At IT/Dev Connections in September I participated in a Q&A panel discussion on the final afternoon. One of the questions from the audience was whether we thought there would be another on-premises release of Exchange after Exchange Server 2016.
It's always an interesting topic for discussion, and the answers given by the different panelists were varied, though we were all sharing opinions only, not anything official or based on insider information.
When you really consider all the possible answers here it isn't clear what will happen in the future. A year after the release of Exchange Server 2013 Microsoft said they had no plans to stop delivering on-premises versions of Exchange. And they certainly followed through with that promise, releasing Exchange Server 2016 this year.
But as some commentators have said, Exchange Server 2016 feels very much like it could have been called Exchange Server 2013 Service Pack 2. That may seem unfair to Microsoft's development teams, but it speaks more to the similarities on the surface than a lack of new features or improvements under the hood (of which there are many in RTM, and many more in the pipeline).
That similarity opens up the possibility that no major version of Exchange Server will ever be released again, and that we'll simply see a rolling series of cumulative updates that provide new features and improvements to on-premises customers in a similar way to how new builds are continuously rolled out to Exchange Online.
On the other hand, Microsoft may be forced to release at least one more on-premises version as a rebranding exercise. The product name “Exchange Server 2016” will start to look a bit “old” in 2-3 years time, and customers will be looking for something newer. Yes, I know this is a trivial thing, but some people will always assume that a product with an “old” name must be inferior to something else with a “new” name. Perhaps we'll see Exchange shift to a simpler version number instead of the traditional year-based names.
During the IT/Dev Connections panel I also pointed out that marketing teams need something they can turn into a launch event. A major new product release like Exchange Server 2016 is an opportunity for marketing to do their thing. On the other hand, marketers must also adjust to the new reality as IT pros have needed to, that software is turning into services and “continuous marketing” might be their equivalent of what IT pros are dealing with today.
My personal opinion is also that Microsoft will not abandon a sizeable on-premises market. As long as that market is large enough and the demand is there to justify serving it with new products then Microsoft will continue to do so. As Microsoft said in 2013…
Many customers will remain on-premises or in hybrid deployments for the foreseeable future, and we want to keep delivering our newest and best features to them. Fortunately, our development process allows us to do that. We have a single code base that serves both cloud and on-premises customers, so we can deliver innovation to both groups.
How long will that customer base continue to exist? It's hard to say. The momentum continues to swing in the direction of the cloud, with Microsoft claiming in May 2015 that 35% of Exchange installed seats are in Office 365. Coming from Microsoft it's hard to discredit that claim. The Radacati Group puts the number at 20% (PDF) including Office 365 and hosting partners. Whether it's 20% or 35%, compared with Tony Redmond's analysis in 2013 of between 3-5% of mailboxes being in Office 365 that is a huge leap in just 2-3 years. And all indications in the market are that the pace is only accelerating.
When will it reach 50%, in another year? Faster? At what point will the on-premises market be too small for Microsoft to ship a new on-premises Exchange Server? In my mind it could be just 2-3 years from now. That's my honest, personal opinion. I'll be happy if I'm wrong, because on-premises Exchange is an enjoyable product to work with. Or maybe I'm alone in that sentiment.
But we also have to consider Hybrid customers and those who have integrated their on-premises Active Directory with Azure AD and Office 365. Those customers need an on-premises Exchange server for management purposes, even if they have migrated all mailboxes and other workloads the on-premises server normally performs to the cloud. Currently a full installation of Exchange Server (fortunately with no license cost thanks to the Hybrid License) is required to perform that management role in a supported manner. Other third party tools, custom scripts, or direct ADSEdit hacks remain unsupported by Microsoft.
Clearly a full Exchange Server install is overkill for such a role. Many of the customers I've worked with have grumbled at the notion of maintaining an Exchange server on-premises after they've migrated email to Office 365. Even running it in Azure as a VM can be expensive due to the technical requirements to stay within Microsoft's support boundaries. What would make more sense in the future is for a lightweight management install to become available for Exchange, either as software that you install on a VM or as a pre-installed virtual appliance. Perhaps even as an Azure-hosted service. Or perhaps the development of Azure AD Domain Services and the ability to domain-join workstations and servers to Azure AD will negate the need entirely, with no more “legacy” Active Directory in play.
The future is exciting, but unclear. And that can be uncomfortable for IT professionals who are not happy watching the jobs they enjoy being disrupted by cloud services. I get emails every week from people asking for advice about a career working with Exchange. My advice today is that Exchange Server skills are still of high value and in healthy demand, but you should start learning Office 365 as well to ensure your skills remain valuable in the next 2-3 years.
There's very little required to get started. A free trial of Office 365 lasts for 30 days, which is enough time to learn quite a lot about it. Buying 1 or 2 licenses for ongoing learning is also a good investment (all you need is 1 license really, and you can run it as your personal mailbox if you like). $10/yr or so for a custom domain name makes your Office 365 tenant as legitimate and realistic as they come.
For training materials, we've written Office 365 for Exchange Professionals just for people like you. We keep it updated as Office 365 changes, and it stands today as the most comprehensive and up to date guide available. It's also written by independent experts, all of us Microsoft MVPs, so you can be sure we're telling you the real story based on our experiences in the field.
At least we can't say working in IT is boring.