Support for Exchange 5.5 has been extended: Should you still upgrade?

Microsoft has extended its support of Exchange 5.5 for, potentially, another two years. To help you decide whether an upgrade is worthwhile for your organization, here are the reasons both for and against an upgrade from Exchange 5.5.

Microsoft has recently announced that they will extend the product support lifecycle for the aging Exchange 5.5. Microsoft has structured the new support program so that customers will not pay any additional technical support fees (beyond the normal fees) through December 31, 2004. Beyond 2004, customers have the option of purchasing another year of support, extending the product's potential lifecycle to the end of 2005.

This is a surprising turn of events given that Microsoft is about to release Exchange Server 2003 and has been actively trying to sell Exchange 2000 customers on the value of upgrading to Exchange Server 2003. Of course, the big question now is, should Exchange 5.5 shops stick with Exchange 5.5 or should they upgrade?

To many, it might seem as though I should tell companies that are running Exchange 5.5 to get with the times, and then just end this article right now. The upgrade issue isn't that simple, though. A recent study claims that only 15 to 20 percent of those people running Exchange 5.5 have made the upgrade to Exchange 2000. Therefore, this is an issue that affects anywhere from 80 to 85 percent of Microsoft's Exchange customers.

Reasons for staying with Exchange 5.5
I have always been one that likes the latest version of any software, especially if that version hasn't even been released yet. However, sometimes wanting the newest toy just isn't practical. So, in this section, I want to address reasons why an organization might want to continue using Exchange 5.5 from a practicality perspective.

Money first
One of the biggest reasons for staying with Exchange 5.5 is cost. As I explained earlier, the standard support for Exchange 5.5 will end on December 31, 2003. However, extended support will be available for the next two years, and the first year of that extended support will be free. I can't tell you what the second year of support will cost because it differs depending on the organization's Exchange implementation.

Of course, there are other cost issues to consider aside from just extended support costs. There is a considerable cost in upgrading. Obviously, you will have to purchase the necessary number of Exchange licenses, but this is just the beginning. You also may have to upgrade your server operating systems. If you are thinking of upgrading to Exchange 2000, all of your Exchange Servers must be running Windows 2000. If you are planning on upgrading to Exchange Server 2003, then all of your servers must be running Windows Server 2003. To give you an idea of the costs, a Windows 2003 Standard Server license costs just under $4,000. This isn't counting the Windows client access licenses.

As you can see, there are some hefty costs associated with the software upgrades, but you may also have to upgrade your server hardware. After all, a server running Windows NT and Exchange Server 5.5 uses considerably less system resources than a comparable system running Windows 2000 and Exchange 2000. It's too early to tell about Exchange 2003, but I suspect that it will require even more system resources than Exchange 2000.

Training issues
Another consideration is technical expertise. Both Exchange 2000 and 2003 are very different from Exchange 5.5. Somebody in your organization will have to know how to use the new software. This means that you will probably have to dedicate a significant portion of your IT budget to training.

Just learning how Exchange 2000 or 2003 works is just the beginning, though. Both Exchange 2000 and 2003 require you to implement Active Directory within your organization. At a minimum, this means the primary domain controller in each domain containing an Exchange server must be upgraded to Windows 2000 or Windows 2003. You will also need an Active Directory-aware DNS Server, because Active Directory is DNS dependent. If you already have a DNS server, you will have to upgrade it to Windows 2000 or 2003. If you don't have one, you may be able to get away with piggybacking the DNS services off of your PDC, but this really depends on the size of your organization. My point is that your administrative staff will need some solid Windows training before making the upgrade. Also, in an all Windows NT Server environment, the upgrade will probably have to occur in phases and you may have to upgrade more than just Exchange Servers.

Stability still there
Before I move on to the reasons for upgrading to Exchange 2000 or 2003, I want to take a moment to address the support issue. It's true that in a couple of years you won't be able to get Exchange 5.5 support from Microsoft. However, this might not be such a big deal. Exchange 5.5 has been around long enough to be considered a stable product. If you do find yourself needing support after the extended support period expires, you can use other resources, such as TechRepublic, TechNet, and independent consulting firms. So, if Exchange 5.5 is meeting your needs and it appears that it will continue to meet your needs for the foreseeable future, then, you don't necessarily have to upgrade just because Microsoft pulls the plug on support.

Reasons to upgrade
Now that I have discussed reasons why you might want to hold off on an upgrade, let's talk about some compelling reasons to go ahead with an upgrade. I believe that the most compelling reason is that the newer operating systems and the newer versions of Exchange are updated more often than the older versions. This means that, at least in theory, Exchange 2003 will be much more secure than Exchange 5.5.

Another reason to consider an upgrade is scalability. As you may know, Windows NT has a limit of 40,000 users per domain, and Exchange 5.5 has a practical limit of a couple of thousand users per mailbox. However, these limits are shattered in the newer versions of Exchange and Windows. In extremely large organizations, this means that you may be able to consolidate multiple servers into a single server. Consolidation brings up the issue of putting all of your eggs in one basket. On the other hand, server consolidation can save a company a fortune in software licensing alone.

Another compelling reason to upgrade is because Exchange Server 2000 and 2003 are much more forgiving than Exchange 5.5 in disaster recovery situations. I have personally gone through nothing short of pure hell trying to recover Exchange 5.5 servers after a crash. However, I had an Exchange 2000 Server crash this morning, and I had the server back online in less than an hour. Exchange Server 2003 promises to be even more accommodating than Exchange 2000 in disaster recovery situations. Exchange 2003 also allows you to make backups on demand with Windows shadow copy service.

Exchange 2000 or Exchange 2003?
If you are considering an upgrade, you may be having a tough time deciding between Exchange 2000 and Exchange 2003. I could easily write an entire article on this issue alone. However, in most cases, if it is within the budget to do so, I would recommend making the jump to Exchange Server 2003. In my opinion, the disaster recovery and the shadow copy features make the upgrade worthwhile. Exchange 2000 is a huge improvement over Exchange 5.5, but if you are going to go through the expense of an upgrade, you might as well go all the way. Besides, Microsoft will support Exchange 2003 for much longer than Exchange 2000.

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