Exchange vs. Gmail: you don't have to pick

For the past couple of years, many Australian chief information officers and IT managers have been hard-locked into choosing between just two options when it comes to evaluating the future of their email systems.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

commentary For the past couple of years, many Australian chief information officers and IT managers have been hard-locked into choosing between just two options when it comes to evaluating the future of their email systems.

One option has been the stalwart and ever-reliable Microsoft Outlook/Exchange — the safe and feature-rich choice, the controllable and manageable choice; the suit and tie choice, and most certainly the choice of Generation X and most of the baby boomers. Nobody ever got fired for buying Exchange.

But coming up fast from behind is Google Apps/Gmail — the new, cool kid on the block; the choice of Generation Y; the online-only, remotely hosted, software-as-a-service, cloud computing favourite.

The only problem is, for many Australian CIOs, neither platform has been a fantastic long-term alternative for in-house email needs, despite their relative strengths. If you speak to them about it, many IT executives will acknowledge that email is a technology that is rapidly becoming commoditised. They are looking for ways in which to offload email services to an external provider and take much of the cost of maintaining in-house Exchange systems off their balance sheets.

Whether you roll out Exchange as an in-house deployment, a managed service or outsource it completely to someone else’s datacentre or even to Microsoft’s cloud, the cost of maintaining the platform, buying Outlook licences and so on is not the lowest it could be.

However, shifting your whole organisation onto Gmail also has its problems: the lack of onshore hosting (or any real idea about which jurisdiction, in fact, your email will be hosted in), Gmail’s lack of the fine-grained features that Outlook offers and its diminished integration with the rest of Microsoft’s Office, Active Directory and Lync software stack. Gmail is far from perfect and Google is far from responsive to customer requests for change in its global platform.

However, the Exchange/Gmail dichotomy is a false one, as proved by this week’s revelation by Jetstar chief information officer, Stephen Tame, that the airline had chosen not one of the two major email platforms on offer, but both.

Jetstar’s email strategy, which will see most of its corporate head office staff continue to use Outlook/Exchange while support staff are shifted to Gmail, represents a viable way forward for many Australian organisations currently troubled by the false email dichotomy.

Tame, like many of his colleagues at other companies, has correctly recognised the fact that most of his company’s staff do not require feature-rich Exchange mailboxes. Yet he has also recognised the fact that some do.

By extracting various pieces of the email puzzle (security, archiving, etc) from the traditional email paradigm, and setting up routing rules to ensure each platform handles the mail accounts associated with it, Tame has been able to achieve a practical solution to a problem without serious development work being done by either Microsoft or Google; he will please all stakeholders within Jetstar.

The company’s head office will keep the Exchange platform its complexity demands. The rest of Jetstar’s staff will have a simpler but still highly functional alternative and the airline’s chief financial officer Tristan Freeman is no doubt singing Tame’s praises right now to the company’s board.

Best of all, as Jetstar staff gain experience and move up the ranks to head office, taking Gmail with them, there will likely be a natural effect where Google’s platform starts to percolate through the entire organisation, reducing the long-term need for Exchange as staff better understand the benefits of software as a service through direct exposure.

It’s a model that could easily be applied to many other industries. It’s not hard to argue, for example, that major banks, educational institutions, government departments and other commercial entities all have many so-called "boundary workers", which should rightfully be served with low-cost, low-priority and primarily outsourced technology solutions that meet their reduced needs when compared to the information workers who reside in corporate head offices.

Of course, Tame’s solution also worked for another dilemma.

Exchange 2010 has a feature that allows some mailboxes to be hosted in an on-premises facility, while others are hosted within Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure. It's easy to migrate mailboxes between the two.

Tame could have just as easily shifted most of Jetstar’s mailboxes into a cloud operated by Microsoft or a partner like CSC and locked most staff into only accessing their mail through Outlook Web Access, while corporate HQ used a local Exchange server and Outlook. This sort of option would likely have achieved the same goal as the Google option, although it probably would have cost more.

But overall, I like Tame’s strategy better.

The reason is that it demonstrates a contempt for the ideal of "technology for technology’s sake" and the sort of "one vendor" pure solutions that so many technologists get hung up on. Instead it puts the focus squarely on using pieces of technology as the flexible Lego building blocks that they truly are.

Tame’s lesson to Australia’s IT industry this week — and a lesson he has been teaching us throughout his entire career — is that it’s OK, in fact, it’s usually best, to think different.

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