Is it time to switch to hosted email?
Email is an indispensable business tool, but that doesn’t mean your office needs its own email server. Hosted email can provide a reliable and cost-effective alternative, whether your business is a tiny start-up or a thousand-seat business. Microsoft’s Office 365 is the most popular service available, although there are alternatives, such as Google Apps for Work.
The advantage of hosted email
If you already have a working email system, you may not see an urgent need to make a change. But email isn’t a service where you want to wait until something goes wrong to take action.
“One day your Exchange server stops working, and if you don’t have redundancy, your email is gone.”
“It’s easy to set up an Exchange server,” Craig Cotter, brand director at Heart Internet told us. “And it’s simple to just leave it running. But one day your Exchange server stops working, and if you don’t have redundancy, your email is gone. Even if you do have redundancy, you might end up with an Active Directory problem. These are issues that require a full-time Windows system administrator or Exchange expert to fix.”
It’s a problem of which IT professionals are well aware. Joseph Woodhouse, an IT manager at Redgate – a development house making software for IT professionals who work with SQL Server, .NET and Oracle – explained that his business had chosen to make the switch in order to free up that staffing requirement.
“We have a small IT team,” he explained. “With hosted email we don’t have to manage and maintain the infrastructure, so that’s one less thing to worry about. It frees up our system administrators to work on more valuable things that they can contribute to the business.”
This doesn’t mean that switching to hosted email benefits only the IT department. On the contrary, the biggest advantage can be to small companies that lack such an in-house function. “Small companies in particular tend not to have a full-time Exchange expert,” noted Cotter. “So when something does go wrong, they have to hire someone for a few hundred pounds per hour, on a per-incident basis. By the time the issue is fixed, they’ll have spent more than their yearly IT budget for email.”
Mark Gardner, IT consultant at the Ffestiniog Railway Company, explained that the Welsh heritage railway had chosen hosted email specifically to avoid that scenario.
“Ours is a very small business,” he explained. “Our business isn’t IT, and we have limited IT resources. Until recently, we were running on a failing Exchange 2003 installation, so we needed to move to something more stable. Switching to Office 365 hosted email let us do that, and at the same time enabled us to reduce the impact on our resources.”
“Another benefit of subscription services: you no longer need to worry about keeping software up to date.”
Gardner’s mention of Exchange 2003 brings up another benefit of subscription services: you no longer need to worry about keeping software up to date. “Upgrades are challenging, so in many cases organisations simply don’t upgrade,” said Cotter. “And so sooner or later, these pieces of software reach end-of-life. In July, we have Windows Server 2003 hitting end-of-life, and a lot of organisations will still be running that.” From a business standpoint that’s an unacceptable security risk.
Making the switch
You might expect that migrating a service as fundamental as email will be a major project. In practice, it can be surprisingly straightforward.
“We experienced very little upheaval,” said Gardner. “The hosted email is a completely different, completely parallel service, so there’s no problem there. The only issue was that we changed our domain name at the time – that was the biggest bit of aggravation we faced. That was our own fault, however.”
Meanwhile, Redgate chose a staged migration to ensure a smooth transition. “We created a group nicknamed ‘trailblazers’,” Woodhouse told us. “That was about 30 people or so, from all over the business. We migrated them first and collected ould based on their experience, then started scheduling small groups of people to migrate.”
In fact, the few hitches the company did hit were chiefly to do with administration. “There were definitely some challenges in terms of understanding the renewed licensing model,” said Woodhouse. “It isn’t a straightforward transition from licence to subscription.” A few housekeeping issues cropped up too: “We had to rewrite some of our scripts to handle things that had been automated previously, such as when someone starts or leaves the company,” revealed senior system administrator Jonathan Masefield. “But it isn’t a major job.”
“There’s a bit more latency than with something hosted on-premise too,” added Woodhouse. “It’s not a huge difference, but staff such as PAs and receptionists – who rely heavily on calendaring – notice it.”
Another difference to be aware of is the constantly refreshing nature of cloud services. “The portal does change from time to time,” said Gardner. “There have been one or two surprises, and with a user base that isn’t always terribly computer literate, that kind of simple change is difficult to handle – particularly when it comes as a surprise, as has been the case with each update so far.”