3. Exchange version: Providers offer hosted Exchange in several versions. Avoid any Exchange 2003 services -- they're too outdated. Chances are both you and the providers you're considering are on Exchange 2007 (even Microsoft's BPOS is still on the 2007 version). But look into their Exchange 2010 adoption plans: If you're going to change from in-house to hosted Exchange, doing it as part of a shift from an older version of Exchange to the 2010 version makes sense, so you have just one transition. Looking for an Exchange 2010-based provider is an especially good idea if your employees are already using Outlook 2010 or if you have a lot of OWA users, as Exchange 2010's OWA functionality is superior. If you go the Exchange 2010 route, make sure the provider has adopted Service Pack 1 to get the enhancements to OWA -- like themes -- that your users will appreciate.
4. Management tools: Simplicity is the key feature here. If you wanted to run an in-house Exchange environment with all the accompanying bells, whistles, and complexity, you would. But if you go with a hosted service, you probably want the management to be as easy as possible, so look for a provider that, in addition to the above features, simplifies your job. What you want is an easy Web interface for logging in and creating new users, new distribution lists, and so forth. Microsoft's BPOS falls short in this regard, so take the time to test different solutions to ensure you feel comfortable with the management interface.
5. Bonus features: Look for add-in features at no extra charge. For example, the BPOS standard license includes virus and spam filtering through Microsoft's Forefront Online Security for Exchange. Look for directory synchronization tools, disaster recovery backup solutions, mobile device support, SharePoint collaboration portals (especially if any providers offer SharePoint 2010, although keep in mind it will most likely be SharePoint Foundations, not the full SharePoint Server), archiving, and so forth. Some of these features -- such as archiving -- may not be offered for free but may be worth considering if the provider quotes the right price. One of the best features I've seen many vendors offer is a free copy of Outlook 2007 or 2010 for each user. Even if the budget is tight and you cannot upgrade your users to the full Office 2010 suite, you can get your people running the latest versions of Outlook for free if you go with the right provider.
6. Support: There are two categories of support to watch for: the standard features and the additional help provisions. Standard features should include 99.9 percent committed uptime, daily backups, Web-based and phone support, and an easy-to-use configuration tool. However, clear support for administrators on the site is essential to ensure you don't get too bogged down in the details of setting up the service. It's also great when a provider considers the needs of the users. For example, you might be deploying a new Outlook client -- it would be nice to offer training to those users as well.
There are obviously other factors to consider: Do you want to have a long-term or a month-to-month contract? What kind of reputation does the provider have, or is it new in this market? The good news is that you have many options, and that usually means better pricing and more features to benefit from. Choose wisely.
This article, "How to choose a hosted Exchange provider," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in business software and Windows at InfoWorld.com.