Hosted email services worth a look

When it comes to hosted email services, there are multitudes of backers and naysayers alike. Cut through the noise with this information.

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With the explosion of mobile devices serving a burgeoning email user base, organizations must take a hard look at how they deliver messaging to users. Hosted email is an option that gets plenty of press, but many companies are hesitant to yank their deeply rooted on-premises email systems, and adoption of hosted email has proven slow.

A case against a move to hosted mail services can certainly be made. Many companies are entrenched in their ways and don’t want to take risks by outsourcing their email to another vendor. Security and availability are also concerns. However, some of the areas that are often looked at as weaknesses can actually prove to be strengths when it comes to hosted email.

What’s driving hosted email migrations?

The benefits of online email systems for IT shops are driven home by the relentless marketing and deep pockets of the two titans in this market: Microsoft, with its Office 365 suite, and Google, with Google Apps. Though their combined market share certainly dwarfs that of smaller vendors, the press they receive only furthers interest in moving a company’s email off-premises.

But just because the two email behemoths say they’re gaining new customers and that the cloud is the way to go, IT shops need real reasons to make that move.

One reason for cloud-based email systems is that many organizations have steadily implemented cloud-based solutions to get around the restrictive networking policies of their own IT departments.

“Users have jumped out to cloud solutions just to get their jobs done for a long time now. They see Gmail and Hotmail used to send large attachments, and [IT staffs] are looking for ways to stop that,” said Orlando Scott-Cowley, a messaging security and compliance expert at Mimecast in London. “That often means turning to the cloud; it is offering the most innovation to enable users--and the business.”

How to choose a hosted email provider

Before deciding which hosted email is best for your company, be sure to answer the following questions:

  1. Which users do we want in the cloud, and which ones do we need to hold back for compliance reasons?
  2. Does this provider allow us to use the crucial applications we’ve relied on for years? Can they meet our current functionality?
  3. What sort of user training does this provider offer?
  4. How is its customer support?
  5. What sort of value-adds does the provider offer? For example, if you sign on for hosted email, can it also offer SharePoint at a discounted rate or even for free?

Platform upgrades often inspire IT pros to consider moving their on-premises email systems into the cloud, according to IT consultants. When an Exchange Server deployment, for example, comes to its end-of-life cycle, IT shops historically re-evaluate their email strategy. During that process, shops must determine if they will upgrade their on-premises deployment, move forward without support or move to hosted email.

“This is the perfect time to take a step back and figure out your overall email strategy,” said Scott-Cowley. “With the popularity of cloud in general, email is an easy entry point.”

The decision often comes down to expense, from both capital and resource standpoints.

IT consultants point to the popularity of hosted email in smaller companies. Those businesses often can’t afford a full-time administrator for on-premises email. It may make more sense to have individuals and companies with messaging expertise do the work for them.

“With hosted email, the company can actually generate more revenue,” said Tri Nguyen, a senior manager of product management at Dell. “They don’t have to spend time offering IT services.”

In the case of larger businesses, the appeal of hosted email services is that they can allow for delivery of both existing and new services, but with less financial overhead. In addition, hosted email frees up more IT resources that can be refocused on other systems.

“Just reducing the overhead on the email platform side -- while giving the same or higher level of capabilities -- might mean the difference between completing and not completing a few projects this year,” said Mountil Patel, director of professional services at Mimecast.

Hosted email: Weighing the pros and cons

While there are congregations of cloud evangelists, there are just as many skeptics. The latter point to outages of Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps and competitors’ hosted online email systems as one reason why IT shops shouldn’t rely on these systems. Certainly, when a mission-critical app like email goes down, it severely limits most companies’ ability to function.

“If you lose your email capability, your business is closed until it comes back up,” said Mike Drips, a senior architect at Wipro, an IT consulting and outsourcing firm. “Providers have to give you a whole lot of nines of uptime to make you feel confident.”

There’s no running from the fact that Google and Microsoft Office 365 have experienced several outages over the past few years, but email downtime has always been inevitable, whether on- or off-premises. If an on-premises email setup goes down, however, a company doesn’t get money back on its investment. Microsoft offers a 25% credit each time Office 365 has an outage, and some hosted email vendors offer up to a 100% credit if their services go down.

Anxiety also persists over security and an outside company owning enterprise data. However, companies that rely on in-house email are actually more susceptible to rogue employees making off with data.

“People need to face the fact that just because [the disk] is sitting next to them, it doesn’t make it more secure,” said Oliver Moazzezi, a technical architect at Cobweb Solutions in the U.K.

Moazzezi also pointed out that hosted providers must prove via service-level agreements that they have invested in surveillance cameras, require smart cards to access various parts of their data centers, and offer data encryption and two-factor authentication. And these measures may be just the tip of the security iceberg. An outside hosting company should offer most of these capabilities at the very least.

Administrators must evolve, too

Many forward-thinking IT admins suggested to upper management long ago that hosted email is at least worth a look, but some administrators fear that the cloud could make their jobs redundant. This fear has waned over time, but it still persists. A move to the cloud could relieve admins of typical day-to-day duties, and it could give them time to address more important, big-picture issues, as opposed to putting out fires.

For instance, instead of focusing on only messaging, administrators working in an environment with hosted email would have the luxury of time to strategize. They could examine how to integrate new technologies, such as the voice and presence capabilities in a product like Microsoft’s Lync, or more advanced collaboration abilities, such as those in Microsoft’s SharePoint.

A move to hosted email services must not be taken lightly. Many still see it as a risky venture, but others see it as an opportunity to advance the business. Make sure you that have enough pros and that you don’t get conned before committing precious capital toward such a strategically important project.

Matt Gervais is the site editor for SearchExchange.com. Ed Scannell is the Senior Executive Editor for the Data Center and Virtualization group at TechTarget.

This was first published in June 2013

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