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Users hold fast to public folders despite iffy future

Popular demand kept Microsoft from dumping public folders from Exchange Server 2007, but support won't last forever.

Public folders continue to be one of the most popular features in Exchange Server although Microsoft has been trying to get IT shops to change users' habits and move content to its SharePoint platform.

Microsoft has sought to de-emphasize public folders, which are the special mailboxes where users can share common contacts, calendar and other information. The company has strongly suggested to customers that it should be moving to – or at the least launching any new collaborative data on -- Office SharePoint Server 2007. But lots of IT shops are postponing a transition because it costs money, and they say the public folders work just fine for today's purposes.

More on Exchange Server 2007 migration:
Windows shops take slow road to Exchange Server 2007

Preparing for Exchange Server 2007

What's missing from Exchange Server 2007

"Everyone is used to public folders," said Dan Streufert, IS director at The Tech Group, a Tempe, Ariz.-based pharmaceutical products manufacturer. "We could move everything to SharePoint, but there is an ease of getting in from Outlook. The interface is fast, and you can bring it up and look at it in your calendar."

Streufert has plenty of company when it comes to his interest in public folders. Richard Luckett, president of SYSTMS of NY Inc., a Rochester, N.Y. integrator, has customers with more than 20,000 public folders. "The prospect of moving to Exchange Server 2007 is problematic," he said.

There is no big rush to move off of public folders today because Microsoft has said it will fully support the feature through the life of Exchange Server 2007, which goes to 2016 -- the end of its extended support lifecycle. Microsoft has not said whether or not it will support public folders in the next major release of Exchange.

Introduced in November, Exchange Server 2007 is Microsoft's first release that will support only 64-bit hardware. It's not widely installed yet, although rollouts will likely speed up after the first service pack ships later this year. A second beta for the first service pack is due out any day. One of the features in this service pack will go a long way in making many IT shops that use public folders happy.

Downside in Exchange Server 2007 migration

For many, a drawback to making the migration to Exchange Server 2007 is that in the initial release of this server there was no graphical tool to manage public folders. The management tool used in Exchange Server 2003 was replaced in Exchange Server 2007 by a command line interface that requires IT managers to know PowerShell scripting language. In Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 1, however, Microsoft will reintroduce a graphical console for public folder administration.

Ray Mohrman, a group product manager in Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, explained the company's original decision to not include the capability. By the time Microsoft was introducing its Office 2007 suite, the company thought it had covered a lot of customer demands around collaboration and custom applications within its SharePoint service.

Perhaps the biggest use of public folders is for calendaring. To find a user's free/busy information, Outlook had used public folders in Exchange Server 2003. In Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft created a Web service for that feature.

Five server roles for Exchange Server 2007

Exchange Server 2007 is separated into five server roles that can be installed on a Windows Server 2003 computer. One of the roles is a client-access server with its revamped Outlook Web Access. When Microsoft was creating its features list, access to public folders did not make the cut, but access to SharePoint Services did, Mohrman said.

For IT managers who want to upgrade to Exchange Server 2007 now but don't have the time to learn PowerShell to manage public folders, they can do so by keeping one Exchange Server 2003 machine up and running in the interim, he said.

When SP1 for Exchange Server 2007 arrives, it will include a graphical console that provides access to public folders as well as SharePoint sites through Outlook Web Access. Also, public folder management will be moved into the Exchange Management Console.

Third-party tools can help with SharePoint migration

Unfortunately for IT shops looking to move data in public folders to SharePoint – there are not a lot of tools to get the job done. Today, IT managers need to look to third parties like Quest Software Inc., which sells the Public Migrator for SharePoint.

But IT shops should probably at least start considering a migration. The hardest part of the job is determining what is in the public folder, how often it is used and if it requires development work in a new environment.

"Maybe Exchange Server 2007 wasn't the time to cut out [public folders]," said Pete Pawlak, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based consulting firm. "But I don't think they are here to stay."

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