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How to prepare for the next version of Exchange Server

The Exchange Server roadmap charts several twists and turns that shows Microsoft deviating from its typical course with the server-based email platform.

Microsoft overhauled its Exchange Server roadmap in 2022, which will require organizations to understand updated licensing and support terms for the on-premises email platform.

A key skill for an IT administrator is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. This has become more of a necessity as Microsoft plans to shift course with its products more frequently. Exchange Server is one of the few remaining server applications that organizations rely on use for electronic communications. With the delay in Exchange vNext, Exchange customers have some time to prepare for a migration or decide if email should move to the Microsoft cloud on Exchange Online.

Updated Exchange Server roadmap reveals several changes

Exchange administrators have gotten accustomed to upgrading the Exchange Server system every few years. These upgrades to the email platform give access to new functionality, enhancements and security fixes. At its Ignite show in October 2020, Microsoft said it would release its next version of Exchange Server -- typically called Exchange vNext -- in the second half of 2021. But after that time came and went, in June 2022 Microsoft eventually revealed that the next Exchange would come in the second half of 2025 -- several years later than initially announced.

A Microsoft blog said the delay came partly due to increased attacks on Exchange Server in 2021, which forced the company to focus its efforts on combating these threats and finding ways to improve security, such as a mitigation tool to automate application of security updates.

Another likely reason behind the delay is it allowed Microsoft to focus on refining its online email platform and make the case that Exchange Server customers should move to Exchange Online. It's no secret that Microsoft's overall aim is to encourage those steadfast on-premises organizations to adopt Office 365 and use the hosted email platform Exchange Online and other services such as SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business.

The upcoming version of Exchange will be on Microsoft's modern lifecycle support policy, which has no end of support date. Customers will receive software updates, improvements and support "as long as there is substantive market demand," Microsoft wrote in a blog. If Microsoft determines adoption of the new server software is lower than expected, then it reserves the right to end support, which would force many to remain on an unsupported on-premises Exchange platform or move to Exchange Online.

As part of some of the enhancements that administrators can expect as they consider the move to the latest Exchange Server, Microsoft released a dashboard in its online admin portal for Exchange hybrid environments to provide insights on what updates and security fixes are available for the on-premises environment. This dashboard is especially useful for those complex environments that host different components of in several on-premises Exchange Server deployments.

One other significant change in the Exchange Server roadmap is Microsoft's plan to shift to a subscription-based licensing. Microsoft has yet to release detailed information on the pricing, but the change will require organizations to pay a monthly fee rather than the traditional fixed licensing cost.

Microsoft will also require enterprises pay for its Software Assurance plan to run Exchange vNext.

Microsoft said Exchange Server 2019 will be required to perform an in-place upgrade to Exchange vNext. All the software and hardware requirements for Exchange Server 2019 will be valid for the next Exchange Server version.

Why do some companies still rely on Exchange Server?

In April 2022 Microsoft released long-awaited functionality to let Exchange Server 2019 customers remove their last remaining server from a hybrid configuration. This on-premises server was required to support the management of the different components of Exchange Online. Enterprises on earlier versions of Exchange will need to migrate to the 2019 version to take advantage of this change.

Exchange Server remains a fixture for Microsoft customers with specific requirements around maintaining user mailboxes on-premises due to regulatory compliance, business requirements or other technical reasons. This ability to remove the last Exchange Server and the delay in Exchange vNext will certainly motivate many organizations to explore all the avenues to put their email in Microsoft's cloud.

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