Running an email infrastructure has always been a thankless job. When it is all going well, you’re lucky to get an odd grunt of appreciation, but the bulk of the feedback generally comes in the form of complaints, threats and abuse when things go wrong.
There is then the hassle of managing all of the associated stuff like mobile and remote access. And what if you are a small business that has little or no IT resource? How can such organisations take advantage of the latest and greatest (?) email and collaboration technology?
Enter hosted Exchange services.
Over the past few years, a number of service providers have set up shop delivering Microsoft Exchange capability as a service over the wire. The basic proposition is that they take care of running everything on the server side and you rent access to as many user accounts/mailboxes as you need. The whole thing is then configured so you effectively see a virtual private Exchange server that you then administer as if it was running on a box in your office, computer room or data centre. The difference is that you don’t have to worry about the physical aspects of operating, maintaining and periodically upgrading servers. You just get on with the things that matter such as group structures, user permissions, sharing strategies and so on.
The team that established our own company in the summer of 2005 had a positive experience of hosted Exchange from their previous lives. It was therefore very natural for us to look at such services when we started a new business. Since our original experiences, however, with what we can call a “premium” Exchange service, we had noticed the emergence of lower cost options from service providers offering Exchange facilities for as little as 10-12 Euros per user per month. We therefore decided to evaluate one of these alongside the premium option we were used to.
Overall, we were impressed with both services from a functionality and reliability perspective over the course of the month we ran with them. Both provided an Outlook 2003 client licence for each user, a secure Web interface through Outlook Web Access and an easy to use control panel with associated documentation for managing basic options.
Setting up Windows Mobile smartphones and PDAs was also very straightforward, generally taking less than 5 minutes to configure Orange C500 and M2000 devices to the point where they were synchronising email, calendar and contacts reliably over the air.
We started to notice differences in two areas as we began to get more adventurous, however. One was in some of the more advanced aspects of collaborative and group functionality such as public folders, group administration, aliases, directory management and so on. Everything was very obvious with the premium service and seemed to just work, whereas we struggled a bit with the economy alternative and even at the end of the evaluation period, still didn’t achieve quite what we wanted in terms of public folders, group setup, etc.
This brings us to the second major difference, which we noticed when looking for help – the level and style of technical support. The best way of summing this up is to say that working with the premium provider was just like having our own experienced IT department, except perhaps that being more focussed on email and collaboration rather than being pulled in many directions, they always seemed to be immediately tuned in to the problem at hand. With the economy service, however, it was very obvious that we were dealing with relatively inexperienced agents sitting thousands of miles away in an offshore call centre working from scripts over dodgy long distance telephone connections.
So, having tried out both types of service, which one did we go with?
Well, we opted for the premium service, primarily because we wanted the ability for non-technical users to feel comfortable calling the service provider’s help desk directly – i.e. we were not just interested in outsourcing management of the physical servers, we wanted to offload the support burden as well. We didn’t feel this would be possible with the economy alternative.
There were also a couple of secondary reasons for going down the premium route. The first is that the service provider concerned offered Blackberry access, which was important to one of our users and worked very well (if you like that sort of thing), with full enterprise (rather than consumer) level functionality.
The other main benefit we considered was the clear backup, recovery and resilience policies of the premium provider. Even though we had measures in place to back up mailboxes from the client side, we felt the additional security of the service provider’s policies would be useful.
These points highlight something very important about the benefits of hosted offerings for small businesses in particular – you get to take advantage of the provider’s economy of scale. It would never, for example, have been possible to justify the expense and overhead of a Blackberry infrastructure for one, or even a handful of users. With the best will in the world, it would also be difficult for a small business to achieve the same level of resilience as someone with a properly manned data centre.
Following this experience, the advice we would give to anyone investigating hosted Exchange offerings is to look behind the headline specs and prices and actually trial the service before you commit. Those with an Exchange savvy IT department might then find that the lower cost services are perfectly adequate, and why pay more for premium support when you will be directing users through your own internal helpdesk in the first instance anyway? Those looking to just get shot of the whole problem completely, however, will undoubtedly find premium services more attractive, as will those who see a benefit in some of the more advanced features and functions.
We realise that Microsoft Exchange is not everyone’s cup of tea and that some advocate avoiding complications in the first place by using other commercial or open source solutions. It is pretty functional, though, and the hosted approach provides a possible way for users to benefit from this without the traditional hassle.