Microsoft's fair exchange Exchange faces challenge

Microsoft's fair exchange Exchange faces challenge

As Microsoft attempts to increase its share of the enterprise with Windows NT, directory and messaging services are emerging as vital technologies. Jim Allchin, vice-president of Microsoft's platforms division, talked to us about the company's vision for integrating its Exchange messaging technology.

Q: What role will directories and Exchange play in the future?

A: The first thing to do is to understand what we have today. Windows NT has a directory system today. You can do a certain set of things in it, and there are some things you can't do in it. What you do have is a single login across the enterprise. You also have all of the BackOffice applications using a single directory and security model. When you load Exchange, it hooks into that directory and adds a set of new messaging properties.

Q: How have your plans for unifying storage directories and the file systems changed?

A: What we decided is we wanted to unify storage directories and have a syntax for naming users, printers, or other resources. File systems have a naming syntax. We decided that we wanted to unify that. We wanted to do it in the original days of Cairo [the next major release of Windows NT], in the code we had running. We wanted to unify the storage that was physically around each of them. What we learned is you already have a DNS address there. We said, "How in the hell are we going to unify when DNS names are the defining standards? We can't drive everybody to another naming syntax." Well, when we made that decision, which was late last year, we said, "OK, we're going to unify with DNS naming through our system." If we do that you can't unify with the file system. It's impossible to do that. So we have to give up on that unification right now.

Q: What's the role of the Domain Name Service (DNS)?

A: Let me say something that Cairo wasn't going to do what we learned it needed to do. We didn't know how to do a worldwide directory based on what we were doing. What we concluded was that DNS was the answer to tie these directory systems together. Within it there could be X.500s, there could be Novell Directory Services [NDS], but DNS was the building block.

Q: So does this mean DNS now solves a lot of the issues that people are looking for in the directory going forward?

A: It has become over time the way companies are going to glue these directories together; that's become very clear. The probability in my current view is that either there's going to be an X.500 or the NDS alternative is zero. I believe that it's going to be DNS. So our adopting of DNS in a deep way for some glue between enterprises is very important.

Q: How will all this play out in terms of Exchange?

A: We integrate with NT directories, so you get this common security interface. We have universal transfer. You find this messaging platform once and it's used, whether it's replicating data, the directory, or messages. It's also a multiprotocol engine where it's got X.400 and SMTP as the main part of it and centralised management. It's something that's not an add-on; you don't have to pay thousands of dollars. It's just in this box.

This is a key differentiator: We build on NT Server. So you get the same password management; you get the same intruder detection. If you don't leverage the OS, you will then build into your application a separate way of doing things - whether it's the messaging system or a database or whatever.

Q: What will Microsoft do in this space?

A: We wanted to do two things before: Unify the name space so that users didn't have to see a difference between naming resources and file systems, and at the same time we wanted to unify storage. What has happened is between URLs and DNS mail addresses, the name space has been set. We understand what the name space is. And the two, by the way, are different. So what we said is "OK, we cannot unify the storage right now, because the two are different, but we can unify naming between the two, and that's what we're doing." We're basically saying URLs and DNS names win. Now, under the covers, no one should get confused about what technology we're using. We were always using parts of the Exchange system. We're using parts of DNS, we're using parts of X.500, all to do this. So the change really is that the Internet won. All we're doing is recognising it. Long term, would I have unified storage? Yes. Are we going to? If I have my way, eventually, yes.

Q: If I'm still getting most of the things I anticipated from a unified naming structure, what am I going to be losing by not having a unified storage system?

A: That's the point: You lose nothing from an end-user perspective. What we lost as a vendor is that we could not reuse some common code. We're getting crucified for no good reason. It is important that we clarify this because it is very, very bad. We are saying the Internet is one environment. We're not trying to foist proprietary technology. We think there's going to be a lot of different protocols coming into directory systems, such as DNS and X.500 and other protocols. And that's why we've got things like directory interface. We don't think there's one directory system.

Q: And you don't think Lotus Notes can get it? They have announced they plan to be on all the major platforms.

A: No. They're on all the platforms. But suppose they're on all of them? It doesn't matter. They don't use NT security. They don't use our directory. So you'll have to sit here and add users into the NT system if you want to have a printer on an NT system. You're going to have that environment. They have a middleware layer, but all it does is add complexity. I think it's important because it's easy to explain this so it sounds like the panacea for customers, but it's only when somebody sits down and sees that they already have a heterogenous environment. DCE [Distributed Computing Environment] has a better shot at doing this than Notes. The point is you already have this environment and you're going to have to administer printers and other resources on these systems. Whether it's NetWare or us. And adding a layer on top of it doesn't do anything, because through Lotus Notes you can't manage a printer, you can't manage a file. This isn't a statement against Lotus Notes. It's a statement against not taking advantage of the operating system.

Q: So what about DCE then? Should we just wait for DCE?

A: It has a better shot because it was trying to do a broader thing, not just manage whatever Lotus today is saying Notes manages. DCE is trying to manage a lot of things, and if a customer wants DCE, I think it's great. I worry about whether it satisfies all its claims efficiently. The question is how big is it?

Q: You're practically limiting everyone to running on NT Server. Are there connector add-ons to Exchange that link to other environments?

A: Absolutely. One is to port the operating system with the application to as many platforms as you can, which we have done.

When Microsoft first started building Exchange in 1990, the Net was nothing and Notes was barely a factor.

Microsoft finally launched Exchange this week into a world where Notes reigns over groupware and the Internet rises above all.

While Exchange now has to deal with both of these realities, the Net is perhaps the bigger challenge.

In fact, when the company officially rolled out Exchange recently, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates lost no time pounding on the software's strength as an electronic mail backbone to corporate intranets.

And analysts said playing up the Net potential of Exchange is key. "The thing that Microsoft has to do is find a way to capitalise on the Internet phenomenon and pull Exchange into that," said Bob Flanagan, an analyst at The Yankee Group. If Microsoft can clearly draw the line between Exchange and the Internet, some of the product's imperfections will be masked, analysts said.

For example, Exchange lacks cross-platform server and client support. However, the very notion of a platform is rapidly changing as a result of the Internet, said Tom Austin, an analyst at Gartner Group in Stamford, Connecticut. "Today, many ISVs are now counting on browsers to serve as an alternative platform to a pure Windows implementation," Austin said.

Then there is the lack of groupware features in Exchange, which was once billed as a Lotus Notes killer. "Exchange is basically a souped-up client/server-based messaging product that has hooks into the user desktop as opposed to a full-blown groupware product," said Gary Rowe, a principal at Rapport Communication. Today, Exchange does not have the features to kill Notes, Rowe said.

Given the rise of the Net and the prominence of groupware, it is going to take Microsoft a minimum of five years to catch Lotus, Austin said.

These descriptions of Exchange do not unnerve Bob Jorgensen, communications manager for Boeing Information and Support Services, which recently signed a deal to install 65,000 Exchange seats. "We plan on using Exchange initially for mail and calendaring. Over time, we will roll out collaborative applications based on Exchange," Jorgensen said.

Being lumped into the groupware category, however, may not be advantageous to Microsoft at this point, analysts said. "A lot of what companies were trying to achieve with groupware internally is really moving out onto the Internet," according to Flanagan. Where Exchange might best fit in now is as a messaging server to the Net, he said.

But some believe Exchange has a way to work effectively with the Internet. "The debate is no longer Notes v Exchange, it's Notes v the Web, and Microsoft doesn't even play in that space yet," said David Marshak, an analyst at Patricia Seybold Group.

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