It used to be that the only option for robust email services (i.e. Microsoft Exchange – – it really is the gold standard of email servers) was to buy a server, figure out the Exchange software licensing and hire someone to set it all up and provide the ongoing maintenance. Luckily, those days are behind us and there are several options that are powerful, reliable and affordable. Let’s review the pros and cons of the most common solutions.
On-premise email server
Up until 5 years ago or so, this really was the only viable option. You bought your own server, set it up and had someone provide the long-term maintenance.
PROS: It can be summed up in one word – – flexibility. Having your own on-premise Exchange email server means there are not any vendor-imposed limitations on things like message size, mailbox size, what add-ons can be installed, etc. It also used to be that an on-premise server was the only way to do much of the advanced Exchange configuration and/or management but most Exchange hosting companies provide the ability to run the scripts and commands you may need but it’s definitely worth asking before considering giving up your on-site server.
CONS: There is a lot of overhead that comes with maintaining your own email server(s). This includes things like:
- Hardware purchase, maintenance and replacement
- Backups (remember these have to be off-site and Exchange databases can get very large so getting them off-site can be costly)
- Paying for knowledgeable staff/consultants
- Reduced reliability (power issues, hardware issues, software troubleshooting that can take your email server off-line, etc.). Professional hosting companies are better at all of these things than any small business could ever be.
Hosting your email with your web host
For many small businesses, this is the default go-to when they first set up their email. Many webhosts offer free email hosting when you host your website with them. If it’s free, however, be aware that it is almost guaranteed that it’s NOT Microsoft Exchange but rather what’s known as a POP or IMAP mailbox. The Pros and Cons lists below assume that this is the case.
PROS: This is definitely the cheapest (usually free) and most convenient way to get set up. You also get the benefit of 1-stop shopping. Your email is at the same company as your website.
CONS: The biggest issue with these free mailboxes is the lack of features. Here are just a few quick examples:
- Little or no support for accessing your email from multiple devices. POP mailboxes do not provide any mechanism to synchronizing changes to your mailbox to multiple devices. If you delete a message on one device, you have to delete it manually from the other device(s). This is a huge issue with almost everyone having mobile devices that need to access their work emails.
- No shared calendars or contact lists. The free POP/IMAP mailboxes don’t have any way to share calendars or view another user’s calendar. You also have no easy way to share contact lists with multiple people. Many companies use this feature for sharing client or vendor contact information.
- Losing email history. With POP mailboxes, you usually download the messages to your computer and, if your computer’s hard drive stops working, you could lose all of your message history. Yes, you should back up your PC and yes, there are ways to set up POP and IMAP to mitigate this issue but most every-day users aren’t aware of this and just the fact that a misconfiguration could allow this to happen makes it risky.
Hosted Microsoft Exchange:
This is, by far, the solution that works best for most of our clients.
- Features – You get all of the features of a Microsoft Exchange server. Shared calendars, shared contact lists, public folders, synchronizing your data across multiple devices – – all included. And, if you buy the right plan, you can get access to things like OneDrive and other Microsoft cloud features for free.
- Reliability – The up-time on hosted Exchange services is much, much higher than you could ever achieve hosting a server yourself. These services have all of the benefits that come with being located in professional datacenters – – redundant internet, redundant cooling, redundant power, redundant servers. There’s just no way that a small business could economically replicate this kind of reliability.
- Initial Cost – Unlike an on-premise server, there’s no upfront cost. You can just sign up and begin using it. There are also ways to bundle in your Microsoft Office licenses to save additional money.
- No Ongoing Maintenance – There’s no need to have your IT person (or a consultant) on hand to manage, monitor and maintain your email server.
- It’s a subscription that you have to pay for as long as you use it. (This does bother some people but, if you look at the long-term costs of self-hosting, it’s still a money-saver.)
- Some limits to what you can do. For example, there may be some mailbox size limits (though they are usually quite generous) or email message size limits. Also, you are limited to which 3rd party add-ins you can use that tie into the Exchange server. Many vendors have versions that work with hosted Exchange solutions but not all.
So, in summary…If you need the most flexible email solution possible and aren’t afraid of the cost, have a professional install an on-premise Exchange server. If you’re just starting up and have zero budget for things like email, use the email provided with your web hosting company (but, if you start to grow, get off there as soon as you can!). But, if you are like the vast majority of companies that we work with, and your focus is on having the most reliable and feature-rich solution with the least amount of cost, Hosted Exchange is the way to go.