While on a support call today, a new Chrometa user asked about how to choose an Email server for a small firm. Afterward, I thought I’d share our company’s story on picking an email service.
When we started Chrometa, one of the first things on our to-do list was to set up email address for everyone. Previously, when we worked at other firms, we used Exchange Server. This nifty email server from Microsoft also synced everyone’s contact list and calendars. But now things are different. We were a small company that didn’t have the time, dollars, and IT staff to maintain our own Exchange Server. Also, our needs didn’t warrant such an investment.
So off we went to find a bare-bones email service. First, we signed up for Yahoo Small Business Email — after all, our domain name was already hosted on Yahoo so we were all set to go. During the early days of product development (read: coding and testing), we didn’t really need any advanced features, like contact sharing. For shared calendars, we synced our Google Calendars to Outlook — all in all, everything was fine. But for most businesses, Yahoo Mail just doesn’t cut it. This brings us back to Microsoft Exchange Server.
Microsoft Exchange Server
Let’s start with the top 5 reasons companies run Microsoft Exchange Server:
- Outlook. Exchange Server was designed for Outlook.
- Shared contacts. Need to get in touch with someone? Just do a contact search and you’ll get the details as long as it’s in the Exchange Server’s Active Directory. Neat.
- Shared calendars
- Shared resources. Need to book that conference room?
- Webmail (run a web version of Outlook from your browser. Weeeee! It’s just not the same as Outlook for desktop)
This used to get pretty expensive, fast. Companies bought and ran their own Microsoft Exchange Server infrastructure. This meant that someone (and often more than one person) had to monitor it, upgrade it, and administer it. Their job was pretty important, as we all know what happens when either email or the Internet goes down (insert episode from the Office).
But wait, what’s all this ruckus I hear about Hosted Exchange?
Hosted Exchange is a pretty good idea, and it really took off with the all the advancements in virtualization technologies. In plain English, virtualization means splitting a perfectly good computer into many little computers using software, and each one of those little computers can do its own thing independent of the others.
Hosted Exchange meant that your company can now *rent* the right to use an Exchange Server owned and administered by another company. That means you don’t have to buy the hardware, upgrade it, maintain it, or hire someone to look after it. Instead of spending $1,000’s/user/year on email, you’ve just cut that cost to $100’s/user/year. Pretty Awesome.
The other option you may not have considered is Google Apps. Last summer, we switched our company to Google Apps — and to this day I consider this one of the best decisions we’ve made.
Google Apps for Business
Why Google Apps? It does almost everything that Microsoft Exchange does, and a lot more! Plus it’s even more cost effective than Hosted Exchange.
- Outlook: check
- Shared Contacts: kind of, but it’s a hassle. You can easily share all your internal contacts (people within your company), but your company needs to maintain a separate LDAP server if you want shared address books. In other words, you can’t have a “universal address book” out-of-the-box just yet.
- Shared Calendar: check (Google Calendar sync to Outlook)
- Shared Resources: not really… but if you’re a small company, you probably don’t do a lot of conference room booking
- Webmail: well that’s a given.
What else do you get? Let’s drill down:
- Extremely simple email account setup and administration. This is really important if you’re a small firm. Wouldn’t it be nice to add accounts, forward email from one account to another, and set up “catch all” emails, without needing to call IT support?
- A better webmail experience. It’s Gmail, plus you get 25 GB’s of storage.
- Mobile access to Gmail on the iPhone. BlackBerry PUSH, Gmail Apps for BlackBerry and Android phones.
- Continuous improvement. Google Apps are constantly adding new features and improvements. Microsoft Exchange does not.
Finally, let talk economics. Google Apps charges $50/user/year. That’s <50% the cost of Hosted Exchange.
In the lawyer community, there has been much debate about the security and privacy of Google Apps. I have to agree that web security is very important. But do realize that your Hosted Exchange server is also on the web, as is your computer when it is connected to the Internet. As with any technology, the best security algorithm sits between your ears. Log out of web apps if you’re using a public terminal. And please check the recipient list before hitting reply-all
For most small businesses, I’d recommend Google Apps. You’ll get all the key functionality of Hosted Exchange at a fraction of the cost. More importantly, you’ll enjoy far simpler setup and administration. Last but not least, you’ll gain access to Google’s expanding suite of continuously-improving products.
Everyone’s needs are different. If you don’t mind paying extra for complete control over your own mail server, and if you can’t live without a “universal address book”, go for hosted Exchange.
Special thanks to Andrew for inspiring this post.