FrontBridge Gets a Makeover

In 2005, Microsoft made (or finalized) a spate of messaging- and security-related acquisitions. In addition to the GIANT Company Software acquisition, which gave Microsoft the core of the Windows Defender antispyware engine, Microsoft bought both Sybari (a major antivirus vendor) and FrontBridge Technologies, a managed services provider. Late last year, Microsoft announced that Sybari was completely integrated into the Exchange Server product line (and price list), and today the company announced a similar integration of the FrontBridge product line.

The result, first off, is that the FrontBridge product line has new branding: The former FrontBridge services are now offered under the Exchange Hosted brand. Don't confuse hosted Exchange (where you buy mail service from hosting companies such as Mi8 or Blue Ridge Networks) and the new brand name.

To make things more precise, there are now four Exchange Hosted services. First, and most familiar, is Exchange Hosted Filtering, which provides message hygiene and filtering via a four-stage process. This service combines all of FrontBridge's previous filtering offerings into one unified service. The filtering process includes antivirus scanning using your choice of four engines (Trend Micro, Symantec, Sophos, and Kaspersky Lab); spam filtering; and policy controls that let you block or redirect messages according to their origin, destination, or content. The Exchange Hosted Filtering service also includes a feature that I wish would be included in Exchange 12: filtering mail by character set. Much of the spam that makes it through my existing filters is in Chinese or Russian, and it would be great to be able to block it based on its character set alone.

The Exchange Hosted Archive service is a hosted alternative to maintaining your own archive of message traffic. This service requires you to use Exchange's built-in message journaling functionality to capture new mail, but it includes a tool for capturing existing mail and moving it into the archive. All messages, and their attachments, are indexed for searching, and there's a Web-based interface for finding and reviewing specified messages. The service has one interesting wrinkle: Although you may choose to allow users to see their own archive contents, there's no way to delete messages from the archive until they reach the end of the designated archiving period.

The Exchange Hosted Continuity service promises to gather a lot of attention as we move toward another Atlantic hurricane season, because it maintains a rolling 30-day archive of customers' mail at a secure data center. The archive is always accessible via FrontBridge Web Access, a Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA) clone. Interestingly, the continuity service doesn't require separate activation; it's always on. MessageOne has dominated this market segment for the past few years with its Emergency Messaging System (EMS) product; it will be interesting to see how this particular service market evolves as it becomes more competitive.

The fourth service, Exchange Hosted Encryption, is easier to demonstrate than to explain; Basically, you can use it to securely send email to recipients outside your organization who might not have secure communications capability. Filo D'Souza, group product manager in the Exchange Hosted Services team, uses the example of a hospital that wants to send email to patients; the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that such communications be encrypted, but what if the patient is using, say, Hotmail? The Exchange Hosted Encryption service sends the recipient an unencrypted mail that contains an HTTP Secure (HTTPS) link to the service's site. This unencrypted message basically says, "You've got mail." When the recipient uses the link, he or she can authenticate to the service (a one-time process), then use the resulting credentials to securely get their mail. This capability is currently offered by several appliance and software vendors (e.g., Tumbleweed Communications), but it's notable that Microsoft is making it available as a low-overhead hosted service.

Eron Kelly, a director in Microsoft's Exchange Hosted Services group, says that these services "offer a great complement to the technology we've got in Exchange." That's certainly true, given that neither Exchange Server 2003 nor Exchange 12 offer the breadth of capabilities that the new hosted services provide. The software-as-service model is starting to catch on; many administrators welcome the low overhead and low hassle of outsourcing message processing and filtering, and if nothing else, having the choice of performing these functions in-house or outsourcing them gives organizations of all sizes a choice.

Microsoft also announced pricing for these services. As with other Microsoft products, there are two prices: the default price on the price list and the actual price that you pay, according to what licenses you buy, how many of them you buy, and who you buy them from. With that in mind, here are the list prices: - The filtering service costs $1.75 per user per month. - The archiving service costs $17.25 per user per month. For that, you get an unlimited retention period and 3.6GB of storage per user; you can buy extra per-user storage if you need it. - The continuity service costs $2.50 per user per month. - The encryption service costs $1.90 per user per month. You pay per sender, not per recipient. Microsoft's volume licensing programs have a minimum quantity of five licenses, so these services should be available to even very small organizations. To put the pricing in perspective, a year's filtering for a 25-user company would list for $525--certainly competitive with software- and appliance-based products from other vendors, without most of the maintenance or administrative overhead required for these products.

These are all significant announcements, to be sure. However, perhaps the biggest announcement here concerns the schedule for future releases of these hosted services. One of the big advantages of hosted services is that they can be updated at any time without affecting customers' servers or clients; Google and MSN have proven that it's possible to make dramatic architectural and service changes without interrupting clients' access. Eschewing the traditional Microsoft development model, the Exchange Hosted Services group is aiming for a series of releases approximately once per quarter. This strikes a good balance between an unending stream of fixes and new features and the long cycle time required for major product releases of Exchange. In parallel with this release schedule, Microsoft is expanding the capacity of its services. It's already grown its filtering service capacity by 25 percent and its archiving capacity by 60 percent between October 2005 and February 2006, and the company expects to add roughly 33 percent of additional capacity between now and the end of June.

It's unclear exactly how these services will integrate with the new security, compliance, and hygiene features in Exchange 12. I'll be writing more about that as we get closer to the Exchange 12 release; in the meantime, I'm curious about whether you'd consider moving your filtering, archiving, and continuity to a hosted service. Why or why not? Drop me a line and let me know what you think.

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