SMBs should consider axing Exchange

As I was writing my feature about strategies for managing Microsoft Exchange, a question naturally popped into my contrarian head: What about something besides Exchange?

True, Microsoft is the leading messaging and collaboration vendor, which means it's leading the field in terms of new sales. And new sales are tough because most everyone already has e-mail -- and the Fortune X000 generally has very mature and entrenched e-mail systems. Talking those customers into a new e-mail product means not only taking them away from someplace like IBM or Novell; it means talking them into an e-mail-migration process. And that's almost never pretty (a lesson Jamie Bernstein and I learned last year conducting InfoWorld's Exchange migration challenge).

But with this sales success on the enterprise side also comes a cost: a less attractive price point to the SMB (especially the SB) set. For smaller customers looking for reliable messaging and a decent set of collaboration tools, there are better deals out there than Exchange.

I had a chance to talk with Justin Graf, CIO of Empro Manufacturing in Indianapolis, Ind. He's been managing a user network of 50 to 100 for several years and moved from Exchange to competitor Gordano about two years ago.

"We moved mainly because Exchange kept jumping in cost," Graf says. Microsoft kept adding features and raising the price, yet mostly these were features that Empro employees didn't need. "We found Gordano, which not only gave us all the e-mail functionality, but also included anti-virus, anti-spam -- and it cost about US$3,500 with an annual support fee of about $800. All the updates and tech support service is free." And, it requires no client access licenses to connect to the server.

Considering that Exchange server can cost more than this entire package without even getting into CALs, the price advantage is clear -- and Gordano isn't even the least expensive solution out there. "We're getting everything we got with Exchange," Graf continues. "E-mail, scheduling, shared folders, Webmail, even instant messaging and the ability to use Outlook on the desktop."

And surprisingly, Graf is happy that Gordano is divorced from Active Directory. He's suffered through an AD crash that took Exchange along for the ride, and in a network as small as his, he didn't appreciate all the consultants required to fix it. All told, that mess took Graf four days to clean up, "because Exchange doesn't even let you access the database unless there's an Exchange server running." So Gordano's capability to run independent of AD makes Graf feel safer.

Exchange 12 addresses the problem of accessing the messaging database outside of the Exchange console. But then again, many folks are still running Exchange 5.5, so it may continue to be a sore point for quite a few Exchange admins -- especially in SMBs where senior management may be looking to stretch its e-mail investment as far as possible.

Frankly, I've been pretty impressed with Exchange's feature set -- both in the 2003 version and the upcoming Version 12. But Graf has it right when he says many of these features are aimed at large installations; SMBs just don't need them. And although Microsoft is trying to satisfy these customers with Small Business Server, that's still an all-in-one Microsoft-only solution -- and it continues to tie you tightly to other platforms, including AD and SharePoint.

Opting to look outside the Microsoft fold is simply becoming more attractive to smaller companies looking from a breather from the constant Microsoft license renewal pressures. But also because there are innovative players out there such as Gordano, not just replicating Exchange's feature set, but offering new features as well. Gordano, for example, integrates its own security suite directly into the product, plus the company offers intelligent archiving and even e-mail list management for e-business-oriented types.

All of these generally require add-on products to work with Exchange. And that just represents even more cost to already cash-strapped SMB customers. And Gordano is far from the only player in this market. Other folks include Scalix, Stalker Software's CommuniGate Pro, and even Web-only players like Zimbra. (The InfoWorld Test Center will be reviewing Scalix and Zimbra in the near future.)

Microsoft may make its money in the Fortune 2000 set, but Redmond needs to address SMB concerns more directly than simply fleshing out Small Business Server, because there are plenty of smaller players out there doing a better e-mail job for SMBs.

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