Best and Worst of Exchange 2010

A feature by feature analysis of Microsoft's new e-mail software.

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Microsoft Exchange 2010 officially ships today, offering enterprises a bigger, better, faster messaging platform. In April, reviewer Joel Snyder tested the beta version of Exchange 2010. Here, he checks out a boatload of the most interesting features and upgrades associated with the shipping product and gives a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether Microsoft delivers the goods.

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Exchange 2010 hits RTM

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Exchange continues to make high-availability simple by creating DAGs, multiple servers cooperating to make a set of Exchange mailboxes highly available through continuous replication and high-availability failover. It's not a simple feature to roll out, but it's a lot simpler than it used to be and doesn't take a PhD in Exchange to use.

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If you loved the idea of having two copies of the same Exchange database on the same server in case your cheapo (or expensive) disk crashed, stick with Exchange 2007. As part of the simplification and extension of high-availability, LCR bit the dust. Go get another server instead.

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Outlook Web App, the renamed-Outlook Web Access, now works well in non-Microsoft browsers and on non-Microsoft platforms. Safari users, for example, get a great experience with Web-based e-mail, calendaring, and contacts.

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If you don't want to pay for Microsoft Office in order to get Outlook, or if folks are just as happy reading their e-mail through a Web browser, Exchange 2010 is all about that, even down to the sound cues for alerts. That's right, Firefox can now sound like Outlook!

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It's new, OK, and while Microsoft tells us that thousands of people are using Exchange 2010, some of the new dark corners have a bug or two left in them. Here's one we stumbled across, where Outlook wouldn't let someone read their own mail--even though Outlook Web App would. Maybe wait for SP1 before giving this to everyone.

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Exchange 2007 wanted 64-bits, but could at least be tested on a 32-bit system. No more. Exchange 2010 insists on 64-bits, which makes your life somewhat easier, since everything is 64-bit through and through. That's as long as you have 64-bit friendly hardware and plenty of memory. But on the bright side, Microsoft has reduced the I/O load of Exchange (they throw around numbers between 70% and 90% compared to Exchange 2000), meaning that you can use slow laptop drives on that whiz-bang new 64-bit server and still get excellent performance. Reducing write bursts within Exchange also makes it more compatible with SATA drives.

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With Enterprise licensing, you can enable a personal archive for any user, which creates a twin mailbox in the same message store. Users can drag-and-drop mail there, or Exchange rules can move it there automatically based on policy. Intended as a replacement for those PST files that users seem to keep creating, and losing, the archive doesn't make much sense as long as it has to be stored in the same mailbox database as the original mailbox -- which it does in this release of Exchange. When that limitation is lifted and you can give users tons of slow, cheap storage for e-mail archiving, this'll be a thumbs-up.

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Exchange 2010 offers self-service through the Web interface, where you can change group memberships, address information, vacation settings and automatic replies, in-box rules, antispam settings, and more. If you've chosen Exchange as your VoIP automated attendant, you can even design your personalized answering service. Fewer help desk calls and happier users. What more could you want?

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A slew of features in Exchange 2010 aimed at building in e-Discovery features can save the expensive third-party add-ons, especially in smaller companies. Multiple mailbox search with extensive Boolean criteria is a good start, as is Legal Hold -- a way to be sure that information doesn't disappear once you've been notified that the scent of litigation is in the air. Microsoft packed these in haphazardly, so you have to hunt around to find all the pieces, but at least they're there.

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Not everyone will hook up their voice mail to Exchange Unified Messaging (this feature doesn't work if you just forward your voice mail into Exchange), but if you do, then Exchange 2010 will try voice recognition on your voice mail and put the text in the e-mail message with the voice recording. (Now, hitting delete can take even less time.)

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Microsoft now has a Web site that can test various aspects of your Exchange server from the Internet. Everything from basic incoming SMTP to ActiveSync and Outlook Anywhere (RPC over HTTP) are testable. Not strictly a part of Exchange 2010, but a welcome contribution to the world of e-mail administrators who need a better test than you get from Gmail.

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Exchange Web now shows all of your messages in a single window, with scroll bars (if necessary), instead of with troublesome "next" and "previous" screen buttons. Also in this version: threaded messages, which Microsoft calls Conversation View. A long-missing competitive feature, Exchange clients now can thread all messages in a conversation into a single view, helping to eliminate the all-too-common syndrome of answering a message that someone else has already answered.

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Maybe Exchange 2010 shouldn't be tarred with the Outlook brush, but... Apparently menus and shortcuts are now so passe, that every possible function anyone could do, even those you don't do very often, is now laid out in the pane at the top of Outlook's window. Sure, you can turn it all off, or spend a couple of hours customizing it, but how about a more sensible set of defaults that doesn't overwhelm us with choice anxiety the first time we launch?

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Microsoft calls it "Message Tracking," and such promise those two words imply. Unfortunately, the information you see in the tracking is so basic and so primitive that this does little to help anyone -- and may confuse the issue more than it clarifies it. Come on, Microsoft. You can do better!

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.