a Beta 2 version for broad public testing on Monday.

The server was previously known by the code-name Exchange "Titanium." It is an incremental release building on the foundation of Exchange 2000, and it is slated for a mid-2003 release after Windows .NET Server 2003 ships.

Microsoft is pushing hard for a three-punch combination, with customers buying Exchange Server 2003, the new Outlook 11 e-mail client and Windows .NET Server 2003.

There are no earth-shattering changes to the server, along the lines of the Active Directory requirement in Exchange 2000 Server. Exchange Server 2003 contains mainly performance enhancements, tweaks and other tune-ups. The code has also stayed fairly stable between Beta 1 and Beta 2, according to Jim Bernardo, a product manager with the Exchange group.

Main features

One performance enhancer is a cached mode of operation in which Exchange Server 2003 and Outlook 11 synchronize user information in the background. The feature should help users work on up-to-date local copies of their mailboxes even when the network is spotty or the users are offline.

Another performance enhancer comes in changes made to MAPI, the native protocol for communication between Outlook and Exchange. MAPI traffic is now both reduced and compressed. MAPI also now supports secure HTTP, reducing the need for a complex VPN for remote workers.

The most noticeable change comes not in Exchange itself but in the Outlook client. The Outlook 11 release sports an overhauled interface with three vertical panes that Microsoft claims provides 40 percent more information on the screen than the previous preview pane approach. Exchange 2003 presents the overhauled Outlook 11 interface for Outlook Web Access, which for the first time also offers a spellchecker.

Support for wireless access is built-in. Exchange Server 2003 will ship with Outlook Mobile Access, formerly a feature available with Mobile Information Server. The messaging server also supports an array of mobile device microbrowsers -- iMode, cHTML and WAP 2.0 -- and supports Windows Powered Pocket PC and SmartPhone devices.

Exchange also will leverage two enhancements in Windows .NET Server 2003 -- Volume Shadow Copy services and eight-node failover clustering. Shadow copy makes for quicker backup and restore, an improvement that the Exchange team says administrators can leverage to pack more users on a server without fear.

The Exchange team also worked with the Windows team to support the eight-node clusters that will be possible with Windows .NET Server 2003, Enterprise and Datacenter editions. Bernardo says demand for clustering more than two machines together for availability is extremely high. Four-node cluster configurations were possible in Windows 2000, but only with the more expensive Datacenter Server. With eight-node clustering possible now in the Enterprise Edition of Windows .NET Server 2003, Microsoft is expecting a peak in multi-server configurations.

The 2003 version of Exchange will benefit from a Trustworthy Computing code review, and one of Microsoft's major selling points is the security integration between Exchange Server 2003 and Windows .NET Server 2003. But the product brings a few feature-related security enhancements. Improvements to the virus-scanning API make it possible to create a gateway Exchange server without resident mailboxes that can scan incoming messages for harmful code without impacting Exchange servers that have mailboxes. A few security tweaks are in store for Outlook Web Access, too. The Web-enabled Outlook interface now supports the S/MIME protocol for message signing and encryption. Administrators will now also be able to set time-out limits to reduce the chance of security breaches due to unattended browser sessions.

The much hyped junk mail-blocking improvements in Exchange Server 2003 come down to the ability to create real-time black-hole lists and lists for dial-up users, inbound recipient filtering and a feature called Spam Beacon Blocking.

The product also ships with deployment tools and an Exchange Management Pack for Microsoft Operations Manager.

Support caveats

Microsoft's decisions on platform support have been closely watched through the pre-release lifecycle for Exchange Server 2003. The messaging server will be supported on Windows .NET Server 2003 and Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 but not, of course, with Windows NT 4.0.

Users of Exchange Server 2003 with Windows 2000 won't be able to use Windows .NET Server 2003-dependent features such as the security integration with that OS, the Volume Shadow Copy service and eight-node clustering.

Microsoft's Bernardo says there are still substantial performance improvements because of the work with MAPI even when using Exchange Server 2003 on Windows 2000.

The user caching functionality is dependent on the combination of Windows .NET Server 2003 and Outlook 11. The server will support three generations of Outlook clients: Outlook 11, Outlook 2002 and Outlook 2000.

The beta program

The Beta 2 program represents the first widespread availability of the Titanium code. Beta 1 testing was limited for the most part to Microsoft and its JDP customers. Internally, Microsoft has about half of its 60,000 employees and contractors on Exchange Server 2003, and the rest are scheduled to be live by February. Microsoft officials say they are leveraging the performance and availability enhancements in the 2003 edition to greatly reduce their worldwide number of Exchange sites from 70 to 20 by the end of the year

The Beta 2 download page can be found here:
http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/evaluation/ti/beta.asp.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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