Who Says You Need Microsoft Exchange Server?

For SMBs, low-cost Exchange alternatives offer less costly (and less complex) messaging solutions

Executive Summary: Microsoft Exchange Server is one of the most successful Microsoft product families, but it has evolved into a complicated product that can be overkill for many small businesses. Its cost can also be a concern. If you don’t need or want Exchange and you don’t want to put your communications infrastructure on someone else's mail server, several options are available, including PostPath Server and Kerio Mail Server (KMS).

Along with Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint Server, and Microsoft SQL Server 2008, Microsoft Exchange Server is clearly one of the most successful Microsoft product families in recent memory. The Redmond juggernaut has swatted aside its competitors in the enterprise messaging market, effectively planting a Microsoft flag on a smoldering pile of cracked Lotus Domino and Novell GroupWise installation CDs. According to Mark Levitt, VP of collaboration and enterprise 2.0 strategies at market research firm IDC, Microsoft Exchange/Outlook grabbed 52 percent of the worldwide integrated collaborative environment license and maintenance revenue in 2007. The next biggest player was IBM Lotus Domino/Notes with a 38 percent share. Exchange is on a roll, and big enterprises seem keen to jump aboard.

But it’s also true that Exchange has evolved into a complicated product that can be overkill for many small businesses. It’s no secret that Microsoft frequently looks to its largest customers in the Fortune 1000 for the lion’s share of input on new product releases—a product-development methodology that has made Exchange a powerful resource in companies that have more than 500 employees but an arguably extravagant investment (in time and resources) for smaller businesses. In a small company, Exchange can be the equivalent of building a Patriot missile battery to kill a few fruit flies. Microsoft is coming under increasing pressure on the low end of the market from web-based email and groupware alternatives (e.g., Gmail, GMX, Yahoo! mail) and has sought to fight back with low-cost hosted Exchange services of its own. Microsoft also offers Small Business Server (SBS) and Essential Business Server (EBS), small business products that bundle Exchange with other Microsoft business applications.

But what if you’re an IT pro who doesn’t need or want Exchange, and you don’t want to put your communications infrastructure on someone else’s mail server? A number of options are available, including PostPath Server and Kerio Mail Sever (KMS). Cisco recently announced that it would acquire PostPath, a Boston-based developer that makes the eponymous PostPath Server, a Linux-based, drop-in Exchange replacement. The move gives Cisco a viable competitor to Exchange in the enterprise but also helps Cisco bolster its cloud computing–based Software as a Service (SaaS) strategy.

“\[Cisco knows\] that bold steps are needed to shake the lock-in that Microsoft, IBM, and other email vendors have on enterprises,” said Levitt. “Cisco is leading with the innovation that is possible with SaaS and the broader, higherscale cloud-computing model, for which a comprehensive strategy is currently being formulated at Cisco to enable it to become a broad business and IT solutions provider in the cloud.”

An attractive Exchange alternative for smaller businesses is KMS, a product positioned at the lower end of the messaging market. “Some installations \[of KMS\] are as small as five users,” said Dusan Vitek, vice president of worldwide marketing for Kerio. “Many of our customers believe that email is too critical to be outsourced … and that the inability to access email when not connected to the Internet is a big negative for them.” Vitek mentioned that most of Kerio’s customers fall into the 10-500 seat range. According to Vitek, switching to KMS also can save IT professionals money over a comparable Exchange installation: Kerio’s 50-user minimum licensing cost is only $1,299, whereas a comparable Exchange 2007 installation weighs in at $5,418.

KMS runs on Windows Vista/2003/XP/2000, Red Hat Linux, Fedora, SUSE, and Mac OS X. It also works with Outlook (via an Outlook Connector) and supports mobile devices such as Windows Mobile smart phones, Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry devices, and Apple iPhones. An Exchange-to-KMS migration tool is also available.

Akis Fotakelis, a systems administrator and Windows IT Pro contributor, has used KMS and praised its low cost, ease of use, and ability to integrate with Active Directory (AD). Fotakelis said that KMS was also considerably less expensive than other SMB email solutions he considered—a point that was a big factor in his purchase decision. “The price was a real bargain,” Fotakelis said. “Not only could I install it on a workstation, saving the license for a Windows server, but I saved money from buying separate programs for antispam, antivirus, backup, archiving, monitoring, and mailinglist management.”

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