Hosted Exchange 101: what is it and do you need it?

Exchange_server_settingsThanks to an e-mail question from TaxMan, I wanted to give a little "Hosted Exchange 101" for a few reasons. First off TaxMan wanted to know what’s the real benefit of this e-mail solution and who it’s for. Secondly, the lack of native Exchange support is one of the few reasons I held off on an iPhone purchase and this gives me an opportunity to re-evaluate my needs. My intention here isn’t to provide an in-depth, technical overview of a hosted Exchange approach, but I’d like to give a quick high-level overview that might help readers understand if this choice is needed and viable for them.

Hosted Exchange: what it is it?

If you do work or have worked in a corporate environment, it’s a good chance that you were using a Microsoft Exchange powered e-mail solution. Exchange is running on e-mail servers in a vast majority of the business world these days. Many of these servers are administered and maintained by the company I.T. department. Since an Exchange server can handle tens of thousands of e-mail accounts, it’s meant for small business sized companies and up. By itself, a dedicated Exchange server is overkill for most individuals: you don’t need the horsepower and capacity that comes along with the job of maintaining it for a single user.

Hosted Exchange is a viable option for those individuals that want to harness the power of an Exchange server but don’t want to pay for a full server license, buy the appropriate hardware and deal with the maintenance. Much like the web hosting industry where a company bundles many customers on a single web server, Exchange hosting (or Hosted Exchange) is a cost-effective option for individuals. The Exchange service provider bundles many customer mailboxes on a single Exchange server for a monthly or yearly fee.

What does it cost?

Costs vary, but in general, they’re much lower than running your own Exchange server. If you were to host Exchange for yourself as an example, you’d need a hypothetical package like:

To run a single mailbox that’s overkill for most; there are likely a few exceptions, but again: overkill.

A hosted Exchange plan, however, costs much less. You can find a list of Microsoft approved providers right here; I highly recommend you research and choose your the best for you. I personally use 4Smartphone while James uses MailStreet. I chose 4Smartphone’s Professional plan which costs me $84 a year. For that price, I get 1 GB of mail storage, a free Outlook 2007 client license, direct push support for my mobile devices, daily backups and more. My mention of the plan isn’t to solicit business for the company, it’s simply to provide an idea of the costs and services provided.

What does Hosted Exchange provide?

Obviously, you have a centralized e-mail server with a hosted Exchange plan, the same as you have with Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and the like. There are a few key differences however; some may help you decide if you need a hosted Exchange plan or not.

One key feature is that Exchange provides not just your mail and all of your e-mail folders, but your Calendar appointments, Contacts, Notes and Tasks. With one single client connected to Exchange, you can keep all of these artifacts in sync. To this point in time, the ability to have all of this information stored, integrated and backed up in one central location has been one of the two main reasons I’ve kept a hosted Exchange account.

The second reason is the support for Direct Push synchronization. This is the ability to have all of my information on the Exchange server sent to my many mobile devices in near real-time. I don’t have to worry about a manual send and receive function, nor do I need to synchronize my clients with the Exchange server: it simply stays in sync. The real benefit here is what I alluded to earlier when I said "my many mobile devices". I currently have three smartphones configured to receive e-mail from my Exchange server. I can leave the house with any of my devices and know that my e-mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes and Tasks are all up to date. No muss, no fuss: it’s all there. This alone has made my service plan well worth the money. When I’m on the road, it’s nice to get an appointment update or invite for example. I can immediately accept or review my up to date calendar before taking the necessary action required and I can do this on my smartphones.

There are other valuable features and functions but most don’t apply to individual mobile tech users. If you’re a small group of users, you might be interested in the support for public folders, global address books and more.

Is a Hosted Exchange Plan right for me?

That depends on your needs and devices of course. I originally went this route due to the Direct Push feature that’s supported on my Windows Mobile devices. Palm and Nokia have licensed Microsoft’s ActiveSync technology so that some of their devices gain this benefit as well. Devices that don’t support Exchange synchronization might be helped by third party solutions like DataViz’s RoadSync I’m using on the loaner Nokia N80.

The recent introduction of the Apple iPhone has nudged me to re-evaluate my needs. Although I’m using an Exchange server today, all of my mail originally comes from two POP3 accounts; I then forward mail from those accounts to my 4Smartphone account to take advantage of the Direct Push feature, daily backup, etc… I’ll be testing the web-based interfaces of my POP3 accounts over the next few weeks to see if I can be productive without my Exchange account.

If you’re on the road and want to always be up to date with your e-mail, contacts, appointments, notes and tasks, a hosted Exchange plan with the right mobile device can definitely boost your productivity at a reasonable price.