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Exchange Server 2003: Microsoft's Other Release

The debut of Microsofft's newest E-mail server software was almost lost in the ballyhoo over Office 2003.
Almost lost among the ballyhoo over Office 2003 this week was the launch of Microsoft's newest E-mail server software, Exchange Server 2003, which officially debuted as part of the Office System.

The software, which went to manufacturing four months ago, has been deployed by more than 200 early-adopting businesses, said Microsoft, which cited a study by research firm Meta Group to back up its claims that migrating to Exchange 2003 will save companies money.

According to Meta Group, which conducted its research independently of Microsoft, companies that shift from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2003 can realize operational cost savings ranging from $240,000 to $600,000 annually, depending on the size of the company and the number of Exchange seats making the move. Most of the savings, said Meta Group, would come from consolidating servers, a feature Microsoft has trumpeted in the past.

While the numbers were derived from hypothetical scenarios and didn't take into account the price of the migration itself, other analysts think the findings are on target.

"Cost savings can certainly be there if the right conditions exist," said Peter Pawlak, a lead analyst with Directions on Microsoft, which monitors the moves that Microsoft makes. In particular, companies that have sufficient wide area network bandwidth should see substantial savings by moving from 5.5 to 2003, he said, as they centralize their Exchange servers into one or more pools.

Migrating from the aging 5.5 edition of Exchange is actually more of a no-brainer than anything, Pawlak said. "These folks are just going to have to bit the bullet; the time has come where you can't put it off any longer," he said, noting that Microsoft is closing out support for Windows NT 4, which Exchange 5.5 runs atop.

But other companies, such as those that now run Exchange Server 2000, have tougher decisions to make when looking at the newest version of Microsoft's messaging platform.

"There's no big architectural shift in Exchange 2003," said Pawlak. "That's coming in the next release, code-named Kodiak. But Microsoft's really polished up Exchange." Among the new features of note, he said, are its spam-handling tools--including the ability to deploy black lists of known spam domains--better backup and restore, and improved access to mail via Outlook Web Access, Microsoft's method of retrieving mail from Exchange servers via a browser and the Internet.

As with other components of the Office System, of which Exchange Server 2003 is a part, Pawlak expects that companies which have signed up with Microsoft's Software Assurance program will be the ones most likely to migrate. Software Assurance guarantees users upgrades to Microsoft's products for a yearly fee.

"A lot of Exchange 2003's success will be tied to Software Assurance," said Pawlak. "If you bought SA, you'll do it. If you don't have it, you'll look really hard at the idea of migrating."

Even so, Exchange 2003 should have an easier time convincing customers to upgrade than will Microsoft's application suite, Office 2003. "Exchange offers more tangible benefits to both users and administrators than Office," Pawlak said, even though Exchange doesn't overwhelmingly own its market, as Office does. "E-mail is no longer just a nice-to-have service. It's critical to business," Pawlak said in justifying his bet that Exchange migrations will be significant.

Microsoft wasn't the only vendor tempting businesses with new E-mail solutions this week. A pair of Linux vendors tried to steal a bit of its thunder.

SuSE Linux said that it will start shipping a version of its Openexchange server in mid-November that offers enhanced support for Outlook 2003 users. SuSE, which pitches Openexchange as an alternate back-end system to Exchange, already supports earlier editions of Outlook, the E-mail client included with the Office productivity suite.

And Ximian, which was acquired this summer by Novell, touted its Connector for Microsoft Exchange 1.4.5, which lets Ximian Evolution clients running on Linux or Solaris function as full Exchange 2003 clients.