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Decision points for Exchange hosting

There are good arguments for and against outsourcing Microsoft Exchange Server. One Exchange consultant offers a list of pros and cons.

(This is the second in a series of articles examining Microsoft Exchange Server hosting. The first installment, "Exchange hosting makes a comeback," reviews technology issues to consider in outsourcing Exchange.)

As Exchange Server steadily gained in popularity over the years, Microsoft continually added more functionality to deliver more value. But increased complexity requires administrators to spend more time maintaining the server. This is especially true when it comes to installing and troubleshooting new features, like Remote Procedure Call over HTTP protocol (RPC/HTTP) or Exchange ActiveSync, which, due to their young age, can be difficult to get working properly.

The good news about Exchange hosting

  1. Capital costs and return on investment You avoid the upfront purchase of hardware (server, storage, backup drives and tapes, universal power supplies) and software licenses for Microsoft Exchange Server, Windows Server, and antivirus, backup and spam filtering. That adds up to substantial cost savings overall, though your exact ROI will depend on the size of your organization, as you can see in the table below.

    The amounts cited represent totals for the first three years of an implementation, assuming that the largest aspect of the cost for an in-house implementation is the cost of the Exchange administrator's full-time equivalent salary, estimated at $100,000 per year with benefits, scaled to the size of the organization. The estimated Exchange hosting cost is $10 per user per month, with discounts at larger volumes.

  2. Deployment speed Instead of spending weeks to spec out and acquire the systems, you can sign up, create mailboxes and start transitioning over in minutes.

  3. Service Level Agreement (SLA) and guarantee
    With 99% to 100% uptime guarantees, SLAs put the ASP on the financial hook for downtime, as they must refund fees if they violate their uptime guarantee.

  4. Disaster recovery Hosters keep spare servers on hand, have documented processes for disaster recovery and regularly test their recovery procedures. Additionally, hosters have technical expertise available 24x7, including holidays.

  5. Features and upgrades ASPs run the latest and greatest version of the software, including most of the bells and whistles like Exchange ActiveSync, Outlook Mobile Access and Secure Exchange over the Internet. Additionally, to be competitive, they offer the latest and greatest add-ons from third parties such as antivirus, antispam, backup, and Blackberry Enterprise Server. Some even offer compliance and archiving solutions.

  6. Maintenance With multiple servers running Exchange, ASPs have standardized procedures for testing patches and upgrades on staging servers before loading into production. Production servers are often clustered so that upgrades can occur with no visible downtime to customers.

  7. Monitoring ASPs typically employ monitoring software to keep an eye on the infrastructure, such as power management. The software could include battle-tested, high-end firewalls and intrusion-detection systems. It could also include systems for monitoring physical plant security; hardware redundancies to minimize downtime; multiple Internet feeds from separate backbone providers and connections to multiple telephone providers at different central offices. E-mail is another thing your ASP can keep an eye on, including backup MX servers on geographically diverse locations for e-mail queuing in case the primary servers are unreachable; and access issues via Outlook 2003, especially when utilizing RPC/HTTP.

The bad news about Exchange hosting

It's a short list but not an insignificant one because it is such a big deal for a company to let go of its most critical application and the data store for organizational memory. Consider these factors:

  1. Loss of control Your organization does not have direct control of the messaging system. If your organization needs customizations or extended functionality, the ASP may not agree to do it or it may take time to implement.

  2. Active Directory integration Most outsourced solutions maintain a separate AD forest, which probably will not be able to be synchronized with your internal AD, thus forcing users to maintain two sets of logins.

  3. Migration Depending on the scale and complexity of your current messaging system, migration to an external system might be difficult and time consuming.

  4. Vendor stability
    Consider how many ASPs have gone out of business in the past five years. The good news is that there are survivors with proven abilities.

  5. Security
    If your organization has severely strict safeguards concerning data security, then trusting a third party with sensitive e-mail may be an issue.

There are good arguments for and against outsourcing Microsoft Exchange Server. (And the pluses only make sense when you are talking about a reliable ASP.) Organizations place different values on each decision point, and the hard part is in deciding which ones are the most significant for your specific situation.

Lee Benjamin has more than 20 years of experience in the messaging industry. Since retiring from Microsoft in 1997, he has consulted through his company, ExchangeGuyConsulting, for enterprise- and medium-sized organizations and software firms. His main interests are migrations, directories, security, mobile access, calendaring integration and RSS. Benjamin is also a regular trainer for Pinnacle Training Corp., an analyst at Ferris Research and a regular contributor to

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