Software

Help clients decide whether and how to outsource e-mail

Outsourcing e-mail can help your client focus on its core business. It can also cause many problems for users not accustomed to the new support infrastructure. Before you make the suggestion to outsource e-mail, know both sides of the coin.


It may seem that recommending that a client outsource its e-mail system would be a great way to put yourself out of a job. After all, it's hard to earn billable hours supporting a company's e-mail infrastructure if it doesn't have one. The trend toward outsourcing applications such as e-mail will continue whether IT consultants like it or not. However, outsourced e-mail does force us to work at a higher level by presenting the business case for or against various technologies and helping the client transition smoothly to whichever solution is chosen. Depending on the client's size and the complexity of its current e-mail system, outsourcing can be an attractive choice. In addition, being the trusted advisor who helps save money and hassle will likely lead clients to seek your advice again on other projects.

In this article, I'll compare two leading e-mail systems—Microsoft Exchange and Oracle Collaboration Suite—and show how they can each be outsourced instead of implemented in-house. The result: Your clients save money and can focus their personnel on core business functions. I'll also discuss some of the downsides of outsourcing, so you can give your clients the full picture.

Microsoft Exchange
Microsoft Exchange is number one or two in the messaging software space, depending on how you account for such things. IBM's Lotus Notes product leads Exchange in revenue, but Exchange currently has the lead in the number of seats installed. Microsoft doesn’t offer Exchange Server hosting directly. It relies on its network of certified partners to provide this type of value-added service. It’s the partner's job to integrate additional features such as pager gateways, voice mail, and virus checking using third-party solutions to offer a complete package to the customer.

One Microsoft Certified Partner, Intermedia.NET, has been hosting Exchange Server for over two and a half years. Primarily a Web hosting provider, Intermedia's fastest growing business segment is Exchange hosting, according to Alexander Yevelev, director of sales and marketing. Typical of hosting companies, Intermedia has multiple high-speed connections to the Internet so that if one fails, its customers' e-mail will still be accessible. Its servers are monitored constantly.

Yevelev sees two trends among his customers. One is that smaller clients who were originally satisfied with basic POP3 mail are moving to more complex messaging products like Exchange to add functionality. For these customers, a hosted solution makes more sense than taking on the costs and staffing an advanced messaging infrastructure requires. A small company with five to 10 employees in separate locations can't afford a dedicated e-mail administrator, he says. The other trend he sees is larger companies moving from in-house Exchange hosting to outsourcing. A financial services company, he says, might be willing to pay $1,500 to $2,000 per month for a company like Intermedia to handle its e-mail, so it can focus on core business.

Oracle Collaboration Suite
Oracle's messaging solution, Oracle Collaboration Suite (OCS), debuted in July 2002. Its second release, announced at the San Francisco OracleWorld conference in November 2002, adds instant messaging, Web conferencing, and cobrowsing via a client application called iMeeting. OCS is based on Oracle's 9i Database and 9i Application Server products, and includes runtime licenses for them. The database is used as the storage for both messages and their attachments, while the application server acts as a portal to access this content.

Oracle offers two outsourcing choices: The suite can be hosted on Oracle hardware in one of its own data centers (the @Oracle option), where it is monitored and maintained by Oracle personnel. Or it can be hosted on a customer's server, either in-house or at a third-party colocation data center (the @Customer option). In this case, Oracle will administer the suite for a monthly fee per user.

Outsourcing questions
Outsourcing a critical infrastructure function like e-mail is a scary prospect for IT managers. If you suggest it as an option, you'd better have answers to some important questions. This list should serve as a template when you’re working with a client interested in pursuing outsourced e-mail:
  • Where will the data be physically stored?
  • Is there adequate physical security in the building?
  • Will client applications have a secure means to log on to the e-mail server?
  • Does the hosting service have data centers with redundant network connections, backup power sources, and engineers on site 24x7? What about the customer's own network infrastructure?
  • Are its routers protected by an uninterruptible power supply?
  • Does it have redundant network connections in case one fails?
  • Is the hosting company financially sound? If the hosting provider is having financial problems, it could fold and take its customers' data with it.
  • How steep is the learning curve? Will all employees have to learn a new way to do things, or can current client applications and work processes be used? For instance, Oracle provides an Outlook Connector as part of OCS, so that employees can continue to use Outlook for mail and calendaring. The Connector converts native MAPI protocol to the Internet standard IMAP4, which is more efficient for large networks; similarly, it converts Outlook's calendar functions to Calendar Access Protocol (CAP). Exchange hosting companies, of course, support both the regular Exchange client and Outlook Web Access (OWA) directly.

Outsourcing an application shifts the burden of uptime from the application server to the network accessing it. Another downside of outsourcing is that it can be very difficult to reverse course and bring messaging back in-house if outsourcing doesn't deliver the promised gains. The people who used to manage the e-mail will have been reassigned or will have left, and the software formerly used will not have kept pace with the functionality employees have become accustomed to. Keep these pitfalls in mind before you make the recommendation to outsource the e-mail function to your clients.

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