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Google Apps, Hosted Exchange and other email service provider options

Our expert lays out the differences among popular email service provider offerings, and offers some questions you should ask before you sign that contract.

The mantra of 2010 seems to be cloud computing, and one of the most obvious applications of cloud technology is email. Unless your business is to provide email to folks, the money and time you're investing in your email infrastructure is likely a cost center -- not a core value proposition for your business.

If you're considering an email service provider, I've put together a quick guide of a few more well-known options, and some talking points to winnow down your list as you begin interviewing providers.

What are your options when choosing an email service provider? There are four main schools of thought at this stage of the game:

  • Google Apps for Business. Based on the very popular Gmail Web application that's available to consumers and small businesses for free -- supported by advertising -- Google Apps for Business allows companies to outsource their email and some calendaring to Google using the familiar Gmail interface, and gain very large storage allotments that come with the standard monthly or yearly fee. While mail can be accessed from traditional clients using IMAP and POP3 protocols, Google's emphasis is on its Web interface, which could be a drawback for many companies.
  • Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS). Microsoft hosts its own software in data centers in North America and Europe and provides access to Exchange and SharePoint as the main pillars of its offering. Additionally, the software giant offers its Live Meeting conferencing software as part of the BPOS suite offering, for a per-user, per-month charge. Customers can also purchase Exchange Online or SharePoint Online individually, without the remainder of the BPOS suite.
  • IBM LotusLive. IBM's new online collaboration suite was released just last month and is essentially an IBM-hosted version of Notes, which can be used like an on-premises installation. It's a direct response to Microsoft's BPOS. There are many other components to LotusLive, including Connections, Meetings, Engage, Events and iNotes, all providing calendaring, task management and event sequencing in a hosted capacity.
  • Third-party hosted Exchange. There are several vendors that offer hosted Exchange-based solutions, similar to Microsoft's BPOS. Some companies may prefer to use third-party services, such as those from Inc. and MailStreet, a division of Apptix Inc., in order to eliminate the perceived risk that software manufacturers, such as Google Inc., will monetize their services by mining potentially proprietary content for advertising keywords.

So you're now talking to an email service provider. What should you look for? What questions should you ask your provider? What unique needs does your business have that should be accounted for in your contract? Here are some steppingstones for your discussions:

  • Service-level agreement (SLA). This is important in guaranteeing the availability and reliability of the service provider with whom you're contracting. Depending on the provider you choose, anywhere from two nines to four nines (99% to 99.99% uptime guarantee) may suit your business needs. Also, be clear about the mean time to resolution -- how long it generally takes for problems to be resolved -- and any grace periods that apply before the enforcement clauses of your SLA take effect.
  • Migration assistance. I once heard a great quote that said, "Email is where knowledge goes to die." I think there's a lot of truth to this -- think how much organizational history and information there is stored with inboxes in your company. You'll want to move as much of that as you can into your new hosted/outsourced environment, so inquire as to what sort of migration assistance -- either from the company directly or through one of its trusted partners -- will be available and whether it's included or extra.
  • Geographic diversity. If your business is spread among multiple continents, you'll want a provider who can offer fast access to users no matter where they are in the world, and not just to your North American or European users. While some providers won't disclose the exact location of their data centers, a region and a traceroute are easy evidence the provider can give to prove its wherewithal.
  • Storage limits. When you outsource, you do lose some control, and in some plans and arrangements you lose control of the maximum quota on a per-mailbox basis. Find out if this will affect you, and how any migration assistance mentioned above can assist in archiving the data that won't be able to come over.
  • Data segregation and siloing. Your company may deal in sensitive information, and by the very nature of a hosted provider, your data may exist on some of the same metal as other companies. Does this interfere with confidentiality agreements you've entered into with your customers and suppliers? What can your candidate email service provider do to ensure that your data is siloed and completely inaccessible to other companies? This is a very important point for government contractors and companies involved in the financial services industries.

Jonathan Hassell is president of The Sun Valley Group Inc. He's an author, consultant and speaker in Charlotte, N.C. Hassell's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual. Contact him at

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