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What is the future for Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging?

As its cloud services have matured, Microsoft has adjusted the unified messaging features in Exchange Server. What will unified messaging look like on Exchange Server 2019?

With the influx of cloud services integrating with on-premises products, many Exchange administrators wonder what changes they'll see in the next version of Exchange Server, particularly with unified messaging. To predict the evolution of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, we can glean some clues from how the company implemented and changed this feature in previous Exchange versions.

The company's strategy the last several years has been a gradual shift from on-premises products to subscription-based cloud services. In some instances, Microsoft has integrated a cloud service with an on-premises product to sway enterprises toward its cloud offerings. For example, despite its name, Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection filters email for on-premises Exchange Server.

Microsoft plans to release Exchange Server 2019 in the second half of 2018. As of this article's publication, the preview is under development. But we should expect Microsoft to add -- and remove -- some cloud-based features in this next version.

History of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging

Microsoft debuted unified messaging in Exchange 2000 with its instant messaging (IM) feature on the company's Real-Time Collaboration server platform.

When Microsoft released Exchange 2003, the company included its Live Communications Server (LCS) that split off some functionality from the Real-Time Collaboration stack. The LCS controlled IM, video and voice functions on the platform.

In July 2006, Microsoft and Nortel formed the Innovative Communications Alliance to share technology, improve their unified communications platforms and integrate Nortel telecommunications hardware with Microsoft software.

Microsoft then released Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, which brought the company closer to a complete telephone system. OCS 2007 did not integrate into the public switched telephone network, but it did allow voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls. With VoIP, Microsoft needed voicemail, and the company incorporated this feature in Exchange Server 2007.

With all these changes, many IT pros have difficulty understanding what telephone services OCS, Lync and Skype for Business provide and which ones Exchange Server handles. Exchange Server answers the calls, but it does not provide any telephone services up to that point. Microsoft Exchange unified messaging can pick up the line and provide services after a call connects.

Microsoft Exchange unified messaging in the cloud

Following the launch of Office 365 in 2011, Microsoft focused on the development of its cloud products.

Lync Server 2010 was the private branch exchange (PBX) on the market when Microsoft released Office 365, but its features were limited compared to a cloud PBX offering. Lync Online -- now called Skype for Business -- only controlled IM and presence services for users who had mailboxes migrated into the service.

To predict the evolution of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging, we can glean some clues from how the company implemented and changed this feature in previous Exchange versions.

Exchange Online, the hosted email service from Microsoft, provided a full unified messaging service from the cloud with all the same features of the on-premises version of Exchange. Companies could tie on-premises telephone systems to Exchange Online to use the cloud service for voicemail.

Microsoft now offers its Azure Voicemail cloud service, which replaces the unified messaging functionality of Exchange Online for customers who use the Skype for Business Cloud PBX.

Unified messaging in Exchange Server 2013 and 2016

With Exchange 2003, Microsoft introduced the concept of a front-end Exchange server. This wasn't a complete deployment of separate Exchange bits for separate Exchange functions. Exchange 2007 and 2010 both featured differentiated server roles, such as the Mailbox, Hub Transport and Client Access roles.

With the release of Exchange 2013, Microsoft pared back those roles to more of a front-end/back-end configuration. Exchange 2016 features one Exchange server role other than the edge transport role, which is designed to be deployed in a demilitarized zone.

The Microsoft Exchange unified messaging role received very little development in Exchange Server 2013 and 2016. The only change for unified messaging with those releases is that Exchange 2016 no longer supports the deployment of separate roles. These trends will likely continue with the release of Exchange 2019 with a single deployment option for all the roles on the same physical server.

The future of Microsoft Exchange Unified Messaging

At the moment, details on Exchange 2019 are sparse. Microsoft plans to release a public preview of the on-premises product in mid-2018.

Based on recent trends from Microsoft, we can expect that Exchange Server 2019's minimum requirements will include supported versions of the Windows Server operating system and Active Directory.

Microsoft will continue to steer organizations to its online services over on-premises software. Companies that want the latest features and functionality will need to consider whether a move to Exchange Online is a better fit.

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