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Building Exchange 14: Service now, server later

Microsoft delivering next version of its messaging software first as a service that runs from its data centers. Server version won't be out until next year.

Rajesh Jha
Microsoft VP Rajesh Jha likens building complex software to building a skyscraper. With Exchange 14, though, Microsoft is having customers set up their offices even while the building is under construction.
Ina Fried/CNET

REDMOND, Wash.--Rajesh Jha likens complex software projects to building a skyscraper.

That means in the end, the thing might look pretty good. Along the way, though, it tends to be kind of a mess.

"If you walk by the site of a skyscraper under construction, it looks chaotic," Microsoft corporate VP Rajesh Jha said in an interview last week. "It looks confused. You will see dirt, scaffolding."

At the end, though, if it is useful, it will be something worth all the dust.

"If it is designed well, what comes out is something that adds a lot of value, something that folks use for a long time."

But, with the next version of Exchange, Microsoft is actually going to be letting people work from the skyscraper while it is being built. That's because, although the server version of Exchange 14 won't come out until next year, millions of people are already using a hosted service powered by an early version of Exchange 14.

The last version of Exchange, Exchange 2007, was also designed to be run as a hosted service in addition to something used by businesses on their own servers. The last time around, though, Microsoft built the server software first and then delivered the service.

In developing Exchange 14--and indeed many components of the next Office--Microsoft has flipped the switch and is instead developing the service first and doing the server work second.

"In many ways, this wave was about embracing software plus services from the very beginning," Jha said.

By doing the service first, Microsoft is able to create a large base of testers early on. At a comparable stage of Exchange 2007's development, there were a few thousand people running an early version. This time around, Microsoft has 4 million testers, in large part because Exchange 14 is now the engine behind the Exchange Labs service that powers e-mail for many universities and other educational institutions.

That has meant a lot of changes to Redmond's skyscraper construction operation. "The way we do production and testing has really changed in a dramatic way," Jha said. "The release time frame has become so compressed."

In a sense, Exchange 14 isn't really a new piece of software as it is a bunch of updates to the Exchange Online service. "Then we collapse them and build a server," Jha said.

Keeping things neat and tidy amid chaos comes somewhat naturally to Jha, whose office is nearly immaculate, with only a few books, a couple of old boxed copies of Microsoft Works, and the "Ship-it" plaque that commemorates all of the products he has helped get out the door. Jha explains that he moves frequently and his goal was to get his office contents such that they take only one box to pack. (He narrowly missed that goal in his last office shuffle three months ago.)

"I'm moving again next month," Jha said.

For more from Jha, check out the video interview I shot last week.