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Microsoft Bolsters Exchange with Complementary Products

In the twelve months since it released Exchange 2000 to manufacturing, Microsoft Corp. has worked to bolster its flagship messaging and collaboration platform with a variety of complementary software packages.

Exchange 2000 received a big boost in late March when the software giant officially unveiled its SharePoint Portal Server, formerly code-named Tahoe. SharePoint Portal Server introduced long-awaited knowledge management (KM) facilities into the Exchange environment and boasted integration with Microsoft’s Office XP productivity suite, which Redmond launched in May 2001. Office XP’s applications were designed to act as KM front-ends to SharePoint Portal Server.

KM describes a method of dealing with the unstructured data – e-mail messages, newsgroup discussion lists, journal entries, & etc. – that abounds in most enterprise environments. Traditional relational data-stores – SQL Server, for example – can’t effectively store, let alone run queries against, unstructured data.

Analysts say that SharePoint Portal Server made its appearance at a key moment for Microsoft. In April 2001, Lotus finally shipped its long-awaited Discovery Server engine, a KM solution for its Domino messaging and collaboration platform.

“Lotus obviously has the same set of products and covers the same territory that Microsoft does, they’ve got Domino, they’ve got K-Station portal server and their Discovery Server, so [Microsoft’s] clearly not the only vendor in those separate product niches or with a bundled solution in the enterprise,” comments James Kobielus, a senior analyst with The Burton Group.

Competition with Lotus notwithstanding, The Burton Group’s Kobielus says that Microsoft has for the most part worked to position Exchange and other .NET application solutions as modular alternative to IBM’s WebSphere Web application server, which features integrated portal capabilities and also supports wireless devices and other Internet appliances.

“Clearly IBM with WebSphere has one of the most prominent application servers on the market, and Microsoft has a set of applications, with SharePoint Portal Server and with Mobile Information Server [2001], but it doesn’t have an integrated solution comparable to WebSphere,” Kobielus explains.

At its TechEd conference in mid-June, Microsoft looked to further counter IBM’s WebSphere Commerce Suite, Marketplace Edition solution when it introduced its Mobile Information Server 2001, a solution that the software giant said was designed to help make back-end data from Exchange and from other .NET enterprise servers available to PDAs and to other mobile devices.

Exchange’s Biggest Boost to Date

Exchange 2000’s most important milestone, analysts agree, was the release of Service Pack (SP) 1 in late June. Exchange 2000 SP 1 shipped with a new migration wizard, Office XP’s significantly enhanced Outlook 2002 client and an upgraded anti-virus API. SP1 also allowed Exchange 2000 to support Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and Mobile Information Server 2001.

According to Rob Enderle, a research fellow with analyst firm Giga Information Group, Exchange 2000 SP 1 was important because a lot of prospective customers were determined to wait until Microsoft shipped the first Exchange 2000 SP before even considering a move to the software giant’s as-yet-untested messaging and collaboration platform. Similarly, Enderle points out, most administrators in existing Exchange 5.5 environments would likely wait for Exchange 2000 SP 1, as well. “If they planned to upgrade, they almost certainly wouldn’t do so before Microsoft shipped [Exchange] SP1,” Enderle says.

The Burton Group’s Kobielus agrees. “I think it’s just the general principle principal that most enterprises wait for SP1 before they invest in any product from Microsoft,” he observes.

One such IT manager, Robert Moore, an Exchange administrator with the Agnes Irwin Girls School in Philadelphia, says that he only recently completed a migration to Exchange 2000 (SP1) in August. Moore acknowledges that although we was attracted by Exchange 2000’s promises of easier integration and substantially augmented Outlook Web Access functionality, he wanted to wait until the software giant shipped SP1 before he officially upgraded.

Users slow to adopt Exchange complements

Many Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000 managers say that they’re unfamiliar with applications (like SharePoint Portal Server and Mobile Information Server 2001) that Microsoft’s released to complement Exchange, however.

“I'm not aware of any of [those] products,” says Agnes Irwin’s Moore. “I'm pretty new to the Exchange community and we're a pretty small shop.”

Still other Exchange administrators confirm that they’re aware of these solutions but say that they’re either not interested or that they can’t realistically plan to upgrade to them any time soon. “[Am I] Aware? Yes. [Am I] Interested? Not really. We are owned by Citigroup and we can't make any moves towards any new technology without their blessing,” says Lori Hunter, an Exchange administrator with Citigroup subsidiary Associates Commerce Solutions.

And then there are users – such as William Lefkovics, a systems administrator with the AscentrA Group of Companies, a Las Vegas, Nev.-based health care provider – who report that they’re excited by the integration of products like SharePoint Portal Server and Mobile Information Server 2001 with the Exchange 2000 environment.

“I used Exchange Conferencing Server in a test environment with some success, limited only by the power of the machine it was deployed on. SharePoint Portal I also used the trial for,” he comments. “I don't have any large enough clients to have deployed this product, but would certainly like to flex it for what it's worth. I like the document repository.”

Users report frustration with lack of management tools

More than anything else, users report that they’re dissatisfied with Microsoft’s own Exchange management tools, as well as with available third-party management tools of this type.

“There aren’t enough tools,” confirms Associates Commerce Solutions’ Hunter, who laments the fact that she has to use unsupported freeware tools to perform some critical Exchange management tasks. “I use the autoaccept script for resources from exchangecode.com and I love it, but there's no support for it because it's freeware."

According to AscentrA Group’s Lefkovics, third-party vendors, especially, have been slow to produce viable management tools and utilities for Exchange 2000.

“The development curve seems a little slow out of the gates for Exchange2000, but they are catching up now,” he says. All things considered, however, Lefkovics says that, Exchange 2000 provides more features and capabilities for third party vendors to exploit in their tools. In particular, Lefkovics anticipates that tools which provide SMTP transport event sink functions could emerge as administrator-friendly applications.

“A common question in the forums [for a particular Exchange-related product] which used to be answered ‘write an event sink’ can now be answered ‘deploy an event sink app that does this,’” he points out.

Other users suggest that Microsoft’s Exchange 2000 Resource Kit provides important management functionality, as well.

“It includes tools that we’re used to, like Exmerge and LoadSim, but also packages new tools like WinRoute, which is a tool for troubleshooting Exchange configuration issues in large environments,” says Edward Ko, a network coordinator with the Pennsylvania State University.

In the end, Lefkovics and other Exchange 2000 administrators say, users must get their heads around the notion that in Exchange 2000, Active Directory (AD) and the Active Directory Services Interface are the most powerful of Exchange management tools.

“It didn't take long to realize that in order to administer Exchange2000 at an intermediate level, especially in a larger organization, that learning ADSI was pretty much mandatory,” Lefkovics says. “With Active Directory, ADSI is *the* tool.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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