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Email should be a service not a server

Organizations benefit from the scale of large email providers in at least four ways: uptime, security, bandwidth, and business value.

Our relationship to email might best be described by the relationship status: "it's complicated". We love and hate email. We love the convenience of communicating with anyone, anytime from anywhere. We hate the immense quantity and often low usefulness of the email we receive.

Knowledge workers spend as much as 28% of their time reading and answering email, according to a report published by McKinsey Global Institute in July 2012. Like it or not, email remains a widely used tool.

Many IT folks think there's business value created by running an email server. It seems perfectly logical: people use email, so we run an email server to give them their email. The IT team - or your friendly local IT vendor - provides an essential service.

The same logic was present in the early days of the electrical power. Early adopters felt there was business value created by running a power system on-site. It seemed perfectly logical: people use electricity, so we run a power system. The electricity team - or a local electricity vendor - provided an essential service.

Eventually, people realized that centralized power generation and distribution was more efficient. Today, most businesses realized there's little business value to be created by running their own power system. We buy electricity as a service. (Read Nicholas Carr's book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google for a longer version of this history.)

Email should be a service, not a server.

Email services likely provide better uptime, security and value than in-house email servers.

Organizations benefit from the scale of large email providers in at least four ways: uptime, security, bandwidth, and business value.

1. Uptime

Email uptime is essential: without uptime, messages don't flow and communication slows. Mail providers with the scale of Google and Microsoft seek uptime in excess of 99.9%. Downtime for these providers means a work interruption for millions of people.

On April 3, 2013, Google reported that "Gmail achieved 99.983% availability" for all of 2012. Notably, Google allows zero scheduled downtime for maintenance. Service interruptions are reported publicly on the Apps Status Dashboard. All three of those items are difficult to achieve. You should hold your internal IT team or vendor to similar standards.

2. Security

Google and Microsoft also have sought external review of their security systems. For example, Google Apps and data centers are "SSAE 16 / ISAE 3405 Type II SOC 2-audited and have achieved ISO 27001 certification." Similarly, Microsoft's Office 365 is compliant with "ISO 27001, EU Model clauses, HIPAA BAA, and FISMA." Again, you should hold your internal IT team or local vendor to similar standards.

In most cases, Google and Microsoft have more IT security experts focused on system security than your organization (or local IT vendor). Which would you prefer: more experts or fewer?

3. Spam (and bandwidth)

Unfortunately, most email is spam. On January 21, 2013, Kaspersky Lab report that the "average amount of spam in email stood at 72.1%" throughout 2012. The good news is that the percentage of email that is spam is declining: the number stood at around 80% the year before.

If you run your own mail server, spam hurts your organization's bandwidth: 7 out of 10 emails hitting your mail server provide absolutely no business value. An effective firewall and filters can help, but won't entirely mitigate the impact. You have to filter spam, or pay someone to filter spam, for your organization. And if you're paying for spam filtering as a service, why not move to email as a service - with spam filtering included?

4. Business value

Like modern electricity companies, email as a service is priced to be a monthly expenditure: Google Apps costs $5 per user per month and Microsoft's Office 365 for Small Business costs $6 per user per month. These services provide uptime, security, and spam fighting resources that most internal IT teams and local vendors can't match.

There are rare cases where on-site power generation - and email - may still make economic sense. In the same way that hospitals need on-site power to save lives, they may also need on-site servers to comply with patient data privacy laws (such as HIPAA in the U.S.). Fortunately, if you're in a highly regulated business, everyone in your industry faces similar constraints.

Bottom line

Ultimately, the value of moving from an email server to a service lies in what my MBA professors called "opportunity cost". The "opportunity cost" is the value of time spent on one activity that might be better spent on another. You want your IT team to create value for your staff and customers, not manage a mail server.

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About

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

19 comments
istvanpal
istvanpal

I assist a small nonprofit agency with about 100 employees on average. They operate an in-house email server for way less than what a hosted service would cost. In three years they have had a total of 1 hour down time. Hosted and cloud services may be fine for some but it's not always cheaper.

stnwall
stnwall

I am not emotionally against cloud options. However, there has yet to be a single cloud option for anything that is less expensive than doing it in house. Not a single instance. So I cringe every time somebody just states it will save you money as if that is a given. If you are a small business or small scale IT shop with no data center, then the numbers might work. Mid to large entities can do it cheaper themsleves every time I have made the comparison.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

The problem with large scale centralization is that everyone is treated the [I]same[/I]. Electricity usage is based on four things phase, frequency, voltage and current. Works great at large scale with only four degrees of freedom set by the [I]provider[/I] no less! E-Mail is dictated by the consumer, not the provider. Most consumers have more demands than uptime (whatever that means wrt SMTP cached delivery.) As soon as a company starts making [I]customized[/I] demands e.g. content security (IP, Confidentiality, subpoenas, et-al) you break the simple service provider defined service exemplified by centralized power companies.

stelellico
stelellico

Everything has pros and cons. If email service is an in house service, the data stay protected within the house and the risk of sniffing is small. On the other hand, in house email may be more vulnerable to spam and other issues. I eventually prefer a mixed approach, where cloud services should guarantee that they will give email data every, let's say, quarter, to the owner.

dogknees
dogknees

Does web-based email provide ALL the functionality of our current Domino solution and work with our internal NAB? Supporting presence, groups, chat, custom views, custom email templates, custom fields in emails(something that Outlook won't do either), .... Does it integrate directly with other applications to at least the same degree as Domino? Including other Domino systems like QuickR and Sametime? Does it integrate with our internal IP telephony systems and handle voice messaging in one place? In short, it's like an app versus an application. Works for most usage, but given we need one system that works for all the things mentioned above, it needs to be a "real" application.

frylock
frylock

I've run my own email server in my basement for many years, probably a couple years too long. I started a personal account with a "cloud" provider and it's been comparatively joyous. When I started a small business that email went to a provider as well. I would never recommend to a SMB that they host their own email. A large IT shop for a large organization might be able to justify it, but even then I'd question if their time and expertise could be better spent elsewhere. Email is becoming a commodity service. I remember my first IT job, I had a work area for tearing apart users' PCs for repairs, upgrades, etc. Those days are pretty much gone as businesses lease their PCs. The example in the article of electrical power is another good one. Email sure feels like it's headed that way as well. IT guys have a hard time letting go. We tend to think there's no way some outside entity could ever do something better than we could in-house. But right or wrong, it's happening (and not just with email). I think we'd be better served by developing other skills to justify our paychecks.

stnwall
stnwall

Wow. You made some bold assumptions in the article. Some of what you assume to be correct probably applies to some level or size of operation but certainly not everybody. A mature IT Operations shop of decent size can certainly maintain a mail platform at 9 nines up time at a cost less than Google and MS subscription prices. The subscription model is only cost effective for new entities who have little to no infrastructure.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If you weren't providing email, or your kit dies a horrible death and you didn't have too many accounts, then may be it's worth a look. Other than that the costs savings are going to be trivial compared to the roll out cost. They way you set up this topic, you'd think the CTO was reading every ones emails on a Kray and deleting the spam... "They have a great deal of security expertise" Leads to two questions that Why do they keep getting it so badly wrong then? and Secure from whom?

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I read the following: "These services provide uptime, security, and spam fighting resources that most internal IT teams and local vendors can’t match." But,nothing backing your statement. I wonder if it's true or not?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

In many legal jurisdictions a business is held legally responsible for ALL it's official communications and a number of court cases from the early and mid 1990s made it clear that includes emails to and from official corporate email accounts, if the otfficial email account is with someone like Gmail or Yahoomail etc, then ALL accounts with that service that have your company name in it are seen as official corporate accounts, regardless of who created them. You also have issues with some laws requiring the company to keep the original copies of all correspondence on certain activities - contract negotiations being a big one. If you use an external service, where are your official copies as most will be on the servers of the service provider. If the corporate emails are on someone else's servers, they have control of them and THEY are the ones who can be forced to pass up copies to the courts. Not only can they be passing them up before you know about it, they won't be checking what is or isn't in them in relation to the content of the warrant, they'kk just pass over a full copy of everything of yours they have. Don;'t believe me, ask Kim DotCom about all his stuff the FBI grabbed and when he got told - after it was back at the FBI offices. So before you put your corporate communications to an outside supplier, you should first check how that relates to the local laws that cover your business.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Does your organization still run its own mail server? Why? I think this is an important question, so lets consider it seriously. What does having an on-site server really accomplish from a business perspective, now that cloud-based service solutions have matured to become a viable alternative?

andy
andy

If you work with a nonprofit, you might take a look at using Google Apps for Nonprofits. Google Apps for Nonprofits is free for 501(c)(3) orgs in the U.S. Might be worth considering when the in-house mail server needs replacing / upgrading. Thanks for reading! --Andy

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

To saying lets switch from MS Office to Libre. Libre is free so therefore it will be cheaper. . Well yes as far as it goes, ignores the big picture though Switch over, rejig your operation, support, coping with feature differences, unless your usage is trivial, those costs will make the saving such as it might be, negligible.

ICanFixIt
ICanFixIt

It covers most of those points and more. Notably the MS Lync service gives you chat, presence, IP telephony and more. Google apps has similar features with google voice, G Chat, etc. And of course they integrate into their office apps and cloud storage and many 3rd party apps too. Cloud services have matured well past simple webmail. And to keep the users happy they can use it with Outlook like they always did with pretty much the same full functionality as in house exchange (obviously not for you as a Domino user, but that's what most businesses want). I think you should take another look what is out there in the cloud. You might be surprised.

tbmay
tbmay

It won't be an option for some environments with stringent security requirements; however, self hosting for everyone else is already considered a stone age mentality. Regardless of all the warts the idea has, it's simply not a battle worth fighting any more.

tbmay
tbmay

...however his security argument is a red herring. Having a high number of highly skilled and trained security analysts can ease my mind regarding threats from OUTSIDE the cloud provider. However, are these security experts tasked with snooping on my data themselves? Do these providers take a legal position?

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Per my post on scale and provider defined service levels you really need to know if all the other fish you are swimming with are your peers. In our case we had e-mail as a service and had a terrible time because many in the pool were [I]residential[/I] customers not corporate. After one SNAFU too many with the provider we went back to an internal e-mail server. Not to say that there aren't providers who specialize in corporate e-mail, but you need to get that defined in writing and be willing to [I]pay[/I] for it.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

organisation and they switched from their own mailserver to using Gmail in the last couple of years. The organisation is a US based worldwide one and I'm accessing from Australia, and it's always been a webmail system. To check mail via the Gmail version now takes ten times longer to get the mail up, and every time I log in I get an ugly red bar across the top telling me I need to load and use Chrome to get the best out the email system. In the past i checked mail each day i went there, between all the volunteers the mail was checked each day. A recent check with the other staff caused me to find out that the mail is checked once a week by and once a week two days later by another member of staff. The reason for stopping that most cited were (a). the long time needed to work the gmail system, and (b). the ugly bar demanding we change to Chrome. Remember, everything has its price, it's just a cse of if it's dollars or something else.

dogknees
dogknees

Exchange won't do what we currently do with Domino, so something that does "pretty much" the same doesn't cut it.

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