Microsoft Exchange Online explained

With all the chatter around hosted services these days, it pays to know about Exchange Online. Get a handle on its benefits and drawbacks.

exchange explained

Enterprise-class applications like Exchange Server can be challenging, time-consuming and costly for IT organizations to support. And thus, businesses are increasingly turning to hosted services as an alternative. By essentially “renting” access to third-party hosted applications, businesses alleviate the problems application licensing, deployment and maintenance present.

Microsoft’s Office 365 suite includes Exchange Online, which is a hosted messaging application that provides organizations with access to the full-featured version of Exchange Server. It includes access to email, calendars, contacts and tasks for any endpoint device. Let’s look at Exchange Online in more detail and weigh its most important considerations.

Exchange Online features and benefits
The most noteworthy feature of Exchange Online is its hosted nature; services are accessed across the wide area network (WAN), so there are no Exchange Server software packages to deploy and configure. Also, physical servers are not required for support. This dramatically reduces the capital expense and ongoing support for email services.

There’s also considerable versatility for endpoints and email clients. For example, Exchange Online supports remote access for user devices including desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets and Apple systems. Mobile devices like iPhones, Androids, BlackBerry devices, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone are also included. Exchange Online email is accessed through conventionally installed Microsoft Outlook 2010 and Outlook 2007 clients. Outlook Web App (OWA) also supports email as well as complete calendar and contact activity from any Web-connected device.

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Exchange Online provides an ample 25 GB storage for each registered user’s mailbox. Users can send messages up to 25 MB, which is important when sending rich-media file attachments like .pdfs or image files.

There’s also an archiving feature that supports retention and compliance rules for corporate environments -- though it’s not without its drawbacks. “It’s not a perfect archive because it’s not available offline,” said Sean Evans, Exchange lead at Blue Chip Consulting. “So unless you’re connected via Outlook Web App, you can’t get to the archive.”

Another noted benefit of hosted Exchange is the addition of security tools. Microsoft Forefront Online Protection (FOPE) is deployed on the service provider’s end to curtail spam and viruses. This adds value over conventional Exchange Server deployments where security and malware tools must be purchased, installed and maintained separately.

Exchange Online enterprise pricing and control
There are two principal pricing schemes for Exchange Online. One plan carries a monthly fee of $5 per user, while the other plan costs $10 per user. Both plans provide the overall suite of features covered above, but the $10 plan provides advanced archiving, legal hold and compliance features, as well as unlimited archival storage and hosted voicemail. Additional pricing plans and options are available for organizations that want other Office 365 hosted capabilities, like SharePoint Online and Lync Online.

Organizations should weigh the recurring monthly per-user plan costs against the cost of owning and operating Exchange servers in-house. For example, an organization with 1,000 users at $10 per month would be looking at a $10,000 per month recurring bill.

But the costs of Exchange Server and dedicated Exchange administration can be eliminated. Similarly, large enterprises may already own a site license for Microsoft Office 2010, and the introduction of hosted email services may undercut the value of that site license without adequate cost analysis.

Evans noted that organizations have very little -- if any -- direct control over a hosted, multi-tenant environment. Limited provisioning and management functions are available and message tracking is more decentralized. The goal is to simplify the messaging environment and alleviate many of the worries Exchange administrators routinely face.

“Microsoft has taken best practices into the cloud and given you less to worry about,” Evans said. Still, with hosted services, major email support comes from outside the business. This loss of control may be a point of consternation for organizations with exacting compliance standards as well as security and archiving needs.

Exchange Online reliability
The adoption of hosted services like email has been hampered by concerns over service reliability and availability. If Exchange Online goes down, the business has no direct control over downtime or service restoration. Microsoft promises a 99.9% uptime commitment for Exchange Online. This should be suitable to many enterprise deployments, and there is a proliferation of client access servers in major regional service areas to ensure redundancy.

Microsoft ensures user email protection by hosting data in geographically-distributed data centers with continuous data backup and disaster recovery capabilities. Database availability group (DAG) features are employed to keep data intact; users won’t even know that they’ve been redirected to a different site.

There have been both Office 365 and BPOS outages in the past and it’s apparent that Microsoft is not alone in dealing with hosted service outages. Communicating the problem to customers and addressing issues decisively will be critical to the success of hosted services.

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