Adecco Group chose to shift the responsibility for malware protection to a specialist, and reduce risks of downtime, by outsourcing its email management to a provider.

When global staffing firm Adecco Group began an effort one year ago to consolidate and outsource its five data centres into one, Dave Bossi came to the realisation that moving the data centre would also move three separately managed Microsoft Exchange email servers of different versions and a fourth legacy email technology - with potentially huge disruption to 10,000 email users.

Bossi, the North American vice president of IT, thought this might be an opportunity to rethink the company's email strategy. "Email tends to get lost in the mix. It becomes an afterthought," Bossi says. Unless, of course, something goes wrong.

Bossi's case for outsourcing broke down like this: If Adecco moved the email servers to a separate outsourced provider, the email systems would be unaffected in the event of any trouble (like network overloads) at Adecco's data centre. Having a dedicated email provider also makes administering email accounts, managing servers and handling frequent software patches more efficient and less dependent on other data centre resources. It shifts the responsibility for malware protection to a specialist - and eliminates the need to manage anti-malware appliances.

CIO Alwin Brunner liked Bossi's logic. Adecco is consolidating its four email platforms into one, which is hosted by (separate from Adecco's outsourced data centre that IBM manages).

Today, Bossi and Brunner say they're very happy with the performance and lower cost of email outsourcing. For example, Adecco cut its email administrator staff in half to three people and repurposed much of the physical infrastructure to other projects, saving thousands of dollars and eliminating the need for future equipment purchases.

Like Adecco, an increasing number of large enterprises are deciding that email is mission-critical but is plain-vanilla enough to be outsourced, says Mark Levitt, vice president of collaborative computing at research firm IDC, (a sister company to Computerworld UK's publisher). The proliferation of malware is also pushing the trend, says Don DePalma, president of consultancy Common Sense Advisory. Now that spam accounts for more than half of all email messages, many businesses are looking to outsource message filtering because the internal burden has gotten too great. This is often the first step a company takes toward eventually outsourcing the entire email burden.

Smaller firms lead the way

Small companies - those with fewer than 100 employees - have gotten the jump on outsourcing email, IDC's Levitt notes. More than half of all small-business email accounts are now outsourced or under consideration for outsourcing, according to a recent IDC survey. Lack of IT resources tends to drive small companies toward outsourcing much of their IT operations, and email has gone along for that ride.

The Arthritis Foundation is a case in point. Four years ago, "we were spending all of our time keeping the systems running, not bettering the foundation's goals," recalls VP of Strategy Management and CIO Marla Davidson. "We realised we could get a lot more depth from our staff by using a managed service provider for those operations," she says. Outsourcing also reduced the risk of failure: "We had just one email admin, so if that person was on vacation or got sick, we would just hold our breath," she says. Now, the foundation gets 24/7 coverage it didn't have before.

"Our costs declined and our service levels improved. Plus we get more disciplined management and better security," Davidson says, letting the foundation now support some Sarbanes-Oxley rules that it couldn't afford before. (While not obligated to follow them, executive management saw several as beneficial governance approaches, she says.)

Originally, Davidson outsourced all IT operations to one vendor. But after several years of seeing the systems actually outsourced, it became clear that some, such as email, could easily be handled separately. "We now view Exchange as a commodity service. It's OK to be separate," Davidson says. So when the foundation asked for bids to take on the outsourcing as part of its contract renewal two years ago, she separated email into its own RFP to open up more competition.

Examples of email outsourcers

Among the vendors offering email outsourcing, many are local or regional providers serving the small-business market, which led the adoption of this approach. However, a growing number of firms also serve midsize and large enterprises. Those that deliver Microsoft Exchange hosting include, Apptix, AT&T's USi division, Connectria,, Orange Business Services, Rackspace, and Verizon Business.

Providers of IBM Lotus Notes hosting include Connectria, and Riverwatch. For enterprises that are willing to move away from the established email applications (Exchange, Notes and Novell GroupWise), Google recently began providing a business-class version of its Gmail service.

Many providers also offer remote monitoring and management of internal email servers, for enterprises that want to keep ownership of email systems onsite. Examples of those supporting midsize and large enterprises include AT&T USi, Azaleos, Cognizant, Connectria, Dimension Data, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

For CIOs looking to outsource just email spam and threat management, options include MessageLabs, MX Logic, Postini (acquired by Google on July 9) and Sophos.

Making your case

The case for outsourcing email has been harder for enterprise IT to make, IDC analyst Levitt notes. "It's not easy to hand off; it's as core to IT as you can imagine," he says, with a lot of resources and expertise already invested. That investment acts as an anchor that keeps the email servers and administration in-house. However, as large enterprises consider consolidation, system upgrades or large outsourcing efforts, it makes sense to consider an email outsourcing strategy at the same time, Levitt says.

"We wonder why we didn't do it sooner," says Tom Roets, vice president of IT at Sonic Automotive, a national retailer. A year ago, the company had two email systems: Microsoft Exchange at its corporate headquarters and Ipswitch IMail for its national sales and dealer offices. For years, managing those systems had been a growing burden. "We spent a lot of time on patches and monitoring the platforms. We spent seven days a week keeping up the mail systems," says Chris Maritato, the national director of IT. But there were many fears to overcome. "We have to be compliant with Sarbanes-Oxley and have disaster recovery," he notes. Then there was the fear of such fundamental change, Roets says: "When you're faced with 11,000 people in the field, that's a lot of angry people if there's a hiccup."

But by last year, another pressure was bearing down on Roets and Maritato. "We could not reliably support 11,000 people the way we were doing it. The user satisfaction scores were going in the tank," Roets says.

So the company decided to both consolidate its two email platforms into one (Exchange) and outsource email, to Verizon Business. "We did a pilot for 30 days," Roets recalls, before committing to the switch. To be safe, "we also put the most mission-critical people at the end of the transition," he adds. Within four months, the transition was complete.

Not only did the management headache disappear while costs stayed about the same, but also, email service actually improved, Roets notes. Rather than rely on one email administrator to manage user accounts, Sonic could now rely on its whole help desk staff to do so, using a management portal provided by Verizon that didn't require the expertise that the previous setup did. This let Sonic redirect a staff member to other IT needs to meet strategic business objectives, Maritato says.

Although there were some fears about having email data hosted outside the company, Sonic performed a security assessment on Verizon that showed "there was no additional risk to outsourcing," Roets says.

Adecco's Bossi and the Arthritis Foundation's Davidson came to the same conclusion. If anything, Davidson believes security is higher when outsourced, because an outsourcer can leverage its knowledge across all clients, which means it can be more capable and efficient than any individual client could. "They do security monitoring that we could never do," she says.

A few caveats

Outsourcing email at large companies can work, as the experiences at Sonic and Adecco show. But it does require careful strategic planning because of the integration between email and other applications that may exist, notes IDC's Levitt.

"You need to understand how your email system is being used before you do a consolidation or migration," echoes Bossi. When consolidating his four email platforms, Bossi found real differences among user groups. Some frequently use features like public folders, for example. "You need to understand all of that to transmit the right requirements to the outsourcer," he says.

You may also have some custom integration with other enterprise systems, such as order-taking systems, which get their input from email, Bossi notes. For organisations that aren't ready to make the leap to complete outsourcing, there's an interim step: Have a managed service provider remotely monitor and control the email servers in-house, says IDC's Levitt. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other consultancies have long offered this service.

Still, outsourcing email will not work for everyone. The city of Seattle's CISO, Michael Hamilton, has contemplated migrating his email to an outside provider, but decided against it due to several challenges. The toughest one is the city's use of Novell's GroupWise email server, which very few outsourcers support, he says. Another challenge is the high level of heterogeneity among city agencies, many of which have very specialised requirements. The police, for example, don't want their data stored offsite, for security and privacy reasons.

But Hamilton did outsource his email anti-malware operations to Postini to get that burden off his plate.

Plan ahead

Enterprises considering email outsourcing should think expansively, recommends Wu Zhou, a senior research analyst for network lifecycle services at IDC. As voice and data technologies merge, email will morph into or become part of a unified messaging platform, she says. "Find the partner that can not only provide cost-effective outsourcing of email but also work with you to grow the functionality."

It makes sense to anticipate other email needs when you outsource, agrees Adecco's Bossi. For example, mobile messaging at Adecco is today split between Palm Treo and Research in Motion BlackBerry devices. But his outsourcer supports Microsoft gadgets too. So if and when his users want those devices, he'll be covered. And he can let someone else handle the details.