Exchange 2016: Compelling Reasons to Upgrade

By Joseph Hoegler posted 11-03-2015 19:48


Messaging is typically considered one of, if not the, most important technology application in use at a law firm.  Most law firm clients conduct a large portion of their correspondence with their attorneys via email, such that any issues – especially outages – of a firm’s messaging platform are potentially highly visible and damaging.  Microsoft Exchange has been the de facto standard messaging platform for many years and, as such, law firms are continually updating their Exchange messaging platforms to provide new features, higher reliability, or simply to remain current and maintain support.

Exchange 2016 was released by Microsoft on October 1, 2015, almost three years after the release of Exchange 2013.  While there are a variety of reasons why a law firm may consider an upgrade to Exchange 2016, the following represent the most compelling ones.

Higher initial and ongoing quality:  Although quality is a largely subjective assessment of product maturity and readiness, Exchange 2016 marks new ground as Microsoft begins their model of developing, releasing, and testing Exchange platform updates within Office 365, and upon their millions of hosted mailboxes before packaging those updates for release on-premises.  Exchange 2013 shared a common code base with Office 365, but it is Exchange 2016 that was truly “born” in the cloud and tested entirely at that scale.  Exchange 2010 and early Cumulative Updates for Exchange 2013 suffered from some stretches of frustrating product and update quality issues, where updates were re-released and sometimes introduced new issues while fixing old ones.  Later Cumulative Updates for Exchange 2013 have been relatively stable, and the expectation is that Microsoft’s new update model and release cadence will continue to foster stability and meet expectations in this area.  All this being said, there is no substitute for proper planning, testing, and piloting within each individual environment, since no two on-premises environments will be exactly the same and could, therefore, present new and interesting challenges.

Improved collaboration:  A primary focus of Exchange 2016’s development was collaboration.  Employees of any company type are increasingly collaborative and want to achieve this increased cooperation at any time, from anywhere, and on any device.  This is particularly relevant in the legal industry, as many secretaries, paralegals, and attorneys may need to work together on documents for client and trial matters.  While not particularly able to replace document management systems, Exchange 2016 tries to make traditional attachments easier to share and edit, and encourage shared document storage by making it easier to manage.  To that end, Outlook Web App (OWA) in Exchange 2016 now allows for attachment viewing and editing inline within a message, via integration with the new Office Online Server (formerly Office Web Apps Server) and attachment preview.  Both OWA and Outlook 2016 provide tight integration with OneDrive for Business and, via extensibility, other cloud storage repositories for the purpose of linking to attachments for shared viewing/editing and seamless attachment uploading to cloud storage repositories[1].

Search enhancements:  Searching is one of the most important actions within a law firm’s suite of productivity applications.  As different attorneys, secretaries, and other legal professionals have different habits for content filing or piling, searching is crucial to finding relevant items when necessary.  Search functionality was dramatically improved between Exchange 2010 and Exchange 2013 with the move to Search Foundation as the back-end processing technology, and Microsoft has continued to emphasize the importance of search in Exchange 2016.  Search in Exchange 2016 is not only faster and more accurate, but is also more feature-rich.  Search suggestions are available to provide contextual advice about additional search terms, including “fuzzy” matching to catch misspellings and other errors.  Additionally, these suggestions are tailored to each user, leveraging content within particular user mailboxes to suggest terms (e.g. “fuzzy” matching on the last name of a particular contact in a user’s contact list).  Search refiners are also available to assist users with constructing advanced queries that hone in on the exact content that is desired, without the user needing to understand the syntax of those advanced queries.  Additional significant improvements were targeted for the initial release of Exchange 2016 but, instead, will possibly arrive with a future Cumulative Update.

New eDiscovery capabilities:  Exchange 2013 introduced newer and tighter integration with SharePoint 2013, for providing discovery search and litigation hold capabilities across different Microsoft server platforms.  Exchange 2016 continues this investment by extending such features to modern public folders, as well as by improving search performance and reliability.  Additionally, with Microsoft’s acquisition of Equivio in January 2015, Exchange 2016 (and eventually SharePoint 2016) environments can send data to Equivio Zoom for advanced eDiscovery analytics and reporting.

You may be “forced” to upgrade:  While Microsoft certainly isn’t going to require an upgrade and Exchange 2010 will remain a supported messaging platform until January 14, 2020 via extended support (it ended mainstream support on January 13, 2015), Microsoft’s history provides good reason for all firms currently running Exchange 2010 to pursue an upgrade to Exchange 2016.  Microsoft has historically only supported direct migration from two versions prior – not just for Exchange but for many application platforms.  If this continues to hold true (which it almost certainly will), law firms running Exchange 2010 will not be able to directly migrate to the next version of Exchange, and would instead have to pursue a more involved and costly double-hop migration to Exchange 2013 or Exchange 2016 first before continuing on to the most recent version of Exchange.  To avoid this, law firms should strive to remain within the historical direct migration window.

My next post will be for the firm who will look to pursue an upgrade to Exchange 2016 in the near future and will discuss the key changes and requirements to consider in order to be successful.

[1] Please note that the updated Office Online Server to support Exchange 2016 will not be available until early calendar year 2016.