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Microsoft’s recently released 2007 upgrade to its market-leading Exchange e-mail server provides faster 64-bit-powered performance along with many other new features, especially when users are paired with the latest Outlook 2007 e-mail client.

At the same time, Exchange 2007’s arrival leads to a fork in the road for many IT departments.

For one, Exchange 2007, with its ability to let end users get voice mails and faxes in their e-mail in-boxes, starts IT departments down Microsoft’s vision of unified communications - whether they like it or not, according to Maurene Grey, a former longtime Gartner analyst currently heading her own independent firm, Grey Consulting.

"Unified communication is not a bandwagon that everyone is trying to clamber onto," she said. As a result, while most Exchange users will choose to cope with complex implementation processes and high costs and continue forging ahead with Exchange 2007, many others are starting to look in earnest at alternatives to the straight and narrow Exchange path.

A "major upgrade" like Exchange 2007 "is not for the faint of heart," Grey said. "Many organizations that are using Exchange today are questioning [the choice] - with Exchange 2007, should we stay in an Exchange environment, or is this the right time to move off?"

Exchanging Exchange

One obvious alternative is to switch to another e-mail server. Both IBM and Novell are planning to release upgraded e-mail products this year. Version 8 of Lotus Notes and Domino server boasts a revamped user interface for Notes and improved Web services connectivity for Domino.

Meanwhile, Novell said at its annual Brainshare show this week that its upcoming version of Groupwise, now codenamed "Sequoia," will include open-source-based teaming and collaboration features.

Both e-mail servers support Microsoft’s Outlook client and offer their own best-of-breed features that they claim beat Exchange. Neither, however, is significantly cheaper than Exchange, especially after migration and retraining costs are factored in.

For lower price and nearly equivalent functionality, many advocate open-source e-mail servers. Vendors such as Scalix, Zimbra, Open Xchange and ostPath. all all claim to offer near-100 percent compatibility with Exchange at significantly cheaper prices.

The open-source vendors aren’t shy about tooting their own horn. PostPath says its use of the Linux file system allows it to store and e-mail databases more efficiently than Exchange as well as access the files faster, while Scalix and Zimbra both tout their AJAX-based Web clients for being powerful and easy to use.

Curing a thankless headache

For some companies, though, swapping Exchange for another server doesn’t provide much benefit. E-mail, while the backbone of any company’s communication system, is also for many IT departments a thankless and labour-intensive job. For those enterprises, outsourcing the e-mail server may be an attractive alternative that allows them to stay on Exchange while ridding them of the hassle of running it.

Large services providers such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and EDS all offer outsourced Exchange services along with other IT outsourcing services, though none have yet begun to offer Exchange 2007.

For smaller companies, a specialised Exchange service provider such as US-based GroupSpark might be the ticket. GroupSpark resells its hosted Exchange service via a network of over 600 partners, according to CEO Ravi Agarwal. The company is expected to start offering hosted Exchange 2007 services by the end of this month.

While outsourcing your e-mail can rid IT departments of one of their biggest ongoing headaches and free them up to tackle more innovative, moneymaking projects, the practice hasn't been widely embraced. In part, that's due to a general hesitance in the industry to contract with certain application service providers (ASPs).

According to Keith McCall, a former Exchange product executive who dealt with many ASPs during the dot-com era and afterward, the bankruptcy of many high-flying ASPs during the dot-bust resulted in many clients feeling burnt over the difficulty, and in some cases, impossibility, of getting their data back.

Moreover, new financial and industry rules, especially for public companies, have made ensuring the security of information assets such as e-mail more important than ever. "What it comes down to, frankly, is an issue of control," McCall said.

A service/server hybrid

McCall left Microsoft in 2004 to start his own company offering a third alternative. His startup, Azaleos, offers a small line-up of managed Exchange server appliances.

Customers buy a preconfigured and tuned-up Exchange server box that they can drop into the data centre or co-location facility of their choice and start running with minimal setup time, says McCall, who is now CTO. Moreover, Azaleos also manages, monitors and fixes the Exchange server through the Internet.

The cost ranges from US$5 (£2.50) per mailbox per month for basic monitoring to $12 (£6) per month for archiving, business continuity services and support for multiple physical Exchange server locations.

This hybrid product, McCall says, provides the low-fuss benefit of outsourcing as well as the control and security of an on-premise server.

The three-year old Azaleos today, manages 20,000 Exchange 2003 e-mail boxes. But growth has accelerated; the company won 10,000 of those accounts this quarter alone, McCall said, including a 5,000 user contract with fruit distributor Chiquita Brands International.

Other customers include Allegheny Technologies, which has 7,000 e-mail users managed by Azaleos, sporting goods vendor K2, Coinstar and youth retailer, Zumiez.