I’ve been a Microsoft Exchange veteran since Exchange 4.0. As much as I like Microsoft Exchange, the sad truth is that Exchange isn’t a good e-mail server solution for every environment. For smaller organizations, Exchange is often too big and too complicated.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to Exchange. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll introduce you to an e-mail server from Ipswitch called IMail. I’ll show you the ins and outs of what IMail has to offer, and explain why IMail may sometimes prove to be a better e-mail server solution than Microsoft Exchange.

So what’s wrong with Exchange?
While Exchange is a great product, and a good e-mail platform for medium- to large-size organizations, it’s often a poor choice for smaller businesses. It’s just too expensive and complicated.

The initial complication comes into play at the time of purchase. There isn’t just one version of Exchange. There’s the standard edition of Exchange 2000 Server, Exchange 2000 Enterprise Server, and Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server. In addition to having to figure out which is the appropriate version to use, businesses must also determine if the full version is required, or if they are eligible for an upgrade version, which tends to save quite a bit of money.

As you might expect, each version of Exchange has its own price, but they’re all expensive. Exchange 2000 Server costs about $700, while the Exchange 2000 Enterprise Server and the Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server each cost about $4,000. While a $700 to $4,000 price range isn’t all that outrageous, each user must have an Exchange 2000 Client Access License. These licenses cost $67 a piece, or you can get a copy of Exchange 2000 Enterprise Server complete with 25 Client Access Licenses for about $7,000. Is your head spinning yet?

All of the complexity and costs that I’ve described so far are only for purchasing Exchange 2000. You must also consider the cost of installing and supporting the product. Installing Exchange 2000 can be a complicated process, depending on what other server products exist in your organization. The real cost and complexity are involved in the long-term support and administration of the product.

Cost comparison of IMail
IMail is both less expensive and easier to buy than Exchange 2000 Server. Rather than the plethora of options for purchasing Exchange, there are only three purchasing options for IMail. Prices start at $995 for a copy of IMail with 250 user licenses. A 1,000-user license costs $1,495, and you can purchase an unlimited user license for only $1,995. Keep in mind that Microsoft doesn’t offer an unlimited Exchange 2000 Server license at any price.

Table A illustrates the differences in costs between IMail and Exchange. The chart compares the standard and enterprise versions of Exchange 2000 Server to IMail.
Table A

Exchange 2000

Exchange 2000
Enterprise Server

250 users, single server $17,449 $20,749 $995
1,000 users, single server $67,699 $70,999 $1,495
1,000 users, two servers $68,398 $74,998 $2,990
5,000 users, single server $335,699 $338,999 $1,995
5,000 users, two servers $336,398 $342,998 $3,990

You can download a 30-day evaluation copy of IMail from Ipswitch’s Web site. The download size is only 8.4 MB. Because of the small size, I assumed that some features found in the retail version were probably omitted from the demo. Not so! As you’ll see below, even the evaluation version is full-featured and ready-to-go.

What can IMail do?
Okay, so IMail is cheap and easy to buy. But most of the time when price is the main selling point, you end up finding out the hard way that “You get what you pay for.” As it turns out, IMail has several other very compelling selling points besides price.

Unlike Exchange 2000 Server or even Lotus Notes, IMail is designed to be easy to deploy and manage. According to the IMail product Web site, IMail is designed to be so easy to deploy that you can have it up and running in about 20 minutes. By way of comparison, the last time that I installed Exchange 2000 Server, the installation process took over an hour, and then I spent another 45 minutes loading the latest service pack. That’s almost two hours just to install the product, never mind configuring it.

But just because IMail can be installed quickly doesn’t mean that IMail is short on features. IMail has actually been around since 1996, and the folks at Ipswitch are responsible for many e-mail server firsts. According to the product Web site, IMail was the first Windows NT-based e-mail server to include such things as:

  • Web messaging (1996)
  • A built-in list server (1996)
  • Antispam technology (1997)
  • Web-based calendaring (2001)

IMail was built with scalability in mind. It supports a maximum of roughly 100,000 users per mail server, and a single mail server can easily process over a million messages per day. Additionally, multiple IMail servers can be combined to support larger organizations and to provide fault tolerance should a server fail.

An additional scalability feature is the support of multiple virtual hosts. IMail can support thousands of domain names on a single server with or without assigning a dedicated IP address to each domain name. This functionality allows IMail to host the e-mail services for multiple organizations or for multiple domains within a single organization. By doing so, the organization saves the costs associated with having to provide a separate server for each hosted domain. Hosting multiple domains on a single server also allows the administrator to centrally manage the mail services.

IMail offers a wide array of security options that you can use to protect your network and your users. For starters, it supports 128-bit SSL for Web messaging and Web calendaring. This feature protects IMail users against electronic eavesdropping. IMail is also designed to be able to securely communicate passwords between the server and many popular e-mail client applications, such as Microsoft Outlook and Eudora.

Another nice feature is that IMail is able to analyze inbound files and filter specific file types in an effort to prevent viral infections. This functionality is native to the product and is totally independent of any antivirus software that may be installed.

IMail goes to great lengths to help your organization crack down on inbound and outbound spam. For starters, to prevent your employees from sending spam, you can limit the number of recipients that an outbound message can be sent to.

As for inbound messages, you can configure the server to prevent message relaying or to only allow specific types of users to relay messages. Message relaying is a common spamming technique in which spammers pass spam through a third-party server in an effort to disguise the message’s true origin.

As you might expect, IMail also provides several different filtering options that allow you to block messages based on domain name, user name, IP address, or content.

System requirements
The absolute minimum system requirements for IMail are an Intel Pentium PC with 64 MB of RAM and 2 GB of free hard-disk space, running Windows NT 3.51 with Service Pack 5. However, as is often the case, the minimum system requirements don’t always deliver adequate performance and, therefore, higher end hardware is recommended.

For mail servers with larger numbers of users, Ipswitch recommends having at least a dual processor Pentium II with 1 GB of RAM and 96 MB of hard drive space free.

Keep in mind that these hardware requirements are only estimates and the actual needs will vary depending on the actual workload that the users place on the server. The hardware requirements also vary widely depending on the operating system that’s being used. IMail will run on Windows NT 3.51, 2000, or XP. Obviously, you can’t expect to use a Pentium 1 machine efficiently with the Windows XP operating system. You must make sure your hardware can support your operating system and still have enough power left to act as a mail server.

For the purposes of this Daily Drill Down, I installed the evaluation copy of IMail onto a 1.8-GHz Pentium 4 with 512 MB of RAM. To make things interesting, this machine was also running Windows.NET Enterprise Server Beta 3.

The test
After downloading the executable file, I ran it. The Setup program decompressed the files within the archive file and then began the installation process. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the evaluation version contains many e-mail components, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
The evaluation version of IMail contains many useful components.

I decided to configure my server as a POP3 and SMTP server. I selected the corresponding options from the screen shown in Figure A, and the Setup program did the rest. The entire installation process took less than a minute on my test machine.

When the Setup program was finished installing, my IMail folder contained a number of icons, as shown in Figure B. As you can see in the figure, some of these icons have names like ADDDOMAIN or ADDUSER. However, you don’t have to try to guess the correct icon. Instead, IMail creates a menu off the Start menu with several different options.

Figure B
The Setup program creates lots of files.

Among the menu options are the IMail Administrator, the IMail Client, The IMail SSL Configuration utility, and several different documentation files. As you can see in Figure C, the IMail Administrator is very similar to the Exchange System manager. The main console screen is divided into a services section, and a configuration section. The services section allows you to stop, start, and configure the various mail-related services, which can be accomplished with minimal difficulty.

Figure C
The IMail Administrator program allows you to control the mail-server related services.

The lower portion of the IMail Administrator allows you to control Aliases, Lists, and Users. Clicking on the User container allows you to set global user settings, as shown in Figure D, while selecting the individual users allows you to control a multitude of settings for each individual user, as shown in Figure E.

Figure D
You can control global user defaults from within the Users container.

Figure E
There are many settings you can use for individual user accounts.

The IMail client was equally simple to use. The initial login screen asks for some very basic information such as your user ID, password, and e-mail address, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F
The initial sign on process is very basic.

Once you’ve supplied this information, you can use the Outlook style client to send and receive messages, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G
This is the actual e-mail client.

It’s easy to configure IMail; I was able to get it up and running in less than half an hour—including download time. I would recommend IMail to anyone who needs to create an e-mail server on a budget.

So why buy Exchange 2000 Server?
After reading this Daily Drill Down, you may be wondering why anyone would still choose Exchange Server over IMail. In the end, mail server choice is really a matter of your resources and your personal preference. After all, not every organization can afford to roll out Exchange 2000 Server, and even if they could, some administrators just like IMail better. On the flip side, Exchange 2000 adds such things as Active Directory integrations that are essential in an enterprise environment. The important thing is to realize that you must make a mail server purchasing decision that best fits the needs of your organization.