What email solution is best for you?

There are a number of email solutions that Community IT Innovators deploys, supports, and recommends. Which we recommend to various clients depends on a number of factors. We ask our clients what collaborative functionality (shared calendaring, shared address books, etc.) the email solution needs to have and how loyal to Outlook the organization’s users are. We consider the organization’s size, and whether it works better for them financially to pay for email as a monthly subscription or as a large overhead investment every 3-5 years. We
discuss business continuity requirements, tolerance for hosted solution latency, main office Internet performance, and any privacy/control concerns that they might have. Email definitely does not have a one-size-fits-all solution and CITI works hard to find the solution that is “just right” for our clients.

The solutions that CITI works with most often are:

  • Google Apps
  • Local Exchange
  • Hosted Exchange provided by third-party vendors
  • Hosted Exchange provided by Microsoft

Yes, we do sometimes get calls from organizations that still POP their email from webhosts and a few of CITI’s own technicians are interested in the open-source Zimbra solution, but for the most part our clients work in the environments first mentioned. Which is best? It depends.

Larger clients go local

Not so many years ago, hosted services were rare and organizations that wanted the functionality of Microsoft Exchange needed to install it on a local server. For larger nonprofits, it was Exchange 2003 Standard Edition (or Enterprise occasionally) running on a separate mail server, while at a smaller scale Exchange was most affordable as part of Small Business Server 2003. For those larger nonprofits, the investment in building and maintaining local Exchange made (and makes) sense. The cost to buy and configure an Exchange server is more-or-less the same whether you are doing it for 10 users or 100. There are licensing costs that vary by number of users, but at charity pricing, that part of an Exchange project price tag is actually fairly minor. So for larger nonprofits, building and maintaining a local Exchange server is often the way to go; the price per user is competitive with almost all other solutions.

Smaller clients leverage hosted environments

For smaller nonprofits, though, that same fixed cost for a local server is spread across far fewer users. These days, pretty much the same Exchange/Outlook experience that many nonprofits have become used to is available for a per mailbox, per month subscription fee. Standard administrative tasks are handled through a web console (CITI still performs those tasks for many of our clients). Users can access email from Outlook, Outlook Web Access from a browser (Internet Explorer working much better than alternate browsers), or a mobile device. The cost is approximately $10/user/month, varying by mailbox size requirements, spam filtering solution, and mobile device support. Vendors that CITI has worked with include Rackspace and Mailstreet.

For organizations that buy Microsoft licenses at retail prices, the hosted solution model is competitive even with quite a few users. Since most nonprofits obtain Microsoft licenses at very low cost, however, the point at which on-site Exchange makes sense is generally lower. CITI often recommends on-site Exchange for nonprofits with more than about 20 users that want Exchange/Outlook functionality. For less than 20 users, hosted Exchange is often the way to go. The line at which the recommendation changes is not a sharp one, however.

Backing up your email

An organization’s backup infrastructure affects and is affected by this decision. For a smaller organization, moving Exchange to the cloud can reduce backup requirements considerably. Often the only data left on the local network are file shares, which can be easily backed up to hosted backup solutions such as iBackup, MozyPro, and Rackspace Server Backup. These solutions are very inexpensive but not recommended by CITI when a local Exchange server is present.

Other considerations

There are other considerations when choosing between hosted and local Exchange. In general, hosted solutions offer better business continuity. Local servers break, and while hosted email is not unbreakable, hosted solution providers often have multiple levels of redundancy simply unavailable to organizations operating at the scale of the single server room. Hosted Exchange has the disadvantage that Outlook can be slightly slower for end users
since it connects to the mailbox across the Internet and therefore is subject to bandwidth limitations and routing congestion.

Microsoft’s cloud

Microsoft now offers its own hosted Exchange service. The advantages offered by their service are a significant price drop (their service is $5/user/month), extremely large mailbox capacity (25GB), and some very slick migration tools that make a move to Microsoft less expensive than migration to other hosted solutions would be. They also offer a full suite of online services for only $10/user/month that includes SharePoint and Office Communicator. The downside to their service is that because the Microsoft party line is that Exchange public folder functionality should now be replaced by SharePoint, their service does not provide public folders at all. It’s a solution that’s attractive in some situations but certainly not in all.

Go Google?

Finally, the solution that in some ways may make the most sense for many of CITI’s nonprofit clients is Google Apps. Google has made their Education Edition of Google Apps, a hosted solution, available at no charge to 501(c)(3) organizations. It comes with industry-leading Postini spam filtering included, very large mailbox capacity (7.5GB), and provides most of the same functionality that Exchange provides. Plus, it comes with a suite of hosted applications. And once a migration is paid for, it’s free for nonprofits.

So why haven’t all of CITI’s clients signed up? In most cases, because it is a different experience for end users. Google Apps works best from the browser interface, and CITI does not recommend its integration with Outlook. Giving up Outlook is something many CITI clients are not willing to do because the end-user human costs are generally greater than the financial savings realized. For some CITI clients, however, it has proven to be the best-fit solution.

Each solution has its pros and cons and CITI is loyal to each only insofar as they meet our clients’ needs to the greatest extent possible. It is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly – the migration costs of changing from one type of solution to another are substantial. CITI does its best to provide clients with the information they need to make the right decision for their particular organization.

More questions about the cloud?

Community IT has explored both SharePoint and OneDrive on our blog in the posts on OneDrive vs SharePoint , SharePoint as File Server, and OneDrive vs Dropbox.
You may also be interested in free Webinar resources we have presented on Office365, Sharepoint, OneDrive, and Dropbox.  See our catalog of past webinars here