Exchange Server 2013: Not quite ready for the data center

Microsoft's update has some worthwhile features, but the holes make some wonder if the software's really finished.

Last fall, Microsoft released a wave of products, including Windows 8, a complete Office client refresh and a server-side update to both SharePoint and Exchange.

[To learn more about using Office 2010, or to pass along tips and tricks about it and SharePoint 2010, check out our Cheat Sheet series.]

I have been playing with builds of Exchange Server 2013 since it was in preview, and I have been using a Release to Manufacturing (RTM) copy of Exchange Server 2013 in my lab for a couple of months. I've found some areas of concern, but also areas of welcome improvement.

Let's take a look at some of the new features and capabilities of Exchange Server 2013 as well as some of the gotchas and disadvantages of the new release, at least in its current state.

As with any new software, the IT department needs to consider the update, evaluate it, develop a plan to deploy it if it makes sense and, above all, understand both the product's capabilities as well as the context around the software itself.

Editor's note: This story was updated on February 7 at around 3 PM (eastern U.S. time) to remove an incorrect statement about Exchange 2013 being unsupported on Windows Server 2012.

Features and capabilities

What does the new version of Exchange buy you? There have been improvements made to several areas, including those for end users, administrators and security personnel. Here are a few of the major reasons why Exchange Server 2013 warrants a look.

Outlook Web App, or OWA, is completely revamped, with a new look and the ability to access it offline as a real mail client. Outlook is the rich desktop client; OWA is also a client but runs over the Web.

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Outlook Web App user interface
The Metro-style interface of Office 2013 has shown up in the Outlook Web App, or OWA, piece of Outlook 2013.

If you have seen Office 2013, you know the Metro-style look has crept into the client, and OWA is no different. But new to 2013 is the ability for OWA to continue to function offline, which it does via HTML5, making it the most capable mail client for the Windows RT platform at this time. (It works on Windows 8, too, but regular old Outlook would be the clear choice there instead of OWA.) The offline feature works in Internet Explorer version 9 and up, in Google's Chrome browser version 18 or later and in Safari version 5.0.6 or later.

The new OWA is also designed to be more suitable for touch interfaces, which makes it more appealing for smartphones and tablet devices.

In addition, OWA now supports "apps," which are basically tiny pieces of code that try to sense what you are doing within OWA and offer additional, context-sensitive functions. For example, if it sees you have received a message with driving directions, it offers to open up a map; or if it detects a task or an action from a message, it will add it to a Suggested Tasks list.

Developers will be able to create their own apps to bring even more functionality to OWA. These apps will live inside Exchange's "mailbox store" for each user and will be independent of the specific version of Exchange Server, so future upgrades and updates should not break this functionality.

The number of server types and roles has been reduced. Previously there were a few different types of Exchange servers that could make up a deployment, including mailbox servers (where messages lived), hub transport servers (where messages and items were routed between other Exchange servers in an organization, especially when there were multiple physical locations involved), edge servers (which caught messages coming in from other systems, including Internet mail) and unified messaging servers (which hosted voice mails, IP and Voice over IP calling plans, and other voice-related tasks).

In Exchange 2013, there are now simply mailbox servers and client access servers (CASes), and there is no longer a hub transport role or a unified messaging role as there was in Exchange Server 2010. Fewer pieces equal less complexity, a boon for administrators who had to manage multiple server types in a variety of deployments across the world. It also makes patching and regular maintenance easier, with fewer possible points of failure.

The Exchange Management Console (EMC) is gone. The EMC and its Microsoft Management Console-based operations have been replaced by a Web-based console called the Exchange Management Shell, which mimics the controls available in Office 365. Along with the revamp, some operations that previously were handled with the EMC are now possible only with PowerShell cmdlets. For example, the mail flow and performance troubleshooters are gone, as is the Exchange Best Practices Analyzer.

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