Exchange Outside The Lines
Inexpensive, always on, someone else's management headache, (almost) spam-free inboxes -- having your messaging server hosted has its benefits. But choose your host wisely.
Imagine letting someone outside your company manage your Exchange Server
environment. Even though messaging is one of the most critical of mission-critical
applications, there are companies taking to the trend. As such, if your
company is considering the practice, it is extremely important to weigh
the pros and cons of moving to a hosted environment before you even think
about pulling the plug on your own Exchange server. In this article, I
discuss some of the pros and cons of outsourcing your messaging services.
Host with the Most
Just run a Google search on the words "hosted Exchange" and
you will find a gazillion Web sites for Exchange hosting companies. The
marketing people at these companies must have put in a lot of overtime,
because these Web sites are chock full of text that makes Exchange hosting
sound like the greatest thing since sliced bread.
If you are seriously considering making the move to a hosted Exchange
environment, it is important to be able to differentiate between marketing
hype and aspects of the service that can benefit your organization. Every
organization is different, so it's impossible for me to tell you exactly
how a hosted Exchange environment pay dividends for your company. That
being the case, I want to talk about some of the more common benefits.
Probably the biggest one is that a hosted Exchange environment can save
you a substantial amount of money. After all, deploying an Exchange server
is not a cheap undertaking. Some of the initial costs include the server
hardware and the software -- a copy of Windows Server 2003 and Exchange
Server 2007, as well as client access licenses for both. Other start-up
costs include training the administrative and support staff and configuring
workstations with the necessary client software (usually Outlook).
A hosted Exchange environment allows you to avoid most of those upfront
costs, which can get expensive depending on your company's needs. Instead,
you might find that paying a fee to a company can save you some money
in the long run. There are two things that are important to keep in mind,
though. First, you will still have some upfront costs, mainly in the form
of training and possible workstation configuration.
The other thing to keep in mind is that if you are already running Exchange
server in house, then switching to a hosted environment may not save you
any money. After all, why should you pay for software and licenses you've
already paid for?
Cost is just one consideration. Probably the second biggest benefit is
that it frees you -- the administrator -- from having to do most of the
necessary Exchange Server-related maintenance tasks. Managing an Exchange
server is a big job. Yes, creating mailboxes and keeping users happy is
a full-time job, but that's not really what I'm talking about.
Even if your Exchange environment is hosted, you will still have to create
and delete mailboxes or submit written requests to do so.
The time-consuming part of managing an Exchange server is staying on
top of a product that is constantly evolving. Exchange administrators
will find that they're constantly testing and deploying new Exchange and
Windows patches, monitoring server performance, watching disk space consumption
and trying to stay informed about changes to Microsoft's recommended
best practices (changes that occur quite often).
My point is that managing an Exchange server can consume the better part
of an IT administrator's day just to keep it running. Granted, if you
have dedicated members of the IT staff whose job it is to administer your
company's Exchange servers, then the management burden probably isn't
a big deal. However, if you are a member of a small IT staff who has to
take care of an Exchange server and everything else too, then relieving
yourself of some of the management burden by outsourcing Exchange might
Another benefit to outsourcing your Exchange organization is the accessibility
of your data. Exchange server hosting companies almost always provide
Outlook Web Access as a part of a subscription. Having OWA means that
users can access e-mail, calendars and other messaging-related tasks from
any computer with an Internet connection.
Of course OWA isn't a unique offering of the hosting companies. Exchange
server comes with everything that you need to host OWA yourself. In some
situations though, it is impossible for companies to provide OWA to their
employees. For my own company, OWA access is out of the question because
the local ISP doesn't provide the static IP address necessary for hosting
an OWA Web site. In other areas, a static IP address might be available,
but cost prohibitive. Some companies forego OWA due to security concerns,
lack of Internet bandwidth, or because the administrative staff lacks
the required knowledge for supporting it.
One last benefit that I want to mention is that a reputable hosting service
will likely be able to provide better system stability than you would
be able to achieve yourself (large enterprises excluded). Servers with
redundant hardware and clustering solutions are often out of reach of
smaller companies, but are readily available in hosted environments. It
is also worth noting that hosting companies often have high performance
backup solutions in place that smaller companies can take advantage of.
Troubles Lurk in the Shadows
I don't like being negative, but the hosting companies don't
exactly post the bad stuff on their Web sites, so I feel like I owe it
to you to give you both sides.
Probably the biggest down side of a hosted environment is that the Exchange
server is out of your direct control. Some hosting companies provide you
with a Web-based management console that allows you to create and delete
mailboxes, but other hosting companies require you to request mailbox
creations and deletions in writing. Even if you do have access to an administrative
control panel, it is unlikely that you'd be able to do things like setting
user quotas or restoring data.
Another potential disadvantage is that in a hosted environment, the hosting
company doesn't typically dedicate a server specifically to your
company. Usually, your company will be sharing a server with several other
companies. This means that the hosting company will likely impose bandwidth
throttling limits and mailbox quotas that may not necessarily meet your
needs. It is important to ask about such limits when signing up.
One extremely important consideration is the transition to and from the
hosted environment. Making the switch to a hosted environment is usually
pretty painless. Typically, the process works similarly to a dial tone
restoration. Mailboxes are created for the users and the MX record is
directed to the hosting company's server. That way, users can begin
sending and receiving messages right away. Once the service is up and
running, then the pre-existing messages are copied to the new server.
Of course every hosting company has their own way of doing things.
It is far more important to consider the impact of the transition away
from the hosted environment than the transition to it. There are any number
of reasons why you may wish to cancel your hosting service, such as:
- The hosting company goes out of business.
- As the number of mailboxes increases, so does the hosting fee. As
your company grows, outsourcing Exchange might become cost prohibitive.
- The hosting company may not deliver on their service level agreement
or the server's performance may be horribly inadequate.
- The hosting company may raise its fees.
- Federal regulations related to e-mail retention may force you to bring
your mail servers in house.
These are just some, but the point is, any number of situations could
force you to abandon your hosting company. If that ever happens, then
you need to have a plan in place for getting your data from the hosting
company's server to your server without service disruption. This
is another reason why it is important to read the fine print in your hosting
One service that nearly every hosting company offers is that of
hosted filtering. This means that the hosting company weeds out the spam
and viruses before placing messages into your users' inboxes. Hosted filtering
has its advantages and disadvantages.
Aside from the obvious, the biggest benefit to hosted filtering is that
it allows you to conserve system resources. Think about it for a minute:
How many spam messages does your environment receive each day and how
much bandwidth, disk space and other resources are wasted processing spam
and removing viruses?
The down side to hosted filtering is that no anti-spam application is
perfect. Some spam is bound to slip through and some legitimate e-mail
messages are bound to get flagged as spam. If you are considering using
hosted filtering, ask the hosting company if there is any way to gain
access to messages that have been filtered out in case a legitimate message
One other interesting aspect of hosted filtering is that it is available
even if you do not host your entire Exchange services. For example, Microsoft
offers its own hosted filtering service in which viruses and spam are
removed from messages prior to the messages arriving at the company's
Exchange server. The service works by redirecting a company's MX DNS record
so that it points to Microsoft's filtering server rather than to
another company's own Exchange Server. Microsoft's servers filter
out viruses and spam and then forward the legitimate messages to the recipient's
Hosting Company: A Checklist
A quick Google search will show you
that there are a multitude of Exchange hosting companies,
so how do you choose? Below is a list of important questions
to ask a hosting company before committing to a contract:
- How long has the company been in business?
- How long has the company been hosting Exchange
- Do your servers/data center useful redundancy?
Are there any single points of failure?
- Do you have a Sign Provider Licensing Agreement
(SPLA) on file with Microsoft?
- Do you own and maintain your own servers or do
you lease servers from another company?
- What is the size of your support staff?
- Is technical support available 24 hours a day?
- Are members of the support staff MCSEs?
- Do you provide a service level agreement in writing?
- Will I be refunded money if the hosted service
is down for longer than the service level agreement
- Where is your data center located? (Using a datacenter
that is located in an area commonly hit by hurricanes
is a bad idea.)
- How often do you back up data?
- How long would a full restoration take in the
event of a catastrophe?
- Do you offer restores of individual mailboxes?
What about individual messages?
- Is there a separate fee for restoring data?
- Do you provide a Web-based control panel that
can be used to perform common management tasks?
- Is the hosting company financially stable?
- Do you offer hosted filtering?
- Is there any way to retrieve legitimate messages
that are accidentally filtered as spam?
Getting the Message Across
Making the move to a hosted Exchange environment is a big decision and
it is absolutely critical that you weigh the pros and cons as they relate
to your own situation. In some cases, using a hosted Exchange server can
result in a substantial savings, particularly if a company has not yet
invested in a mail server or if the company is contemplating replacing
an outdated one. Making the move to a hosted environment might also be
wise if the administrative staff is overworked or if they lack the knowledge
to recover an Exchange server after a disaster.
On the other hand, if a company already has their own Exchange Server,
and the administrative staff is adequately trained in administering the
server, then making the move to a hosted Exchange environment probably
does not make as much sense. Even so, subscribing to a hosted filtering
service might make sense for such a company since the removal of spam
will free up some Internet bandwidth and various mail server resources.