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Microsoft flip-flopping on future Exchange features

Will the next version of Exchange Server have a new data store or public folders? Even Microsoft doesn't seem to know for sure.

Microsoft is still hazy on what direction future features in Exchange Server will take.

Exchange Server 2007 is set to launch this month. Although many had thought Microsoft would have committed by now to some new capabilities in the next iteration of Exchange -- expected in 2010 – executives at the company have been ambiguous.

Of specific concern is whether Microsoft will change its proprietary data store or whether it will keep public folders in upcoming versions.

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Recently, some MVPs were told that Microsoft would turn its attention to changing the data store in the next version of Exchange, dubbed "Exchange 14," but now that's not so clear.

In the past Microsoft had planned to include a new data store in an upcoming version of Exchange. But that may not be necessary, said Dave Thompson, corporate vice president for the Exchange Server Group at Microsoft. Some of the issues IT managers had as far as being able to manipulate the JET data store have been addressed in Exchange 2007 through a 64-bit version of JET and web services APIs, Thompson said.

That is not to say they are ruling out replacing the data store at some point, he added.

"There is work under way, and we're looking at other data stores, not just SQL server," said Thompson. "We don't plan to change it in [Exchange 14], but it's way too early to say. What I will say is the architecture is always evolving."

He found that the IT managers who were asking for the data store change wanted it to be more programmable for writing applications or wanted more scalability, which Microsoft addressed through Web Services APIs and the 64-bit JET, he said.

The move to a 64-bit version of JET takes some of the pressure off of Microsoft to change the data store, said Peter Pawlak, senior analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash.

"With JET ported to 64-bit and Web Services APIs, many of the reasons to move to SQL Server no longer apply," Pawlak said. Also, many of the features in SQL Server have been added to Exchange 2007to do the same thing like Cluster Continuous Replication (CCR) and Common Language Runtime (CLR) to do log playback on another database or replicate databases, he said.

Still, some IT managers wanted a data store swap out, period.

Steven Perry, IT manager at Costello & Sons Insurance Brokers in San Rafael, Calif., said his organization was looking forward to moving to Exchange Server 2007 until he heard that the data store replacement wasn't happening.

"I'm pretty disappointed," said Perry. "I really liked the notion of having the ability to go into the database with a lot more flexibility that you have with SQL Server tools," Perry said. "I was really excited about it -- the unlimited flexibility, the interoperability between platforms, the ability to lop certain portions of [the data store] off and keep it in the same data structure like you can in SQL Server."

With the changes made to Exchange Server 2007, Pawlak said he doesn't see why Microsoft would be motivated to move to a new data store.

"I really don't see the point, particularly to SQL Server, since Exchange may suffer under SQL Server," Pawlak said. "JET is a highly optimized data structure used in Exchange, and there are performance issue concerns of trying to move it to SQL Server."

As for public folders, Thompson said Microsoft has not decided whether it will continue them in future versions of Exchange or not. This contradicts statements made by Terry Myerson, general manager of the Exchange Server team, who recently said public folders will likely remain.

Thompson did say that if public folders do disappear, support will continue for seven to 10 years with support extensions. "We will not leave anyone high and dry," said Thompson. "Customers will get plenty of notification."

Looking ahead, Exchange users can expect a continued focus on data protection, security and compliance, as well as an emphasis on unified communications and operational efficiency, he said.

"With unified communications we want to enable users to communicate in the mode they want to whether that's email, IM voice or video," Thompson said "We want to accommodate all of that."

Thompson is keeping his eyes on competitors, such as IBM, but new competitors are cropping up like open source player Zimbra. Despite some of the buzz around such companies, Thompson said he is not impressed.

"There is noise in the press about Zimbra because of their claim of cloning some or all of Exchange," Thompson said. "Exchange has a very rich platform that is way more sophisticated than [Exchange 2003]. It is constantly evolving based on experiences from customers of all sizes. That is hard to duplicate," he said.

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