The idea behind Cemaphore Systems’ latest version of MailShadow is, at first look, a promising one: allow for Microsoft Exchange Server or another e-mail system to be synchronized in real-time with an off-site, cloud-based alternative. By doing this, you have a real-time backup of critical e-mail, calendar and contact information, while at the same time giving users the ability to access the information from anywhere the Internet reaches.
The MailShadow approach is, in a way, a lot like the synchronization that happens between your Palm device or your BlackBerry and Exchange. It can work in both directions so that any change made in one e-mail system, such as Google’s Gmail, is also reflected in the other, such as Exchange. However, while the idea is a good one, the execution of the idea leaves much to be desired.
During my tests of MailShadow, in which I synchronized an Exchange mailbox with a mailbox hosted on a free Google mail account, I experienced a series of problems, including multiple account lock-outs by Google, the causes for which Cemaphore could not explain. What’s more, MailShadow lacks support for network connection throttling and offers no information on synchronization progress, two feature gaps that could leave companies that deploy MailShadow on multiple desktops with an Internet connection that’s saturated for an unknown amount of time.
This is not to suggest that MailShadow is without value. Its ability to provide continuous, reasonably current copies of your e-mail, calendar and contact information can be an important disaster recovery solution for businesses that don’t have another means available because of technical or cost constraints. In addition, MailShadow provides a promising way to migrate from one mail system to another without any downtime.
Cemaphore Systems’ MailShadow Desktop Edition is priced at $49.95 per mailbox. For more information, see www.cemaphore.com. For larger enterprises, there’s a server version (not tested in this review) that consolidates many of the activities that take place individually on the Desktop version, and could make it easier for administrators to overcome some of the product’s limitations.
MailShadow in the Lab
While the earlier versions of MailShadow were focused on Exchange and one of a couple of Internet based e-mail systems–namely, Gmail and Exchange Online–the new version is meant to work between any two e-mail systems. You can theoretically sync your POP3-based e-mail and your Gmail account and not use Exchange at all. However, the thrust of the MailShadow application is aimed at corporate users of Exchange with the other end of the process in the cloud running on Gmail.
The good news is that once you get MailShadow running, it works. The bad news is that, when teamed with Google’s Gmail service, MailShadow is subject to the vagaries of external forces which, understandably, lie outside of Cemaphore’s control. The prime example of these vagaries were the recurring Gmail service lockouts I experienced while testing the product.
The lockouts may have been the result of too many folder openings, or perhaps too many sign-on and sign-off attempts, or perhaps too much data sent at one time. The support staff at Cemaphore wasn’t sure why attempts to update the Google sites were sometimes unsuccessful because, they say, Google doesn’t make this information public. What’s more, Cemaphore wasn’t able to tell me whether I’d experience the same lockout problems with a paid Google mail account.
Part of the lockout problems I experienced may have been due to the fact that, in the process of performing its synchronization duties, MailShadow will use whatever bandwidth it has available. I tested MailShadow on a Hewlett-Packard dual-Xeon workstation running Vista and Outlook 2007, sitting behind a 20M-bps connection to the Internet. The impact on the 20M-bps Internet connection was such that other applications on other computers sharing the connection had difficulty reaching the Internet quickly enough to avoid time-outs and delays. I could have added some external means of throttling my test client’s available bandwidth, but I would like to see Cemaphore incorporate basic throttling controls in the MailShadow product.
Exacerbating the problem with bandwidth usage is that MailShadow provides no means of telling you how far along it is in its sync process. If you’re responsible for a large number of machines that all need to be synced, you have no way to know whether to devote a day, a weekend or a week to the process. And because it’s never really clear when synchronization is done, you never really know when your copy of your e-mail is actually up-to-date.
Earlier versions of MailShadow ran within Outlook. The new version, MailShadow Desktop Edition, is a background application that claims not to need Outlook for it to function, but not all Exchange profiles are configured to allow this. In my case, I had to start up Outlook and leave the software running the entire time that MailShadow was operating.
Once the product is installed, your only management task is to choose which mail profile to synchronize, and which mail account should be on the other end. MailShadow is meant to start up with your computer, and then go about its synchronization continuously. I could start and stop the process by clicking on an icon in the Windows System Tray and choosing to start or stop.