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Which Business Email service makes the most sense for your business?

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(Google Apps, Office 365, Local Exchange server or POP3/IMAP?)

We regularly get questions from prospects and clients as to where the best place to host business email is. Should they keep their old POP3 service, install a local Exchange server, or maybe move to the Cloud onto Google Apps or Office 365? Unfortunately there is no one size fits all solution. Depending on your risk tolerance, budget and user preferences – the best business email solution will be either Google Apps, Office 365 or a locally installed Exchange Server. The good news is below we’ll provide some guidance on how to make the best choice for your business.

POP3 / IMAP is dead for business

The one business email solution we can easily remove from consideration is POP3/IMAP. If you are a real company of even one user that depends on email for communications and productivity with your clients, then you have no business still using POP3/IMAP email. POP3/IMAP is a relic from the past. It is email technology from the 90s that stayed around a long time due to the prohibitive cost of newer alternatives. However due to competition, new cloud email providers such as Google Apps and Office 365 have become so ridiculously cheap that any argument for POP3 /IMAP is now moot. Prices drop and mailbox sizes increase every 3-6 months in the race to the bottom between Google and Microsoft. Other big providers such as GoDaddy have literally exited the competition due to the commoditization and razor thin margins dictated by the other goliaths in the industry. Suffice it to say, the beneficiary is small business, because you can get a high quality business grade emailbox for approx. $50 per year from either Google Apps or Office 365. If you’re still on POP3, you might be paying less for your 1990s mailbox, but you’re also missing out on the last 2 decades of email technology advances. Some features you are missing out on with POP3/IMAP:

  • Unified mailbox across all computers / handhelds / devices. On POP3 every computer you use to check email has to manage its own contact list, inbox, sent items, etc. If you send an email with your office computer, you can’t see it on your handheld unless you sent a separate copy to yourself. Modern email users on Google Apps, Office 365, or local Exchange server see the same inbox, sent items, calendar, contacts and other email folders on all devices automatically.
  • Email is backed up on servers rather than being downloaded to computers. We still get a handful of people reaching out to us every year with POP3 email who want assistance since their computer crashed and they lost all their email. Most are surprised to learn that most POP3 accounts download all email to PCs with no copy or backup anywhere else. If your computer dies, your email is gone along with your calendar and contacts. Nothing quite as embarrassing as telling your clients you lost their email address because you wanted to save a couple bucks per month.
  • Out of office notifications and other mailbox rules – don’t exist on most POP3/IMAP accounts
  • Collaboration with shared mailboxes. Permissions to see others mailboxes don’t exist in most POP3 environments.
  • Shared calendars and Free/Busy scheduling information across organization. Most POP3/IMAP accounts are email only. No shared calendars other than locally on your PC for a solo user.
  • Reliable handling of large mailboxes and attachments. Most POP3 technology was designed in a different email era and easily gets overwhelmed with the size and volume of today’s email.

Google Apps or Office365?

Now that Office 365 has come down in price to pretty much match Google Apps, the decision between the two comes down to user preferences. Both of them have similar features and both have experienced similar amounts of downtime. The downtime has been limited, however if your business is now running off their platform, even 30 minutes of downtime in the middle of a business day can be disastrous.

If you are already using Gmail for email and like the layout, message threading, etc . – then use Google Apps.

If you are already using Outlook for email and like the layout, navigation, etc – then use Office 365. Google Apps supports Outlook but it does not work the same as with Exchange server. You can either trust us that it will be frustrating for some users, or you can find out the hard way. Office 365 is based on Exchange server so Outlook works essentially the same.

If you have a strong need for file collaboration, try Google Docs. The file sharing in Google Docs is much more powerful than anything Microsoft has come up with. Particularly powerful and helpful in multi-user edited spreadsheets.

If your users are Microsoft Word or Excel junkies then stick to the Office 365 platform. Your users will have a more unified and feature rich experience using Outlook as their email client.
If your Internet connection is less than perfect, or you work offline a lot (like on an airplane) then get Office 365. Office 365 Exchange cached mode syncs email for offline use a lot better than Google Chrome browser based offline cache.

User count dictates whether local or hosted (Google Apps / Office 365) is cheaper

The math on this can change every couple months with ever changing pricing for hosted business email services, hardware and software. The ballpark number is around 25 users where installing a local email server MAY be the more cost effective solution. It may still not be the best solution, however it will potentially be cheaper than hosting with Google or Microsoft. For 50 or more users, a company can almost always put together a pretty decent solution at a lower cost than hosting with any cloud provider. A lot of online ROI cost calculators would have you believe differently, however those are all provided by the hosting companies themselves. For 20 or fewer users, Google Apps or Office 365 is almost always going to be cheaper.

Risks of Google Apps or Office 365

Just like with POP3/IMAP, Google Apps or Office 365 depend on the 3rd party shared hosting platform to be up and performing adequately for your needs. They have millions of users running on their system and thousands of hackers attempting to attack them at any given time. Their systems are far more robust than anything you would ever be able to afford, however they are also operating under a load and threat exposure that your local servers would likely never experience. The performance will likely be much slower than what you can get running locally, and the systems may have more unplanned downtime than your other much less sophisticated local server systems experience. In return you get a lot of benefits and cheap access to a high quality email and collaboration platform.

Risks of local Email Server

If you decide to run your own email server in your office or collocated in a shared datacenter there are pros and cons. If your office loses power or Internet then you get no email. You can put in backup Internet connections or generators, however that all adds cost. The redundancies available to Google or Microsoft’s datacenters will likely never be affordable for you unless you also co-locate your server into your own datacenter. Running your own email server also means all maintenance and support costs are now also your responsibility. Hurricane Sandy was the impetus for a lot of smaller organization to move to Office 365 or Google Apps since they had not invested in local redundancies or support for their local servers prior to the storm, so extended downtime made moving to the cloud seem like heaven.

Premium Performance and Security controls comes with a local server

If you are a smaller firm under 25 users then there is almost no reason to install a local email server unless performance and security control are at the top of your list of concerns. A well designed server solution connected to you on your local network at 1GB+ speeds will always perform better than a shared service platform you are connecting to over a much slower Internet connection. A full-fledged Exchange server also provides a lot more granular levels of control than you can get with Google Apps or Office 365. Most smaller companies will not have these requirements, however they may need to be considered for more complex implementations or ones that require email server integration with other locally installed software.

The high performance, low risk option is a hybrid local / hosted approach

If your eggs are important to you, no matter how good your basket, we never trust just one. We want two baskets with two different providers to assure uptime and service delivery. The most cost effective way we have found to implement this is a hybrid local / hosted solution. If you require high fault tolerance we recommend clients install a local Exchange environment in their office or datacenter, and then replicate Exchange databases to a 3rd party datacenter. This way clients get the best of both worlds – local performance and security for 99.999% of the time their office/datacenter is online and a cheaper lower end offsite warm site for the .001% of the time there is a Hurricane Sandy or other local outage. Offsite replication costs start at around $500 per month, so may only make sense for larger firms or those that have a low risk tolerance.

By Rashaad Bajwa 8/4/2014
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