Swapping Out the Back End?

What keeps Microsoft's Exchange Server program managers up at night? One word: migration. Many sites are still running Exchange Server 5.5, and a number of Microsoft's competitors (e.g., IBM, Novell, Oracle, Rockliffe, Scalix) are aggressively going after those shops, claiming that they can offer a better deal than customers will get by migrating to Exchange Server 2003 or Exchange 2000 Server. Is this claim true? Does it make sense for your organization? The answer depends on whom you ask.

The conversation surrounding these questions was fueled by an Osterman Research report noting that 61.4 percent of the companies Osterman surveyed were using Outlook. (For more information about the report, see Line56.com's article at http://www.line56.com/articles/default.asp?articleid=5351 .) An earlier Osterman report, however, revealed that 55 percent of companies surveyed would be willing to change their back-end server if they could keep the same email client. (This statistic is impressive, assuming that the people surveyed understand the mechanics of migrating from one back-end system to another-—but we'll save that conversation for another day.) The move-to-our-back end crowd makes two claims: that their servers cost less and offer more functionality than the newer versions of Exchange Server.

The first claim is easier to examine. In some cases, competing vendors are offering extremely low prices for their products. For example, Oracle is offering zero-cost 36-month leases. This strategy is interesting because it presumes that customers will happily give up functionality, stability, supportability, or security in exchange for a few thousand dollars' worth of up-front savings. The cost of migrating to Active Directory (AD), which is a necessary step to deploy Exchange 2003 or Exchange 2000, is actually an opportunity to benefit from a number of other AD features, such as centralized desktop policy management through group policies and integrated network access control for VPNs, dial-up, wireless, and LAN connections through the Windows Server 2003 RRAS engine and forthcoming updates that extend the RRAS Quarantine feature to LANs. Furthermore, an accurate comparison of the cost of any alternative solution must include such factors as training and support costs for administrators, software maintenance, and support plans (IBM, Oracle, and Scalix all require customers to purchase a maintenance contract to receive hotfixes). Making an apples-to-apples cost comparison is difficult without including all these factors.

What about functionality? Here the argument gets a little fuzzier. Although some vendors claim that their products have better functionality than Exchange, others claim that Exchange is too complicated and that customers don't really need all those features. These arguments can't both be right, of course. One key piece of functionality that migrating customers will miss out on is Exchange's tight integration with Outlook; features such as remote procedure call (RPC) over HTTP and cached mode are pretty unlikely to be duplicated by other vendors. Even simple tasks such as setting and clearing message flags might not work properly with a non-Exchange back end, depending on how faithful the competitor's connector is. I've seen a lot of migrations to Exchange after which the customer complained about a feature users missed from the old system; imagine the complaints arising from users whose favorite Outlook features suddenly stop working after a back-end switch.

Both the cost and functionality arguments ignore one big factor: the appropriateness of Linux as an alternative to Windows. Alternative solutions by Scalix, Novell, and Oracle all use Linux, and these vendors tout Linux's advantages. Although Linux is increasingly popular, it isn't a good fit for the small and midsized businesses targeted by this campaign. Why? For all our collective complaining about Windows, it's much easier to learn, and a broad infrastructure of courses, books, and consultants is available to help smooth over deployment problems. Linux is gaining traction in environments that already employ UNIX-savvy administrators, but the sweet spot for Linux-based messaging doesn't necessarily correspond to companies that have deployed Exchange 5.5 seats.

Microsoft is clearly aware of the threat of losing migrating Exchange 5.5 users: Witness the greatly improved ExDeploy tools for migrating from Exchange 5.5, the long list of features that work best (or only) with a combination of Exchange 2003 and Outlook 2003, and the company's continuing efforts to pin down the cost and pain points for customers who are considering a migration. I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft make a greater effort to communicate the advantages of the Exchange/AD/Outlook combination, as well as work at poking a few holes in competitors' claims. Until then, though, we'll all have to wait and see who's correct: the man who said that "The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten" or the folks at Osterman who label switching back ends as a "selling opportunity."

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