Trading in Exchange comes at a price

Exchange is costly, but you get a lot for your money, like advanced integration and lots of support

Usually, I stay away from operating system zealotry. Bring up one OS over another and suddenly you're surrounded by eerily familiar extremist rhetoric. To those of us in the day-to-day IT trenches, the question has never been about the operating system but what you can run on that operating system. That's where Microsoft has always had an edge.

There's simply an ocean of software out there dedicated to Windows, and far too many users are comfortable with these tools to make an inroad for a new OS platform anything but perilously bumpy. That's why we decided to structure our recent Linux vs. Microsoft head-to-head around only e-mail servers. Eventually, I'd like to get to the point of swapping an entire Windows back end for a herd of Penguins during a lab test, but that scope exceeded the space we had for this review.

If I have any regrets about this piece, which focused on migrating from Exchange 2000 to each of the five different messaging platforms, it's that we couldn't delve more deeply into all the facets of Exchange 2003. Love it or hate it, Microsoft Exchange is a deeply feature-rich platform, which we glossed over somewhat due to the midsize-business orientation of this review. But that's partially Microsoft's own fault: The company insisted we review Exchange 2003 Enterprise Edition for this test, which seriously bumped up its price tag when compared with those of its Linux counterparts, even though only two of these Penguin contenders are really any match for Exchange on all its feature fronts.

Even viewed simply from an IT administrator's perspective, Microsoft's Exchange team works hard to make these folks' lives as easy as possible -- as long as you stick to Microsoft products. Migration and coexistence are a snap. Active Directory integration is tight and only getting tighter. And the variety and depth of Microsoft's support and Knowledge Base resources are staggering. Administrators facing any sort of problem can opt to wait in phone support hell, but they can also access any of the following (for a fee): TechNet Knowledge Base articles, Webcasts of Exchange tutorials, any number of Exchange add-ons (as downloads), and what-if games using TechNet Virtual Labs.

There are two important points to face when getting out your wallet to buy Exchange. First, the cost for TechNet subscriptions -- and all the benefits associated with it -- is miniscule when compared with what you've just paid for Exchange 2003, Windows Server 2003, and Office 2003, so it's not going to kill the budget in any case. Second, only Microsoft has all these options. None of the Linux competitors offer anything like Microsoft's vast online library of administrative resources. Of course, the Linux crowd often has a customer base small enough to actually put knowledgeable technicians on the phone to solve your problems, but Redmond's online Exchange resources are still impressive, and many of the geeks in my employ default to these resources much more readily than a phone cry for help.

Then check out the Exchange 2003 Resource Kit, which is not just a bundle of truly excellent documentation but a useful toolkit of additional utility software. You'll find things such as Jetstress (an e-mail performance and server disk I/O tester), LoadSim (a what-if load simulator), various deployment and migration utilities, junk-mail resources, and similar tools. There's a little of this stuff available for specific Linux products, but again, nothing like what Redmond offers its customers.

What's funny is that I've been complaining about Microsoft's ambitious release schedule and its impact on clients' bottom lines. Yet in the course of this review, Exchange 2003 remained Exchange 2003 from test to print, but three of our Linux contenders revved between when we tested them and when the story saw paper. The difference is that the Penguin typically doesn't force you to upgrade. Upgrading is strongly suggested (forced only if it's a security patch), but most of these products can run for years in their original versions with no real pressure from the vendor to upgrade the platform -- so if it's working, you don’t need to spend big bucks to fix it. To me, that's more of a black eye for Exchange than any of its purported security headaches.

For its part, Microsoft just announced that an interim release for Exchange due out this year, called Exchange Server Edge Services , has been scrapped in favor of a major release, momentarily named E12 and due out between 2006 and 2007. This one will include 64-bit support, yet more “improved” security layers and lots of new VoIP, fax, and e-mail integration features. What we'll be getting this year is Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2, which will include all the low-hanging-fruit features from Edge Services that the Exchange team could roll out fast. And yeah, you'll likely be installing it whether you like it or not.

I complain more about Microsoft's server products than I cheer, but after seeing both Exchange and Linux platforms running head-to-head, I must say I was surprised that the Penguins didn't have a stronger edge. I was expecting a Linux slam dunk in both features and price, and instead it's more just price. You can definitely save money using a Linux product rather than Exchange, but IT administrators will be giving up a noticeable amount of advanced communication integration features (with other Microsoft products, of course), online support resources, and product documentation polish as a result. Especially in the small and midsize business sectors, that's a comfort level that many IT administrators won't want to part with no matter what the price tag.