Low-Cost Exchange Alternatives Abound

Exchange, many people agree, is a rather good Microsoft product. Talk to any group of sys admins, and chances are a large segment of the population will tell you it works well and, when configured right, it's rock-solid and dependable.

From alternative mail servers to hosted Exchange services, if options are what you are seeking, you will find plenty.

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Exchange is indeed a well-developed product — Webmail is powerful, mobile phones are well-catered for with push e-mail, and integration with Active Directory really is a genuine advantage. It's feature rich, and many of these features are very useful.

Exchange has one major drawback for many organizations, however: its price tag. It requires server licenses plus client access licenses for each user, plus all the other costs associated with running a key part of the corporate infrastructure. For many, this is untenable.

If you find yourself in this predicament, take heart. You are not alone. Research consulting firm Yankee Group predicts that about one quarter of Exchange customers will abandon the product for open source alternatives in the next 18 months. The good news is that lower-cost alternatives are not hard to find. Indeed, a whole industry of e-mail and collaboration products has sprung. These products have varying degrees of features, and different ways of accessing information, from Outlook connectors to Ajax Web clients to conventional POP and IMAP clients. Depending on which product you choose and how much you are prepared to spend, the impact of switching for end users will likely be quite small or negligible.

It's beyond the scope of this article to review each alternative solution because there are so many or to compare costs directly because these vary too widely, depending on how many users are involved, whether standard or premium support is sought, and what kind of access (e.g., wireless access to Blackberry devices) is required. But it is worth looking at three products in a some detail, as they are currently attracting a great deal of interest. All three have been reviewed on ServerWatch, and we've provided links, should you wish to learn more about them

Scalix is a Linux-based Exchange alternative that offers users a choice of Outlook connectivity, a slick AJAX-based Web client, POP and IMAP connectivity using standard e-mail applications (e.g., Thunderbird or Eudora), and wireless connectivity via a mobile Web client or through a third-party wireless service called NotifyLink (provided by Notify Technology).

Scalix ranges in price from nothing at all for the Community edition, which allows for 25 premium users (who have access to certain premium features, such as Outlook access) and an unlimited number of standard users, to $60 per premium user (minimum 50) and, again, an unlimited number of standard users for the full Enterprise edition. The Enterprise edition includes high availability, Active Directory extensions and wireless connectivity for premium users at an extra cost.

The second solution making waves is Zimbra, which is also built on Linux. Zimbra, too, offers a Web-based Ajax interface or POP and IMAP access to e-mail. In its Enterprise version, it offers connectivity with Outlook (and, interestingly, Apple iCal). The solution is also strong on security with built-in anti-virus and anti-spam capabilities, and SSL/TLS for secure access without needing a VPN.

Like Scalix, a limited free edition Zimbra is available. It does not include an Outlook connector or wireless access, while the Enterprise edition includes wireless (and Blackberry) access capabilities for $35 per user, per year for the first 25 users, $28 thereafter. Support depends on the number of mailboxes licensed, but extra support incidents can be purchased individually for $300.

The third solution to consider is the Gordano Messaging Suite, which appears to be going from strength to strength. The suite runs on Windows, Unix or Linux. It consists of a number of modules, including mail, collaboration and list servers, anti-spam and anti-virus protection, and e-mail and instant messaging archival. Pricing depends on which modules and support options are purchased.

For Zimbra, Scalix and Gordano, the next 18 months will not be an easy ride, as plenty of other products seek to accommodate defecting Exchange customers.

Other options, include:

Of course, another option for companies wanting to avoid the expense of managing and running their own Exchange server is to switch to a hosted Exchange service. While this may be attractive for smaller companies, especially those with rapidly changing staff numbers, the hosted Exchange model hasn't yet taken off the way it was expected to seven or eight years ago — back when the ASP model was all the rage.

Another possibility is on the horizon as well. The looming figure of Google may one day provide a credible alternative. The company seems to be developing Google Apps Premier Edition into an entire hosted infrastructure that includes e-mail, instant messaging, calendaring, and a hosted office environment with Google Documents and Spreadsheets. For now, the messaging side falls far short of the sort of functionality Exchange users and administrators have come to expect.

Many organizations are very happy with Exchange. No doubt, in these cases, the expense is worth every penny. Organizations looking for less-expensive alternatives, however, will find many high-quality products worthy of serious evaluation, and the potential savings could be large.

This article was originally published on May 24, 2007
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