Westminster College will be upgrading from Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 to Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 over the holidays. To many IT pros, this will seem like an early, aggressive upgrade, but the product simply has too many compelling features for us to wait.

Our upgrade window is either the holiday break or next summer, but we’re counting on three key Exchange 2010 features to start helping us address business and technical issues that we face. Exchange 2010 brings much more to the table than these three simple items, but these items stood out as current drivers for us.

#1: Reduced I/O

Although I don’t have much in the way of stats regarding our existing Exchange Server 2007 system’s I/O footprint; I do know that our 1,400 or so Exchange mailboxes are stored on an EMC AX4 iSCSI storage array. On that same array, we house all of our SQL databases and a number of virtual machines, which include our new print server, file server, and other lines of business applications. Although the AX4 has performed admirably, I can imagine eventually hitting an overall I/O limit.

One major benefit of Exchange 2010 is that it further reduces the product’s I/O footprint by up to 50%, according to Microsoft; I’ve even seen claims of 70% reductions.  Further, Microsoft has reengineered Exchange to avoid bursting disk writes, which used to keep Exchange from being supported on SATA disks.  With the reengineered disk write methodology, Exchange 2010 can support SATA disks, which leads to a much lower TCO on the product if we go that route.

Edit: We are gathering the necessary performance stats in order to better understand how Exchange is currently impacting our storage so that we can make sound storage decisions.

#2: Outlook Web Access improvements

When Westminster made the move to Exchange 2007, one of the primary drivers was the new and improved Outlook Web Access (OWA), which is the access method of choice for our students and by many staff when they are out of the office.  With Exchange 2010, Microsoft has finally decoupled OWA and Internet Explorer by leveling the browser playing field;  OWA 2010 provides the premium OWA experience for users of IE 7, Firefox 3+, and Safari 3+. With Westminster students and staff using all of these browsers and a combination of Windows and Mac machines, cross-browser support for the premium OWA experience is one of the most compelling upgrade enhancements for us.

OWA 2010 adds other new features, including conversation view, which groups messages from a single conversation, making it easier to keep track of the chain. Other clients have supported this capability for quite some time, so it’s a welcome addition to Exchange. With many people allowing access to one another’s calendars at Westminster, we’re also looking forward to OWA 2010’s capability for users to view shared calendars and contacts.

#3: Taming email overload with moderated distribution lists

For quite some time, users have complained about the sheer number of “announcement” messages that hit campus mailboxes on a daily basis. Sometimes, two dozen messages will get sent to students, each advertising an event, meeting, or some other function. In addition, the college regularly sends out critical academic information via email, such as course registration information. Unfortunately, sometimes these important messages are ignored in the onslaught of email.

Up to this point, we’ve been relatively liberal in allowing messages to go to our primary lists, but the volume has been growing, and we risk devaluing what is a powerful communications channel. The ease with which messages get to peoples’ inboxes is a double-edged sword, too. For instance, messages are frequently sent with incorrect or missing key information, such as dates and times. Also, a second (and sometimes third) message is sent clarifying what should have been correct the first time.

Exchange 2010 adds the ability to create moderated distribution lists, which means that users can still email the lists, but the messages have to be approved by a third party before the messages are released to mailboxes. While not our intended solution by itself, Exchange 2010’s moderated distribution list capability is a key component in our efforts to reign in messaging and keep email communication relevant on campus.

Cost is an important factor

Because we’re on a Microsoft Campus Agreement, Exchange 2010 is provided as a part of our agreement. Our Exchange 2010 implementation, with the exception of the Unified Messaging component, will be installed on existing virtual machines and with our existing SAN, so there is no need to buy additional equipment. Since we’ll migrate user mailboxes from Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2010, we won’t have additional space needs, either. Once we’re fully migrated from Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2010, we’ll repurpose the existing Exchange 2007 system as our Exchange 2010 Unified Messaging server.

We plan to begin migrating people to Exchange 2010’s Unified Messaging. We started using Unified Messaging in Exchange 2007, but when we upgraded our phone system last August, we implemented the PBX vendor’s voice mail system. Exchange 2010 adds some key functionality to Unified Messaging, including a text-based preview of voicemail and, finally, integrated message waiting light indicator capability.  (With Exchange 2007, a phone’s MWI light had to be controlled using a third-party product.)

Why not outsource email to Google or Microsoft?

We are asked this question a lot. There are two reasons why we don’t outsource our email to Google or Microsoft. Our email infrastructure costs really aren’t that bad, so the cost/benefit isn’t as great as it is for many other schools. Also, we do a lot of integration with other services and plan to do more, so for us, it makes more sense to keep Exchange in-house.

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