Microsoft prepping Exchange for Web conversion

At its annual Exchange conference, Microsoft will show how Exchange’s functions can be called on by Web services, a way of cobbling together applications on the fly. Exchange features, including messaging, calendaring, workflow and tasks, currently have to be custom coded into individual applications.

The .Net platform is Microsoft’s plan to offer software as a service available over the Internet to any device. Microsoft is betting its future on .Net and focusing US$4 billion in research and development on .Net development tools, servers and software.

Traditionally a haven for administrators, this year’s conference – which is expected to draw 5,000 attendees – will focus heavily on developing Web services. And while Microsoft plans to showcase the future, many IT executives are still battling or have yet to start Exchange 2000 rollouts, which need to be completed before Web services can become a reality.

But customers will begin to see where Microsoft is taking Exchange. With .Net, it becomes less of a self-contained server and more a component of the .Net infrastructure that includes Windows 2000, SQL Server, Mobile Information Server and BizTalk Server.

“Exchange becomes just one functional module in a bigger picture,” says Jim Kobielus, an analyst with The Burton Group Corp. and a Network World columnist. “It provides core messaging services to the .Net platform.”

In essence, Exchange becomes a service to a much broader development platform than it creates by itself.

Development tool vendor IT Factory will demonstrate during the conference keynote address a .Net application that uses a series of Web services developed on top of Exchange. In this example, the Web services will be used to locate satellite-TV installers, check their calendars and schedule time for work to be completed. The services also rely on other .Net servers including Win 2000/Active Directory to identify qualified installers and Mobile Information Service for wireless notification, but Exchange handles the workflow, scheduling and messaging.

“The whole concept of Web services is abstracting the technology and creating an interface any application can use,” says Robert Ginsburg, CTO of IT Factory. “The Web services provide access to Exchange’s scheduling, task management, messaging. Those collaborative pieces become a middleware API or Web service.”

Exchange evolution

And those Web services open possibilities, such as running Exchange services across corporate boundaries and seamlessly adding and deleting items on calendars between partners – a task that cannot be done today.

“In Exchange you have all this data and these services, and you would like to use that in other places. You can start to do that with Web services,” says Chris Baker, lead product manager for Exchange.

As part of the evolution, Exchange will undergo some structural changes, losing its message and data store called the Web Storage System, instead relying on an SQL Server-based technology code-named Yukon, a universal repository that stores structured and unstructured data. However, the transformation won’t happen for a couple of years, according to Baker.

Yukon will become an underlying data storage service of .Net, a kind of object store that can hold various file formats, store and process native XML data, and be accessed by a host of wired and wireless devices.

Microsoft will have to clearly articulate the .Net benefits to the corporate user, something that it has not done effectively.

“We are not so concerned with how to code Web services, we want to see how .Net translates into our business strategy, how it improves collaboration and knowledge sharing,” says one IT executive who asked not to be named. “We think it will be 2003 before we can really think about implementing any of this stuff.”

But Microsoft is planting the seeds for evolution. In Orlando, it will hand out an Exchange Developer Enablement Kit that will include sample code and resources that detail how to build Web services on top of Exchange. One of those samples is a Web service that looks up free/busy time on a calendar. Other Web services, such as searching contact information and engaging workflow services, will follow, company officials say.

Conference preview

Also on the agenda, Microsoft is expected to announce that it has completed development of its Application Management Pack for Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM). The pack, which will ship before year-end, includes an Exchange module for monitoring the events and performance of the server. MOM provides a single view of the Exchange system, helps monitor service-level agreements and provides alerts before trouble occurs.

Microsoft also will announce beta 2 of Mobile Information Server 2002, which will support wireless synchronization between PocketPC 2002 devices and Exchange server.

Also, Service Pack 2 for Exchange 2002 will not be released at the show but will ship before year-end. It includes enhancements to Outlook Web Access and a mergers-and-acquisition migration tool for merging one Exchange 2000 environment into another.

Microsoft also will detail forthcoming Exchange support for Windows .Net Server, expected to ship early next year.