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If I wrote an article telling everyone who reads it that they should get rid of Microsoft Outlook and use OWA instead, there isn't a doubt in my mind that I would be flooded with e-mails telling me I'm an idiot. Oddly enough though, there seems to be a trend emerging in which smaller companies are replacing Outlook with Outlook Web Access.

I'm definitely not saying that using OWA instead of Outlook is the best course of action in every case (I'm not giving up my copy of Outlook), but there are some strong arguments in favor of the OWA approach.

Features

A couple of years ago, no sane person would even have considered making the switch, because Outlook Web Access lacked most of the features found in Outlook. But now, the version of OWA available with Exchange Server 2003 is much more full featured, and should be able to satisfy relatively demanding users.

Cost

Cost is one of the primary benefits to using Outlook Web Access rather than Outlook. In most companies, there are at least some employees who don't use Microsoft Office at all, except to check e-mail. It doesn't make financial sense to buy an MS Office license for such employees, just so they can check e-mail. Why not use OWA instead? You will still need an Exchange server client access license for those employees, but you will save a fortune on Office licenses.

Terminal Server lite

I think that the most compelling reason for using Outlook Web Access internally is because it performs a lot like Terminal Services. Terminal Services are designed so that all user programs are run from a Terminal Server, and only screen refreshes are sent to the user. Users work off of their own PCs, sending keyboard and mouse input to the terminal server running their applications.

Let me be perfectly clear that OWA and Terminal Services are completely separate entities and are designed with completely different purposes in mind. However, OWA clients receive many of the same benefits as Terminal Server clients.

Terminal Services allow users to use hardware that would be incompatible with applications they need. In a Terminal Services environment, all a user's machine requires is Windows and a Terminal Services client (which takes practically no resources).

I've seen organizations running Terminal Services that give their e-mail-only employees Windows CE machines or really old Windows 95 PCs.. Even so, the employees were able to run very demanding software through Terminal Services. The software worked because it was installed on the Terminal Server rather than the user's machine.

Outlook Web Access works very similar in this regard. OWA allows users to interact with Exchange through a Web browser. This means that user's don't need a PC with enough free disk space and processing power to run Outlook. All they need is a machine capable of running a Web browser. These days, just about any machine will run a Web browser. Even my cell phone will run a Web browser.

The point is though that if users who only need mail access run Outlook Web Access instead of Outlook, then you have escaped the hardware barrier. You can assign such users ancient PCs that were collecting dust in the storage closet rather than having to buy them the latest and greatest machines. You could even allow users to use Macintosh computers or Linux operating systems if need be.

Another advantage to Terminal Services is how easy is is to update and maintain applications. For example, suppose your organization is running Office XP and you want to upgrade to Office 2003. Normally, you would either have to use SMS to deploy Office 2003 across your organization, find a way of writing a deployment script, or manually deploy Office to everyone's machine. With Terminal Services though, everyone is working off of the same copy of Office. This means that if you wanted to update Office, you could do the update in one place rather than updating individual machines.

The side effect to this is that since everyone is working off of the same copy of Office, if the master copy were to become damaged, everyone would have problems. At the same time though, most day to day software problems are caused by users tinkering. If the applications are running on a secured server outside of users' control, then the application should maintain its integrity.

Now, let's compare this to Outlook Web Access. Obviously, OWA is only a single application, where Terminal Services are designed to run multiple applications. However, OWA does run on a server, just like a Terminal Services application. There is only one copy of OWA, and each user works off that one copy. This centralizes maintenance and eliminates the chances that a user will accidentally damage the application.

Profiles

Another main reason why an 'OWA all the way' approach appeals to me is because of the way Outlook stores profiles. By default, Outlook stores profiles on the local hard drive. This causes a lot of work if a user decides to switch machines, if the machine is suddenly attached to a domain, or if a user's account is moved to a different domain. There is of course a way to make Outlook store the profiles on a server, but this is not a default configuration.

The nice thing about Outlook Web Access is that there is no local profile. Everything OWA related stays on the server. If the user switches machines or switches domains, OWA is not usually affected because it is designed to be used by mobile users.

Conclusion

As you can see, using OWA instead of Outlook isn't an ideal solution in every case. However, there are definitely some compelling reasons for taking a serious look at whether it might be beneficial to your small business.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at http://www.brienposey.com.


MEMBER FEEDBACK TO THIS TIP

As far as I know an Exchange Server CAL (user or device) has rights to the most recent version of Outlook. Not withstanding the other points in the article you would not need to purchase an Outlook license.
—Mike H.

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The cost factor in this tip is incorrect. The Outlook client application is supplied with Exchange Server. Please look under Client Access License on this page.
—Fred H.


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This was first published in January 2005

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