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 be ideal.

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 contract.

Hosted Filtering
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 goes missing.

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 mail server.

Choosing a
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 Server?
  • 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 allows?
  • 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.

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