Is it time to move Exchange to the cloud?

Microsoft's online services are both easy and cheap -- here's a rundown of what each offers

I'm not comfortable personally with using the word "cloud" as a means of describing online IT resources. Microsoft refers to its hosted Exchange solution as "cloud services" and that term may fit a bit better. But its official offerings are coming under the heading "Microsoft Online Services" and its main bundled suite is called the Microsoft BPOS (Business Productivity Online Standard Suite). My first nod of approval goes to the fact that BPOS doesn't use the oft-used new buzzword "cloud" in its title. Granted, that isn't a technical commendation, just a nod. But BPOS impresses in not only its pricing (the starting price is $10 per user per month) but in the software cornucopia the suite provides.

A company may believe that part of its core competency (factors that are central to the way a business works) is communication and collaboration, which is reasonably true. However, the manner in which communication and collaboration take place may not necessarily require an in-house solution. Be it Exchange, SharePoint, or Communications Server, if there are ways to provide the communication and collaboration aspects to your users -- in a sense, to meet your core competency -- without wasting resources on that in-house solution, it makes sense to consider those alternatives.

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So let's take a look.

Microsoft Cloud Services

Microsoft provides the on-premises software your company needs, and we all certainly have many of those (such as Exchange and SharePoint) deployed. But Microsoft's cloud services could be a better deployment approach:

  • With a flat fee, you reduce up-front costs, especially for the necessary infrastructure, and you can forecast spending accurately based upon the number of users you will place online.
  • Updates, service packs, upgrades -- these are not your problem. Microsoft is responsible for handling all your online security patches and maintenance.
  • A centralized administration console along with tools released from the Microsoft Online Services team will make it easy to administer your services.
  • Users can connect using Outlook, through a browser (including IE6 and later, Firefox, and Safari), and through a mobile device (including Windows Mobile 6, the Nokia E and N series, BlackBerry devices, and even Apple's iPhone with 2.0 firmware).

To provide the infrastructure necessary to support such a huge undertaking, Microsoft has invested a boatload of money to establish data centers that are geographically dispersed. Two "mega" data centers that were revealed last year are located in Chicago and Dublin.

SLA-supported uptime and performance offers a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee, with service credits provided if that percentage is not provided. Disaster recovery and high-availability solutions are built-in, along with real-time antispam and antivirus protection.

BPOS (Business Productivity Online Standard Suite)
This offering combines hosted solutions of Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting, and Office Communications Online. If you are new business, for $10 per user per month you could have all of these services available immediately without spending a dime on infrastructure or IT personnel to maintain that infrastructure. By the way, you can thank Google for that low price tag. Microsoft has to be price-competitive to avoid an impending Googleopoly -- although Microsoft's offering is double the price of Google's $5 per-user-per-month offer for Google Apps Premier Edition under certain price plans.

For businesses with an already established on-premises Exchange environment, Microsoft provides a migration tool so you can move your mailboxes online. In fact, the latest version of the Migration Tools were just released last week in both 32-bit and 64-bit editions. In addition, the tools contain PowerShell cmdlets for administrator's to automate tasks.

The four primary applications in BPOS are:

  • Exchange Online: Currently still based on Exchange 2007 with plans to move to Exchange 2010 in the near future, this service allows administrators to configure the size of mailboxes per user based upon the overall amount purchased. Users access to mailboxes through Outlook is recommended but not required.
  • SharePoint Online: Having the ability to work with SharePoint's workspaces, workflow management, and document library check-in/check-out features is a tremendous benefit to BPOS for a company that doesn't have an existing SharePoint infrastructure but could benefit from one.
  • Office Live Meeting: Provides real-time conferencing and collaboration (similar to a GoToMeeting or WebEx conference). With the ability to perform slide presentations, share applications, work on a whiteboard, share your entire desktop, and so forth, Office Live Meeting is bundled into the BPOS and can be a great tools for both small and large enterprises.
  • Office Communications Online: Provides corporate IM and presence awareness. Beyond that, it also provides you the ability to have person-to-person voice and video discussions through Office Communicator R2.

In addition to tools for users with dedicated computers and client software installed, BPOS also has a "deskless" license option. The deskless license is very limited in that you only have access to your mailbox through Outlook Web Access (which will be a lot better when the move is made to Exchange 2010 and you can connect with Outlook Web App instead). The SharePoint connection is limited to read-only access to the SharePoint sites. The deskless license is a great option for consultants and temp workers who need only online mailbox access and/or read-only SharePoint access.

Even though the suite is the more cost-effective method of deploying BPOS, you can also subscribe to individual applications separately. An all-suite subscription costs $10 per user per month, whereas Exchange Online costs $5 per user per month and SharePoint Online costs $5.25 per user per month. It's clear that the per-application subscriptions make sense financially only if you need just one of the apps.

Online Services are not for everyone
Obviously, companies with functioning legacy infrastructures may not see a clear path to online services. But perhaps a hybrid solution will work with your environment to get you started. Move over those mailboxes that you know you can move, and retain on-premises the ones you believe must be protected in-house.

In some cases you may not see the online Microsoft services as a viable option simply because you may have other pieces in play within your organization that are designed specifically for your environment, such as automated processes that you don't see moving over to the online services easily. In global enterprises, these factors weigh heavily against change.

And some folks simply don't feel comfortable with trusting others with their data, especially when they start considering compliance issues, legal concerns, and so forth. And there are licensing issues that make it hard for some organizations to move to Microsoft's hosted services.

With a modicum of investigation, however, you might just find all of your excuses not to go to the cloud vanish in a puff of smoke.

What are your plans? Have you used BPOS or are you planning on moving to an online solution (Microsoft, Google, or other) in the near future to offload some of your on-premise infrastructure and personnel needs?

This article, "Is it time to move Exchange to the cloud?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in cloud computing and enterprise applications at InfoWorld.com.

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