Whether you call it hosted e-mail or e-mail as a service or utility e-mail, alternatives to traditional on-premises e-mail have been growing in prominence recently.
And it makes sense: At best, e-mail services represent a simple cost of doing business-something that diverts a portion of IT staff resources away from projects more closely aligned with an organization’s goals. At worst, keeping the e-mail lights on in an organization that lacks sufficient storage capacity, data center space or e-mail management know-how can actually make it more difficult for a company to get things done (as those who’ve put their work day on hold to delete enough old mail messages to return to their server’s good graces can attest).
The idea that IT services-particularly mature, well-defined services such as e-mail-will tend toward a utility model is a convincing one. However, deciding whether today’s crop of hosted e-mail services is suitable for use in all, part or none or your organization depends on identifying your needs, nailing down the effectiveness and cost of your current e-mail solution, and then determining whether a third party could satisfy these goals as well as or more efficiently than you can do in-house.
The most obvious difference between hosted and on-premises e-mail models is the amount of control that you’re allowed to (or required to) exert over your e-mail systems. When you host your own e-mail server, you have more control over your data, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the resources your organization has for keeping your data secure. For highly regulated organizations, data may have to remain on-premises for compliance purposes.
An on-premises e-mail system also allows for a greater level of customization, which could prove crucial for companies pursuing technologies such as unified communications, in which the mail server becomes tightly entwined with complementary communications services.
Of course, surrendering control and responsibility over the particulars of maintaining e-mail services-either as a means of freeing up IT to pursue other projects or to relocate an essential service to more capable hands-is itself the primary value proposition of hosted e-mail.
Another important consideration when deciding whether to outsource your e-mail is performance. E-mail in the cloud will most likely mean higher latency and slower transfer speeds for messages that travel within a company’s internal network. What’s more, as IP links from individual desktops within an organization multiply, bottlenecks in the networking equipment under IT’s care could begin to develop.
In many companies, e-mail serves as a catchall collaboration and file-sharing tool, and one way to improve performance in the face of a hosted e-mail migration is to encourage and ease the use of local file shares for large attachments exchanged within a campus.
Hosted e-mail services do tend to locate spam filtering facilities up in the cloud, which can cut down on the amount of mail-based traffic flowing into your network. However, in a good example of a hybrid hosted/on-premises approach, these same sorts of hosted filtering services can be teamed with otherwise on-premises e-mail services.
Another interesting hybrid approach that retains the virtues of hosted e-mail without sacrificing the performance benefits of on-premises e-mail is the tack taken by Azaleos, in which the company delivers remotely managed Microsoft Exchange appliances to customer sites.
In theory, reliability should be one of the hosted e-mail provider’s strongest suits, given an infrastructure devoted to e-mail that’s typically broader and deeper than what makes sense for a single company to invest in for itself.
It’s important to evaluate the processes that potential hosted e-mail providers have in place for ensuring reliability, to discuss the sort of SLAs (service-level agreements) with which these providers are prepared to back their offerings, and to see how these provisions and guarantees stack up against what you are prepared to provide in-house.
What’s more, not all of the infrastructure that hosted e-mail services require lays in the hands of the provider. Most dramatically, the Internet link between you and your hosted e-mail provider can be subject to interruption, leaving your organization disconnected from a vital service.
Another area of evaluation that should play to the natural strengths of hosted e-mail providers is that of scalability.
With data center space at a premium for many companies, sufficient resources for expanding user mailbox sizes and for conducting timely backups may be hard to come by.
The 25GB per account of storage that Google offers as part of its Google Apps Premier Edition is certainly on the high end among hosted mailbox providers, but it signals the sort of storage flexibility that’s possible with the hosted model.
eWEEK Labs Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]