Microsoft Exchange users to get more tools

Microsoft will announce the release date of the next version of its Exchange Server in the first half of 2005, but until the...

Microsoft will announce the release date of the next version of its Exchange Server in the first half of 2005, but until the upgrade arrives users can expect more management tools for existing versions, the company said.

Due to the mission critical nature of Exchange, Microsoft will continue to make large investments in providing tools for the current and previous versions, said Exchange Server senior director Kim Akers.

"We want to give customers the capabilities they need now instead of just saying 'it's coming in the future'," Akers said.

Exchange is server software that handles messaging and collaboration capabilities including e-mail, considered one of the most essential functions for most organisations.

Exchange Server 2003, the latest version of the software, was released a year ago. Since then Microsoft has introduced a number of tools to expand the capabilities of the software, including a best practice analyser, which helps fix configuration problems, and an antispam tool called Intelligent Message Filter.

This week the company also released Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) 2005, which supports Exchange Server 2003 availability.

RedMonk analyst James Governor believes that few Exchange users are worried about when the next version of Exchange will be released.

"A lot of Exchange shops want to see more management tools so the real story is not Exchange as much as it is MOM and other tools," Governor said.

And more tools are in the pipeline, according to Akers, who said the company will let user demand for features dictate their plans. She noted that new Exchange tools usually come out about every six to nine months.

The latest tools, including the best practice analyser, will most likely be incorporated into the next version of Exchange when it is eventually released, Akers said.

Issues such as mobility and compliance frequently come up frequently in discussions with customers, Akers said, so users should expect the next version of Exchange to expand upon these areas.

However, Microsoft is in no hurry to set down a specific road map for the product since the demands of messaging and collaboration are changing so rapidly, Akers said.

Another reason not to rush a new release is that some 40% of the company's installed base of users are still on Exchange 5.5, released in 1997, and many are in the process of upgrading to Exchange 2003, Akers said.

Luke Radford, a UK IT professional, said that his company is looking to move from Exchange 5.5 to 2003. In the meantime, it will only implement additional tools to address specific problems since Exchange is seen as a "central system", he said.

Radford questioned whether Microsoft's incremental release model was part of an effort to buy time before issuing a new release.

Microsoft's decision to take its time on an Exchange upgrade fits with the strategy laid out by company chairman Bill Gates, who said that the company would focus on easing IT management rather than "rushing to release" new products that are not comprehensive.

Governor considered this a smart move given that enterprise buying cycles have slowed since the 1980s and 1990s. The company now faces the challenge of weighing when to release incremental tools and upgrades and when to issue a fresh, new release, however.

"It is the $64,000 question for Exchange as well as all of its products," Governor said.

Scarlet Pruitt writes for IDG News Service

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