Dreading the Exchange 2007 upgrade? Alternatives abound

High cost and complexity mean it's time for a gut check

Microsoft Corp.’s recently released 2007 upgrade to its market-leading Exchange e-mail server provides faster 64-bit-powered performance along with many other new features, especially when users are paired with the latest Outlook 2007 e-mail client. 

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

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

"Unified communication is not a bandwagon that everyone is trying to clamber onto," she said. 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 said. "Many organizations 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?"

Exchanging Exchange

One obvious alternative is to switch to another e-mail server. Both IBM and Novell Inc. are planning to release upgraded e-mail 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 this week that its upcoming version of Groupwise, now code-named "Sequoia," will include open-source-based teaming and collaboration features.

Both e-mail 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 e-mail servers say you can't beat those systems. Vendors such as Scalix Inc., Zimbra Inc., Open Xchange Inc.  and PostPath Inc. all claim to offer near-100% compatibility with Exchange at significantly cheaper prices. The open-source vendors aren’t shy about tooting their own horn. PostPath says its use of the Linux file system allows it to store and e-mail databases more efficiently than Exchange as well as access the files faster, while Scalix and Zimbra both tout their AJAX-based Web clients for being powerful and easy to use.

Curing a thankless headache

For some companies, though, swapping Exchange for another server doesn’t provide much benefit. E-mail, while the backbone of any company’s communication system, is also for many IT departments a thankless and labor-intensive job. For those enterprises, outsourcing the e-mail 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 IBMHewlett-Packard Co. 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 specialized Exchange service provider such as GroupSpark might be the ticket. GroupSpark resells its hosted Exchange service via a network of more than 600 partners, according to CEO Ravi Agarwal. The company is expected to start offering hosted Exchange 2007 services by the end of this month.

While outsourcing your e-mail can rid IT departments of one of their biggest ongoing headaches and free them up to tackle more innovative, moneymaking 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 afterward, 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 e-mail more important than ever. "What it comes down to, frankly, is an issue of control," McCall said.

A service/server hybrid

McCall left Microsoft in 2004 to start his own company offering a third alternative. His startup, Redmond, Wash.-based Azaleos Corp., offers a small lineup of managed Exchange server appliances.

Customers buy a preconfigured and tuned-up Exchange server box that they can drop into the data center 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 $5 per mailbox per month for basic monitoring to $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 has gotten $8.2 million in venture funding. Today, it manages 20,000 Exchange 2003 e-mail boxes. But growth has accelerated; the company won 10,000 of those accounts this quarter alone, McCall said, including a 5,000 user contract with fruit distributor Chiquita Brands International Inc.

Other customers include Allegheny Technologies, which has 7,000 e-mail users managed by Azaleos, sporting goods vendor K2 Inc., Coinstar Inc. and youth retailer Zumiez Inc.

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," said Lee Hudson, technology director for the Everett, Wash., company, leading to problems with "system reliability and management."

"At the same time, I didn’t want to have a bunch of systems support people on staff, but use those payroll dollars to improve our business processes," he said.

Hudson looked superficially 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 said, but when a snowstorm earlier this month felled a telephone pole and cut Zumiez’ fiber connection, Azaleos called Hudson within 5 minutes to let him know the e-mail server was down. Says Hudson: "I am very pleased with performance and uptime."

Azaleos introduced 2007 versions of its Exchange server appliances on Wednesday.  Its OneServer for High Reliability supports up to 1,000 e-mail users with 1GB 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 99.999% 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 said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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