Exchange 2007 upgrade alternatives abound

Moving to the latest version of Microsoft's email server may be more trouble than it's worth, some say

Microsoft’s recently released 2007 upgrade Exchange provides faster 64-bit-powered performance along with many other new features, especially when paired with the latest Outlook 2007 email client.

At the same time, Exchange 2007’s arrival leads to a fork in the road for many IT departments.

Exchange 2007, with its ability to let end users get voicemails and faxes in their email in-boxes, starts IT departments down Microsoft’s vision of unified communications — whether they like it or not, according to Maurene Grey, a former Gartner analyst now heading her own independent firm, Grey Consulting.

“Unified communication is not a bandwagon that everyone is trying to clamber onto,” she says. As a result, while most Exchange users will choose to cope with complex implementation processes and high costs, and continue forging ahead with Exchange 2007, many others are starting to look in earnest at alternatives to the straight and narrow Exchange path.

A “major upgrade” like Exchange 2007 “is not for the faint of heart,” Grey says. “Many organisations that are using Exchange today are questioning [the choice] — with Exchange 2007, should we stay in an Exchange environment, or is this the right time to move off?”

One obvious alternative is to switch to another email server. Both IBM and Novell are planning to release upgraded email products this year. Version 8 of Lotus Notes and Domino server boasts a revamped user interface for Notes and improved web services connectivity for Domino. Meanwhile, Novell said at its annual Brainshare show recently that its upcoming version of Groupwise, now codenamed “Sequoia”, will include open source-based teaming and collaboration features.

Both email servers support Microsoft’s Outlook client and offer their own best-of-breed features that they claim beat Exchange. Neither, however, is significantly cheaper than Exchange, especially after migration and retraining costs are factored in.

For lower price and nearly equivalent functionality, advocates of open-source email servers say you can’t beat these systems. Vendors such as Scalix, Zimbra, Open Xchange and PostPath all claim to offer near 100% compatibility with Exchange at significantly cheaper prices. PostPath says its use of the Linux file system allows it to store email databases more efficiently than Exchange, as well as access the files faster, while Scalix and Zimbra both tout their AJAX-based web clients as being powerful and easy to use.

For some companies, though, swapping Exchange for another server doesn’t provide much benefit. Email is the backbone of any company’s communication system, but for many IT departments administering it is a thankless and labour-intensive job. Therefore, outsourcing the email server may be an attractive alternative that allows companies to stay on Exchange while ridding them of the hassle of running it.

Large services providers such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and EDS all offer outsourced Exchange services along with other IT outsourcing services, though none have yet begun to offer Exchange 2007 yet. For smaller companies, a specialised Exchange service provider such as GroupSpark might be the answer. GroupSpark resells its hosted Exchange service via a network of over 600 partners, according to CEO Ravi Agarwal. The company is expected to start offering hosted Exchange 2007 services soon.

While outsourcing email can rid IT departments of one of their biggest ongoing headaches and free them up to tackle more innovative, money-making projects, the practice hasn’t been widely embraced. In part, that’s due to a general hesitance in the industry to contract with certain application service providers (ASPs).

According to Keith McCall, a former Exchange product executive who dealt with many ASPs during the dot-com era and afterwards, the bankruptcy of many high-flying ASPs during the dot-bust resulted in many clients feeling burnt over the difficulty and, in some cases, impossibility, of getting their data back.

Moreover, new financial and industry rules, especially for public companies, have made ensuring the security of information assets such as email more important than ever. “What it comes down to, frankly, is an issue of control,” McCall says.

McCall left Microsoft in 2004 to start his own company, which offers a third alternative. His start-up, Azaleos, offers a small line-up of managed Exchange server appliances.

Customers buy a preconfigured and tuned-up Exchange server box that they can drop into the datacentre or co-location facility of their choice and start running with minimal setup time, says McCall, who is now CTO. Moreover, Azaleos also manages, monitors and fixes the Exchange server through the internet.

The cost ranges from US$5 (NZ$7) per mailbox per month for basic monitoring to US$12 per month for archiving, business continuity services and support for multiple physical Exchange server locations.

This hybrid product, McCall says, provides the low-fuss benefit of outsourcing as well as the control and security of an on-premise server.

The three-year old Azaleos is backed by US$8.2 million in venture funding and manages 20,000 Exchange 2003 email boxes. But growth has accelerated; the company won 10,000 of those accounts this quarter alone, McCall says, including a 5,000-user contract with fruit distributor Chiquita Brands.

Other customers include Allegheny Technologies, which has 7,000 email users managed by Azaleos, sporting goods vendor K2 and clothing manufacturer Zumiez.

Zumiez started using Azaleos two-and-a-half years ago. Previously, the fast-growing retailer was running Exchange 2000 in-house. “We were getting hit harder and harder,” says Lee Hudson, technology director for the company, leading to problems with “system reliability and management.”

“[However] at the same time, I didn’t want to have a bunch of systems support people on staff, [instead of] using those payroll dollars to improve our business processes,” he says.

Hudson looked at outsourcing Exchange wholly but “never got comfortable with the idea of our data not being in our internal systems”.

Zumiez has about 500 users using Azaleos today. Not only have there been no Exchange outages attributable to Azaleos, Hudson says, but when a recent snowstorm felled a telephone pole, cutting Zumiez’ fibre connection, Azaleos called Hudson within five minutes to let him know the email server was down. Says Hudson: “I am very pleased with performance and uptime.”

Azaleos recently introduced 2007 versions of its Exchange server appliances. Its OneServer for High Reliability supports up to 1,000 email users with 1 GB mailboxes and includes Exchange 2007’s Local Continuous Replication feature to rapidly recover data in case of corruption. Its One Server for High Availability combines two OneServer units for a turnkey cluster with 99.9% claimed availability. Its BladeMail clustered solution supports up to 14 blades and 42,000 users per system.

Zumiez is looking seriously at moving to Azaleos’ Exchange 2007 servers.

“The only reason we’re considering it is because we don’t have to do it ourselves,” Hudson says.

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