Expert’s take: What I’d like to see in the next version of Exchange Server

What would you like to see in Exchange 15? We posed that same question to one of our trusted experts and he answered the call.

Although Microsoft is deep in the development cycle for the next version of Exchange Server -- currently referred to as Exchange 15 -- not many details have been released. That being the case, I thought it would be fun to share my wish list of what’d I’d like to see in the next iteration of Exchange.

1. SQL Server databases
Prior to the release of Exchange Server 2010, there was a lot of talk about moving away from the old Jet database format and using SQL Server instead. Microsoft abandoned this idea, presumably because of the slew of technical issues that changing database formats would create. Even so, I’d still like to be able to host Exchange Server databases on an SQL Server.

Disclaimer: This article is based solely on my own opinions. As of the time this article was written, I have absolutely no inside knowledge of Microsoft's plans for the next version of Exchange Server.

Hear me out; this idea isn't as crazy as it sounds. After all, Microsoft uses SQL Server for almost all of its other server products. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that moving to SQL Server would require a complete reworking of database availability groups (DAGs), the nightly maintenance cycle and no telling what else.

2. Comprehensive mobile device management
I’d also like to see a comprehensive mobile device management feature in the next version of Exchange. Presently, Microsoft provides a degree of mobile device management capabilities in Exchange Server 2010, but the primary solution for managing mobile devices that connect to Exchange is System Center Mobile Device Manager (MDM).

Something I’ve noticed lately is that although Microsoft will release a new version of essentially all its System Center products in 2012, MDM is conspicuously absent from the list.

I can't help but wonder if this means that Microsoft is abandoning the product altogether, or if the functionality is being rolled into another product. Nothing would make me happier than to have MDM updated and integrated into Exchange Server.

3. Improved diagnostic reporting
Exchange has always been difficult to troubleshoot. Microsoft provides a plethora of diagnostic information you can use to troubleshoot problems and System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) is very helpful, but I’ve always felt that basic troubleshooting could be easier.

For example, suppose a database shut down because the volume it resides on ran out of disk space. Unless you have SCOM, you’re left to your own devices to solve the problem. This should be an easy problem to fix, but it shouldn't have happened in the first place. I’d like the next version of Exchange to send administrators an email or text message informing them of potential issues and explaining what they need to do to correct the situation.

I'm not talking about cryptic event log entries here. I'm talking about a meaningful message -- written in plain English -- that clearly explains the problem and solution. More importantly,  I’d like to see this sort of capability reserved for serious issues only. Otherwise, if Exchange Server constantly pesters administrators with unimportant information, alerts eventually become meaningless.

4. An expanded Exchange Control Panel
Exchange Server 2010 was the first version of Exchange to introduce the Exchange Control Panel (ECP). While I applaud Microsoft for introducing this helpful tool, I’d like to see it further improved in the next iteration. I know many administrators would welcome the ability to fully manage their entire Exchange organizations through a Web interface.

5. Operating system independence
Finally, I’d like to see Exchange Server rely less on the Windows operating system. Throughout its history, Exchange Server has always required specific versions of Windows Server. There’s certainly nothing wrong with minimal operating system version requirements, but Exchange is so closely tied to the OS that it makes upgrades difficult.

For example, consider the case of Exchange Server 2007. When the product was released, you could only install it on Windows Server 2003. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows Server 2008. At first, it was impossible to install Exchange 2007 on top of Windows Server 2008. This meant organizations that wanted to keep all their server operating systems consistent had to wait to upgrade to Windows Server 2008.

Microsoft added Windows Server 2008 support in Exchange 2007 Service Pack 1. However, it remains impossible to perform an in-place OS upgrade.

I bring this up because it seems like history is about to repeat itself. Microsoft is on the verge of releasing Windows Server 8. Microsoft is well into the development cycle for the next version of Exchange and the likelihood of the RTM release supporting Windows Server 8 is slim. It would be great if Microsoft designed the next version of Exchange so it could be installed on either Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 8, while leaving the possibility of in-place OS upgrades open for the future.

Brien Posey is an eight-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. Before becoming a freelance technical writer, Brien worked as a CIO at a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the nation’s largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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