What Is Microsoft Exchange and How Does It Work?

This server manages your all your email and personal info

If you've ever worked in an office setting, you've probably heard of Microsoft Exchange, but you might not know what it is. In this article, we'll describe what MS Exchange is, and how you may be interacting with it right now without even knowing it.

What Is Microsoft Exchange?

Exchange is Microsoft's groupware server, originally developed for corporate customers. Like other groupware solutions, it includes communication and organizational features, including:

  • Email hosting
  • A calendar component, including collaborative features like meeting invites, shared calendars, and bookable resources
  • Contact management providing an organization-wide address book, as well as personal contact stores
  • Collaborative task management, such as the ability to delegate tasks to another user
  • Sticky notes, files, and others

Exchange itself is the server application that stores and manages all of this data for you. So, as a server program, how does this impact you? Well, it's the engine that powers two tools you might be very familiar: Microsoft Outlook, and its web-based cousin, Outlook Web Access.

Microsoft Outlook and Exchange

You can set up Microsoft Outlook to collect your email from a variety of sources, from venerable IMAP mailboxes to Gmail. But at the start, Outlook was designed for corporate users to connect to Exchange servers and collect their email or keep their company calendars updated.

Microsoft Outlook Manages All Kinds of Info, and It Stores It In Exchange

It used Microsoft's own ActiveSync technology, and more recently the open Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI). These protocols allow Outlook clients to connect, synchronize their various types of data, and continue performing work offline.

Connecting Outlook to Exchange typically requires very little interaction from users, since the two are designed to work together. But you can connect other clients to Exchange, such as Gmail, though they may require a varying amount of effort to get configured.

Exchange and Outlook Web Access

In addition to using a client application, you can also interact with an Exchange server using a browser, provided your administrator allows it. Outlook Web Access (OWA) is the name for the browser-based interface for your exchange server, and it's called such because it provides screens that really look like web-based versions of the Outlook app.

You can get the URL for Outlook Web Access from the Files Tab in Outlook

To find a link to your OWA site, if it exists, select Files > Account Settings in Outlook.

Many people used OWA for mobile access to Exchange data before Outlook applications were readily available. Now, it's convenient to use to log into your email when you don't have any of your devices available, for example. You're able to go to a pre-determined URL (which is often on the same domain as your company's main website), enter your email address and password, and start reading email, viewing your calendar, or checking off tasks.

Exchange is the Backbone of Business and Consumer Email and Information Services

The most common way for you to encounter a "proper" Exchange server is in a business setting, where your company may have its own on-premises. In this case, you'll probably be issued a company PC with Outlook installed that will connect to this server, or you may log into OWA in a pinch.

But Exchange is also the technology that powers cloud-based services that you, as a consumer, can access. For example, you can connect to your Outlook.com account using the Exchange protocol, and use Outlook to manage your mail. You can also log into office.com with an Microsoft 365 account and use Outlook on the web, which is an updated version of Outlook Web Access for consumers.

Exchange servers are likely part of your life every day, working quietly being the scenes to bring you the information you need.  

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