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Should admins consider an Exchange 2016 upgrade?

Microsoft released Exchange 2016, but older versions may win out. No matter the version, admins should prioritize Exchange security in 2016.

Looking ahead, it's time for Exchange administrators to start planning how they will manage their email servers in the new year.

With the release of Exchange 2016, Exchange admins who are still running Exchange 2007 should migrate to the new version, said Steve Goodman, an Exchange MVP and head of unified communications at the U.K.'s leading Office 365 partner.

"It's a good, solid release. And for those looking to stay on premises, they should not wait any longer [to migrate to Exchange 2016]," Goodman said.

However, admins should also be prepared to update their skills for Office 365 and related technologies, he said.

"Skype for Business 2015, Azure [and] Intune all work well with Exchange, and provide a great learning and career path, as they are complementary skills that are on the rise," Goodman said. "That's not to say email is dying, but there will be less Exchange admin jobs in the future."

It became possible for admins to run Exchange in Azure with the introduction of Azure infrastructure as a service in 2013. It might make sense for admins to run Exchange in Azure as a test environment. Skype for Business and Microsoft Intune also integrate with Exchange for collaboration purposes and mobile device management.

On-premises Exchange vs. Exchange in the cloud

The decision to migrate from a legacy version of Exchange to Exchange 2016 isn't the only one admins must make. As Microsoft continued to push its cloud agenda in 2015, certain features, such as Clutter -- which debuted in Office 365 -- lack on-premises counterparts. Despite Microsoft's insistence that its new approach is "cloud first, not cloud only," many admins who still have on-premises deployments began to wonder whether they would be left behind or forced to migrate to the cloud.

Those who remain on premises and choose an Exchange 2016 upgrade may be in the minority. The new release could be the first to have a smaller server-deployment count than its predecessor, as more people migrate to cloud-based options, such as Exchange Online and Office 365, said Sean McNeill, a Microsoft MVP for Office 365 and a technical engagement director for SkyKick, a global provider of cloud management software for IT solution partners.

"With Office 365 and Exchange Online, messaging administration is streamlined to the users and functionality," McNeill said. "Gone is the need to manage servers, storage and availability at the local level."

Also, with a migration to Office 365 and Exchange Online, that is the last migration a company will need to do related to its messaging environment, he said.

Lack of features may thwart an Exchange 2016 upgrade

Dustin Bolander, vice president of technology at Technology Pointe, a private cloud and IT services company based in Austin, Texas, said Exchange 2016 is exciting from an engineering standpoint, but not from a client perspective, since there weren't many major client features introduced.

Admins who may consider an Exchange 2016 upgrade shouldn't expect many new features that Exchange 2013 didn't already have. And unlike the archiving feature in Exchange 2010 -- which, Bolander said, had customers lining up to install -- what has been introduced in Exchange 2016 isn't enough to encourage people to upgrade

"That being said, it means [Microsoft] focused a lot on under-the-hood changes, such as stability and security, which is a great thing for those of us who deploy and run Exchange," Bolander said.

Some of the changes Microsoft made in Exchange 2016 regarding security include new and updated message policy and compliance features. A data loss prevention policy and transport rules allow admins to identify, monitor and protect 80 different types of sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, health records and other personally identifiable information. Exchange 2016 also includes improvement to data retention, eDiscovery and In-Place Archiving.

The architecture of Exchange 2016 has also been improved, and users can now search 10,000 mailboxes at once -- up from 5,000 in previous versions.

Exchange security of the future

Whichever deployment Exchange admins use in the future, security must be a top priority. Exchange is one of the most critical information systems for enterprises, said Kevin Beaver, an information security consultant with Atlanta-based Principle Logic, so it is important to make sure servers are secure.

"The savvy administrator will stay on top of knowing what sensitive information is housed within Exchange -- and where," Beaver said. "He or she will also be performing periodic and consistent vulnerability assessments and penetration tests of the Exchange environment."

Administrators should also focus on incident response in case of a data breach or hack. Being proactive and having an organized approach to dealing with potential threats to Exchange security will reduce the need to mobilize a response if and when an attack does occur.

"The fruits of your labor will be immediately apparent, and you'll also be working toward helping the overall business minimize its risks and keep those pesky compliance nuisances at bay," Beaver said.

When securing email servers, features such as encryption or data loss prevention will become standard for business email next year, said Jonathan Levine, CTO of Intermedia, a cloud business applications provider based in Mountain View, Calif.

"[Managed service providers] that don't provide these services to their customers will start to see lawsuits for malpractice [from] customers who suffer security breaches," Levine said.

Enterprises will also need to be aware of shadow IT, and implement new infrastructure and tools to combat "rogue access" from sites such as Dropbox and PayPal.

If IT teams try to restrict the adoption of technologies such as Dropbox, then there is the potential for even greater security threats, Levine said. "If these issues are not addressed, IT departments lose control of their systems and network, and open up the possibility for the company's assets to be compromised."

Tayla Holman is the assistant site editor for SearchWindowsServer and SearchExchange. Email her, follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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