A Hybrid Approach to E-Mail: The Best of Both Worlds

Is there a hybrid approach to e-mail messaging that allows you to choose the best from both the open standards community and your legacy proprietary systems technology? An emphatic yes!

Today, a majority of enterprises work in a Microsoft Exchange environment. Microsoft has been able to monopolize the e-mail server market because companies have invested substantially in Exchange and Exchange-compatible systems. Microsoft, for a variety of reasons, has been slow to respond to open standards. Yet customers are longing for third-party integration via open standards, which would allow them to access a world of innovation and lower costs that would otherwise be closed to them.

Given corporations’ existing investments and their potential need to support additional Exchange-compatible applications in the future, this hybrid open/proprietary approach will only work if it allows users to drop in an e-mail server without making changes to desktops or infrastructure. To enable a smooth transition and managed migration, the new system must operate seamlessly at the server-to-server level, so that during a period of coexistence, users of the new system can work effectively with users who are still hosted on Exchange.

Closed and proprietary software systems have defined IT infrastructure for many years. These were the only options for organizations that wanted a single vendor to build and support a consistent platform. The development and maturing of open source, including open standards alternatives, over the past several years has changed that paradigm. Even risk-averse IT professionals recognize that most software innovation is not happening with legacy proprietary software.

Compatibility Problems

Compatibility problems that plague new versions of the market-dominant Microsoft Vista and Exchange are also driving the need for a new solution. Microsoft unveiled the new Vista operating system at about the same time it released a new version of Exchange — Exchange 2007.

Many corporations will eventually deploy these applications. However, with Exchange in particular, Microsoft has clearly taken its traditional approach to product development. About 10 to 20 percent of the features are new, and the company has fixed bugs, but it made no effort to correct the underlying architecture issues that make implementing these products so complex, costly and time-consuming:

  • The legacy Jet database has managed to hang on though yet another product cycle. The same is true for the inflexible Exchange MTA (message transfer agent).
  • Expensive high-end SAN-style (storage area network) storage is still required — mailboxes won’t be getting substantially larger as a result of this release.
  • Exchange 2007 has major management and integration issues with existing infrastructure, plus it requires costly upgrades, including new or upgraded hardware. The need for upgrades results from the move to a 64-bit architecture without keeping a 32-bit option.
  • Hardware upgrades require new, signed drivers to operate.
  • Public folder functionality is diminished in favor of SharePoint.
  • Full-feature licenses have hidden costs related to unified messaging, meaning significant increases in cost for the new functionality that would normally be included in a new version.
  • There are continuity problems (for example, public folders and Active Directory topology issues) between 2007 and earlier Exchange versions that require network redesign.
  • Web access is still Microsoft only — Internet Explorer and IIS-specific (Internet Information Services) Web client required rather then the modern browser-independent, Ajax Web clients.
  • Exchange 2007 does not support Exchange 5.5, leaving many users without an upgrade path. This means 5.5 users must upgrade to 2003 first even before considering an upgrade to 2007.
  • Other Microsoft components must be upgraded to gain access to certain features — for example, Outlook 2007 and unified messaging features.

Number of Options Grows

These problems have led many organizations to search for e-mail server alternatives, the most interesting of which support open standards. Generally, organizations have one of two types of dependencies on e-mail, and alternatives are available for each.

For organizations that are completely based on Webmail and/or have no dependencies on existing proprietary desktops such as Outlook, open e-mail server options are available that run on most of the popular open source operating systems. Such systems may include innovative features, and users may be able to purchase support.

A larger number of organizations are dependent on proprietary desktops like Outlook. Many IT professionals thus want their alternative e-mail server to work in a mixed environment, natively supporting proprietary software on the desktop or elsewhere in the ecosystem, but leaning toward open standards when it comes to flexibility and performance in the server room. These servers occupy the middle ground between complete open source and legacy proprietary systems, giving organizations the flexibility to deploy innovative solutions while still supporting legacy desktops.

Many organizations will not adopt alternative e-mail servers that require desktop plug-ins, largely due to the administrative burden of the initial deployment and ongoing maintenance and support, which can require IT to touch every desktop on a regular basis.

Network Protocol-Level Compatibility

A better approach employs a product that is compatible at the network-protocol level with the existing infrastructure. Outlook on the desktop will “think” it is talking to Exchange when it is really talking to the new Linux e-mail server, and end users do not know they are on a different server. IT professionals get a Linux e-mail server with higher performance, that uses lower-cost storage, and that works with existing datacenter applications such as Active Directory.

An open standard, Exchange-compatible, drop-in solution gives enterprises these benefits:

  • It supports a Linux-friendly messaging environment enables full Outlook functionality.
  • Enterprises can scale their e-mail systems and choose the most economical storage components.
  • The servers can communicate on a peer-to-peer basis with Exchange and the rest of the e-mail ecosystem.
  • Enterprises can make best-of-breed choices for every part of the infrastructure.

This middle-ground approach leverages systems that enable protocol compatibility with the market-dominating system but also allow the organization to evolve an open e-mail ecosystem. The result is an alternative that provides the best of both worlds by combining drop-in compatibility with open technologies. Organizations can install and test open components in their existing environments without user modifications. If they choose, organizations can migrate over time away from the single vendor solutions.

Duncan Greatwood is CEO of PostPath, and Scott Young is vice president of marketing for the company. PostPath offers a Linux-based alternative to Microsoft Exchange.

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