Microsoft Exchange 2010: A hard upgrade and not yet in the cloud

Exchange 2010 doesn't support an in-place upgrade from 2003, and it's much ballyhooed hybrid option isn't yet available.

Microsoft Exchange 2010 was released with much fanfare on November 9. Several users I talked to running version 2003 are already working on cutting over. But this won't be a pain-free process because you can't do an in-place upgrade from 2003, or even 2007. And that much-talked about hybrid premises/cloud architecture that 2010 is known for? It won't be an option for anyone but education customers until sometime next year.

So, why can't you do an in-place upgrade to Exchange 2010 from 2003 or 2007? That's the question Windows IT Pro posed to Microsoft's Astrid McClean, senior technical product manager on the Exchange team. Answer: Microsoft completely redesigned the database schema so that it's not backward compatible.

Q: What is the recommended upgrade path from Exchange 2003 or Exchange 2007? And why is there no in-place upgrade option? That's a point readers have commented on that they're sort of frustrated about.

McClean: Yes, I understand that. One of the major reasons that we don't have in-place upgrade in this version is that we've actually significantly changed the mailbox database schema. It's something we don't talk about a lot, but a lot of the I/O improvements we got were from changing that database schema. And that basically means that you need to do a move mailbox to get mailboxes between versions. So that's one of the reasons that we don't have an in-place upgrade.

We know that we still do have a lot of customers running Exchange 2003, and a lot of those customers will be at a point where they need to replace their server hardware. So while they can't do an in-place upgrade, we really try to make it as easy as possible to streamline the deployment experience. And I don't know if you've seen our Exchange 2010 Deployment Assistant—we released that recently to give people some streamlined steps so that they can choose where they're upgrading from, whether it's 2003 or 2007, and you just answer a few simple questions about what features you're using, and it gives you some step-by-step instructions about how to actually do the deployment.

McClean also noted in that same interview that Microsoft Exchange Online, which is Microsoft's cloud e-mail service, and the infrastructure that hosts the cloud portion of a hybrid cloud/on-prem approach, is still using Exchange 2007. So, until that changes, the much-heralded hybrid approach isn't an option for most customers. Education customers are the exception -- they have access to a Windows Live service known as Live@edu. This is running Exchange 2010.

As such, the Deployment Assistant web program offers no guidance into how to construct the hybrid approach, though Microsoft promises that plenty of documentation will be available when the option comes online.

All of this is no doubt a major pain for those IT professionals itching to upgrade for 2003 already.

I think the hybrid idea is innovative. But when it comes to execution, who knows? I have written a lot in the past about how Microsoft is between a rock and hard place when it comes to innovation. (See Six reasons why Microsoft struggles with innovation). So has ex-Microsoftie Michael Surkan, who discussed this issue in reference to its desktop operating systems Vista and Windows 7).

In a nutshell, it grows increasingly hard to innovate when every new version of its software must be backward compatible with all previous versions. If they prize backward comparability over all other things, then they limit their ability to implement radical new changes.

If they ditch an older version and require a completely rebuilt system, then they open the door for their competitors to come in, with perhaps lower prices or other incentives. (Google is doing its dandiest to grab corporate Exchange customers to its cloud-based Google Apps), for instance.

But it all comes down to what users want and are willing to pay for. Would you consider competing e-mail products to Exchange 2010 if the upgrade path requires "too much" work? And what does "too much work" mean to you?

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