In small businesses the primary concern with email is cost. Email is a commodity and especially in smaller shops the biggest differentiating factor between email products and vendors is cost. In larger companies factors beyond cost begin to come into play more significantly such as directory services, system integration, push email, extended client support, collaboration tools, presence and more.
Surprisingly, when small businesses decide to bring their email in-house they seem to immediately turn to Microsoft Exchange. Now I don’t want to belittle Exchange’s place in the market. Exchange is an extremely robust and feature rich product that has earned its reputation as the go-to enterprise collaboration and messaging server. In the last decade Exchange came seemingly from nowhere to completely dominate the large business email market. People simply assume that you run Exchange in the Fortune 500 and, for the most part, they are correct.
The features for which Exchange is best known, however, are not features often critical or even useful to small businesses. In actuality, the weight of Exchange – necessary to support so many great big-business features – can make it unwieldy for small businesses – even for those businesses with the financial and technological resources to support it. Exchange focuses on collaboration and internal team communications.
Exchange brings with it many burdens. The first being cost, up front purchasing, licensing and ongoing support. Up front costs of Exchange include the Exchange email server purchase plus the licenses necessary for the Windows Servers – yes, that is multiple servers – on which it runs. (Yes, you can mitigate some of this cost by purchasing Microsoft’s Small Business Server which integrates these components together but extra costs remain and flexibility is lost.) Licensing costs for Exchange include needed Windows Server CALs and Exchange Email CALs for every user, and in some case fictional user accounts, who will need to access the system. Ongoing support cost comes from the extra complexity arising from Exchange’s complex feature set and deployment architecture.
The second set of burdens with Exchange comes from the user interface, namely Outlook. Now technically Exchange requires no additional user interface as Outlook Web Access, or OWA, is included for free and is a very functional web interface for email. This would be fine if all of Exchange’s functionality was exposed through OWA, but this is not the case, so this is often nothing more than a decent fall-back solution for remote users who are away from their corporate laptops. To really achieve the benefits of Exchange a company needs to invest in Microsoft Outlook which is a very robust and powerful email and collaboration platform but also an expensive one. The per-user cost of Outlook can be quite significant when added to the per user costs already existing from the Exchange licensing.
The third set of burdens comes from the overhead of managing such a complex and powerful beast as Exchange. Exchange is no simple system and, when secured according to best practices, spans multiple physical servers and operates in multiple roles. Exchange system administration is considered its own discipline within IT or, at least, a Windows Server specialty. Qualified Exchange admins are costly and in-demand from big business. Small businesses looking to acquire good Exchange talent will either be paying top dollar, hiring consultants or attempting to make do with less experienced staff – a potential disaster on such a critical and publicly exposed system. In addition to managing the Exchange system itself the staff will also need to contend with managing the deployment and maintenance of the Outlook clients which, while not complicated, does increase the burden on the IT department compared to other solutions.
More potential cost comes from the need to supply anti-virus technologies and anti-spam technologies to support the Exchange installation. It would be unfair to mention AV and AS technologies in relation to Exchange without pointing out that any in-house email system will absolutely need these technologies as well – these costs are certainly not unique to Exchange. However, the ecosystem surrounding Exchange has a very strong tendency to encourage the use of expensive, commercial third party tools to meet these needs. Outside of Exchange, AV and AS technologies are often included with the email packages and no further purchases are needed.
Vying for attention in the Exchange-alternative space are open source entries Zimbra and Scalix as well as several commercial products such as IBM’s Lotus Notes, Novell’s Groupwise, Open-Xchange and Kerio’s MailServer. Of these, Lotus Notes and Groupwise target, primarily, the large business space bringing their own set of complex collaboration functionality and cost. The other four, Zimbra, Scalix, Open-Xchange and Kerio MailServer, focus primarily on the small business space and bring leaner, more targeted solutions that will more likely fit the profile desired for a majority of small businesses who are looking to bring their email solution in-house.
Over the last few years Zimbra especially has been in the news with their advanced web interface and early sale to Yahoo! and very recent acquisition by VMWare. Zimbra has led, at least in the media, the charge of alternative vendors looking to open the in-house email market. What makes these products stand out is that they deliver the bulk of Exchange’s enterprise level features, including calendaring and other important corporate applications, but do so either for free or at very competitive prices and through robust web interfaces removing the need for a local fat client like Outlook (but while maintaining the option.)
Zimbra and Scalix truly stand out as ideal candidates for the majority of small businesses looking to keep their email in-house. Both Zimbra and Scalix offer a wide range of functionality, robust AJAX-based web interface, large commercial installation bases, broad industry support and offer the paid option of full vendor support. But the biggest benefit for many small businesses is that these packages are available in completely free editions allowing an SMB on a budget to rely completely upon their internal IT department or their IT vendor for support rather than buying expensive, per-user email system licenses.
In addition to being free themselves, Zimbra and Scalix offer a range of deployment scenarios including Red Hat Linux, and its free alternative CentOS Linux, as well as Novell’s Suse Linux. By being available on these platforms these vendors again lower the cost of deploying their solutions as no Windows Server license is required to support them. This is a large potential cost savings over Exchange again as Exchange requires not one but at least two Windows Server licenses on which to run. Linux also brings some cost and performance advantages in the virtualization space with more and more varied virtualization options compared to most other platforms.
Caveats exist, of course. Many shops are wary when looking at non-Microsoft solutions. A lack of skilled Linux technicians in the SMB space is of real concern. Windows Admins are abundant and it is a rare shop who would need to even seek one out let alone fail to find one capable of supporting their systems. While Linux Admins are hardly found by swinging cats, they are widely available and tend to be on average, in my opinion, more skilled – if only because there is a smaller, more senior pool of people from whom to draw talent. This helps to balance the equation making Linux support not nearly as scary as it may seem like it will be for small businesses, but it does mean that most SMBs will have to look to more experienced IT consulting firms to assist them – which can bring long term cost benefits as well.
Many users are addicted to the functionality and interfaces of Exchange. This can be a significant factor in deciding to try an alternative product. Once workers have become accustomed to their existing workflows and processes, changing them by replacing their email server architecture can be rather disruptive. Exchange offers quite an extensive array of functionality and users who are using those functions, not handled by competing products, will not likely be pleased losing those features, even if there are alternatives available. So knowing your userbase and what features are being used is important. Many companies never touch these features and can migrate easily.
Zimbra and Scalix bring their own features, of course. One of the best being Zimbra’s built-in instant messaging system and presence system built using the standard XMPP protocol. Putting secure instant messaging directly into the email interface is a huge win for Zimbra and a significant value-add over the status quo.
Obviously the ideal time to consider an alternative email product is at the very beginning when email is first being deployed or when a migration from another system is already underway. But even companies with existing email systems can seek cost benefits by moving to a less costly system with savings being recouped over a longer period of time and more work necessary to train users.
Small businesses should look first to products like Zimbra and Scalix as the de facto choice for their environments and heavier, more expensive products like Microsoft Exchange should be considered a “special case” choice that requires careful cost analysis and justification. Far too many SMB IT departments are picking the expensive route without being required to justify their actions. If more small businesses were diligent about monitoring their IT spending they would likely find many places where their money is not only being spent somewhat liberally but sometimes even for features that they cannot use at all and sometimes on systems that carry many long term support costs as well.