Exchange Server 2007 Beta 2

  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • VoIP integration
  • unified messaging
  • integrated speech server
  • enhanced OWA client
  • Exchange Management Shell

Cons

  • Requires 64-bit server hardware and operating system

The long-awaited release of Exchange Server 2007 is fast approaching — it will ship in 'late 2006 or early 2007', according to Microsoft. The latest (public) beta version, released at the end of July, has plenty to interest larger companies frustrated by the limitations of the current product (version 2003 SP2). However, there's not so much in it for the smaller businesses, especially as there's a hidden price tag attached to its deployment.

New servers for old

The extra cost relates directly to Microsoft's decision not to support Exchange Server 2007 on 32-bit platforms. The beta software is available in this format, but only for customer evaluation prior to launch: the release code will be 64-bit only, which means not only having to upgrade your server hardware, but also the Windows Server OS. Moreover, with Exchange 2007 likely to ship before the next Windows Server release (Longhorn), early adopters face the possibility of having to upgrade their servers twice in order to run the new software. First to Windows Server 2003 x64, and then Longhorn — neither a trivial exercise.

This restriction is clearly aimed at enhancing server capacity and performance, courtesy of the extra address space available on 64-bit systems. As a result, Microsoft claims to be able to support up to four times as many users per server with Exchange Server 2007, with an up to 75 percent reduction in I/O compared to equivalent 32-bit configurations. However, a lot of RAM will be needed to achieve these benefits (well beyond the 4GB addressable on 32-bit servers), and the move to 64-bit does little to enhance more modest deployments.

There are other requirements, too. All servers need at least 1GB of memory and have to be a member of a Windows Server 2000/3 native domain, ruling out deployment on mixed-mode networks unless you upgrade. Servers also need IIS, the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), version 2.0 of the .NET Framework and the new Microsoft Command Shell (previously called Monad), although these can all be installed by the setup program if found lacking.

Management interface

The dependence on the command shell is one of many interesting changes in Exchange Server 2007, making it the first mainstream Microsoft application designed to be as configurable from the command line as from the Windows GUI. In fact, the command-line Exchange Management Shell (EMS) comes first, with the graphical Exchange Management Console (EMC) layered on top. This makes it possible to script just about anything and everything — just as on a Unix or Linux server.

The commands generated by the graphical console are displayed on-screen to help users learn the syntax, although we still didn’t find it particularly intuitive. That said, administrators used to scripting repetitive tasks will, no doubt, love it; Microsoft is also confident that third-party developers will use EMS to produce a range of ready to run 'cmdlets', further encouraging its use.

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For those who prefer to avoid command lines altogether, the Exchange Management Console has also been reworked, making it easier to navigate with far less clutter and new wizards to lead you through common processes, such as adding mailboxes. A new best practices analyser and several other troubleshooting tools are also included, and the final release will also feature a management pack for Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM).

Role me over

As with previous versions, an Exchange Server 2007 installation is a fairly lengthy procedure, although it's simplified somewhat by a switch to a role-based architecture, much like that used in Windows Server 2003.

Instead of having to go for a full implementation or a setup that you customise yourself, a wizard selects and installs the components required, based on the server roles selected. This makes for a quicker and much more secure implementation, with no unnecessary code for hackers to target and far less software to update and manage.

Several roles are available, which can be configured on the same server or, on a larger network, distributed across a number of systems. We configured just one with the required Mailbox role, used to set up the Exchange data store, and the Hub Transport role (previously known as the Bridgehead) to route messages around the network. We also selected the Client Access role, needed to connect users to their mail and other resources.

Other optional roles include Unified Messaging, which adds new voice over IP (VoIP) calling capabilities plus voicemail and fax integration. With Unified Messaging, voicemail can be accessed from the Outlook inbox, a mobile device or a standard telephone, with an integrated speech server included as part of the package.

There's also a special Edge Transport role, where an Exchange Server can be located in a DMZ and configured to act as an SMTP relay to securely forward messages across the firewall. This is a task normally delegated to open source mail servers. An Exchange Edge server doesn't need to be a domain member to do this and has no mailboxes of its own, but can be configured to filter out viruses and spam.

A cluster role is yet another option, but although easy enough to configure during setup, adding or removing Exchange Server roles later on is far from simple. A separate command-line tool is involved and you're better off getting it right from the start.

What the client sees

From the user perspective, one of the big changes in Exchange 2007 is Outlook Web Access (OWA), which is enhanced yet again — this time to match the interface used by Outlook 2003. It doesn't quite match the forthcoming Outlook 2007 product, but you do get most of the extra functionality. This includes support for unified messaging, plus improved server-side storage of calendaring information to enhance things such as meeting-scheduling.

As part of this review we downloaded the Beta 2 of Outlook 2007 and found most of the new features easy to use, including the option to gain secure access to data on SharePoint and ordinary Windows shares without having to connect over a VPN. We also liked the new search facilities and the AutoConnect option whereby you need only supply a user name, password and email address to configure a server account. Outlook does the rest, automatically searching out the right server, which is great for both first-time setup and failover in the event of a problem.

And there's more

Of course, there's a lot more in Exchange Server 2007 that we don't have the space to include here. Among the new features are enhancements to the antivirus, anti-spam and content-filtering facilities, a new continuous local backup option, enhanced mobile and push email capabilities, and so on.

According to Microsoft, Exchange Server 2007 should ship early next year at the latest. We found it to be a solid and well-considered update to an already very capable platform which, if it does nothing else, will further consolidate Microsoft's position at the top of the enterprise email server and collaboration tree. However, it's likely to appeal mostly to larger companies; those with more modest requirements may find it a step too far and choose to go with one of the many alternatives that have sprung up to fill this seemingly ever-growing gap.

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