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Exchange 12 sees first trial

Microsoft's next-generation messaging platform has made it into a limited beta just weeks before the close of 2005. Exchange 12 is the first server platform that will require 64-bit hardware and Windows.

Microsoft's next-generation messaging platform, dubbed "Exchange 12," started its initial trial run with a small group of testers on Wednesday.

The software, which is the first Microsoft platform to require 64-bit systems, will go to approximately 1,400 testers worldwide. For the purposes of the beta test only, there will also be 32-bit test code so individuals can become familiar with the software functionality. The initial beta of Exchange 12 is not feature complete, and testers can expect a second beta out at mid-year 2006.

Exchange 12 is scheduled to become generally available either at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. Some of the most important features touted in the beta are the ability for administrators to install only the components of Exchange they need, improved filtering features, a scriptable command-line shell based on Windows Monad, and automatic client detection and configuration.

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The 64-bit push is on for Windows shops

By far the most controversial decision that Microsoft has made regarding the new platform is its decision to tune it specifically for 64-bit systems, knowing that today, Windows shops run 32-bit hardware and operating system software.

Microsoft chose to use 64-bit only so it could re-architect some of the core storage engine of Exchange to use memory more efficiently and cache a lot of information that would normally be written out to disk and read back later. By doing so, it could reduce I/O by about 70%, experts have said.

Despite these advances in performance, average-sized companies still may not upgrade to 64-bit systems for years. At Paxson Communications Corp., IT administrators have a lab where they try out new software. They plan to kick the tires on Exchange 12, which they will receive at no extra cost as part of their Software Assurance maintenance contract with Microsoft.

But the company won't rush to put it into production, said Scott Saunders, director of MIS at Paxson Communications, in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I'm not going to buy a new $10,000 server just so I can buy their software," he said. "We ran Exchange 5.5 for eight years and we just got Exchange 2003."

Saunders says he looks forward to some of the new features, such as the Exchange System Manager interface. He welcomes the expected improvements to the antispam filter as well. "We have four levels of protection, and spam still gets through," he said. "Anything that gives users more control over fighting spam we will look at."

Perhaps one of the more interesting features is a unified messaging system that delivers voice mail and faxes to an Exchange inbox. But "this feature may be one of the ones that the fewest people use because the gotcha is that you need to integrate Exchange with your PBX, and that's not easy, trivial or standard," said Peter Pawlak, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm. "There are so many types of PBXs out there, but if you happen to have one that can do this, it might be attractive."

Jeff Ressler, director of product planning for Exchange at Microsoft, said Exchange will support IP-based signaling standards, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and the Real-Time Transport Protocol (RTP). Essentially, customers need a VoIP PBX or a SIP gateway to work with a legacy PBX. Partner support will be announced later in the year.

Another improvement highlighted by Ressler is a more granular degree of message inspection in terms of antivirus protection, as well as more aggressive spam filtering. Currently, the Intelligent Message Filter is upgraded twice a month. Ressler said to expect more frequent upgrades in the Exchange 12 time frame.

Erica Rugullies, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., said IT managers need to begin strategizing now about if and when to upgrade to Exchange 12 because of the 64-bit requirement.

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