Supporting users' e-mail and hosting your own e-mail server: pros and cons

On one hand, if you hosted your own e-mail server, everything would be under your own control. On the other hand, do you really want to add this to your list of things to do and manage?

My e-mail provider recently had to shut down their servers so they could install some major upgrades to both their hardware and software. It was supposed to be a three-hour task, one they planned to perform between the hours of 12:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. on Monday morning. By noon that day, however, our e-mail accounts were still inaccessible. By 5:00 p.m., we were receiving e-mail that was sent after 4:30 p.m., but were not yet receiving e-mail that had been sent before then. By the time we all came to work Tuesday morning, everything was back to normal and we were able to download all of our e-mail from the previous day.

Downtime like this certainly does make us realize how dependent we’ve all become on e-mail. It’s an absolutely vital part of our business, and without it, we’d probably lose all of our clients. Fortunately for us, this downtime occurred on a day when nobody had any real pressing projects, which could have meant numerous e-mails exchanges with our clients dealing with any number of last-minute details and file exchanges.

Our e-mail provider did have an automated reply in place to notify senders that their messages had not been delivered, that there was no need to resend it, and that it would eventually reach us. In the very least, our clients were informed of the downtime which did, in a couple of cases, result in phone calls to ask about it.

In cases of an absolute necessity to get an e-mail to us (probably one with a file attachment), I suggested that people could always use a personal account, maybe even a Hotmail or Gmail account. In the case where someone might not want to use a personal account, I offered to make my personal e-mail account available (one of them), which I could access through a Web interface. I suppose using such a personal e-mail account is our only backup method for sending and receiving e-mail.

In this case, I escaped relatively unscathed. As it turned out, it probably happened on the best of days. It does, however, make me ask, What if? What if it had been one of those days where everything was a crisis? In that case, there would probably have been some users who would not have been so patient and understanding.

It also makes me reevaluate the possibility of hosting my own e-mail server, something I’ve been pondering for years. On one hand, if I hosted my own e-mail server, everything would be under my own control. On the other hand, however, there are any number of e-mail issues that I would have to deal with that are currently handled by an outside provider. Do I really want to add this to my list of things to do and manage?

Anyway, I thought I’d throw that food for thought out there to come up with a list of pros and cons of hosting one’s own e-mail server, and/or to explore different e-mail server options. Moreover, feel free to discuss any number of e-mail issues we all might face from time to time. Based on a previous blog in which I asked about the most frequent desktop support issues, dealing with e-mail problems was a common mention.

Maybe with either question, if the replies are plentiful enough, I’ll compile the lists and post them in a future blog.