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Microsoft Outlines Usability Improvements in Exchange 2013

Microsoft has started talking more about Exchange 2013, especially with its MEC conference set to begin next week.

Ankur Kothari, a senior product manager for Exchange at Microsoft, talked to the press during a "virtual reviewer's workshop" presentation on Tuesday. He mostly described Exchange's evolution as a product over the years, while highlighting usability improvements for end users and IT pros.

Microsoft has already noted some of the improvements to come for IT pros in Exchange 2013. Those improvements also apply to Microsoft's cloud-based equivalent, Exchange Online, which is offered via Microsoft's Office 365 service. Both solutions, sharing the same code, were released in July as "customer previews," or beta test versions. It's not clear at this point when Microsoft will release its final products.

Exchange Improvements
Kothari recounted Microsoft's past Exchange innovations over the years: high availability (1997), antispam protection (2004), inbox messaging for voicemail (2006), cloud-enabled Exchange (2008) and a low-cost mailbox strategy (2009). Role-based access control -- in which IT pros can delegate sessions to other individuals in an organization -- was first introduced in Exchange 2010, but it has now been rolled into the new Exchange's management portal, Kothari said. The role-based access control allows IT pros to grant permissions to people or objects, or exclude them, as deemed necessary. Both the hosted and on-premises versions of the new Exchange have an "administration center" for IT pros, which helps to better centralize such management operations.

In a nutshell, IT pros will see a number of new features in Exchange 2013. Microsoft is rolling out a new architecture that has reduced the server roles to two: client access and mailbox. Microsoft claims to have simplified the configuration of database availability groups (DAGs) for site recovery operations in the new Exchange 2013. Basic malware protection is built into Exchange 2013 out of the box. A "data loss prevention" (DLP) feature allows IT pros to set policies to protect information. Other compliance support is enabled through improved electronic discovery capabilities, including the ability to track information across Exchange, SharePoint and Lync. Microsoft is also promising bigger mailboxes. Exchange 2013 now supports disks of up to 8 TB.

Kothari didn't review those features, with the exception of the DLP and e-discovery capabilities. He said that DLP has become important for companies because of an increased risk of data breaches, as well as the potential for more government regulations. Microsoft's goal in the new Exchange is to help organizations be more compliant. Outlook can deliver a "policy tip" to users who violate e-mail policies, which they may not know. IT pros can restrict specific information using Exchange. For instance, it's possible to block users from sending credit card information outside the organization. It's possible to set up rules where the traffic isn't blocked, but the noncompliance by users gets tracked, he said.

On the e-discovery side, the new Exchange lets an investigator search mailboxes, locations and URLs from a single console. Free text queries can be run, or, for in-depth queries, Microsoft supports using the KQL query language. Kothari added that the information generated from these searches can then be delegated to a compliance officer for an HR audit.

The basic antimalware protection that comes with Exchange 2013 is separate from Microsoft's Forefront Online Protection for Exchange hosted solution, which is currently part of Office 365. With Microsoft's next service update release, Forefront Online Protection for Exchange will be called "Exchange Online Protection," the company has announced. It also will have a number of new improvements, which are described in this Microsoft blog post. Kothari said that Exchange Online Protection has a lot of spam improvements, including "top-ranked spam filtering," better "fingerprint technologies," as well as improvements to address spam at the zero-day level. The solution checks the characteristics of the IP address sending the spam, including regional aspects, which IT pros can use to block the spam.

Microsoft's Design Goals
In building the new Exchange, Microsoft conducted thousands of hours of research, focusing on four key areas, Kothari said. First, the new Exchange had to enable a world of multiple devices (smartphones, laptops and PCs). Second, it had to support the current explosion of information. Third, ensuring compliance was top on Microsoft's list. Finally, Microsoft wanted to support a "multigenerational workforce," especially younger workers, who are accustomed to using various social networking technologies.

Multiple device support is being aided with Microsoft's "fast and fluid" touch user interfaces, Kothari said. For instance, the new Outlook e-mail client is optimized with thumb controls for ease of use on mobile devices. Kothari added that Microsoft supports newsfeeds via Exchange and Outlook, and that the Yammer acquisition will improve the social networking experience. The Outlook client, for example, currently pulls weather and news information feeds directly into the e-mail client interface. He noted that the Office apps model, in which third-party apps run from the cloud, enables an app built for the Outlook client to be easily modified to work in an Outlook Web App. And these apps can be modified to work across different device form factors.

While adding such capabilities, Microsoft has kept compliance controls in mind for IT pros, according to Kothari. All of the user's data in Outlook is kept in place using "contact cards." Facebook and LinkedIn social networking feeds can be added to these contact cards. However, if such integration isn't wanted, IT pros can control that aspect. IT departments also have control over what apps can be deployed by using the Exchange administration center, he added.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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