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

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