In my post, "Why email is a good place to start when moving to the cloud," I discussed how difficult it can be to gauge what fragment of an on-premise data center should be moved to the cloud first. I then proceeded to suggest that e-mail might become an obvious choice. Financially speaking, I attributed this to the idea that email is extremely costly, and probably more importantly, with on-premise email it's difficult to fully realize the cost of all the resources needed to support such as system (a lack of financial transparency). On the other hand, I didn't do much to suggest exactly why the cloud might serve as better alternative.
Not unlike most cloud solutions, email shares many of the same holistic benefits that an on-demand architecture can offer. In my post, "Making a Business Case for the Cloud," I listed a number of these ubiquitous archetypes, such as a greater access to pooled CPU or virtual memory, as well as the ability to scale compute resources as needed. But e-mail is somewhat unique in the manner in which it is more of a support mechanism than anything. Essentially, outside of some exceptions, like message filtering, email administration is more of a tedious endeavor than an artfully mastered one. Contrarily though, email is arguably one of the most mission-critical pieces of software that can run within enterprise settings-often demanding 99.9% uptime, and warranting tactical attention and contingency planning. Some might think this notion works against the case for the cloud, but it's exactly the opposite, as backup or disaster recovery is not a new dilemma and needs to be addressed regardless of the deployment type. In respect to the cloud, backup, redundancy or even failover clusters can all occur in the cloud, perhaps through another service provider all together. Furthermore, a hybrid approach can be taken, where both cloud and on-premise deployments are used in conjunction with one another.
Although the functional benefits of cloud-based e-mail are countless, I see three major opportunities for organizations that take advantage of a cloud-based option.
Functional benefits#1 No upgrading, add-on installation, or patching
As suggested above, there are a number of benefits that the cloud can offer, and the elimination of having to upgrade, install add-ons, or patch software could definitely be noted as some of the more obvious ones. Nevertheless, and again-as suggested above, e-mail is a distinct case, because it often requires perpetual uptime. Removing some of the tasks that often necessitate blackouts and sometimes cause unforeseen issues like crashes, you jettison some of the most problematic issues that plague email administrators. Not to say that there aren't blackouts with cloud e-mail services-there most certainly are. However, the responsibility is emplaced upon the service provider, who will most likely sandbox or segment separate instances of their cloud, in order to test whatever they are performing (upgrade, installation of new feature, patch, etc.). That way, in the case of failure, only a small portion of the service's user population is affected. Of course, something similar can be done from within a private data center when multiple e-mail servers are used, but to what cost?#2 More operative use of IT staff
The goal behind any IT department should be to focus as much as possible on projects that add new value to the business they serve. Email is a necessary evil, but supporting what has already been provisioned isn't exactly a value-adding venture. Therefore, by taking away the hardware element to email, amongst many of the more mundane undertakings on the software side of things (i.e., load balancing), an organization can make more operative use of their staff by assigning them that value-adding work I speak of.#3 Scalable and well-distributed resources
Once more, the ability to scale and distribute compute resources up-and-down is nothing unordinary when it comes to cloud computing. However, when it comes to such a resource intensive system like email, the ability to scale and evenly distribute resources across hundreds of thousands of users becomes that much more exaggerated. This is especially the case for organizations like universities that don't have the capital to provide for the vast amount of users-not to mention changeover. For most email cloud providers, like Google with its Gmail product, the allocation of users based upon the volatility of a user population is a cinch, as resources are automatically dispensed by the provider itself.
Financial benefits#1 Turn a variable expense into fixed one
Ask any accountant, the ability to realize a fixed expense is much easier than planning for a variable one. As discussed in my last post, the ability to gain financial transparency can be reason alone to move your email to the cloud. Furthermore, by eliminating the debt liability that is email, or the on-premise assets that are a condition of it, a company can free up capital on their balance sheet, and thus, spread the expense over time. This especially holds implications for a company that is cash strapped, or wishes to invest the difference between an upfront expense and a deferred one into new revenue streams. For an IT department, it can easily free up necessary space under a tight annual budget.#2 More cost-effective use of IT staff
Think I'm starting to sound redundant here? Are you saying to yourself, "didn't he account for this under the functional benefits of moving e-mail to the cloud above?" Well, think again, because when it comes to IT, there are always two sides to the coin. One of those sides being the idea that an organization should reduce the operating expenses and overhead as much as possible before any tolerable level of product or service degradation can be noticed. By right-sourcing or reassigning job functions from rather banal ones, an organization can get much more bang for their buck out of an employee. In return, an employee can receive the satisfaction of knowing that they are gainfully employed, and thus, earn a much nobler sense of job security. Most importantly, he/she will have a greater sense of gratification knowing that they are doing something more worthwhile than patching or upgrading an old email system.#3 Again, scalable and well-distributed resources
As I said already, not knowing where the bottom-line cost of email stands can wreak havoc on an organization's cash flow. By moving to a subscription or pay-as-you-go model, most of the guesswork is eliminated. Yes, it's hard to understand how many employees will need email from one given month to another, or what level of access for that matter, but with the ability to scale and distribute resources, one is able to set thresholds or resource caps to prevent the cost of email from going over budget. Even if caps aren't set, by paying for email like you would pay for a utility, an enterprise gains a far greater level of consistency and predictability when it comes to month-over-month outlays.
Ian is a manager of business intelligence/analytics for a small cap NYSE traded energy company. He also freelance writes about business and technology, as well as consults SMBs upon Internet marketing strategy.