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Author Topic: Recommendations for a hosted MS Exchange service  (Read 3214 times)
40hz
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« on: December 29, 2011, 09:02:45 PM »

Hey gang! 40hz needs a little help... tellme



I have a very small client that is totally in love with MS Outlook 2010. They have now reached the point where they want to start using some of its group features.

Unfortunately, that means an Exchange Server - something totally insane for them to consider bringing in-house because: (a) they will only have five users; (b) they have no internal IT support staff, and; (c) I can't cost justify it for them - even though they probably can (I think) afford it.

So right now I'm in the middle of doing some research to identify an MS Exchange hosting provider for them.

What they absolutely need:

  • IMAP accounts
  • Shared Calendars
  • Decent storage capacity and message/attachment allowances
  • Blackberry support
  • Host performed PST backups
  • Host provided security (antivir/antimal/antispam)
  • A knowledgeable (English speaking) tech support department that can handle semi-newbie questions

Nice to have:

  • Webmail access
  • Compliance-level message archiving services
  • Web-based account management tools

Note: It's ok if some of the features (compliance archiving, Blackberry, etc.) cost extra. And total price is less important than vendor reputation, uptime guarantees, and financial stability. In a nutshell, they expect to pay what it's worth and want somebody who they can count on to provide it.


Question: is anybody out there using (or specifying for clients) a hosted MS Exchange service they're particularly happy with?

I'd prefer direct hands-on experiences if at all possible since I can read the reviews, visit the sites, and speak to tech support and marketing people as well as the next person. (That's what I've been doing most of this afternoon.)

Feel free to PM me if you'd prefer. I've got about four weeks to get back to them. Any recommendations (good/bad) - or war stories would be greatly appreciated.


Oh yeah, one more thing...NO open source suggestions on this one please? This isn't something I'll have the luxury of tinkering with. It needs to be ready to go right out of the chute. Besides, they're pretty insistent on Exchange since both of the owners had it at their former jobs - and loved it.

Thx! smiley

« Last Edit: December 29, 2011, 09:12:01 PM by 40hz » Logged

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Stoic Joker
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« Reply #1 on: December 30, 2011, 07:57:43 AM »

What is the hardware situation there?? Exchange for 5-20 users shouldn't really require an internal IT staff ... So if they can handle the (limited really) cost of an internal deployment ... I'd avoid the cloud stuff (yes I'm a cloud hater).
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40hz
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« Reply #2 on: December 30, 2011, 07:54:57 PM »

@SJ - New client (1 month old) so I don't have every detail yet. But here's what I do know:

They have one decent general purpose fileserver running W2K3, a very nice firewall/VPN implementation somebody else set up for them, an ok backup system, and three network printers (2 high volume lasers plus a Xerox WorkCentre 3550 for network fax/scanning/etc.)

There's a total of 6 new Win7-64 PCs in house (1 per employee plus a spare/'hotel' workstation) and three of the employees also have brand new laptops. Each employee has a company issued Blackberry. And if I understand correctly, one of the principles also regularly uses an iPad.

All the desktops and printers use wired ethernet. The office is also set up for Wifi-G (on one WAP) plus dual-N on a second one. Both WAPs are heavily secured. All wireless network connections go through the VPN to connect to the internal network. All server room routers and switches are either HP or Cisco.

Everything they've got is two years old or less (and has extended onsite warranties) so they're in great shape both hardware and software-wise.

Regarding Exchange for 5-10...yeah it wouldn't be that difficult to set up an additional server and run it. But there isn't anybody there to administer it. Or even do basic maintenance on it. They're big on automating everything as much as possible and then have someone come in a few times per year to check up on things. Otherwise, they call only when they need something new - or if something breaks.

So if they get Exchange in, it will become my ultimate responsibility. And they're in the financial advisory sector so their email has compliance and regulatory baggage attached to it. Some of their communications are also legally binding contracts - so it's a little more complicated than usual with these guys. Which means there's also some serious legal downside potential for whoever is running this for them should something blow up.

The thing that really makes me not want to take ownership of this for them is the fact they will not allow remote access into their network for server or system maintenance. Don't know exactly why, but that's how it is with them. Somebody's advice or orders apparently, and a 'non-discussion' topic.

On the plus side, they're ok with paying big bucks for a four-hour onsite response window - but that doesn't help with Exchange since you know as well as I that it should be checked every day or two. And we're not staffed such that we can have someone run over there every other day for what they'd be willing to pay for us to do it.

So those are the main reasons why I just want to farm this out to someone else. Fortunately, there are a bunch of companies catering to their specific industry and regulatory environment, so I'm guessing I'm not the only tech that's reached the conclusion this is a "special risk/requirement" project better handled by a specialist provider.



 Grin


« Last Edit: December 30, 2011, 08:17:03 PM by 40hz » Logged

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Carol Haynes
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« Reply #3 on: December 30, 2011, 08:28:07 PM »

Not sure it ticks all the boxes but how about

http://www.microsoft.com/...e365/exchange-online.aspx
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40hz
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« Reply #4 on: December 30, 2011, 08:51:27 PM »

Not sure it ticks all the boxes but how about

http://www.microsoft.com/...e365/exchange-online.aspx

Absolutely. It was my very first port of call. Thmbsup

Microsoft Exchange Online Plan 2 is definitely on the short list since it's mothership herself that's offering it. Has about 90% of what we're looking for. And @ $10 USD per user per month (and with no contract) it's extremely competitive. Also very flexible since you can add or drop users and services in 365 quite easily - and without penalty.

Then there's this other thing: We're also MS Partners, so I know we should at least consider recommending "365" when it truly does fit a client's requirements. Grin

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Stoic Joker
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« Reply #5 on: December 30, 2011, 10:43:24 PM »

Sorry, but I can't help playing devils advocate sometimes.

Regarding Exchange for 5-10...yeah it wouldn't be that difficult to set up an additional server and run it. But there isn't anybody there to administer it. Or even do basic maintenance on it. They're big on automating everything as much as possible and then have someone come in a few times per year to check up on things. Otherwise, they call only when they need something new - or if something breaks.

Honestly, with some of the rinky-dink total kludge setups I've seen.... It truly incredible how durable (read rock stable) Windows servers really are. I'm a huge fan of automation too (especially considering I'm at the end of a 3 week vacation), but I've relied heavily on remote monitoring agents also. Anything that happens on the box (e.g. all monitored servers), is automatically sent to me via Email.


So if they get Exchange in, it will become my ultimate responsibility. And they're in the financial advisory sector so their email has compliance and regulatory baggage attached to it. Some of their communications are also legally binding contracts - so it's a little more complicated than usual with these guys. Which means there's also some serious legal downside potential for whoever is running this for them should something blow up.

Data loss is data loss, backup strategies either work, or they don't. The own-es has to go on them if procedures aren't followed. If nobody there rotated the BU media on schedule, and/or took it off site ... That's their ass, not yours if there is nothing to restore from. I just had to ream a client last week (yes during vacation) when I saw 4 of the 5 nightly backup media devices sitting on a table in the server room.


The thing that really makes me not want to take ownership of this for them is the fact they will not allow remote access into their network for server or system maintenance. Don't know exactly why, but that's how it is with them. Somebody's advice or orders apparently, and a 'non-discussion' topic.


Zoiks! I'd charge extra for that (not kidding). But if you had a remote monitoring agent (we use Kaseya) most of what you'd be in there to check for gets delivered to your inbox in damn near real-time. I've had several times where a client called to inform me of an issue that they just noticed, that I'd already been working on for an hour.


On the plus side, they're ok with paying big bucks for a four-hour onsite response window - but that doesn't help with Exchange since you know as well as I that it should be checked every day or two. And we're not staffed such that we can have someone run over there every other day for what they'd be willing to pay for us to do it.

Every day or two?? If Exchange was that unstable I'd of switched to something else years ago. Prior to running the (Exchange version of the) MBSA perhaps... Granted I do pay very close attention to the backup reports (transaction log handling), but that to is done via automated Email. What is their projected Email volume? You mentioned contracts which conjures up images of huge attachments created by someone scanning in a 200 page document with the scanner set to high res photo quality (seen it happen many times).

Client: Why can't a receive an Email with a 75MB attachment??

Me: O_o ... You Want to WHAT?!?


Oh Yeah ... It's happened.

But if their volume is projected to be of a manageable size ... Then it should be do-able. What are they using now? And how much better does it need to be? Also, most importantly, how much risk are they willing to take (in writing). If solution X is compliant to degree Y, contingent on conditions list Z ... You get a bit of breathing room. The phrase 'Best Effort' is popular for a reason.


So those are the main reasons why I just want to farm this out to someone else. Fortunately, there are a bunch of companies catering to their specific industry and regulatory environment, so I'm guessing I'm not the only tech that's reached the conclusion this is a "special risk/requirement" project better handled by a specialist provider.

There is a tendency in IT for people to assume that their specific vertical needs "$pecial" attention ...(Medical (EMR) software...)... and there are a ton of shysters out there that are willing to jack up the price and Give-IT-To-Them... But that doesn't make it right. Or frequently any safer, it just means somebody else is holding the ball. If you recommend a 3rd party company, and they manage to Bork it ... There's still a chance it'll blow back on you. Nothing to do with "fair" ... It's "Just Business" ... Ya know?


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The MS hosted Exchange thing did come to mind, but I've no personal experience with it. I have heard some availability complaints ... but they are fairly old IIRC.
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Carol Haynes
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« Reply #6 on: December 31, 2011, 04:52:24 AM »

If you want easy offline backup and storage try Mailstore Server - the basic package includes 5 users and it is set it up and leave it. Has great search facilities and can backup up multiple accounts. Built in backup facilities too.

Not cheap - IIRC it is around 300 euros for 5 users and you can add more as you need them.

Note it is called 'server' but it runs on any modern version of windows - main software on one computer and client software on the others.
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« Reply #7 on: December 31, 2011, 07:12:14 AM »

 thumbs up for the Joker's comments.  I too believe that Windows Servers are pretty solid, they take a bad rap in that area.  I have 4 of them and rarely need to reboot them or anything else.  All mine are Server 2003 and we also have Exchange 2003 and its running on a 10 year old Dell Server. 

Oh yes, the size of the email attachment.  While SJ's example is amusing, its very true.  With the size of pictures people are trying to email ... and then they wonder why the attachment doesn't come through or why their mailbox is full.   wallbash

Now our small school doesn't do anything earth shattering like 40hz's client will be doing.  so I cannot speak to the kind of problems the newer exchange software might bring or the extra features that might bring some happiness to someone.   cheesy

Heck, why don't you just move them to gmail and let Google take care of them? tongue  Just kidding.

Just setup 2 mail servers with real time copying to the second server and the if the first one goes down, the second one would automatically take over.  They probably could do something like that for 20-30K USD.  smiley



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40hz
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« Reply #8 on: December 31, 2011, 09:07:51 AM »

thumbs up for the Joker's comments.  I too believe that Windows Servers are pretty solid, they take a bad rap in that area.  I have 4 of them and rarely need to reboot them or anything else.  All mine are Server 2003 and we also have Exchange 2003 and its running on a 10 year old Dell Server. 

Oh, I won't disagree with that assessment. I've been doing Windows servers since NT 3.51. I've got Windows servers running at 99% of my client's offices. (Got a few in my home too!) Starting with W2K they got most of the serious issues sorted out. And starting with W2K3 it's been really easy to work with. Same for Exchange.

And I know they're reliable if/when set up correctly. With few exceptions, any servers we've specc'ed and installed for our clients only go down for hardware maintenance or required reboots following software installation.

But the problem with Windows servers (at least from my experience) is that major crashes are the least of your worries. Windows servers seldom crash. But they do develop lingering illnesses on occasion - and they sometimes have critical problems (like corrupted backups or some in-house 'expert' admin mucking with them) that you won't know about until it's too late. And many of these problems don't get identified without scanning through all the server logs rather than just the error messages. So yeah, email alerts are all well and good. I get those too. But I still want to periodically scan through everything whenever possible. That habit is something that's saved my tail on more than one occasion. YMMV. So feel free to do whatever works best for you or your business. And I'll be sure to do the same. tongue

Regarding the technology, this isn't a technical challenge. Doing Exchange is really no big deal. What is a big deal is the requirements for security, zero downtime, etc. Like Weinberg says: It's not a technical problem. It's always a 'people problem.' And any time you're convinced something isn't a people problem - better look again.

So yes, I could do two Exchange servers with failover. But if I were to go that far, I should probably also consider setting up an additional small DC server so there isn't a single point of failure for the Active Directory since Exchange requires AD. (Zero downtime on email, remember?)

So ok, we're looking at 3 servers...a boost to the HVAC in the server 'room' (large closet actually) because it's already gotten pretty warm with what's currently in there - and it's only winter outside...check the power service lines and likely get a circuit or two added...additional UPS protection for the new machines...spec a backup system for the new machines and probably replace the existing one which isn't that great...hmm...with security, space and other concerns maybe it's better to have one Exchange server in house and co-locate the other?...you'd not want everything in one basket and we could chance not having that second DC if it starts going too far over budget...we'll strongly advise but let them make their own decision on that one...oh yeah, check with Jason and see if we may want to increase our E&O insurance coverage if we do this...pass the additional premium amount back to the client if we do...then there's...what?...they just called?...now they want to know about Microsoft Small effing Business Server?... oh... I see... his wife's cousin works for GEIS and does some freelance IT consulting on the side...and this prodigy told her SBS is all they really want or need.... called it a no-brainer did he?

You know what? I really think they're better off just going with somebody who already has the plant and equipment in place and paying for it via a monthly service contract. Straight expense write-off that way too - so it's better for taxes.

Again, I'm not trying to play conter-devil's advocate here. It's just that the particular requirements for this project go beyond bringing in some hardware, installing software, and establishing a few operating procedures. If all I had to do was sell them an Exchange server, and set it up, I'd have ordered it for them already.

 smiley

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« Reply #9 on: December 31, 2011, 09:28:00 AM »

Very true.  I think that you can backup all you want and have other failover things in place but in the end, stuff does happen.   Sad  It doesn't matter what you do, very vew people can afford to have the protection in place that would guarantee them 100% reliable backups in case of a failure.

Yep, people can muck up the works.  Machines are mechanical devices and as such, things can and do go wrong from time to time.

oh well... job security for ya! smiley
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« Reply #10 on: December 31, 2011, 01:34:25 PM »

they just called?...now they want to know about Microsoft Small effing Business Server?... oh... I see... his wife's cousin works for GEIS and does some freelance IT consulting on the side...and this prodigy told her SBS is all they really want or need.... called it a no-brainier did he?

Jesus Christ! ...Well he is half right...You'd have to be brainless to go that route for a critical system... cheesy

Get them setup with MS hosting before any other "bright ideas" turn them into a train wreck that you have to cut loose.

I was consulting for a friend a few weeks back, and we decided to let a job go because of the client's ludicrous requirement to deploy a server refresh in (as in within the...) a week. They had a 20 machine workgroup with a hub, and Bonjour was the primary protocol for the office software (FileMaker = Mac = god knows who wrote this POS). They were curiously concerned about performance problems... ROFL Oh hell no... Migrate to mission critical databased based on FileMaker over to an x64 box ... and guarantee it won't explode, in a week. Not! I'll let the Geek Squad do that kind of half-assed nonsense ... That's what they're there for.
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techidave
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« Reply #11 on: December 31, 2011, 02:24:08 PM »

 lol lol
now that's funny SJ!
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40hz
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« Reply #12 on: January 01, 2012, 02:37:40 PM »

I'll let the Geek Squad do that kind of half-assed nonsense ... That's what they're there for.
lol lol
now that's funny SJ!

And prescient too!

After an hour+ on the phone, and several follow up 3-way calls because I couldn't get them off the notion of SBS, it became obvious where this was going. (I personally think WHS is a better choice than SBS.) So I decided to honor my New Year's resolution - which in this case meant it was ok for me to walk away from this one.

I gave them the phone number of another local IT support business I don't like very much, who have tried to specialize in SBS deployments. Or at least as much as possible. (Not enough stupid people in the world to do it exclusively I guess.)  

I told my former client: "I think you may be better off with these guys if you want to use Small Business Server. It's really it's own thing - and these are the only people I'm aware of who are actively working with and supporting it around here. Can't comment on them one way or the other since I've never worked directly with them. But they're listed SBS Microsoft Partners, so maybe you should talk to them."

Got an e-mail back this morning. Had to read it twice since it meandered all over the place. But this gist of it was these folks have decided to start working with the other guy since he had "direct technical experience" and "a better understanding" of where they wanted to go with this project.

I wished them well, and declined to send them a requested bill for the time spent R&Ding Exchange hosting services. (Nice to see they had a little class.) But it was time well spent and grist for my ever expanding KB. And I don't really feel I did them any favors sending them where I did. Better to call it even and make a clean break.

Hey! Ya know what?

2012 is starting out on a very positive trend. One major headache plus one potential airship disaster avoided.



Life is good! Thmbsup
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Stoic Joker
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« Reply #13 on: January 01, 2012, 03:14:03 PM »

2012 is starting out on a very positive trend. One major headache plus one potential airship disaster avoided.

Hay, New technical term for 2012: HindenBorked - For those times when totally fucked just doesn't cover it.
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cranioscopical
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« Reply #14 on: January 01, 2012, 03:47:39 PM »

2012 is starting out on a very positive trend. One major headache plus one potential airship disaster avoided.

Hay, New technical term for 2012: HindenBorked - For those times when totally fucked just doesn't cover it.
And the devil take the Hindenmost!
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Chris
40hz
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« Reply #15 on: January 01, 2012, 05:06:43 PM »

2012 is starting out on a very positive trend. One major headache plus one potential airship disaster avoided.

Hay, New technical term for 2012: HindenBorked - For those times when totally fucked just doesn't cover it.
And the devil take the Hindenmost!

You two... smiley

Ah! I knew there was a reason why I keep coming back here! Grin

@JJ - I think you created a word that deserves a permanent place in any Tech's vocabulary. Indeed, it deserves a place in the New American Dictionary.  Thmbsup

And good enough to earn 'ein Punzinger' from Chris himself? That's proof positive you have arrived! Thmbsup

----
@C - good one! But then again, they all are. Grin
« Last Edit: January 01, 2012, 05:18:46 PM by 40hz » Logged

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40hz
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« Reply #16 on: January 21, 2012, 07:20:09 AM »

I just wanted to thank everyone for their input. smiley

Moderators: please lock thread before the spammers start showing up. Wink
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« Reply #17 on: January 21, 2012, 07:50:21 AM »

Moderators: please lock thread before the spammers start showing up. Wink
Done
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