Web-hosted e-mail is gaining popularity but for some small and mid-sized businesses, it just won't do.

"Many companies, for technical, political, or cultural reasons will never want their e-mail hosted in the cloud," says Alan Elliot, vice president of sales and marketing at Mirapoint Software, Inc. which provides an e-mail server solution. "E-mail is a commercial tool, so the company may want some users to remain behind the firewall at all times, or it may have to comply with stringent policies about how data is handled. The company may want to retain deeply detailed records, and it may want to be the first to know if there's a problem."

For many companies, serving mail in-house means two things: Microsoft Outlook running on users' desktops, and Microsoft Exchange Server running on the company's server or servers. With Outlook the clear market leader in business e-mail, it may well be the right choice, especially if users are accustomed to it. And it may seem just as logical to support it with Exchange on the back end.

But Microsoft Exchange Server is not your only option for supporting an in-house Outlook e-mail system, and it certainly isn't the least expensive one.  "The big cost of running Exchange is almost always the people you need to maintain it," explains Richi Jennings, an independent industry analyst and e-mail expert. "Good IT people who know about Exchange and can deal with it when all hell breaks loose are expensive. And with a few hundred users, you might easily need two full-time equivalents."

Instead, you may be able to tame costs by opting for one of several less-expensive e-mail server systems, while users continue using the Outlook they know and love. There are many systems that can support Outlook on your server. Here are three that are geared for the small and mid-sized business market:

Gordano Messaging Suite

When compared to the standard configuration for Microsoft Exchange Server, Gordano Messaging Suite licenses cost about $400 less for 25 users, and the savings increase exponentially as the user count rises, according to a price comparison provided by Gordano, which launched its first commercial e-mail product in 1995. There's bigger savings on maintenance, though telephone support for users is not included in the license price.

Gordano Messaging Suite can be, and often is, managed by non-technical staff at client companies. "It's simple to install," says John Stanners, advisor to Gordano and former managing director. "Our office record for installing it on a server was less than a minute, and then we were ready to start adding users."

In addition to supporting Outlook, Gordano has a webmail client that is hosted on an internal server and runs in a browser on users' desktops either at the office or at home. That eliminates the hassle of maintaining Outlook on the desktop. "It was designed to look and function as much like Outlook as possible, and when you walk by people's desks it's difficult to tell who's using Outlook and who's using our webmail," Stanners says.

Ipswitch iMail

iMail Server from Ipswitch offers 90 percent of the features Microsoft Exchange Server does, says Brad Senter, marketing manager for Ipswitch. The exception is unified communication functions: iMail Server, first launched in 1994, can't do things like send voice messages to users' inboxes. But the cost is significantly lower, with licensing costs of $34.95 for the iMail server, and $12.95 to $15.95 per user, depending on the number of users.

Though iMail Server is installed in some very large companies, including one with more than 300,000 users, it was created specifically for small and mid-sized businesses, he says, which allowed the company to build a lower-cost product. "Twenty-five percent of our customer base is companies with fewer than 100 users. Typically, they have one IT person who's responsible for everything. It works for them because our software is designed for administrators. It's easier to learn and to maintain."


Mirapoint takes a different approach to in-house e-mail: Instead of providing software to run on your server, it ships an appliance with the e-mail software already hard-wired in (and, if desired, a second smaller appliance for archiving). "The box is fully integrated, so caring and feeding are minimal," Elliot explains. "Once configured, it can truly be an ancillary responsibility for someone." The appliance starts at $10,000 he says, with user licensing ranging from $50 a year to $10 a month, depending on desired features.

"Mirapoint was approximately half the price of a Microsoft Exchange solution," reports Dan Bailey, IS director of Norton Sound Health Corporation, a tribally-owned non-profit health care organization in Nome, Alaska that has been using Mirapoint for several years. "The other factor was the limitation of the IS staff. This is a small staff responsible for a large network and the manpower isn't there to spend a lot of time maintaining Exchange."

Questions to ask

If you're thinking of supporting Outlook with a non-Exchange server, Jennings recommends reviewing several factors in addition to cost. "You should consider what the webmail experience is like because users may access the system from a computer in café or at a trade show. And what is the mobile interface like for someone using an iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android phone?"

Companies considering Exchange alternatives should address these issues, he says, in addition to the one they always consider, which is how similar or dissimilar the experience is for users accustomed to Exchange. "That's the number-one question everyone thinks about," he says. He advises asking very specific questions about exactly which Exchange functions will and won't work for employees using Outlook on alternative server software. "Often, the devil is in the details."