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Email upgrades are more than messaging

When the time comes to upgrade your SMB's email system, remember: Email messaging isn't the only factor worth evaluating.

Email is unquestionably a critical communications tool for the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). The total market of SMB users was 243 million individuals in 2006 and is projected to reach 278 million seats in 2009, according to Osterman Research Inc. in Black Diamond, Wash. Upgrading your existing email suite, then, should be a top priority. And when the time comes, there are a number of evaluation criteria to consider.

First, SMB CIOs need to consider more than just the messaging medium when weighing upgrade options, said Erica Driver, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Boston. "The discussion is no longer about just email; it's an entire collaboration platform," she said.

Vendors such as Microsoft and IBM have put together communication suites that include not just email, but instant messaging, social networking and collaboration tools as well. "Email is the commodity product of the suite, but the CIO needs to look at the application strategy of the entire suite," Drive said.

Evaluating each suite in terms of how it fits within your company's preferred method of doing business will go a long way toward ensuring a successful upgrade. "Look at the entire application strategy. It's critical that the IT owner should include the broad capabilities beyond just messaging," Driver said.

SMBs tend not to have the skill sets of a 150,000 employee enterprise ... so they tend to wait until they're pushed.

Erica Driver, principal analyst, Forrester Research Inc.

Driver also pointed out that the tendency of SMBs to cling to their email software makes switching vendors a slightly more palatable option. "SMBs tend not to have the skill sets of a 150,000 employee enterprise with a group of 15 people dedicated to email, so they tend to wait until they're pushed," she said. In such a scenario, switching vendors isn't as high a hurdle as you might think. "The current version of the product on the market has changed so much that switching vendors isn't much harder -- it's certainly worth evaluating," she said.

The upgrade process itself is fairly straightforward: design, test, launch the pilot program and roll it out. Depending on the size of the company, the upgrade can sometimes be done in one shot. "Up to 700 to 800 people tend to be done over a long weekend," Driver said. "If you have distributed offices, or one administrator who needs to travel to those locations to do the upgrades, [then] you may have to co-exist systems for a while."

Raymond Boggs, vice president of SMB Research at IDC, cautions SMBs against skimping on the training budget, too. "One thing is they [SMBs] always forget about training," he said. "The assumption is that people already know how to use it, and that's not the case." Boggs recommended that CIOs consider the extent to which an email program is self-explanatory when making the original purchase. "If you have very modest IT resources in place, that's a capability that you want to try and obtain," he said.

Email upgrades offer other twists as well, especially when it comes to dealing with resellers. "Their [SMBs'] relationships with VARs throws a wrinkle into this," Boggs said, referring to value-added resellers. "SMBs generally stay with the incumbent vendor, but if Charlie the VAR screws up the implementation, they may look at it some more." As such, vendors strive to make their channel partners as attractive as possible, through certification and training.

Don't forget storage

A related problem is email storage, a real wild card issue with many SMBs. "Our biggest issue is managing the file size -- it just keeps growing and growing," said Toby Keeler, CIO of HiRel Systems LLC, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based SMB that manufactures military power supplies. SMBs need to evaluate their email storage needs and find a way to manage the growth, an area where VARS may be able to help. Don't forget, however, that your storage management strategy must also satisfy compliance and legal discovery requirements, throwing another challenge into the mix. "You can't just arbitrarily delete emails after three months when you take the aspect of discovery into consideration," Boggs said.

Finally, there's the outsourcing option. As SMBs evaluate the costs of upgrading and administering email, many opt for hosted email services, such as those run by Apptix Inc. or Google Inc. "It's an attractive option in that it's often less resource intensive and less expensive," Driver said. Moreover, these providers also offer services such as archiving, helping SMBs deal with compliance and discovery issues as well.

Whatever option you decide on, be sure to do thorough due diligence when upgrading your email system. After all, Boggs said, "It's really an information lifeline for the SMB."

Carol Hildebrand is a contributing writer based in Wellesley, Mass.

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