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What is Microsoft Exchange? Here's what you need to know about the business-oriented email server

Business Insider logo Business Insider 2/10/2021 insider@insider.com (Dave Johnson)
a woman sitting at a table using a laptop computer: Your workplace may use Microsoft Exchange servers to support Outlook email. Maskot/Getty Images © Maskot/Getty Images Your workplace may use Microsoft Exchange servers to support Outlook email. Maskot/Getty Images
  • Microsoft Exchange is a Microsoft email service often used by businesses and academic institutions.
  • Exchange synchronizes email between an Exchange server and your client email app, such as Outlook.
  • Here's a brief overview of Microsoft Exchange, what it is, and what it can do.
  • Visit Insider's Tech Reference library for more stories.

Microsoft Exchange is an email server that runs on Windows Server operating systems. Exchange works with web-based mail clients like Microsoft Outlook, which can connect to and manage email from a variety of sources. In fact, Outlook is really optimized for Exchange and only works best when you're using an Exchange account. 

What is Microsoft Exchange 

Microsoft Exchange is an email service offered by Microsoft that's most often used by businesses and academic institutions. It's a highly scalable solution that can support a huge number of users, and is designed from the ground up to keep email in sync between the server and end-user clients. Exchange delivers not just email but also a global address book of contacts, calendaring, meeting scheduling, and task management. 

How Microsoft Exchange works

Microsoft Exchange relies on the use of an Exchange server - a computer on which individual users' Exchange accounts are configured. An organization can maintain its own Exchange server or rely on Microsoft to do that via the cloud using a Microsoft 365 account.

When you use a Microsoft Exchange account, email messages - along with calendar information and other Outlook details - are generally kept in sync between your Outlook client on a computer or mobile device and the Exchange server. 

This most often happens using a technology called Exchange ActiveSync. ActiveSync keeps all the Exchange data synchronized between devices, so when email is replied to, deleted, or moved on your computer, for example, that change is immediately made on the Exchange server as well, and then synchronized with any other devices you might use, such as Outlook on a mobile device. 

ActiveSync isn't the only option, though; an organization can choose to manage its email using IMAP or POP as well. IMAP is very similar to ActiveSync in that it keeps email messages in sync between the Exchange server and clients, though POP works differently - it downloads email from the Exchange server to a single computer and does not keep the two devices in sync. It's not commonly used for Exchange systems. 

How to find your Microsoft Exchange details

You can find out if you're using an Exchange account by checking your Account Settings in Outlook. To do that, choose "File" and then click "Account Settings." In the dropdown menu, click "Account Settings." You'll see a summary of your configured email accounts with an indication of which ones are using Microsoft Exchange. 

graphical user interface, application: Outlook's Account Settings will show you which of your accounts are using Microsoft Exchange. Dave Johnson/Business Insider © Dave Johnson/Business Insider Outlook's Account Settings will show you which of your accounts are using Microsoft Exchange. Dave Johnson/Business Insider

In addition, you may be able to access your Exchange email in a web browser. Called Outlook Web Access (OWA), the link for this webpage is in Outlook's account settings. At the top of the page, click the account dropdown and choose an Exchange account. You should see a link to access the account on the web.

graphical user interface, text, application, email: Use the dropdown menu at the top of the Account Information page to select an account. Exchange accounts can usually be opened in a webpage. Dave Johnson/Business Insider © Dave Johnson/Business Insider Use the dropdown menu at the top of the Account Information page to select an account. Exchange accounts can usually be opened in a webpage. Dave Johnson/Business Insider

As a general rule, as an end user you don't need to know many details about how Exchange is configured to set it up or to use it. Your IT administrator should provide an email address and password; to get started, you simply add the email address to Outlook and your email client should determine it's an Exchange account and configure it automatically for you.

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