Exchange 2016: You'll swear it's Exchange 2013

Exchange 2016: You'll swear it's Exchange 2013

The new email server removes any doubt that on-premises software is in Microsoft's rearview mirror

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Microsoft released the beta of Exchange 2016 last week. As I clicked through the Exchange Admin Center (EAC), the primary UI for Exchange administration, I couldn't help but recheck the install file I installed. I swear it looked exactly like Exchange 2013. There are no major feature additions and no major UI adjustments.

I had to dig deeper into the details to see what is actually different about Exchange 2016. The answer is it's a bit more cloud-oriented than Exchange 2013. However, although Microsoft has been saying Exchange 2016 was born in the cloud, I don't believe that's conceptually accurate. "Enhanced by the cloud" is a more accurate statement.

Exchange is an on-premises tool that is evolving to work better with the increased volume of cloud-based use that comes with Office 365. There are improvements in database availability groups (DAGs) to improve failover speed and detection corruption improvements. These enhancements come as a direct benefit from running Exchange Online with so many servers and DAGs 24/7.

One big change in Exchange 2016 is a change in architecture. Whereas Exchange 2013 had two main roles (Mailbox and Client Access), these are now merged into one role (Mailbox). That single role includes all the client access protocols, transport services, and unified messaging services. Of course, many Exchange admins have been combining server roles in deployments as a best practice for some time now. In Exchange 2016, it goes from best practice to the only deployable option. (But you can choose to deploy the Edge Transport role separately in your perimeter network to provide an added layer of security on-premises.)

Other enhancements worth noting include:

  • MAPI over HTTP is the default protocol for Outlook connectivity. If you use a client that doesn't support MAPI over HTTP, it will default to RPC over HTTP.
  • There are several improvements in search, an area where Microsoft is often criticized for its speed and consistency. The new e-discovery tool, Compliance Search improves scaling and performance for larger searches. Outlook Web App (now simply called Outlook) has new search suggestions and refiners to bolster result relevancy.
  • There are enhanced collaboration options with OneDrive and SharePoint, as well as the new Office Web Apps Server (OWAS).
  • Exchange Online's auto-expanding archives come to Exchange 2016. This feature allows mailboxes to grow in 50GB chunks (connected in chains), so a single view is presented to the user. But users will need Outlook 2016 to see the full archive; other desktop clients see only the first 100GB. Mobile clients still cannot see the archive, but perhaps that will change by the formal release.
  • There are improvements in data loss prevention (DLP). For example, you now can identify, monitor, and protect 80 types of sensitive information. This ties in with transport rule improvements that let you look for 80 types of sensitive information. Exchange 2016 also supports document fingerprinting, a feature that already exists in Exchange Online.
  • The implementation of hybrid configurations has improved. The hybrid configuration wizard (HCW) in Exchange 2013 eased the deployment of Office 365, and Exchange 2016 continues that effort. One benefit is the ability to use cloud-based features like Message Encryption and Advanced Threat Protection if mailboxes are still on-premises. There are many Exchange Online features that will never have an on-premises counterpart, but the hybrid configuration lets you use those online-only features with on-premises Exchange. It's a good way to make the two worlds work better together.

This newest version of Exchange has no "wow" features to speak of. That's a dramatic shift from the past, where Exchange 2007 gave us continuous replication, unified messaging, and PowerShell; Exchange 2010 gave us database availability groups; and Exchange 2013 gave us the EAC, DLP, and a new information store.

By contrast, Exchange 2016 has more of a service pack feel.

With the lack of new features, a few messages come through loud and clear. For starters, it says Microsoft is really moving to the cloud, and its online tools are where to find innovations -- not on-premises.

Exchange 2016 is a clear shift to Microsoft's touted "cloud first" strategy. It's not "cloud only" -- but that's a matter of time.

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