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A How-to Guide for Dumping That Pesky Exchange Server

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Dec 24, 2009


Find any group of server administrators, and look for the one lying in the corner gasping "The horror! ... The horror! ..." A dollar pays ten that he or she is the one responsible for looking after the company's Exchange servers.

Is your Exchange Server driving you around the bend? Fear not, from hosted Exchange services to cloud-based Outlook-compatible email services, options abound.

It's a dirty, thankless job, and increasingly it's one that no one has to do. At least, no one in-house. That's because many companies are getting rid of their Exchange servers in favor of hosted Exchange services, cloud-based Outlook-compatible email services, or, to a lesser extent, cloud-based email and calendaring services that do away with the whole Outlook thing altogether. And the signs are that competition in the sector is hotting up — good news for anyone looking to move away from the whole mail server paradigm.

One obvious way to replace your Exchange server is to move to Microsoft's Exchange Online. Microsoft has really put the cat among the pigeons recently, and is no doubt upsetting its hosted Exchange partners, by slashing the published cost of its hosted Exchange offering from $10 to $5 per user per month, including 5Gb of storage per user.

Independent hosted Exchange service providers like Apptix, Intermedia, AppRiver and USAnet may struggle to compete with Microsoft's own offering on price alone, but they offer a variety of other services, support and storage quotas to attract larger organizations who are not interested in price alone. AppRiver, for example, offers unlimited mailbox storage (as well as virus and spam protection) for $12.95 per month.

Of course, hosted Exchange is not the only game in town, but many administrators are only interested in moving their email offsite if the move is transparent to their users. In practice this means keeping their users on Outlook. "User loyalty is to the Outlook e-mail client, not the Exchange server," says Matt Cain, a vice president at Gartner. Administrators also need a system that makes it easy to provision new mailboxes, is easy to migrate to, can link with existing business processes, and makes it easy to move the identity management system from in-house to the cloud, Cain added.

Hosted alternatives to Exchange that offer Outlook compatibility (to varying degrees) include the Yahoo!-owned Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which can be used with Outlook via a connector. This providers like 01.com offer it for $6.99 per month, including 1Gb storage. Other alternatives include IBM's LotusLive service, which offers access via Outlook for $9 per month including 1Gb storage, with a minimum of 1000 users. Competition is hotting up in this space with the entry in November of Cisco with its WebEx Mail SaaS service (based on PostPath technology it acquired last year.) Cisco's WebEx Mail offering is understood to cost $3.50 per user per month for web access only, including 5Gb storage, or $5 for a service which allows access using an Outlook 2003, 2007 (or 2010 when it is available) client natively — i.e., without the need for additional plug-ins or connectors, 5Gb storage, and support for ActiveSync. "There's no clear winner yet," said Cain, "but Microsoft has an easier task than the others, as all it has to do is translate its premises-based success into the cloud."

Companies that don't currently use Outlook — perhaps because they don't use Exchange — are the type of organization Google is hoping will be attracted to its Google Apps suite, which includes email and calendaring. The Standard Edition is free, but the more fully featured Google Apps Premium Edition (GAPE) service includes 25Gb storage and Blackberry, iPhone and other smartphone access, and costs an extremely competitive $50 per user per year, or a little over $4 per month.

But Google has also positioned GAPE as a straight hosted Exchange alternative by offering App Sync for Microsoft Outlook with GAPE at no extra charge. This enables GAPE users to access their email, calendars and contacts either using Google's applications, or via an Outlook client. Gartner estimates that Google already has about 1 million paying customers for its GAPE service, although it's not clear how many of these are using it as an alternative to Exchange.

On the face of it, GAPE's low cost, high storage capacity and Outlook compatibility make the service look very attractive compared to hosted Exchange offerings, but it's important to remember that GAPE (and other Exchange alternatives) can't guarantee 100 percent compatibility with Outlook. Cain also warns that GAPE does not offer the same level of operational control as an on-premises Exchange implementation in areas such as:

  • Granular reporting
  • Content control via filtering, purging and archiving
  • Perimeter and internal security controls
  • Aggressive recovery time objectives
  • Aggressive recovery point objectives
  • Granular administration controls
  • Scripting language for custom routines
  • Broad application programming interface (API) sets for application integration
  • Broad mobility support including browser access
  • Granular feature sets for user segmentation

Email Archiving

An area that should also be of interest to any company thinking of moving its email offsite is email archiving. Archiving is necessary in many organizations for legal discovery and compliance purposes, and many hosted Exchange providers offer email archiving services for an additional fee. But what about other email service providers like Google?

In early November, California-based LiveOffice launched its CloudMerge email archiving service. It's interesting because the company has partnered with many leading hosted Exchange providers including Microsoft and the providers mentioned earlier, but also with Cisco, Google, Zimbra, and other email providers, allowing any company using any of these services to archive their email using LiveOffice's CloudMerge service. For those organizations which need employees' personal, as well company, email to be archived, CloudMerge also supports the Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Windows Live Mail consumer services.

As well as the obvious attractions of having archiving carried out by a third party, there are also a couple of unexpected benefits of a service like CloudMerge. The first is that it acts as a backup and continuity system if the primary email service is unavailable. That's because users can easily switch to an archived mailbox hierarchy, and send and receive email from there. Perhaps more importantly, since LiveOffice maintains a complete email archive separately from the email service provider, customers can use this data when switching providers. This could be useful when the existing provider is unable to help - perhaps because it has gone out of business.

Gartner predicts that demand for cloud-based email services is set to grow strongly over the next three years, with 20 percent of enterprise email users using the model by 2012. Some companies will move all their email to these services, while others will use a hybrid model, using cloud services for most employees while retaining top executives' email in house. With strong competition from the likes of Google and Cisco putting pressure on prices, it's an area that offers organizations the potential for significant cost savings. Not to mention fewer Exchange headaches for email administrators.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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