Experts Weigh In on Office System 2003
In a flurry of recent launch events for Office System 2003, Microsoft highlighted a variety of new features for end users, ranging from improved e-mail access to a new "information gathering and management" application called InfoPath. More important to admins, however, are the many new capabilities lurking inside the system's almost two dozen server and desktop products that could possibly prove quite helpful, assuming that their organizations make the migration to Windows Server 2003.
At the main launch in New York City, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates presented a series of slides showing how Office System incorporates new desktop applications — such as InfoPath, a note-taking app known as OneNote, and a revamped Outlook client — plus a new instant messaging (IM) server and several but not all of Microsoft's other .NET servers.
Yet analysts caution that systems administrators shouldn't come away with the mistaken impression that Office System is a "product" in and of itself.
"This isn't like just going out and buying the 'Office System 1.0 product,' or something," says Mike Gotta, senior VP and principal analyst at the Meta Group. "These are separate products, with various crosslinks and different degrees of integration."
On the server side, the Office System mix integrates the 2003 server editions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Project Server. Not included, though, are .NET servers such as Systems Management Server (SMS), SQL Server, and Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) Web server.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is using the new system to make a big play for the many Windows organizations, large and small, that never made the move from NT to Windows 2000.
Observers point to licensing fees, other upgrade costs, operating system complexities, and the rise of Linux as stumbling blocks in Microsoft's drive to migrate NT customers to new strains of Windows.
"Microsoft is definitely feeling a lot of pressure from Linux," concedes Mike Walker, director of marketing for Miramar Systems, a maker of desktop migration software.
Some raise questions, though, as to whether Office System's new bells and whistles are enough to budge the NT-installed base.
New .NET Servers, Including IM Server
As a major contribution, Office System 2003 marks the introduction of Live Communications Server (LCS), a new server-based IM offering that the Redmond giant hopes will help kick-start corporate adoption of IM. Formerly code-named Greenwich, LCS will make it possible for admins to run their own enterprise IM networks, set IM security policies, and log and manage employees' IM usage.
Also at the launch, Siemens — one of Microsoft's 250 partners for Office System — demonstrated OpenScape Personal Portal in action, a new software product for integrated phone, e-mail, and IM communications from a single user interface. OpenScape works in conjunction with both LCS and SharePoint, according to Adam Moise, Siemens' Microsoft Alliance manager.
Some of the server products, including Exchange 2003, actually shipped prior to the Office announcement. At the same time as the Office launch, however, MS released the retail version of the new Exchange server. The retail product is targeted at the small to mid-sized business (SMB) market, a widely recognized NT holdout.
In a meeting at the New York City launch, Melissa Stern, Exchange's product manager, cited administrative improvements for Exchange that include new anti-spam filters, a partitioned message store, a new performance monitor for Outlook, Volume Shadow Copy Services (for "instantaneous backup and restore"), and more.
Exchange 2003 will run on Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 servers alike, according to Stern. By and large, though, the new features in Exchange will only work with Windows Server 2003.
Management 'Wins' from Desktop Improvements
Administrators could get some of their biggest wins out of client-side improvements. The new Outlook enterprise client — which comes with client-side caching for consolidating Exchange servers — is a good case in point.
One of Microsoft's SMB customers, Graphic Packaging International, now runs only on Exchange 2003 server, in place of its previous 16 Exchange 5.0 servers, Stern illustrates.
Nordea, a large bank in northern Europe, has used the latest Outlook client for massive consolidation of Exchange servers at the enterprise level, maintains Pinjo Tormanen, a bank spokesperson.
Meanwhile, for improved mail access from remote locations, Microsoft's Outlook Web Access client now contains most of the same features as the enterprise Outlook client, according to Stern.
Microsoft also plans to integrate Outlook Web Access with Hotmail's current backend by early next year.
Beyond OneNote, InfoPath, and the two overhauled Outlook clients, other desktop products in Office System include 2003 editions of Microsoft Office, Office Project, Live Meeting, FrontPage, Visio, Office Publisher, and the Microsoft Office Solution Accelerators.
During another interview, Stephen D. Tramarck, a senior engineer at Hewlett-Packard, contended that InfoPath will save time for database administrators by turning over certain management tasks to end users.
Separate Administration Issues
Organizations don't have to buy the entire Office System kit-and-kaboodle to glean some of the benefits, analysts said. However, some new features require specific combinations of product componentry.
For example, for users to take advantage of presence awareness features in Office desktop apps, your company can't get away from installing LCS.
Administrators should also keep in mind that each product requires a certain degree of "separate administration," according to Gotta. "This is perhaps as it should be, because systems such as Exchange and SharePoint would be managed by different people in enterprises, anyway," Gotta theorizes.
"At this point, some of the products link into the Windows operational console, and some do not. Eventually, though, these products should have a common anchor point," the analyst continues.
In making implementation decisions, either now or in the future, "one thing to look at is how well Microsoft is delivering on its ultimate plans to provide MOM (Microsoft Operations Management) plug-ins for all the products," advises Jocelyn Noel, principal analyst at JNoel Associates.
More Than a Mere 'Word Upgrade'?
For his part, Gotta foresees several types of migration patterns. Some customers will step to Office System purely as "the latest Microsoft Word upgrade," he predicts. Some will be lured by specific feature sets of other products in the system, while others will migrate their entire infrastructures to the Windows Server 2003 platform.
However, many observers claim that the Office System 2003 is further clouding Microsoft's already muddied product positioning waters.
"If you're a consumer or a business user — or even an IT administrator — you might find it hard to even begin to figure out this announcement," says Miramar's Walker.
Will Office System 2003 prove to be a boon for Windows administrators or yet another bane to contend with? Much will depend on customers' research and migration planning. Companies will need to know, from the outset, what they're getting into, what they want to do, and how they expect to get there with Office System 2003 products.