Taming the alpha mail

The actual administration of e-mail -- getting it into your company, filtering it, distributing it, providing mobile access to it, archiving it, backing it up, undeleting it -- can be an extremely time-consuming, bothersome process.

If there's one thing every business uses these days, it's e-mail. Whether you're running a 5,000-strong multinational or a one-woman shop, e-mail long ago became the lifeblood of modern business.

Although it's critically important, however, the actual administration of e-mail -- getting it into your company, filtering it, distributing it, providing mobile access to it, archiving it, backing it up, undeleting it -- is an extremely time-consuming, bothersome process. And despite ever-improving applications to assist with many of these tasks, keeping e-mail running smoothly still requires more technical skills than many companies have, or want to dedicate to what is seen as a relatively basic business function.

Getting a third party to handle your e-mail is innately logical. After all, we all pay Australia Post to carry our physical mail; why should e-mail be any different?

Little wonder that managed e-mail services -- which offload the menial work involved in keeping a modern e-mail system running -- have won such strong approval. They have been particularly popular amongst small and medium businesses (SMBs), which would generally rather spend their time and money on business development and other, more strategic activities than on dealing with the minutiae of systems administration.

IDC estimates place the number of SMBs (companies with 499 or fewer employees) at more than 825,000, representing 59 percent of all workers in Australia. This suggests a significant opportunity for managed e-mail service providers, who have flooded the market with options. Although some offer to host Novell Groupwise or Lotus Notes, the lion's share of managed e-mail providers offer access to Microsoft Exchange, renting access to a large-scale instantiation of the application running within a beefy datacentre.

Customers rent e-mail inboxes from that Exchange server at a flat rate per mailbox per month; Bluewave, for example, resells access to WebCentral's managed e-mail services for AU$14.95 per mailbox per month. In return, the service provider takes care of ongoing management as well as ancillary tasks like e-mail filtering, archiving, provision of unified messaging, and more. The managed approach also improves governance by providing a centralised, completely auditable database of a company's e-mail communications.

"Generally, our users are white collar types," says Chris Collinge, director of TPP Internet, which recently jumped into the managed Exchange market. "They're typically businesses that have five to 10 employees, and quite often are geographically dispersed. Having a centralised Exchange server in the office would cause connectivity issues, but having a product like ours really suits our kind of customers."

Managed e-mail has become particularly relevant with the rise of the smartphone: any Exchange-compatible handset can be pointed to a managed e-mail server -- many of which now offer Research In Motion's Blackberry Enterprise Server as an option -- to allow for easy e-mail sending and receiving from the field. Mobile access is usually complemented by Web mail, ensuring that employees can get their communications from wherever in the world they happen to travel.

E-mail isn't the only feature available through managed Exchange services. For example, Exchange's calendaring features allow teams of people to view each others' schedules, make new appointments, and so on. Similar functionality is available for free through online services like Google Apps and ThinkFree, but integration with Exchange's messaging and other features make the managed services approach particularly appealing for many.

Getting a third party to handle your e-mail is innately logical. After all, we all pay Australia Post to carry our physical mail; why should e-mail be any different? Throw in the ability to retrieve your e-mail from wherever you happen to be, and you've got what a growing number of companies now see as a winning combination.

Nizza places e-mail in a new position

When your entire business depends on e-mail, you can't afford for anything to go wrong with it. This requirement -- and the growing complexity of managing e-mail across its expanding network of offices -- drove Brisbane-based Nizza Recruitment Group to a managed e-mail solution that has dramatically improved the way the company functions.

Snapshot on Nizza

  • Industry
  • Employees
  • Operations
  • Financials

Recruitment

An engineering recruitment specialist firm based in Brisbane, in recent years Nizza has seen a major change in the way its 40 employees handle their daily business. Face-to-face interaction has gradually given way to an increasingly e-mail-based business, with potential job candidates invariably submitting electronic resumes that are not only reviewed, but archived in the long term.

Although Nizza had previously managed its Microsoft Exchange-based e-mail inhouse, the rapidly expanding size of its employees' electronic mailboxes had increased the complexity of the solution and led to some major issues when new offices in Singapore and Perth (which specialises in mining recruitment) were opened.

Those sites were each running their own Microsoft Exchange server, but lack of integration between the three offices hindered the smooth flow of information within the business. Access was equally ponderous for a Scottish affiliate specialising in oil and gas industry recruitment.

"With our own server, it would be fine for about a year and then we'd end up getting too big for it again," said Nizza general manager Alex Tervit. "We have a lot of people with [.PST files] of 2GB in size, and they're getting new resumes all day and often store them in their Outlook mailboxes. All together, we had around 75GB stored on the system, and it was finding it difficult to cope with that much."

As the growing scale of its e-mail system threatened to get the better of it, Nizza made a dramatic change. Working with its existing systems integrator, Bluewave, Nizza set up a plan to migrate its existing data to WebCentral's managed e-mail service, which is resold by Bluewave to its own customers.

This effort proved far from simple, given the massive amount of data involved. "Even WebCentral were a little staggered at the size of the database," laughed Tervit. "They didn't allot enough time for the migration."

After more than two days, however, Nizza's data had been moved into the WebCentral datacentre, which offers a massive array of servers and databases that have been designed to scale to immense heights. Given the scalability that has been engineered into that architecture, the addition of Nizza's e-mail database barely registered a blip -- but it immediately began solving problems for the company.

No matter where they are in the world, all of Nizza's employees have now pointed their Outlook clients at the managed Exchange server, pulling down their information much more quickly than in the past. Importantly given the company's expanding footprint, all of the company's employees are now working from the same e-mail and calendar information.

Ready access to key information -- and the knowledge that the company's data is both well-managed and backed up regularly -- has quickly proven the value of managed e-mail. So, too, has the company's ability to reduce its server count from four to three.

Managed e-mail is "a reasonably cost-effective solution", said Tervit. "On a yearly basis, we're looking at less than AU$10,000 for a reasonable-sized company like ours. That's nothing [compared to paying] for an IT guy to come in and constantly upgrade the system, and worry about it. Bluewave were spending a lot of time working on our e-mail system, but now they can concentrate more on the real things."

Shifting towards a managed e-mail service has not only made life easier for Nizza, but it has also become a key element of the company's push to mobilise its Blackberry-styled devices. They are supported automatically, with the managed RIM Blackberry Enterprise Server running at WebCentral's premises. And, with the ability to check e-mail over the Web, Tervit and Nizza's other highly mobile employees are able to keep up with their e-mail no matter where they travel.

"We're moving to a totally Web-based business, whereby all of our employees can work from home and don't have any of the usual problems you have in doing that," said Tervit. "We're outsourcing all the problems we would have had in doing this. We were going to have to continuously upgrade ours, all the time, but [the managed service] just takes away the need to do that."

Vegas Nights plays its vCards right

One of the often-mentioned benefits of hosted e-mail is the fact that it gives even the smallest company access to a full-featured suite of messaging applications. For two-man operation Vegas Nights, this promise has turned into a business-changing advantage after recently adopting a managed Microsoft Exchange service from TPP Internet.

Snapshot on Vegas Nights

  • Industry
  • Employees
  • Operations
  • Financials

Gaming

Vegas Nights is in the business of gaming, renting out poker, blackjack, and roulette tables -- as well as professional croupiers to run them -- for corporate events. Business is good, so employees spend much of their time out of the office, meeting with clients, setting up and taking down their gear, travelling interstate, and taking bookings from wherever they happen to be.

In the past, both workers had shared single instances of Microsoft Outlook, jumping between machines when they needed to make new bookings or check e-mail. This arrangement soon grew tiresome, said director David Sellar, and Exchange was a clear option -- but he also soon realised that such a small company had no hope of running its own Exchange server.

"Because of the nature of the business, there are only two of us and we both wear different hats all the time," he explained. "We were constantly working off the same calendar and trying to use each other's contacts. It was just a pain having to jump onto each other's computers the whole time, and we wanted a way that we wouldn't have to keep knocking each other off of the computers. When the hosted Exchange idea came up, it looked quite simple."

Migrating to the TPP offering proved as simple as expected, and the pair were soon up and running with the hosted Exchange server. Three mailboxes allow each of the two to have their own e-mail inbox -- which is accessible from either computer or on the road -- and a third mailbox serves as a dropbox for all general Vegas Nights e-mail. The two can also share the same customer contact information, avoiding the need to jump between computers or use contact sharing methods like vCard.

Sellar also maintains a fourth inbox for his other business, iDrive, an online backup service that is far less phone-intensive and far more e-mail-intensive. Adding an account for iDrive to the TPP offering was straightforward, with access to the information restricted to Sellars.

"Even though we're quite a small company, we've got a complicated set-up with regards to customers," he explained. "This managed service has allowed me to access certain services and others not."

The pair have made extensive use of the fact that managed Exchange offers a single shared calendar, which is essential to prevent double-booking of limited business assets. With both Outlook and Web-based services providing access to the same calendar information no matter where they travel, the pair can confidently schedule resources without worrying about conflicts.

Offloading e-mail has also allowed the two to keep their information synchronised with their smartphones and HP iPaqs, ensuring the data is accessible all the time and can be readily synchronised to stay current.

"In the past, the only way we could do all of this was through Windows Terminal Services [remote access]," said Sellars. "But for that to work, you had to make sure the computer was on back at the office, and of course there was a bit of a security issue there. Now, our computers don't even need to be on."

Bigfish nets e-mail improvements

As an IT services provider, Melbourne-based Bigfish Technology focuses on providing services to help its clients get the most out of technology. As a user of technology itself, the company faces similar goals for its own employees -- and has found the managed e-mail service it offers customers to be a significant boon to its own operations.

Snapshot on Bigfish Technology

  • Industry
  • Employees
  • Operations
  • Financials

Systems integration

With just five employees, the six-year-old company specialises in providing solutions to small and medium businesses (SMBs) -- those with up to around 100 computers. Within this market, said managing director Tristan Ellet, clients often face major problems stemming from simple issues of geography.

One client, for example, was struggling to keep up with his e-mails and needed a way to give his secretary access to the messages -- which came in through four different e-mail addresses -- no matter where he and she were travelling. Another was a husband-and-wife team that wanted to share their e-mail and contacts through their smartphones.

Tristan Ellet

Bigfish managing director Tristan Ellet.

In both cases, Bigfish helped its clients get set up with a hosted Microsoft Exchange service from infrastructure provider YourASP. At the same time, however, Bigfish was looking for a way to improve its own employees' access to each other, particularly given their continuous movement between clients.

"On any given day, our staff are on the road anywhere in Victoria," said Ellet. "If we were fixed in one location, having our own inhouse server would be appropriate. But after we looked at doing it ourselves, timewise and costwise it didn't make sense -- so we looked at using a hosted environment."

That environment, also built around YourASP's hosted Exchange service, has changed the way the team communicates with clients and with each other. Mobile Bigfish employees use their Palm Treo PDAs to regularly access mail, while access via Telstra Big Pond's Next-G data cards brings their notebooks into the fold as well.

One major benefit of the hosted solution, which stores all e-mail on a single central server and provides seven mail accounts to Bigfish all told, is the ability to synchronise relevant information from other peoples' folders. This capability, for example, allows Ellet to see what all of the company's support technicians are doing on any given day.

"This is very handy in the service industry," he said. "With sharing, we can access that information anywhere. Everything you've ever sent or deleted, is available from anywhere in the world."

YourASP wasn't the first hosted Exchange solution Bigfish tried. Its initial foray into the market landed a service provider that wasn't actually aware of how its technology worked -- making ongoing service and confidence hard to obtain. A second company was ditched after a systems crash caused a 12-hour service outage. But YourASP's solution has proven solid for Bigfish throughout more than a year of continuous use -- confirming its value both for the company and for its clients.

Although the managed service is relatively straightforward, Ellet is quick to point out that many of the same rules apply as do for a more complicated IT systems implementation.

"There are a whole lot of benefits depending on where it fits into your business, but set-up and training are important parts of it as well," he explained. "We're not just selling hosted e-mail; we're selling an ongoing solution that works in the way users want to access information. That's why we use it ourselves as a customer; we just don't have time to spend managing our e-mail servers."

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