Exchange: Should I stay or should I go?

So, in light of the pros and cons of the alternatives laid out in this test, should I keep going with Exchange, or should I switch?

The only truthful answer we can give is "it depends."

Certainly, Exchange is the more expensive messaging proposition, at least to start. There are many ways to buy Exchange, depending on how many users you need, but the short answer is that none of them cost less than about $75 per user and can run up to $140 per user for the bundles that include Exchange and Windows Server and user licenses for both of those as well as Forefront, Microsoft's antispam/antivirus service. Compared with a first-year cost of $10 to $60 per user coupled with the possibility of running it on an open source operating system, the Exchange alternatives we tested are clearly less expensive.

If you really want to make a case for cost, you could also claim that Exchange requires a $90 Outlook license for each user, a Windows XP or Vista license for each user, and more expensive hardware than a similar open source platform might require. Of course, those arguments are pretty specious: most businesses already have Office (which includes Outlook); they already have Windows PCs; and they probably already have Windows Server running somewhere.

But looking beyond cost, how does Exchange stand up to the less-expensive competition? Pretty darn well. In fact, with the possible exception of Macintosh support, there is no compelling reason to use a different e-mail product. Exchange works; it does a good job; it has a strong extended feature set; and the support is top-notch.

Exchange is, first and foremost, a mailbox server, and it does that job really, really well. It integrates with Active Directory cleanly, and certainly covers all the basic requirements for a mailbox server. When it comes to extended features, such as webmail and unified communications, Exchange meets or beats all of the products we tested. With the exception of CommuniGate Pro, nothing comes close to Exchange's support for VoIP tools and protocols.

If you require scalability, either within a single site or across multiple sites, Exchange delivers. With both availability and scalability features, Exchange has a broader reach than any of the competing products we evaluated. It's definitely true that your hardware requirements with Exchange will be higher than with some of the performance-focused products we looked at, but when you're looking at 100 to 1,000 users, you're not really stressing any of the products installed on modern hardware.

Exchange management has often been cited as a weak spot, and it's certainly not the brightest light in Microsoft's arsenal. However, with Exchange 2007, management has been extended to include both GUI and command line options, meeting a common complaint. But is Exchange 2007 as easy to manage as some of the other products we tested? No, definitely not. You're going to have a harder learning curve with Exchange, and it's likely you'll spend more time getting it installed and running cleanly. None of the products we tested took more than a half-day to get running successfully, while our Exchange test deployment took several days of hard work.

Migration in Exchange is either easy, or impossible. If you're moving from Exchange 2003 to 2007, it's simple, easy and well-documented. If you're still running Exchange 5.5, you've got a problem and are going to have to turn to some third-party tool and an experienced consultant to make it all work.

In some areas, such as e-mail retention management, Exchange 2007 is way ahead of everyone else. In others, such as compliance, it's about the same.

So what's the final answer? Certainly, if cost is your main driver, our tests show that there are other products that will meet your needs at a dramatically lower price.

If price is not most important, focus on features, such as scalability across multiple sites, Macintosh synchronization and unified communications. These will help differentiate products and let you identify which ones will meet your needs and which ones won't.

And if it comes down to a close race, use management for the tie-breaker. For a small number of users, 250 or less, Exchange 2007 management time, effort and frustration will be higher than some of the alternative that pulled down the top management scores.

If you see yourself having to scale up across multiple servers or even multiple disk drives in the same server, Exchange 2007 management will begin to pay off very quickly by centralizing and controlling everything from a single console.

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