Hosted Exchange Server: Know what you're getting into

Cost savings are only part of the hosted Exchange Server pitch. Know the right questions to ask, as well as exactly what you're paying for.

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Every day, more businesses are considering a move to hosted Exchange Server. Cost savings is a primary driver, but there are several other aspects to consider as well. Below you'll find numerous pointed questions to ask potential hosting providers and a closer look at exactly what you'll be paying for.  

Although it may sound like an enticing option, a hosted Exchange Server model isn't always a cost-saving venture. Total cost of ownership will vary from one organization to the next and is based on the organization's requirements for hardware, software and infrastructure.

When considering hosted Exchange services, an organization should think about the following:

  • The number of servers you will need for Exchange server roles as well as the number of servers needed for redundancy and recovery;
  • Storage availability -- you will need a large amount of storage if you are replicating database availability groups;
  • Network hardware, including hardware load balancers;
  • Windows Server software, servers and client access licenses (CALs);
  • Exchange Server software, servers and CALs;
  • Microsoft Office and Outlook;
  • Backup servers, software, tapes and off-site storage;
  • Messaging security software, appliances and services;
  • Disaster recovery site provisioning;
  • Staffing costs; and
  • Security and compliance.

Hosting Exchange involves more than the cost of service. The following factors can involve additional costs that you might not have initially considered:

  • Redundant networking;
  • Additional hosting services such as mobile services, archiving and compliance;
  • Regular backup copies of data;
  • Migration tools and resources; and
  • The latest features and functionality.

Security and availability

At this point, there are countless success stories of companies that have moved their data to the cloud. Still, data security remains a major apprehension, especially surrounding email.

The primary concerns of an Exchange administrator are to protect message data and keep traffic flowing. If Exchange Server goes down or has a problem, you have the on-site expertise to diagnose and fix it. But catastrophes (natural or manmade) can catch even the most experienced administrators off guard.

While affordable high availability and disaster recovery are two of the most enticing features of on-premises Exchange 2010 and Exchange 2013, the peace of mind in knowing that your data is protected -- no matter what -- carries weight. To the enterprise and its stakeholders, it's all about guaranteed uptime.

As you examine hosted Exchange providers and products, ask these questions to truly understand your organization's specific needs and make an informed decision about which vendor is the best fit for your business:

  • How will it affect my business if email becomes unavailable?
  • If our hosting provider's Internet connection fails, is there a backup connection?
  • If a server or the entire network becomes sluggish because of a malware outbreak, whose job is on the line?
  • What does unplanned downtime mean to our bottom line?

Negotiating your service-level agreement

Once you've determined the level of protection you need from a third-party provider and which vendor's options you like best, you're ready to negotiate the service-level agreement (SLA).

Your SLA defines accountability of hosted services, specifies availability (uptime), performance, response time for reported issues and the incentives or penalties the provider will incur for failing to meet agreed-upon levels of service.

Here are a few important questions to ask when evaluating a hosted Exchange vendor's SLA:

  • Where are the data centers located?
  • Are all data centers physically secure and well-maintained?
  • If multiple data centers exist, will our data be distributed or copied between them?
  • Which best practices are in place for responding to situations such as outages, disasters and failures?
  • How knowledgeable is this vendor's support staff? Do staff members understand my specific Exchange Server requirements? Test the vendor's expertise during the evaluation and make sure that Exchange services will be available 24/7.
  • What standards or compliance does this vendor adhere to?

While 100% uptime is ideal, it's fairly unrealistic. You can find providers that will give you this level of an SLA for a cost. Others will say that they can provide 100% uptime, though you should be suspicious of this claim.

Prospective vendors should show you short-term and long-term reliability statistics and verify these numbers through customer reference checks. Exchange hosting providers should be able to guarantee an SLA of at least 99.9% or greater (e.g., three nines of uptime). Some may even offer a money-backed SLA as a guarantee against outages.

Typically, SLA availability numbers are based on unforeseen downtime. The contract and SLA will also define "planned" maintenance windows, which most likely will occur on a regularly scheduled basis. SLAs don't usually contain numbers for unplanned outages, but you should still ask. Options such as replication between data centers may be available for a cost. Be sure you fully understand what's outlined in the SLA and what your service provider will and won't cover.

You'll also want to look into what happens to your data if you switch providers or move Exchange Server on-premises at some point. Make sure that you can easily obtain copies of your data. Moving your data to another service could also create an issue, so you'll need to find out how the hosting provider will deal with this. If you switch providers, be familiar with the SLA's language on dealing with data ownership. Your data belongs to you -- no matter what.

About the author
Lee Benjamin is an expert on Microsoft Exchange with in-depth experience in a number of other messaging systems. Since retiring from Microsoft in 1997, he has been a consultant for enterprise and medium-sized organizations and software firms. He currently specializes in migration and upgrade advice, technical writing and evaluation, product strategy, and training and courseware development.

This was first published in December 2012

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