Microsoft Exchange Server finally ships

by Prof. Paul Bacsich,
Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Because of the launch of Microsoft Exchange Server at Networld + Interop on April 8, Dr Paul has cancelled his usual column so as to bring readers his analysis of this major-league new product.

After a gestation period of over 2 years, long even by Microsoft’s standards, the Microsoft Exchange Server has finally shipped. This product is a successor to the venerable but popular Microsoft Mail.

Microsoft Exchange Server is built on an email and groupware base on which are built bulletin boards, group scheduling, discussion databases, forms and document sharing. Many other custom applications can be generated using for example Visual Basic.

Microsoft claim that more than 60,000 users at corporations, government agencies and universities have already used beta versions of Microsoft Exchange Server. More than 130 software developers have or will soon announce products built on top of Microsoft Exchange, and 30 of these products are expected to ship within 90 days of the Microsoft Exchange ship date. Several of these products are in the area of Bulletin Board systems including some interesting names including PacerForum and TeamTalk.

A very impressive feature of the launch of Exchange is the online documentation that Microsoft have assembled on all aspects of it - surf to Microsoft’s main Web site http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/ for a cornucopia of documentation, case studies, technical reports and competitive evaluations.

One benefit from the delay is that it seems to have allowed Microsoft to embed their new integrated Internet strategy into the Microsoft Exchange product. A gateway, which Microsoft confusingly call a "Connector" allows Microsoft Exchange Servers to connect to the Internet. (There are also Connectors for X.400 systems, Microsoft Mail servers, and several other email systems.) The Internet Mail Connector is a high-performance (technocrats note: multithreaded) SMTP gateway that provides Internet connectivity, with both the new MIME and the traditional UUENCODE support for attached files. A NNTP connector for Usenet News is expected shortly, and support for POP clients as an add on to the Exchange 4.0 Server.

The most interesting feature in this area promised "real soon" is the Web Connector, which will allow users to access Public Folders (equivalent to BBS conferences) via their Web browser. There has also been a suggestion from some commentators that users could access their private mailboxes this way also, but I could not find a mention of this feature in Microsoft’s official announcements. (Perhaps the POP client support was being mistaken for WWW support.)

Microsoft also announced the availability of cross-platform Microsoft Exchange clients for all Microsoft operating systems including Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT Workstation and MS-DOS. To the disappointment of several university and some corporate sites, Microsoft Exchange Client for the Macintosh is not yet released - however, it is currently in beta testing and scheduled to be released this summer. It may not offer the complete functionality but email support is guaranteed. There is also supposed be an early alpha release of the Schedule+ feature for the Macintosh.

The full-featured version, Microsoft Exchange Server Enterprise Edition, which includes the X.400 Connector, Internet Mail Connector (SMTP/MIME), Microsoft Exchange Connector and the Microsoft Exchange Server, costs approximately (US commercial prices) $1970. Microsoft Exchange Server, the messaging server with integrated groupware, costs approximately $529. The client access license, which provides e-mail, group scheduling and application development tools, costs approximately $54. Many discounts are available, especially for existing users of Microsoft Mail (on both Macintosh and PC). However, these prices are higher than several products which compete with at least part of the groupware functionality of Exchange.

When planning for a server, users should be aware that it has substantial memory requirements, more than for some competing systems. Officially, it will run with 32 mb of RAM (and careful technical setup). However, to get adequate performance, commentators are advising users to plan on 64 mb as a minimum. These figures assume a dedicated server, with no other server products running on the same machine.

Of the seven or so key sites that are featured by Microsoft as having tried Exchange, two are quite relevant to our readers. Neither is a distance education site, but one is a large school board, the other a university research centre.

The Kentucky Education Technology System (KETS) serves Kentucky’s 1,400 K-12 schools, providing a high-speed network for state-wide Internet access by approximately 600,000 students and 100,000 other users. KETS selected the Microsoft Exchange Server to connect all school district offices via a state-wide backbone. The network will offer messaging and full Internet access at T1 speeds (1.5 megabit/s) to 1,400 schools and several state government agencies representing more than 700,000 potential users at 1,600 locations (eventually to be supported on Exchange Servers). It is centrally administered, performs automatic directory synchronisation and proactive system management, and is scaleable to support millions of users.

Features that KETS liked about Exchange included:

Interestingly, groupware was not at this stage seen as a key driver. It is said to be up to the schools to decide about the move to groupware in the light of their increasing familiarity with the system; however, some state-wide co-ordination will be done.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Centre has perhaps more traditional university reasons for liking the system. They liked the high-performance nature of the Internet Mail Connector for the Microsoft Exchange Server. (Many universities have found that superficially appealing cheap or academic-sourced SMTP gateway systems are a good initial solution, but do not scale at all well.) They also liked the public folder mechanisms (including user privileges) and the rule-based capability for replying, forwarding, and deleting messages containing selected words, which they felt would "jump-start" them into groupware by going through the phase of multiple folders in individual mailboxes.

Microsoft have also planned from the start for support of what they call "roving" users over dial-up links (including dial-up Internet links). This puts them ahead of certain other BBS developers that we could mention. First, the Microsoft Exchange client can carry out many functions offline. Second, users can download all of their mail or download just preview header information for each message. In addition, users can select to have only important messages sent directly to them and download the other messages later. Users can set up scheduled connections that can remotely connect to a Microsoft Exchange Server computer at a pre-set time, download new mail, and disconnect automatically. However, it seems that such "batch" features are not available for Public Folders.

We expect that Microsoft Exchange Server will become very widely used. In our view its groupware features are more mainstream and modern than Lotus Notes. Because of its mainstream nature and the Microsoft marketing muscle, it is likely rapidly to set a de facto standard for groupware and cut deeply into the market share of its rivals. Even if Microsoft make (as their critics often say they do) some mistakes with the first release, they are likely on past track record to getting most things right by the time they come to the third release. Consider the way their Internet strategy has come from way behind to be a serious challenge to Netscape.

Microsoft seem to have looked carefully at the other groupware offerings before finalising their product, and it seems clear to me that they have looked not just at Notes. I have been impressed with the way the system is put together, and, admittedly at first sight and without trying this for real, it looks as though it would not be too difficult to migrate an educational computer conferencing application from FirstClass to Exchange. Whether an existing FirstClass site would will want to do this will depend on many other factors, including price, ease of configuration and support, real-world performance over dial-up links, scalability to massive systems, and last but not least the competitive response from the developers of FirstClass. It may be that Exchange could be a better answer for large corporate sites; however, in many such sites, Notes has a strong following.

For those sites yet to install a conferencing system for telematic-based education and training, they should certainly add Microsoft Exchange to the set of systems they evaluate. As proof that Dr Paul sometimes take his own advice, I will be evaluating Exchange much more seriously in the months to come.

Issue 8 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 26 April 1996