Hands On with Exchange 2010 Beta

Published By: PCMag.com
Written by:
Mario Morejon

I've spent the last few days living with code for Microsoft's first public beta of Exchange 2010 Beta, and, I have to say, it looks like a good first attempt to tame the monster that is Exchange 2007.

It seems that the software giant listened to the complaints about just how many administrative headaches were caused by splitting the monolithic Exchange 2003 server into Exchange 2007's multiple roles-based servers, all of which must be coordinated.

After testing the code on a Windows 2008 Server box, I found that the latest version empowers administrators by considerably simplifying many tasks they're likely to face. But I got a sense of déjà vu, too. Exchange 2010 is almost identical to the elder 2007, in terms of architecture. It's still an enormous, sprawling monster. Will the final product be worth the upgrade? The signs look good.

Since the basic architecture hasn't changed, the Exchange roles in 2010 are still the same as in the 2007 version. Typically, the roles are installed on separate servers, but for this review, Microsoft gave me three pre-installed virtual hard drives (VHDs) with Exchange 2010.

I imported the VHD files into Windows Server 2008's Hyper-V service to make testing go more smoothly, since I could have all the roles running on one server. Multiple server installations were beyond the scope of this first peek at the software. But while deploying multiple roles on a single server made my life easier, virtual environments are slower, so in the real world you wouldn't want to run Exchange in Hyper-V. Mid-size businesses will most likely deploy Exchange 2010 on single servers, (but again, not in Hyper-V).

Because some of the new features require multiple servers running on Hyper-V, during my testing I ran all three virtual Exchange servers, which, as you'd expect, also slowed my testbed. Even so – and although I reduced the memory of the Exchange servers by half in Hyper-V – I noticed only a slight performance degradation. That's pretty impressive, considering the immense memory and processor requirements to run multiple Exchange servers on a single box. Microsoft says Exchange 2010 runs faster due to improvements in disk I/O because the files are smaller.

The improvements mean that the server can run on cheaper SATA arrays without sacrificing performance. It's hard to verify file sizes in a virtual environment, though, so I couldn't detect any I/O improvements. When code is further along, I'll install it on separate servers and report back on how it performs, speed-wise. But the basic theory seems sound. That's a good sign for the final app's speed.

A good sign for its stability is that the new Exchange can recover, at the paging level, from the effects of bad disks when configured for high availability. That capability should ensure that your data won't be lost to bad disk sectors.

New in Exchange 2010

The mailbox-move capability in Exchange is going to be a big hit with administrators. It might not sound sexy to an end user, but imagine spending an hour or two without access to your mail every time the administrator needs to expand the database to give users more space. In many e-mail servers, as well as in Exchange 2007, databases have to go offline before an administrator can move the mailboxes to another database.

With Exchange 2010, the move takes less than two minutes and it's extremely easy to do. Microsoft developed a new way to duplicate mailboxes and synchronize the data without affecting users. After starting the Management Console, I was able to move a user's mailbox between databases in just four steps. I also started Outlook to see if the user's mail went offline. I noticed a slight delay but it wasn't a showstopper by any means. This is good news to small IT shops with few resources. They no longer have to depend on consultants to do mailbox migrations.

In addition, Microsoft has made it easier to use the command line, which now works with PowerShell version 2 CTP (Community Technology Preview). With one line of commands, you can remove mailboxes or add roles. PowerShell V2 also lets you manage Exchange remotely. Accessing remote servers with PowerShell takes only a couple of steps and gives you the power and flexibility to place your Exchange server in a data center. And you don't have to depend on a Web UI to access your server, which would prevent you from running many steps in batch. Microsoft has also made the Web management simpler by many eliminating unnecessary steps. You can get through a lot steps with simple clicks.

A hosted version of Exchange 2010 that Microsoft intends to offer will be even simpler, as Microsoft is removing many of the enterprise features that SMBs never use. The company hopes to attract SMBs to its online offering by making the server simpler to use. I'm very interested to get a look at this offering, needless to say! And to further simplify management for administrators and even users, Microsoft opened up OWA (Outlook Web Access) 2010 so that users can do some management on their own. For example, they can resolve common help-desk problems by tracking messages from others. And through the Exchange Control Panel, an admin can allow users to add or remove their own distribution groups. (I'm still not on the distribution list for my editorial team! If I had this ability as a user, I could take care of the problem in minutes.)

In addition, users can filter messages from multiple locations such as mail, folders, and conversation threads. The folders can be at the same level as the inbox. Currently, you have to create nested folders and save related items in them so that searches can find these items, which is time-consuming and reduces the visibility of the folders. The latest version of Exchange also improves searching. The new advanced search capability places all the information on one page. Now users can just relax and place messages anywhere they want.

And now, Exchange makes real-time presence information available in the form of tips. Instead of waiting for a reply to find out if a colleague is in the office, a tip will pop up, letting you know if the colleague is in the office before you send the message. Microsoft seems gung-ho about expanding the tips in the future, too. This is a good way of providing presence awareness without having to buy other servers to achieve the same result. This will also work with Entourage: MAC 2008, and OWA also supports Firefox and Safari browsers.

Archiving will never be the same again in Exchange. Microsoft has expanded archiving capabilities by introducing client-side backup of local mailboxes. The Exchange server will be able to collect PST files from users' machines and archive the data. In Outlook and OWA, users will be able to see their archive files and the local files. This is useful if they're away from the office, and need to access messages stored on their desktop systems. A positive side effect of this capability is that the mailboxes will respond faster, because the archives are stored in offline files on the server. Users don't need to move all their messages to the server anymore.

I think Microsoft is well on its way to achieving what it set out to do with Exchange 2010. Management is easier, some features are simpler to use, and the server seems friendlier than that of Exchange 2007. Still, this isn't a revolutionary change. The new Exchange server doesn't feel like it has undergone a major overhaul. Many of the improvements are hidden from view, and many visible features haven't changed much, so far.

Is it worth updating your license? That depends on the amount of time you can save thanks to these improvements. It looks to me like several will be extremely useful to busy Exchange administrators. Still, Exchange 2007 is a formidable e-mail server—it'll be interesting to see if the final version of Exchange 2010 can muster enough improvements that make it a gotta-have, instead of a wanna-have.