August 31, 1999
by Alan Radding
(IDG) -- Shifting e-mail traffic patterns, due in large part to the Internet and surging volumes of messages, seem to cry out for changes in how large organizations handle e-mail. "Communications with external companies over the Internet is increasing 100 to 150 percent a year," says Tim Sloane, managing director at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.
The good news is that, in contrast to the days when organizations wrestled with eight, 10 or even a dozen or more e-mail systems, they're now facing the changing e-mail environment with just one or two choices from a set of three basic options.
At one point, observers expected some organizations to scrap their proprietary client/server e-mail systems for Internet-based e-mail because of cost savings and simplicity, but that never materialized on any large scale. Instead, the vendors of the proprietary systems quickly incorporated Internet e-mail protocols into their product offerings. "Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange added Internet protocols, so customers aren't switching to Internet e-mail," says Mark Levitt, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.
Customers can get the flexibility of Internet mail -- a choice of browsers as the mail client, for example -- without abandoning the considerable investment in the proprietary mail infrastructure and skills or having to give up the goodies offered by the proprietary systems, like guaranteed mail delivery.
Today, organizations are choosing among proprietary client/server e-mail systems like Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange, Novell Inc.'s GroupWise and Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes/Domino; Internet-based e-mail; and the newest option, e-mail outsourcing. It isn't unusual to find an organization mixing outsourcing with one of the other options. What follows is a look at some pros and cons of the options, analyst commentary and user experiences in the three major categories.
Proprietary e-mail systems
Larger companies continue to hang on to proprietary e-mail systems such as Notes/Domino and Microsoft Exchange. Even though they're expensive to install and maintain, these systems deliver extensive integrated functionality that goes far beyond basic e-mail. In addition to guaranteed mail delivery, they offer calendaring, scheduling, collaboration functionality and, in the case of Notes, an application development environment.
"For most people, Notes and Exchange are expensive overkill," says Joyce Graff, vice president and research director at Gartner Group Inc.'s Intranets and Electronic Workplace service in Stamford, Conn. "But a portion of the users need all those bells and whistles."
And if they don't need all that functionality now, they think they might need it in the future. "If a company doesn't need the additional features of Notes or Exchange, it makes sense to go with basic Internet e-mail," Sloane says. However, most companies won't want to commit to basic e-mail, he continues, because next year or the year after they might want some of those extra functions. So they opt for Notes, GroupWise or Exchange now so they won't have to switch later.
Pros: Full-feature e-mail systems; built-in integration with Microsoft's Office suite or Lotus' Smart Suite; easy mail-enabled applications; sophisticated groupware capabilities.
These systems deliver a broad range of messaging capabilities beyond e-mail. Organizations can use these systems to build and deploy complex mail-enabled applications that support activities ranging from customer service to supply-chain management.
Cons: High cost to acquire and maintain; organizations intent on taking advantage of the advanced features require skilled administrators and technical support; development costs for complex applications can soar, requiring the assistance of specialized consultants; in general, Notes allows more complex and more costly development than Exchange; organizations using Exchange typically are mail-enabling Microsoft Office applications.
Typical use: Larger companies needing full-featured e-mail and mail-enabled applications and organizations that are committed to the Microsoft platform and suite of front- and back-office applications will favor Exchange. Organizations desiring sophisticated groupware functionality and intending to build collaborative mail-enabled applications will opt for Notes/Domino.
User example: Proprietary E-Mail/Microsoft Exchange -- Tyco Printed Circuit Group
With Exchange, Tyco can take advantage of mail-enabled Microsoft applications such as Microsoft SQL Server database applications for consignment inventory status and order acknowledgment. Exchange gives it a messaging infrastructure that will take it well into the next century, says Hans Dohm, information services manager.
The company installed one Exchange mail server at each of its 11 divisions. The divisions replicate and synchronize directories among servers automatically at midnight. Certain critical applications and electronic forms, however, are replicated more often. Otherwise, Exchange requires minimal intervention. For administration, "we might go in and do something every two or three months, but we don't need to poke around too much," Dohm says.
User example: Proprietary Mail/Lotus Notes -- BASF
"E-mail is a very strategic service for us, and it is getting more strategic every day," Denker explains. The company assigns about 1,000 users to each e-mail server and pairs each server with a remote backup as an automatic fail-over if a mail server goes down. The company plans a number of mail-enabled Notes applications, including a companywide reporting system to track customer complaints. Other Notes applications use the e-mail capabilities for forms routing. The big push with Notes groupware, however, will come after everyone is converted to Notes e-mail.
Internet mail consists of Post Office Protocol (POP) and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) mail servers providing mail services to users running Internet browsers. The users can choose among any popular browser mail client, such as Netscape Communication Corp.'s Navigator, Qualcomm Inc.'s Eudora or Microsoft's Outlook. The result is basic e-mail, which meets the needs of most users, Graff says. If you don't mind fewer frills, "you can support more people for less money" with Internet e-mail services, she says.
"Internet e-mail is simpler and cheaper, but you won't get integrated calendaring, scheduling, database functionality or applications," Levitt says. You can get those features if you want to do the extra work. Frills are added by integrating applications that provide those functions, which increases the cost and complexity.
The big question organizations must ask themselves is what's the value of the frills compared to basic e-mail, says Nina Burns, president of Creative Networks Inc., a research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. Unless companies are developing complex e-mail-enabled applications in Notes or Exchange, they will find the most value for the dollar in a vanilla Internet mail system.
Pros: Low cost to acquire and maintain, which equals an attractive cost of ownership; Internet mail is simple to implement and maintain; it's possible to add a few frills, like basic scheduling, by integrating other applications, although this will increase the cost and complexity of the effort.
Cons: Lack of rich integrated e-mail functionality and collaboration capabilities.
Typical use: For companies without extensive investments in proprietary systems or those seeking low-budget alternatives; for smaller companies that don't generally take advantage of the advanced functionality of applications like Notes or Exchange and for whom supporting such systems is a burden.
User example: EarthWeb
EarthWeb maintains a Unix mail server in each of its offices. The LDAP directory handles both internal e-mail addresses and addresses from outside the company.
The latest twist for saving money is e-mail outsourcing. In this process, the organization turns over the management of user mailboxes and e-mail services to an outside vendor. The decision to outsource e-mail "comes down to a matter of where to focus your resources," Burns says. By outsourcing, organizations can shift information technology staff that previously administered the e-mail system to other, presumably more productive, tasks. The advantages of outsourced e-mail are initial cost savings and lower ongoing maintenance costs, she says.
E-mail outsourcing is being fueled by the rise of application service providers, Burns says. Similar to the time-sharing of the past, application service providers run enterprise class applications that organizations can access on a per-use basis, Burns explains. E-mail outsourcing vendors often offer Internet mail, but they're just as likely to offer Notes or Exchange, she says.
Companies save because they don't have to purchase the software or perform any ongoing maintenance. Instead, they're usually charged a low monthly fee of a couple of dollars per mailbox, which is roughly the same as the per-user cost.
"In rational dollars-and-cents terms, e-mail outsourcing makes a lot of sense," Sloane says. The decision to outsource e-mail should revolve around how much of the organization's use is unique. "Most companies aren't doing very much (with e-mail) that is unique," he adds. If the company isn't doing something unique, then it can take advantage of what amounts to commoditized e-mail offered by the application service providers.
A little more than half the companies surveyed last month in a Gartner study said they expect to outsource part of their e-mail operations within the next two years, Graff reports. The most likely parts targeted for e-mail outsourcing are small groups of remote users such as those at distant satellite offices, mobile users and extranet/Internet e-mail.
Pros: Low ongoing costs and no cost to acquire and deploy; frees staff formerly tied down administering e-mail for more productive tasks; the outsourcing vendor takes care of security issues and virus-screening; users report that outsourcing vendors provide better management reporting on e-mail activity than they can get on their own without digging through e-mail logs.
Cons: Lack of direct control of a critical function; outsourcing may not support an organization's unique use of e-mail or e-mail-enabled applications; pricing, terms, conditions and service levels differ greatly.
Typical use: For specific e-mail problems, such as small offices that can't support their own e-mail solutions, remote satellite offices or mobile users; it's attractive to companies that want to refocus existing staff on other tasks or that lack the personnel to support rapid e-mail growth or new types of e-mail, such as Internet mail.
User example: Intrawest Corp.
When it turned to The Electric Mail Co. in Vancouver to outsource its Internet mail, the company's volume of Internet mail was light. But today, both internal and Internet mail volumes are doubling every few months as the company adds new resorts. "The Electric Mail Co. handles all the Internet, security, antivirus and content screening for us. We would otherwise have had to hire more people," explains Violeta Iova, Intrawest's IT corporate manager.
From a cost standpoint, Iova said she considers outsourcing a bargain. "Electric Mail is saving us money. (The service) costs us less than $2,000 per month for under 1,000 users," Iova reports. By comparison, the company's Microsoft Exchange implementation is costing it more than $500,000. More than just the savings, however, is the improved management reporting that the outsourcing vendor provides as part of the service. Intrawest gets better reports more easily from the outsourcing vendor than it could get from its internal e-mail systems, Iova says. "I don't have to manipulate anything to get reports."
Radding is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.
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