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Email options: Upgrade Exchange or go another way?

Staying with Exchange Server is a valid choice. But there are other email options that deserve consideration.

In the 1990s, when the first internet transmission protocols were in their embryonic stages, Microsoft Exchange burst onto the IT scene. In the years since, the Exchange and Outlook powerhouse has served as the hub of business communication. Now, with so many more email options to choose from, it's reasonable to wonder if Exchange's dominance has begun to wane.

Organizations deployed Exchange servers to enable employees to easily move information from place to place. Through the decades, firms upgraded their mail servers every three to five years. As cloud and other hosted email options became more appealing, businesses began to examine, and in many cases move to, outsourced alternatives.

"The industry has reached an inflection point where many companies are looking at moving their Exchange systems off site," said Ramakant Pandrangi, vice president and general manager of Microsoft Clouds and Cloud Office at Rackspace.

Email remains a primary -- and growing -- means of business communication. Worldwide spending on email topped $13.6 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to more than $38.9 billion by 2019, an average compound annual growth rate of 30%, according to market research firm The Radicati Group.

Bearing a heavy burden

The continued reliance on this communication channel has meant that IT staffs have been charged with regularly upgrading Exchange.

For a variety of reasons, the task has become more onerous recently. More messages require more storage, and curbing email growth is challenging. An IT team will sometimes issue an ultimatum to users and require that they reduce the size of their mailboxes. But deleted messages can conflict with compliance regulations, which aim to have organizations store more information for longer periods of time.

In addition, employees have become more mobile in recent years. Rather than support a workforce with Windows systems, IT must work with a variety of handheld devices and synch them to Exchange mailboxes, calendars and contacts. Consequently, upgrading the email server has become more complex, requiring more time, effort and money.

This effort is complicated further by the struggle IT managers face when trying to secure funding. Gartner expects IT spending to grow by just 2.7% in 2017, and a mundane task such as keeping the email system functional often isn't going to be a priority -- especially when executives are more willing to put cash into high-profile, business-changing projects, like big data and the internet of things.

Corporations do have choices if they want to reduce their Exchange maintenance costs, and it's prudent to periodically review the email options. One possibility is moving to lower-cost, sometimes free, email services. Low-cost and no-cost systems come from vendors like Amazon Web Services, GoDaddy, Google, IBM, Intermedia, Rackspace and Yahoo. These offerings often rely on web interfaces, making them easy to use, and setup is generally quick. Still, they often lack sophistication. Features used for discovery during a legal proceeding or integration with collaboration applications are notably weak.

Finding a great host

An organization that sticks with Exchange can outsource maintenance to a third party. In a hosted service, the client hands daily maintenance -- troubleshooting, upgrading, patching, etc. -- of its Exchange servers to a vendor. Hosted options come from many suppliers, including AppRiver, Apptix, Ceryx, FuseMail, Go Daddy, Intermedia, Microsoft, mindSHIFT, Navisite, Rackspace, SherWeb and SilverSky.

Hosted services come in two flavors. A dedicated system takes the on-premises system and plops it down into a provider's data center. The customer can tailor the service, such as adding interfaces to other applications, as it chooses. A shared system, meanwhile, runs more than one client's email system on one server. Shared systems are usually less expensive, but they are sometimes are viewed as less secure and less customizable than dedicated services.

Cloud computing has become a significant player in the email market. While on-premises Microsoft Exchange Server deployments account for the majority of worldwide Exchange mailboxes, many organizations are planning to move email to the cloud. In fact, a Gartner survey found that 78% of businesses are using or plan to use cloud versions of Exchange.

This shift is more complex than changing email servers. "Email systems have a lot of complexity," said Adam Preset, a research director at Gartner. "Running them is often much harder than it seems."

Worldwide spending on email topped $13.6 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow to more than $38.9 billion by 2019.

Microsoft offers cloud Exchange services as part of the Office 365 business productivity suite. So, as businesses adopt the platform, users receive web versions of Excel, PowerPoint and Word. In addition, many firms have tied their email systems into calendaring, collaboration, conferencing and customer relationship management systems. Moving such items to the cloud can be a challenge. Services are generic, so vendors often charge extra for such links.

Cloud providers offer various backup, archiving and recovery services. Customer concerns start with the server redundancy. Will the system be up 99.999% of the time, which translates to five minutes of downtime a year?

Microsoft and other vendors have built gigantic data centers geared to improved system availability. To make a sound decision about backup, there are a series of important questions to ask:

  • How often will backups occur?
  • Where is email information stored?
  • What are the processes for retrieving it, and how quickly can information be restored if needed?

With compliance regulations changing, companies need to take a close look at those issues with their compliance and legal experts to find the best solution for their organization.

Increasingly, businesses have decided to consider their off-premises email options. While the potential benefits of an Exchange alternative -- be it Office 365 or a non-Microsoft service -- are significant, a move shouldn't be made in haste. After all, email remains a key productivity tool. Imagine trying to do business without it.

Next Steps

Securing your Exchange environment needs to be a priority

IT decision makers are embracing Office 365

How to manage an Office 365 deployment when external users have access

This was last published in February 2017

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