With fast setup times and no need for any in-house hardware or software, hosted email is growing in popularity and worthy of inclusion in this group test. A number of business oriented services are available, including Exchange-based products, both from Microsoft itself — as part of the Business Productivity Online Suite — and third-party resellers. But because we're interested in Exchange alternatives, we opted for Google Apps Premier Edition, which has just as much to offer and is popular with businesses of all sizes.
One of the nice things about Google Apps is its simple pricing/sizing model of £33 per user per year, with a huge 25GB of inbox storage each. That's a lot more than most hosted services, where 2GB is the more usual starting point. You don't just get email: Google Calendar and Google Docs let you collaborate and securely share information, while Google Sites helps you build and manage in-house intranets. There's also Google Video, a kind of cut-down YouTube service for private video sharing. On its website Google provides a configurable cost comparison versus a 'basic deployment' of Exchange 2007.
Support for Blackberry and other mobile clients comes as standard with a very slick browser client. There's support for offline working from the browser client, plus the ability to retrieve mail using either POP3 or IMAP4 clients. There's even that all-important Outlook plug-in for those requiring a full Exchange-alike experience. Everything is backed by a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee, complete with an SLA and both phone and email support.
Because it's hosted, there's no need for any special hardware, just an internet connection. Moreover, Google Apps requires very little in the way of installation. Indeed, all we had to do was tell Google the domain name we wanted to use, prove ownership, and then change our DNS settings to let everyone on the internet know what we were doing.
A web-based console is used to manage the setup, and from here we could configure our user accounts, with optional Active Directory support if required, plus a single sign-on facility and the ability to enforce SSL encrypted connections. Antivirus and anti-spam protection are also included as standard and can be further extended using Google's Postini service. This is an optional tool that adds customisable filters, email disclaimers, automatic archiving for up to 10 years and more — albeit at a cost.
Users of the free Google Mail (Gmail) service will be immediately at home with the web-based Google Apps mail client, which is identical apart from the ability to turn off adverts and add your own logo. Labels are employed rather than folders, which takes a little getting used to. Once mastered, labels are very flexible, allowing messages to be filed and retrieved in lots of different ways. We also like the threaded conversation view and the Google search facilities.
In a lot of cases the browser client is all that's needed, but for those unwilling to give up on Outlook the Google plug-in is very easy to install and delivers an authentic Exchange-like experience — albeit with the loss of both labels and the conversation view of the web interface. That said, it's possible to mix together web, Outlook and mobile clients in any combination, giving users access to their mail no matter where they are, and with no need for a custom VPN connection. Likewise you can mix together the web-based Google Calendar and the Outlook plug-in to share calendars, check free/busy time, schedule meetings and so on.
Mobile support is impressive and equally easy to configure. We had no problems installing the custom Gmail client onto a Nokia smartphone or using Exchange ActiveSync to push messages out to Windows or Apple iPhone handsets. Blackberry support via BES is also available.
To encourage users to migrate to Google Apps, Google provides a number of tools for importing data from existing information stores. These can be automated and worked well, although you should expect migration to take a while depending on the speed of your internet connection. Similar considerations also apply when it comes to performance, but we found Google Apps very responsive even on relatively slow mobile connections.
On the downside, there's no drag-and-drop support in the webmail client and large attachments take a while to upload. Some customers may also be uncomfortable not knowing where host servers are located, or with being unable to directly manage backup and other security measures. If you can live with that, however, Google Apps Premier Edition is a great solution.