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Online Ministries Community Blog

Jun 29

Think About Your E-Mail Service

Posted by Bill Anderton

Since I work in a professional field in a sizable organization, I have always had a highly-capable and highly-reliable e-mail service. Rather than a simple POP3 mail service, my system is actually an advanced groupware service that is more inclusive of other serves than just e-mail.

I have always been partial to the Microsoft Exchange Server product. It has lots of features specifically designed for facilitating a far-flung group of colleagues who need to collaborate and share information in a secure online environment. Exchange Server is e-mail on steroids! It allows sharing mailboxes, calendars, contacts, to-do lists, etc. in a secure environment. It even ties into our conferencing service, telephones and other services requiring scheduling and coordination.

Although the fee-based version of Gmail has similar features functions, I have always used Exchange Server as my groupware backbone and therefore not likely to change because I know the product so well and have had so much positive experience with the product.

Part of my bias toward Exchange was a deep understanding of the product as a result of a long association with Microsoft. My commercial company (my “day job”) was first a Microsoft Solution Partner in the early 1990s when I first started using Exchange Server in 1993 when the product was first launched. A few years later, Microsoft made a significant investment in my broadband company. I had a 20-person lab on their Redmond headquarters campus for a while doing early work on the concepts of software-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service and virtualization as carrier strategies. My lab was in Building 25 on Redmond campus which also happened to be the place that did the load-testing on new versions of Exchange Server for the product group before they released it to the public. My lab had a whole room full of specialized load-generation servers that could generate high sustained loads and peaking loads (millions of transactions), so Building 25 did the load testing for Exchange Server. At that time, Microsoft Corporation had about 90-thousand mailboxes for internal use and has always had a philosophy of “eating their own dog food.” They used the early alpha- and beta releases within their own organization on the theory that if could satisfy 90-thousand finicky highly-skilled knowledge workers with features and performance, they likely had a pretty good product. Then they further load tested Exchange in Building 25 for even larger-scale organizations.

Exchange Server was always a “serious” enterprise-grade product designed to serve businesses. It was the gold-standard for corporate groupware, but it was somewhat expensive compared with simple POP3 services. The cost of the product and service were not an issue for large organizations who needed the features and the reliability and were willing to pay for its capabilities.

I originally ran my own Exchange Servers from 1993 to about 2001. I then switched from running my own servers to using managed hosted servers on a concept called “software as a service” or SaaS.

The theory of SaaS is that an application services provider would do a large-scale license of application software (Microsoft Exchange) and install it on a large array of load-balanced redundant servers and network infrastructure. In this model, a capable vendor would spin up a very large online service that could be securely multi-tenant partitioned, so each company/domain was in its own secure slice of the larger service. Each “tenant” of the service only has to buy a small slice of the whole sized for only what they need at the time (using just-in-time provisioning); anything from just one mailbox to 100,000 mailboxes.

The analogy for SaaS can be found in real estate; it is like renting a single small office in a large high-rise commercial building. Renting an office, you're just one tenant among many. You don't have to buy the land and build your own exclusive-use building. Also, you typically don't have to maintain the building or its grounds; it is included in your monthly rent. Not only is it cheaper through cost sharing, but you also don't have the large capital investment. Also, you have much more flexibility. As your needs grow, you only have to get more space from the landlord as you need it.

The economy of scale and operational efficiency of the SaaS concept was significant! In 2001, switching to SaaS saved me about 80% of the cost of running my own Exchange servers. What was significant was that we were experts on building and running Exchange Servers and had large-scale data centers. With SaaS and a specialized vendor team focusing on only Exchange Server, we could still save money, and our vendor could do a better job than we could.

I was running about 300 mailboxes, but our SaaS vendor was running hundreds of thousands of mailboxes and growing! The scale meant that my SaaS could do it better than I could.

Also, we gained reliability. Our SaaS vendor provides us with 99.999% availability (also known as five-nines) through their service level guarantee. High availability means that I can reach my e-mail service anytime. Five-nines availability only allows about three minutes of outage PER YEAR. At their scale, my SaaS vendor could afford all of the redundant hardware and use the best reliability practices that are required to meet this level of service. A comparable configuration would be difficult to afford and justify for a 300-mailbox domain. 

Further, SaaS gave me HIPPA-class security and compliance with all of the applicable retention laws like Sarbanes-Oxley.

Finally, SaaS gave me very high data durability; 99.999999999% or eleven-nines. This means that the chances of losing e-mail messages are just about zero. Statistically, the odds of a mailbox losing a single message are something like once every 10-million years.

These statistics and comments are topical considering the current news stories about the high loss rate of e-mail in some government agencies and systems. It is not unheard of that government agencies run systems based on very old and outdated practices. In the modern age, say for the last 20 years, there is absolutely no reason for any size organization to lose any e-mail message.

Even in large organizations, hosted Exchange is extremely reliable and scales well. My SaaS vendor alone hosts over a million mailboxes and they aren't even near the largest provider in the marketplace. In over 21 years on Exchange Server and the last 15 years on Hosted Exchange, I've never lost a single e-mail message nor has anyone in my organization.

I’m writing this blog posting because I just helped a friend migrate his e-mail service to a new hosted service. I was surprised by how these services have evolved in the recent years and how friendly to the small office and even individual Hosted Exchange has become.

My friend is a professional running a small practice as a solo practitioner with a small office staff. For years, he and his office have relied on the free POP3 mail service provided by his web hosting company. However, his e-mail has not been very reliable and needed to be upgraded. Also, he was becoming concerned about message retention for his staff as well as security and confidentiality as part of the canon of ethics in his profession.

It was simply time for him to switch to a serious mail platform.

As a friend and colleague, I researched the market, bought the service on his behalf and handled his migration. From his requirements, I knew he needed Exchange Server but, as a small office, cost was a consideration too.

I was actually shocked by how low the pricing of Hosted Exchange has become and how high the feature/function set had become for a small business. Also, set up and operations were extremely easy using the control panels provide by SaaS vendors; important for on-going operations for a company without an IT department.

For my friend, I selected the Hosted Exchange product from Microsoft’s Office 365 product range. This provides all of the features and functions of Exchange Server but costs only $4 per month per mailbox for a 50-gigabyte mailbox (not for the site but for each individual mailbox!) For an additional $4 per month per mailbox ($8 total), he can get full permanent archiving of all inbound and outbound messages without any limits on the size of the archive. This means that he can keep a full record of every single message in and out of his practice that meets all standards and all state and federal requirements for retention and compliance.

My friend can either use the Outlook client in his Microsoft Office suite as his e-mail client or the Outlook Web Application (OWA) through any web browser when away from his computers. Both of these access options are nice because his office has several role-based mailboxes that need to be shared shared among the whole firm and certain users have the need to share multiple calendars and contact lists with his colleagues. Outlook (both the client software and OWA) can pull all of these mailboxes, calendars and contacts into one place. This is an important efficiency adding value in his daily work. Also, in his case, he is using using Apple's e-mail client on his iPhone and Active-Sync (Apple licensed it from Microsoft for this purpose) to synchronize his mail, calendar and contacts to his Hosted Exchange instance when he is out of the office. Anything he does on his phone syncs bi-directionally with everything else (or visa versa.)

Just how good is this deal? In the late 1990s, it was costing me about $70 per month per mailbox to build and operate my own Exchange e-mail service on a total-cost-of-ownership basis.

Even after I switched to SaaS, I started out paying $12 per month per mailbox that has trended down to $9 per month per mailbox WITHOUT compliance archiving.

Now, with the service itself being $4 and full archiving is a $4 extra if needed, anyone can afford this class of service. It is practical for any sized organization including churches!

This opens a whole new market segment for small organizations and individual. Heretofore, business-class Exchange has mostly been used in large- and medium-sized businesses that were willing to pay the price to get the features and reliability. Now, even single mailbox for individuals can get business-class e-mail.

No, it is not free, but at this price point ($4 per month per mailbox), I would easily recommend this for any church because of its advanced business-class feature set and high availability and durability. I personally believe that having these features are important. I feel so strongly about it that I have always provides full Exchange services to my wife and daughter at home; it just costs me a lot less now.

No, it is not free, but you gain reliability and retention that I personally feel is important for even small organizations and individuals.

No, it is not free, but you get what you pay for!

Even within very tight budgets typical of all churches, particularly small churches, I strongly recommend that you consider switching your consumer-class POP3 mail service to Hosted Exchange and, when you do so, to also begin using your church's domain name in your e-mail addresses in order to unify your church's online brand.

Category: (06-14) June 2014   Tag:

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