Email: in-house or cloud?
May 11, 2010 5:07 AM   Subscribe

Email: in-house or cloud?

The small (less than 400 users) Social Services agency I work for needs to decide on a new email system. The debate is between proponents of an in-house hosted solution-probably Exchange-and advocates of cloud based systems (GoogleApps, most likely.)
I am looking for authorative papers arguing on either side, or personal experiences of people who have managed a transition like this.
Thank you very much in advance.
posted by Finder to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm in vote of a GoogleApps cloud system. It makes it so much easier for a variety of reasons. Our office had only about 30 employees when we switched and it was amazingly smooth. I am no longer with them as this was years ago now. I hear there is Google Gears now so in case of an outage with your internet service provider, you can still at least read and respond to email sent and received before the outage.

Just my two cents.
posted by magnoliasouth at 5:16 AM on May 11, 2010

Best answer: I second the recommendation to hire out a consultant for this if your IT staff doesn't have the skills or experience to do this kind of assessment. I'd suggest talking to your local LOPSA organization. These are the kinds of people you want to answer these questions, because they do this all day, in environments way bigger than yours. I would bet if you went to a local LOPSA meeting and bought beers afterwards, you'd get way more advice than you would ever want or need.

That said, it's almost always going to be cheaper to pay a company to host an Exchange environment than it will to run it on-site if you have reasonable expectations of reliability, performance and uptime.

- You have less than 200 but greater than 400 users
- You want Spam and AntiVirus protection
- You want shared calendaring and address books
- You have a small (~8 members) IT staff
- You do not have a large network service infrastructure existing -- clustered web servers, etc
- You do have an existing Microsoft AD domain.
- You will be buying new equipment for this
- You are not eligible for special pricing on software licensing
- You want both solutions to be equally reliable
- You do not have any regulatory requirement to save email

Given those assumptions...
For non-profits, Google Apps is free. Pretty hard to beat Apps. People in general love the Google Apps suite, and I use it for my personal email. In my organization, we decided against Google Apps for a few reasons. First, we have some specific regulatory requirements that state that we have to save our email, and it has to be easily accessible by our attorneys. That's a big deal, and a deal breaker for Google because the attorneys can't 'see' the disks that the email resides on. Next, the head honcho of the organization really liked Exchange, so there were plenty of resources allocated for the project. Finally, Google's support for the free Apps users is pretty much nonexistent, so my organization didn't want to rely on that sort of situation. You might not want to either. For example, I (and thousands of other domains) lost mobile sync capability due to an internal bug at Google, and there was almost acknowledgement of the bug, and absolutely no idea of when the problem would be fixed. Almost 6 weeks later, it magically started working with no notification from Google. If I ran the email system at my job, I'd probably have been fired.

If you decide to host a local Exchange setup, you're looking at -- minimum -- two or three decent, reliable, remote manageable computers, a reliable RAID array, some sort of backup infrastructure (tape or cloud), software licensing, and your people's (or a consultant's) time in administering an email system which is going to be significant. I would say at my organization which has a similar number of users, it could easily take up one FTE, sometimes more, depending on how well the system is set up. That is going to be at least 1-2 years of what a hosted Exchange system would cost. I don't think that even gets you into the place where you are checking and blocking spam and antivirus, so kick in a few more K just for that.

I think your consultant will find that at that point, you're better off paying someone so you have someone else to yell at, as well as enjoying the benefit of piggybacking on someone else's larger infrastructure which will give you much better reliability.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:20 AM on May 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

.. in fact, you're in NJ, so talk to the friendly folks at LOPSA-NJ. Their mailing list is a good place to start.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:22 AM on May 11, 2010

- You do not have any regulatory requirement to save email

This is key. What are your retention and data classification policies?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:47 AM on May 11, 2010

This is key. What are your retention and data classification policies?

Keep in mind there are options for online archiving.
posted by jmd82 at 7:09 AM on May 11, 2010

Old Exchange administrator and occasional consultant here. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation on this recently for a friend's startup, and the break-even point where in-house Exchange becomes smarter than Google Apps was somewhere around 75-100 users. Now, you're a nonprofit, which would change the cost curve somewhat (meaning your breakeven would be higher, I suspect), but that's still a good ROM estimate.

As others have said, though, there are entirely too many variables to be able to *fully* answer this in an AskMe. The LOPSA advice given above is a very, very good bit of advice. Based on the information given here, though, I would lean towards in-house Exchange.
posted by deadmessenger at 7:39 AM on May 11, 2010

I can't recommend going for Google Apps enough. I've used 4 private e-mail systems in the past few years -- one small site with Oracle Mail, one large multinational with hundreds of Exchange servers, and two universities running mixed-up bits of open source mail servers. None have worked adequately.

The Oracle Mail system was garbage and the VP who recommended buying it was fired.

The multinational spent millions on Exchange and Outlook licenses, but messages would routinely disappear into the ether. There was a very funny page put up by some dude on the corporate intranet who wrote a script that measured the reliability of the company's mail server in delivering messages. Something on the order of 1% of e-mails just never made it through.

One of the universities is using a stock Postfix e-mail setup. It works OK, but can't handle the really large attachments students like to send in. Many faculty unofficially forward their e-mail to private Gmail boxes.

The other one is running a massive cluster of mail servers with its own mix of open source software, and several IT staff dedicated to keeping it going. It works OK but is apparently way too expensive, because the IT department is trying to switch as many users to Google Apps as possible to cut costs.

Running e-mail servers is not one of your organization's core competencies. Outsource it!
posted by miyabo at 8:12 AM on May 11, 2010

Boy, am I SO not an expert on this, but I do have one tale about the downside of in-house. I was working in an environment with an antiquated email system and about 400 employees. On multiple occasions, our whole operation was brought to its knees by the nefarious "reply to all." Someone would send out an office-wide memo, then someone would reply to all, then someone else would say stop using reply to all by replying to all , then someone else would reply to all to THAT email while others were replying to all about how the original email didn't apply to them, etc. A round or two of this and the whole thing broke, sometimes taking the whole damn system with it.

So, unless newer in-house systems have a way of halting this, or our IT guys were just morons, I suggest using a system that won't be taken down by these shenanigans.
posted by thebrokedown at 8:18 AM on May 11, 2010

Theres a third option you might want to consider which is managed in-house email, you get a reseller to install, configure and remotely manage all the hardware and software on your site. This can sometimes work out cheaper than paying salary for your own dedicated IT staff.

You can also go to tender without specifying exactly how you want the email service delivered, although I doubt 400 users will be enough to draw the large players into a bidding war.
posted by Lanark at 12:32 PM on May 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful responses.
posted by Finder at 5:19 PM on May 11, 2010

"You do not have any regulatory requirement to save email"

Why this? Both solutions can do this
posted by dougiedd at 12:12 PM on May 28, 2010

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