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E-mail outsourcing - Internet service providers offering companies e-mail hosting services - Internet/Web/Online Service Information

E-mail outsourcing - Internet service providers offering companies e-mail hosting services - Internet/Web/Online Service InformationDo it now--beat the pack and start saving.

Notwithstanding the buzz about much flashier applications, the Internet's most popular use today--by far--is plain-vanilla e-mail for communicating among employees, customers, and vendors. To deal with this insatiable appetite for e-mail, which will only grow as universal access via Web browsers becomes ubiquitous, businesses have two basic choices: handle it or hand it off.

Larger organizations, of course, can simply commit budget and IS staff to manage growing e-mail needs. For others, who are either unwilling or unable to dedicate such resources, outsourcing e-mail can be the most cost-effective and practical solution--essentially making it all the Internet service provider's (ISP) responsibility. For an adroit ISP with the right equipment and attitude, however, it can be an opportunity to differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive "buyer's market."

First, consider the cost of managing e-mail. Can you afford to add e-mail to your IP infrastructure and manage it with an already overworked IS staff? This is the cost of manpower and purchasing the software vs. "renting" an outsourced system and the hardware on which it runs. Having e-mail handled at a central location where multiple companies are being hosted on the same hardware can amortize costs across a wide number of organizations. Right off the top, expect this to slice about 80% of your burgeoning e-mail administrative costs.

But what do you give up in return for such savings? Besides hassle, not much. You maintain administrative control, security, and backup. You can gain enhanced access abilities from remote sites via Web servers; the option to dovetail add-on networking services like VPNs; and the comfort of knowing your ISP can take care of scaling up the e-mail system to match your company's growing needs. The key to successful outsourcing of e-mail, obviously, is a nimble and capable ISP.

There's an evolution under way in the service-provider industry. Until recently, providers competed based on low prices and how much bandwidth they had available. With bandwidth becoming a commodity, they now must differentiate themselves based on their quality of service.

As anyone who has run an IT organization knows, it's a real challenge to manage a high volume of computers and accounts. ISPs who can do it well and rise above their competition will be those providing lightning-quick response time when there's a problem. They'll be able to have back-up files readily available and quickly restored in the case of a hard-drive crash and will provide timely telephone response to customers calling in with questions. They will have to live up to the true spirit of their middle name: "Service."

Responsive ISPs, of course, will charge accordingly as these outsourced e-mail services will off-load the need for IS staff back at the customer site. But ISPs will have to earn the trust of the customers, who'll vote with their feet and leave unless their ISP has the talent and knowledge to monitor their system without fail, respond promptly when the network crashes, and fix everything quickly.

From the customer's perspective, the whole thing should work transparently, as if the e-mail system lived in his back closet. Presuming the ISP's infrastructure is sufficient, a hosted company can go in to add or delete users and manage its e-mail system without affecting anybody else on the server. With its ISP's server properly configured, it can even give individual users the right to change their own passwords. Successful outsourcing is a combination of having faith in your ISP and ready access to your files.

Such ISP expertise can be particularly useful for organizations involved with mergers and acquisitions. If they're facing the challenge of trying to blend incompatible e-mail systems (e.g., a cc:mail system with an Internet protocol-based system), it is well worth paying for someone specialized in IT infrastructure and its management to handle everything.

Bottom line, if a service provider can prove it provides 99.9% uptime, responds immediately when there's a problem, backs files up quickly, and restores them when necessary, it'll be doing a better job than nearly any company does on its own.

Over time we can expect the growing dominance of the Web to begin eroding the e-mail client business, which will further spur outsourcing because people will be accessing e-mail from any place, any time, and will be less concerned about where it physically resides. Although the Web currently doesn't have all of the advantages of standalone e-mail clients, that is likely to change as Web interfaces evolve.

As Internet protocol (IP) inexorably inherits the foundations of wide-area corporate communications and carriers are pressured to adapt network backbones to IP, enterprises should be planning to migrate what's practical to the IP realm. Presuming virtually all e-mail eventually will be Internet-based, a strong case can be made that shrewd companies can leapfrog competitors by outsourcing e-mail management.

Circle 273 for more information from Ipswitch, Inc.

Any company seriously considering outsourcing its e-mail should ask the following questions when shopping for an appropriate ISP:

* Can I use my existing e-mail client?

* Can I have administrative control myself? To what extent?

* How reliable is the ISP (proven with uptime statistics)? Will it be around for a while?

* How responsive is its support staff?

* Can an ISP quickly and easily scale to my business?

* Do I need to review security issues to make sure my e-mail remains "private"?

Greene is president of Ipswitch, Inc., Lexington, Mass.