Q&A: Outsourcing E-mail Management

How IT can get out from under the crushing job of e-mail management.

There are many ways to get out from the crushing job of e-mail management, from outsourcing it completely (running it in the cloud, for example) to having a service provider mange it remotely, or work at your site to do the heavy lifting. You might outsource just the monitoring of your e-mail and keep the rest of your work inside your data center.

To help us sort through the pros and cons of all these options, and learn what best practices will reduce your e-mail management headaches, we spoke with Scott Gode, vice president of product management and marketing at Azaleos, a remote monitoring and management solution for Microsoft Exchange environments.

Enterprise Strategies: What are the challenges IT faces in managing e-mail?

Scott Gode: IT is on the hot seat regarding e-mail -- on the one hand, they need to bet their job that they can keep it up and running 24x7 for both desktop and mobile devices. On the other hand, they need to show ongoing cost efficiencies with respect to their organization’s total IT spending. They need to accomplish this in the face of growing technical complexity, including upgrades like the forthcoming Exchange 2010 release, and alternative delivery platforms like hosted e-mail.

What management options does IT have, and what are the pros and cons of each?

There are essentially four options today for managing corporate e-mail:

Status Quo/Self-Managed: This business-as-usual approach employs in-house administrators to keep e-mail running. This doesn’t “threaten” employees, but is a costly option that does not use IT resources efficiently.

Hosted/Cloud Service: Transfers all server, data, and management responsibility to a hosted service provider. This is often the lowest-cost option, but it lacks system customization options, e-mail data is potentially insecure in the cloud, and hosting vendors may lack enterprise-ready experience.

On-Site Outsourcing: Bring vendor personnel on-site to manage your e-mail system. In its favor, this option leverages the experience and expertise of a third-party e-mail expert and data remains on-site. However, this high-cost option doesn’t leverage the power of the Web.

Remote Management: E-mail data and server/storage hardware remains on-premise; monitoring and management of the system are performed by a remote vendor. This option provides most of the benefits of hosted e-mail without any of the cons, but it still requires software and hardware investments. Sometimes remote management is delivered by off-shore vendors using ad-hoc software technology.

What criteria should IT use when picking the right model?

A detailed RFP/evaluation process for moving from on-site e-mail management to an alternative solution will involve looking at approximately 15 different key categories. The top five categories in this list are:

  • Data Location/Security: How important is it that your e-mail data reside and be secured “on-premise”?
  • Network Connectivity: Hosted e-mail solutions require a large pipe to enable fast communications between end-user desktops and the e-mail server. If this connectivity doesn’t already exist for your company, you may have to pay more to establish it.
  • SLAs/Support: What levels of support and expertise do you require? How quickly do e-mail issues need to be resolved?
  • Virtualization: What is your go-green and/or server consolidation strategy? How important is it that e-mail be delivered as a virtual appliance solution?
  • Monitoring: Good management requires great monitoring. Do you want your monitoring to be re-active or proactive? Do you want an ad hoc/off-the-shelf technology utilized or a highly specialized monitoring technology specially engineered for e-mail monitoring?

What gets in the way of making a switch -- that is, what inhibits IT from moving to a full or partial outsourcing approach?

There are typically three major obstacles which stand in the way of businesses making a clean switch to some form of e-mail system outsourcing:

  1. Change: Companies can be resistant to change, particularly when it may involve IT staff reductions and/or re-assigning personnel to accommodate outsourced e-mail
  2. Security: The level of security policy flexibility that a company enjoys can significantly influence vendor choice and even their ability to outsource at all.
  3. TCO Information: Many companies have no idea how much they are spending per user on e-mail management. This lack of hard data inhibits IT from being able to make the case to management for the benefits of outsourcing e-mail. This lack of quantifiable data also prevents a solid comparison and assessment of the different options mentioned earlier.

What factors must IT consider when moving to an outsourcing model?

Before pulling the trigger and making the move, the top 5 potential “gotchas” IT should prepare for are:

Upgrade Pace: How important to your business is it that your vendor be able to quickly test and deploy in your environment the latest/greatest versions of all patches/ hotfixes, upgrades, and new versions of the e-mail platform?

Switch-Back Potential/Lock-In: Many outsourcing and hosting vendors are quite helpful in the migration process to their framework but offer no solution for exiting the hosted model if you decide to bring e-mail back “on-premise.”

Customization: Since the majority of hosted e-mail operations use a multi-tenant infrastructure, there are very few options beyond the standard “cookie-cutter” configuration offered by the hosting company.

Enterprise-Ready Expertise: Many outsourcers have limited or very little expertise in managing enterprise-class e-mail environments -- most of their experience revolves only around managing e-mail for small businesses.

Offshore: Most of the emerging outsourcing vendors have their resources located “off-shore” -- before committing to this sort of a model, consider any/all cultural assimilation or relationship-building issues.

What are the implications to other parts of IT’s infrastructure in outsourcing e-mail management?

Some of the e-mail outsourcing options will not integrate as elegantly with your core IT systems once you execute the move. For example, hosted e-mail only offers a one-way replication between your on-premise directory system and your hosted e-mail accounts. The hosted e-mail vendor can’t make any directory changes which are replicated back to the on-premise system, and the replication will not take place in real time so there will be a delay to add or delete users.

What security issues must IT deal with when considering a move to outsourcing?

There are a number of federal mandates (e.g., HIPAA, SOX, FRCP, GLBA, etc.), and potentially some corporate security policies that may be violated by a move to a fully hosted e-mail system. Additionally, even though a hosting vendor may guarantee a certain level of security for their cloud-service data center, at the end of the day, when the data has moved beyond the corporate premise, it is potentially exposed.

What best practices can you suggest for managing your own e-mail services, and what best practices should IT follow when dealing with an outsourced provider?

Step one should always be to identify your mid- to long-term IT strategy with respect to the overall UC (unified communications) stack, including e-mail, document management, IM/presence, telephony, and audio/video/Web conferencing. You also need to ensure that you have a strong empirical understanding of your TCO relating to UC and e-mail. Armed with this information, you can make an informed decision about how/if to outsource.

As part of the outsourcing negotiations/discussion you should focus in on four key areas:

  • Contract: What are the data migration and on-boarding costs, version support and upgrade schedule, and termination costs and procedures
  • Legal: How will issues such as discovery and preservation requests be handled
  • Security: Who will have access to the e-mail data, how secure is the provider’s data center, what are the risks associated with a multi-tenant server model
  • Operations: What are the details of the SLA and what responsibilities belong to the service provider and which remain with the in-house IT staff?

Where do you see this “IT management outsourcing” trend heading?

E-mail outsourcing, whether hosted or remotely managed, is on a fast track growth trajectory. According to Gartner estimates, hosted Exchange e-mail installations will increase from 1-2 percent today to approximately 20 percent by 2012, and continue to grow beyond that. The remote management market is expected to grow on par with e-mail hosting, as it provides the added benefit of being a lower risk option. Each of these options can be implemented independently or be merged to create a hybrid solution. This hybrid model involves one segment of the company using a less expensive (and less functional) hosted e-mail service, while other employees remain in an on-premise but remotely managed system. Not only is this hybrid model a good approach for piloting a hosted e-mail service, but in many cases it may be the best overall long-term solution. For example, certain sets of “non-carpeted” users (including those who do not require strong security controls and those based overseas) can be served using a cloud-based model, while others with tighter security requirements are managed using on-premise servers.

What products or services does Azaleos offer for e-mail management?

Azaleos Corporation provides 24/7 remotely managed services for on-premise installations of Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), Microsoft Active Directory, and Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES). The Azaleos solution is unique -- all servers, storage, and data remain at your facility, behind your firewall, and in your physical control. This ensures a strong end-to-end messaging and collaboration solution that provides high reliability, availability, and performance.

Azaleos’ OneStop managed services include patch management, system fixes, archiving, business continuity, mobility support, antispam/anti-virus protection, and migration services along with physical or virtual OneServer appliance options.