Tag Archives: exchange

Colossus vs. Cloud – an Email System Showdown

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

If your nonprofit has 40 or more people on staff, it’s a likely bet that you use Microsoft Exchange as your email server. There are, of course, many nonprofits that will use the email services that come with your web hosting, and there are some using legacy products like Novell’s Groupwise or Lotus Notes/Domino. But the market share for email and groupware has gone to Microsoft, and, at this point, the only compelling up and coming competition comes from Google.

There are reasons why Microsoft has dominated the market. Exchange is a mature and powerful product, that does absolutely everything that an email system has to do, and offers powerful calendaring, contact management and information sharing features on top of it. A quick comparison to Google’s GMail offering might look a bit like “Bambi vs. Godzilla“. And, as Michelle pointed out the other day, GMail might be a risky proposition, despite it being more affordable, because it puts your entire mail store “in the cloud”. But Gmail’s approach is so radically different from Microsoft’s that I think it deserves a more detailed pro/con comparison.

Before we start, it’s important to acknowledge that the major difference is the hosted/cloud versus local installation, and there’s a middle ground – services that host Exchange for you – Microsoft even has their own cloud service. If you are evaluating email platforms and including GMail and Exchange, hosted Exchange should be weighed as an additional option. But my goal here is to contrast the new versus the traditional, and traditional Exchange installations are in your server room, not someone else’s.

Server Platform

Installing Exchange is not a simple task. Smaller organizations can get away with cheaper hardware, but the instructions say that you’ll need a large server for mail storage; a secondary server for web and internet functions, and, most likely, a third server to house your third party anti-spam and anti-virus solutions. Plus, Exchange won’t work in a Linux or Novell network – there has to be an additional server running Microsoft’s Active Directory in place before you can even install it. It can be a very stable product if you get the installation right, but getting it right means doing a lot of prep and research, because the slim documents that come in the box don’t prepare you for the complexity. Once you have it running, you have to run regular maintenance and keep a close watch – along with mailbox limits – to insure that the message bases don’t fill up or corrupt.

GMail, on the other hand, is only available as a hosted solution. Setup is a matter of mapping your domain to Google’s services (can be tricky, but child’s play compared to Exchange) and adding your users.

Win – GMail. It saves you a lot of expense, when you factor in the required IT time and expertise with the hardware and software costs for multiple servers.

EMail Clients

Outlook has it’s weaknesses – slow and obtuse search, poor spam handling, and a tendency toward unexplained crashes and slowdowns on a regular basis. But, as a traditional mail client, it has a feast of features. There isn’t much that you can’t do with it. One of the most compelling reasons to stick with Outlook is it’s extensibility. Via add-ons and integrations, Outlook can serve as a portal to applications, databases, web sites and communications. In a business environment, you might be sacrificing some key functionality without it, much as you often have to use Internet explorer in order to access business-focused web sites.

But where Outlook is a very hefty application, with tons of features and settings buried in it’s cavernous array of menus and dialog boxes, Gmail is deceptively uncluttered. The truth is that the web-based GMail client can do a lot of sophisticated tricks, including a few that Outlook can’t — like allowing you to decide that you’d rather “Reply to All” mid-message — and some that you can only do with Outlook by enabling obscure features and clicking around a lot, like threading conversations and applying multiple “tags” to a single message. Gmail is the first mail client to burst out of the file cabinet metaphor. Once you get used to this, it’s liberating. Messages don’t get archived to drawers, they get tagged with one or more labels. You can add stars to the important ones. It’s not that you can’t emulate this workflow in Outlook, it’s that it’s fast and smooth in GMail, and supported by a very intelligent and blazingly fast search function. Of course, if that doesn’t float your boat, you can always use Outlook – or any other standard POP3 or IMAP client – to access GMail.

Win – GMail. It’s more innovative and flexible, and I didn’t even dig deep.

Availability

Exchange, of course, is not subject to the vagaries of internet availability when you’re at the office. Mind you, much of the mail that you’re waiting to receive is. And Outlook – if you run in “Cached mode” – has had offline access down for ages. GMail just started experimenting with that this week. If you’re not in the office, Exchange supports a variety of ways to get to the mail. Outlook Web Access (OWA) is a sophisticated web-based client that, with Exchange 2007 and IE as the browser, almost replicates the desktop Outlook experience. OMA is a mobile-friendly web interface. And ActiveSync, which is supported on many phones (including the iPhone) is the most powerful, stable and feature-rich synchronization platform available. Exchange can do POP and IMAP as well, and also supports a VPN-like mode called Outlook Anywhere (or HTTPS over RPC).

GMail only supports web, pop and IMAP. There’s a mobile GMAIL app which is available on more phones than Activesync is, but it isn’t as robust or full featured as Microsoft’s offering.

So, oddly, the Win for remote access goes to Microsoft over Google, because Microsoft’s offerings are plentiful and mature.

Business Continuity

So, not to belabor this, Exchange is well supported by many powerful backup products. In cached mode, it mirrors your server mailbox to your dektop, which is additional redundancy.

GMail is in the cloud, so backup isn’t quite as straightforward. Offline mode does some synchronization, like Exchange’s cached mode, but it’s not 100% or, at this point, configurable. Prudent GMail users will, even if they don’t read mail in it, set up a POP email program to regularly download their mail in order to have a local copy.

Win – Microsoft

Microsoft also Wins the security comparison – Google can, and has, cut off user’s email accounts. There seem to have been good reasons, such as chasing out hackers who had commandeered accounts. But keeping your email on your backed-up server behind your firewall will always be more secure than the cloud.

But I’d hedge that award with the consideration that Exchange’s complexity is a risk in itself. It’s all well and safe if it is running optimally and it’s being backed up. But most nonprofits are strapped when it comes to the staffing and cost to support this kind of solution. If you can’t provide the proper care and feeding that a system like Exchange requires, you might well be at more risk with an in-house solution. The competence of a vendor like Google managing your servers is a plus.

Finally, cost. GMail wins hands down. The supported Google Apps platform is free for nonprofits. Microsoft offers us deep discounts with their charity pricing, but Dell and HP don’t match on the hardware, and certified Microsoft Administrators come in the $60-120k annual range.

So, in terms of ease of management and cost, GMail easily wins. There are some big trade-offs between Microsoft’s kitchen sink approach to features and Google’s intelligent, progressive functionality, and, in well-resourced environments, Microsoft is the secure choice, but in tightly resourced ones – like nonprofits – GMail is a stable and supported option. The warnings about trusting Google — or any other Software as a Service vendor — are prudent, but there are a lot of factors to weigh. And it’s going to come down to a lot of give and take, with considerations particular to your environment, to determine what the effective choice is. In a lot of cases, the cloud will weigh heavier on the scale than the colossus.

Biting The Hand – Conclusion

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in October of 2008.

This is the final post in a three part series on Microsoft.  Be sure to read Part 1, on the history/state of the Windows operating system, and Part 2, on developing for the Microsoft platform.

Two More Stories – A Vicious Exchange

In late 2006, I moved an organization of about 500 people from Novell Groupwise to Microsoft Exchange 2007.  After evaluating the needs, I bought the standard edition, which supported message storageup to 16GB (Our Groupwise message base took up about 4GB).  A few days after we completed the migration, which included transferring the Groupwise messages to Exchange, an error popped up in the Event Viewer saying that our message store was larger than the 16GB limit, and, sure enough, it was – who knew that Microsoft messages were so much larger than Groupwise messages?

The next day, Event Viewer reported that our message store was too large and that it would be dismounted at 5:00 am, meaning that email would be, essentially, disconnected.  Huh?  I connected remotely the next morning and remounted at about 5:10.  I also scoured the Microsoft Knowledgebase, looking for a recommendation on this, and found nothing.  I called up my vendor and ordered the Enterprise version of Exchange, which supports a much larger message store.  A couple of days later, same thing.  My new software hadn’t arrived yet.  The next day, the message changed, saying that our message store was too large and would be dismounted randomly! What!?  This meant that the server could go down in the middle of the business day.  The software arrived, and I tossed the box on my desk and scheduled to come in on Sunday (which happened to be New Year’s Day, 2007) to do the upgrade. But when I opened the box, I discovered that my vendor had sent me Enterprise media, yes, but it was for Exchange Server 2005, the prior version.  I was hosed.

Frantic, I went to Google instead of the knowledge base and searched.  This yielded a blog entry explaining that, with Exchange Server 2007 Service Pack 2 (which I had applied as part of the initial installation), it was now legal to have message stores of up to 75GB.  All I had to do was modify a registry entry on the server – problem solved.  Wow, who woulda thunk?  Particularly if this had been documented anywhere on the Microsoft Knowledgebase?

But here’s my question: What Machiavellian mind came up with the compliance enforcement routine that I experienced, and why was my business continuity threatened by code designed to stop me from doing something perfectly legal under the Service Pack 2 licensing?  This was sloppy, and this was cruel, and this was not supportive of the customer.

Cheap ERP

In early 2007, I hired a consultant to help with assessing and developing our strategic technology plan.  This was at a social services agency, and one of our issues was that, since we hired our clients, having separate databases to track client progress and Human Resources/Payroll resulted in large amounts of duplicate data entry and difficult reporting. The consultant and I agreed that a merged HR/Client Management system would be ideal. So, at lunch one day, I nearly fell off my chair laughing when he suggested that we look at SAP.  SAP, for those who don’t know, is a database and development platform that large companies use in order to deploy highly customized and integrated business computing platforms.  Commonly referred to as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, it’s a good fit for businesses with the unique needs and ample budgets to support what is, at heart, an internally developed set of business applications.  The reason I found this so entertaining was that, even if we could afford SAP, then hiring the technical staff to develop it into something that worked for us would be way beyond our means.  SAP developers make at least six figures a year, and we would have needed two or more to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time.  It’s unrealistic for even a mid-sized nonprofit to look at that kind of investment in technology.

So Microsoft holds a unique position — like SAP, or Oracle, they offer a class of integrated products that can run your business.  Unlike SAP or Oracle, they’re pretty much what they are – you can customize and integrate them, at a cost, but you can’t, for instance, extend Microsoft’s Dynamics HR package into a Client Management System.  But, if you have both Dynamics and Social Solutions, which runs on Microsoft SQL Server, you’d have a lot more compatibility and integration capabilities than we had at our social services org, where our HR system was outsourced and proprietary and the client management software ran on Foxpro.

Bangs for the Buck

So this is where it leaves me – Micosoft is a large, bureaucratic mess of a company that has so many developers on each product that one will be focusing on how to punish customers for non-compliance while another is making the customers compliant.  Their product strategy is driven far less by customer demands than it is by marketing strategy.  Their practices have been predatory, and, while that type of thing seems to be easing, there’s still a lot of it ingrained in their culture.  When they are threatened — and they are threatened, by Google and the migration from the desktop to the cloud — they’re more dangerous to their developers and customers, because they are willing to make decisions that will better position them in the market at the cost of our investments.

But Microsoft offers a bargain to businesses that can’t — and shouldn’t – spend huge percentages of their budget on platform development.  They do a lot out of the box, and they have a lot of products to do it with.  Most of their mature products — Office, Exchange, SQL Server — are excellent.  They’re really good at what they do.  The affordable alternative to the commercial ERP systems like SAP and Oracle is open source, but open source platforms are still relatively immature.  Building your web site on an open Source CMS powered by PHP or Ruby on Rails might be a good, economical move that leaves you better off, in terms of ease of use and capabilities, than many expensive commercial options.  But going  open source for Finance, HR and Client Tracking isn’t really much of an option yet.  The possibly viable alternatives to Microsoft are commercial outsourcers like NetSuite, but how well they’ll meet your full needs depends on how complex those needs are – one size fits all solutions tend to work better for small businesses than medium to large ones.

Finally, it’s all well and good to talk about adopting Microsoft software strictly on its merits, but, for many of us, it has far more to do with the critical, non-Microsoft applications we run that assume we’re using their products.  For many of us, considering alternatives like Linux for an operating system; Open Office or Google Apps for productivity; or PHP for our web scripting language are already nixed because our primary databases are all in SQL Server and ASP.  At the law firm where I work, we aren’t about to swap out Word for an alternative without the legal document-specific features that Microsoft richly incorporates into their product.  But it leaves me, as the technology planner, in a bit of a pickle. Windows XP, Office 2003/2007, Exchange 2007, SQL Server 2007, and Windows Server 2003 are all powerful, reliable products that we use and benefit from, and the price we paid for them, through Techsoup and their charity licensing, is phenomenal.  But as we look at moving to web-based computing, and we embark on custom development to meet information management and communication needs that are very specific to our organization, we’re now faced with adopting Microsoft’s more dynamic and, in my opinion, dangerous technologies.

This would all be different if I had more reason to trust the vendor to prioritize my organization’s stability and operating efficiency over their marketing goals.  Or, put differently, if their marketing philosophy was based less on trying to trump their competition and more on being a dependable, trustworthy vendor.  They’re the big dog, just about impossible to avoid, and they make a very compelling financial argument — at first take — for nonprofits.  But it’s a far more complicated price break than it seems at first glance.