Exchange outsource options abound

* Services for pennies per day per mailbox

Several recent surveys indicate surprise that the majority of business people would give up their telephone before they gave up e-mail, but that fits what I see. If the surveys showed people would give up their cell phones before e-mail, that would surprise me, but that's another story.

Companies need e-mail, and the first name they think of is Microsoft and its Exchange server. Managing an Exchange server takes effort and experience. Guaranteeing security and spam control (as much as possible with any e-mail server) requires more resources than many small and even midsize businesses can muster affordably.

If that situation describes your company, your first thought may be to rely on your reseller or consultant to handle your in-house e-mail server. Between remote management options and an occasional visit in person, many resellers offer this service. But if you'd rather not buy the hardware and software necessary to host your own Exchange server in-house, think outsourcing. You have more options than ever before, and these options cost less than you think.

One relatively new company, at least as far as putting its own name in the public, is Singlefin. It has been offering e-mail back-end services to large providers since 2001, but now it is moving into the retail space (and has been purchased by St. Bernard Software, so it should have some staying power). Singlefin already supports over 12 million mailboxes, so its products aimed at SMBs focus on e-mail filtering and archiving. You know the value of spam and virus filtering, but you may not appreciate how valuable a third-party controlled e-mail archive can be.

E-mail archives, required by many federal regulations, help in all manner of employee disputes. Whether they help the employee or the employer is another issue, but companies can access all their past e-mail traffic held by Singlefin in read-only archives. The inability for companies to change their old e-mails is an important legal consideration, for obvious reasons (think Enron coverups). Singlefin archives your e-mail without requiring an extra minute of administration time on your part. If you haven't tried to go back and find one e-mail from a year ago, you may not truly appreciate the value of this service.

Singlefin offers a free trial (not many services but it is free) of its full service suite and two levels of paid services. It even offers e-mail, Instant Messaging and Web surfing filters if you're feeling particularly controlling or have problematic employees, for $2.95 per user per month. The company’s full suite of Exchange replacement services, including Web hosting and e-mail archiving, starts at $9.95 per user per month. All the things you use in Exchange, like shared calendars and shared contact databases, are in that package.

Your Exchange client, the Outlook program that comes inside the Microsoft Office suite, won't complain about a hosted service, and you can switch with little or no hassle. Singlefin updated its Web interface (you can use a Web browser to check your e-mail from any computer rather than using your Outlook client software) and claims it's twice as good as Microsoft's Outlook Web Access. Your mileage may vary, of course, but Outlook Web Access has been awkward and a security issue through several past releases.

Another slant on hosted services comes from HyperOffice, a company I've reported on before. It focused more on collaboration early on, with discussion groups, polls, multiple shared and private calendars and contact databases, and customizable portals for each user. Expanding to Exchange replacement services was a logical step, and a step the company has now taken. Your can switch over to HyperOffice's Exchange hosting, and your Outlook users will never know the difference. Well, they'll notice they have more collaboration options than before, but they will only notice good differences.

HyperOffice starts at $8.99 per user per month (five users for $44.99), and per user prices drop with volume (the same is true for Singlefin). It gives nonprofit groups a 10% discount, which is friendly. When I did a long term test, the service never missed a beat or was unavailable a single time I checked.

Many fear the reliance on an Internet connection makes hosted services such as these vulnerable, but if you host your own services and lose your Internet connection you're still cut off from the world, but worse, the world is cut off from your Web site. Looking at it that way, a hosted service makes your company more accessible on the Internet.

This is not a roundup of third-party hosted Exchange services by any means, but a spotlight on a relatively new service in comparison with one of the pioneers. Every hosted option differs, but almost all offer a free trial period. Take one for a spin, and sell your Exchange for Dummies book on eBay.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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