The multisubunit RNA exosome complex is a major ribonuclease of eukaryotic cells that participates in the processing, quality control and degradation of virtually all classes of RNA in Eukaryota. All this is achieved by about a dozen proteins with only three ribonuclease activities between them. At first glance, the versatility of the pathways involving the exosome and the sheer multitude of its substrates are astounding. However, after fifteen years of research we have some understanding of how exosome activity is controlled and applied inside the cell. The catalytic properties of the eukaryotic exosome are fairly well described and attention is now drawn to how the interplay between these activities impacts cell physiology. Also, it has become evident that exosome function relies on many auxiliary factors, which are intensely studied themselves. In this way, the focus of exosome research is slowly leaving the test tube and moving back into the cell. The exosome also has an interesting evolutionary history, which is evident within the eukaryotic lineage but only fully appreciated when considering similar protein complexes found in Bacteria and Archaea. Thus, while we keep this review focused on the most comprehensively described yeast and human exosomes, we shall point out similarities or dissimilarities to prokaryotic complexes and proteins where appropriate. The article is divided into three parts. In Part One we describe how the exosome is built and how it manifests in cells of different organisms. In Part Two we detail the enzymatic properties of the exosome, especially recent data obtained for holocomplexes. Finally, Part Three presents an overview of the RNA metabolism pathways that involve the exosome. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: RNA Decay mechanisms.