Colossus vs. Cloud - an Email System Showdown

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 complex ity 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.

Comments

Excellent post. I've used

Excellent post. I've used GMail for a while now for my main email program and have wondered why nonprofits still won't cut the cord from Exchange. The easier search and ability to use conversations and labels is definitely a big time saver.

I don't think IBM would like

I don't think IBM would like to hear Lotus Notes described as a legacy system, when they keep on releasing new versions. Why it never really gained ground on Exchange is debated elsewhere on the internet.

$40O per person gets you more

$40O per person gets you more than email, Peter. That gets you a fileserver, Sharepoint, backup,and more. If all you are comparing is email, then I agree with you. But you get a lot more than that with SBS-and incur relatively few costs if you grow your team to 5O people.

But, Patrick, I made a point

But, Patrick, I made a point of framing this as 40 users or more because I can't understand why a ten person NPO would pay $4k a year for email, particularly when they have things like Google Apps and Exchange online available.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan of NPower, and appreciate what you do for the sector. But that money would be much better spent on the web site or Salesforce (which integrates tightly with Google Apps) than MS Small Business server. Small NPO's should be all about avoiding the need for a server, now that there are decent cloud offerings available.

And don't forget that there

And don't forget that there are many services (and service providers) that can support Small Business Server with a 3 hour monthly visit. We're supporting about 100 local nonprofits - and while the complexity of each vary - at a single visit a month - that's Small Business Server for less than 4,000 per year - a pretty good bargain. Add in about 5k or so for the hardware and software, and another 3k for setup and you're looking at a total investment of 12k. Divide that by 3 years, and your annual cost is 4k. If you have 10 users - you're in the range of $400 per user per year.

Peter-Great article. Don't

Peter-

Great article. Don't forget that Microsoft Small Business Server is a great single-box Exchange solution for orgs with <50 users. It's way easier to setup and administer than a traditional Microsoft cluster.