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Five steps to take when choosing an email hosting provider

Making a move to email hosting should not be taken lightly. Our experts detail how to prepare your organization for the move and what to look for in a partner.

Organizations struggle with internal IT services, trying to provide world-class services on bottom-line budgets. While IT staff members do their very best in these tough situations, the results often fall short of requirements. Fortunately, new technologies and outside hosting providers are making it easier to provide high-quality service on small budgets -- the one major difference being that the service may no longer be hosted within your internal organization. This is one aspect of IT outsourcing.

While outsourcing originally meant using hired guns to perform the work within your own infrastructure, today it also means using those same hired guns to perform the work -- but this time, within their own infrastructure, located outside your premises. In many ways, this greatly simplifies the project since you're no longer responsible for the creation of the infrastructure itself.

An excellent example is email hosting. When you put in an email infrastructure -- especially for a complex email system such as Microsoft Exchange -- you need to plan for a redundant infrastructure, running a minimum of two servers, each covering for the other so that your email system is always up and running, and your users can be as productive as possible.

When you outsource the Exchange email project, you quickly discover that this redundancy, and all of the complexity that goes along with it, is no longer your concern. It becomes the concern of the email hosting provider. You no longer have to pay for infrastructure components. All you need is to fill out the requirements for your email system, including redundancy, backup, system protection, security and any other component you think you might need, and your service provider is responsible for providing these. In return, you're responsible for paying as you go, usually a flat monthly fee on a per user basis -- a much simpler process than putting it all together yourself.

Microsoft Exchange is ideally suited to this purpose, since it provides the ability for service providers to segregate different customer environments from each other, even if they're hosted on the same machines. Microsoft Outlook can connect to an external Exchange server through secure Web connections and the AutoDiscover feature, which automatically configures the end user's client system. All you have to do is include the Exchange AutoDiscover records within your domain name servers, and make them point to your service provider's email system. Since the connection is through the Web, your end users will have access to email wherever they are. Your service provider will even include an offering that transfers all of the mail data from either end users' computers, or your own previous internal email system to theirs, helping you retain all data.

Email hosting is a simple step and a valuable way to reduce internal IT costs for organizations of all sizes. However, since email is often the lifeblood of an organization, it should not be undertaken lightly. Take the following steps to select your email hosting provider:

  1. Make sure you fully understand your email requirements. Inventory your current situation and identify if there is any data that can be archived before you make the move.

  2. Outline the services you want to include in your email system. For example, if you have teams of users who interact with each other's mailboxes, make sure you list that in your email outsourcing request. Also include data protection, continuous service delivery, security and other elements in this request.

  3. Carefully select your email hosting provider based on its published features and costs. Email outsourcing costs can run from pennies per user to much more. Check the service record of your provider before you leap into a contract.

  4. Make sure your provider is using the latest versions of the email software. If the email service is Exchange, then it should be running Exchange Server 2010, with its latest updates. Exchange is a constantly evolving product, and your provider should be on top of the required updates.

  5. Verify the level of service you can expect from your provider. For example, if it performs a migration or an upgrade from one version of Exchange to another, will you experience an interruption in service? If yes, how long will this interruption last, and can it be tied to your own business cycles to reduce the impact on your organization?

Outsourcing email is a great idea if you choose the right provider. And since the service will be over the Web, you don't have to really care where the provider is -- unless you have a requirement for a specific location -- as long as you receive the level of service that you expect and require for the money you will pay. If you're struggling with internal IT, then outsourcing is the right place to look to reduce these headaches, and email is definitely the first place to start.

Danielle and Nelson Ruest are IT experts focused on virtualization, continuous service availability and infrastructure optimization. They have written multiple books, including Virtualization: A Beginner's Guide for McGraw-Hill Osborne, and MCTS Self-Paced Training Kit (Exam 70-652): Configuring Windows Server Virtualization with Hyper-V for Microsoft Press. Contact them at or

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