With its ability to leverage the nearly ubiquitous Windows Server products, Microsoft has experienced almost two decades of strong Microsoft Exchange Server adoption. Back in the early 1990s, Microsoft was able to utilize its large number of employees to test early versions of Exchange before offering it for sale to the public.
Microsoft Exchange Server has continued to release new versions which often include features that speak to the avant-garde technology of the times. For example, over the past couple of years, Microsoft purchased companies such as Yammer and Skype to bring a more tightly integrated social experience into Exchange Server.
According to one research firm, “Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft Office 365 account for 51% of worldwide mailboxes in the Business Email and Collaboration market.” That’s certainly a strong position, but it leaves a lot of room for competitors to compete head-to-head with Exchange. Let’s take a look at few of those competitors now.
One quick note before we proceed: Microsoft Exchange Server can be implemented as an “on premise” solution, which is the most popular option today with about 85% of total deployments. But it can also be purchased as a hosted solution either through Microsoft or dozens of certified cloud-based companies such as Rackspace or OneNeck. These services promise to reduce costs and ease management. And as with all things cloud-based, they continue to gain in popularity.
Google Apps for Business (Gmail)
Ten years ago, many people would have laughed if you had mentioned Exchange and Gmail in the same sentence. But with IT managers looking to reduce costs simplify deployment and reach a new breed of mobile worker who uses her smartphone more than Outlook, Google has discovered an opening and has gone after it with aggressive pricing and bundled products.
Google offers hosted email services as part of it’s Google Apps for Business suite which includes several products such as Google Docs, online Calendar, video and voice calls as well as 30GB of storage. At $5 a month, it’s on par with Exchange hosting. Google also offers a Premium version of its service which includes archiving, data protection, and advanced administration controls over search and data retention.
One of Google’s primary selling points is ease-of-use. Many employees will already be familiar with Google’s products reducing training time. And while Microsoft initially built Exchange as a product that’s installed on your own server, Google built its suite of products for the cloud right from the start.
Google’s products tend to nail the basics, but don’t approach the number of features found in Microsoft’s products. When I began using Google Docs regularly, it did not allow for the creation of pivot tables. Google added the feature a few years ago, probably after a lot enough customers complained. Google doesn’t match Exchange feature-for-feature but it does provide a well-rounded suite of products that are often “good enough”.
Google licenses Google Apps for Business as a suite and not as individual products. Google says they are designed to be used together, and they want you to believe it as much as they do.
Pros: Low cost, price includes entire product suite, proven infrastructure.
Cons: Limited Outlook support, cloud only, single supplier (Google).
The best way to describe Zimba is that it focuses on communication and collaboration, although not in the same native manner you’ll find with Google Apps or Exchange. Like many open source products, Zimbra attempts to fill these feature holes by providing integration points into products from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and even Cisco for VOIP support.
Zimbra consists of both client and server components as well as a desktop email client. You might expect a product that was named after a song by the Talking Heads to be quirky, and this would be clever of you, because how right you would be. Zimbra Collaboration Suite is licensed under the Zimbra Public License which means it can be used for free, but it charges for support and training.
I’ve been using Zimbra for just over two years. Initially, I found the transition from Exchange and Outlook to be jarring. Zimbra felt like a poor substitute, and one that skimped on features and lacked polish. As an end user, I missed the advanced scheduling features Exchange included. But with time, I came to appreciate the simplicity and reliability of Zimbra. Later versions were redesigned with a modern interface and advanced scheduling features were added, making for a much improved experience.
Zimbra can be run on your own own native hardware, or virtualized or deployed as a software virtual appliance. You’ll also find dozen of hosting options on the Zimbra website if that’s your preference. Prices compare favorably to Google and Microsoft offerings in the $5 per user range.
The end result in a product that does a few things really well, but relies on an active community to add features and connections to third party products. But the primary reason people are drawn to Zimbra is the same reason companies deploy Linux: It’s free to use. And honestly, if you have a talented IT team, it might be an excellent solution.
Pros: Free, strong email and collaboration tools, strong community.
Cons: Lack of office apps, support costs extra, and you’ll need support unless you’re a total geek!
Similar to Microsoft Exchange Kerio Connect can be installed on premise as well as deployed to the cloud. Kerio Connect promises an “Exchange-like user experience” but with easier administration and lower costs. Kerio Connect is also focused on the small-to mid-sized businesses instead of large enterprises giving it a distinct personality found throughout the product.
While Exchange is known for its abundance of features, Kerio makes it clear their product isn’t one of those “and the kitchen sink” types that tends to overwhelm the user and administrator with superfluous features and options. Kerio Connect wants to manage your email, calendar, contacts, tasks and chat. That’s it. It’s not trying to take over your entire back office.
Kerio Connect has a unique pricing structure that ends up being the most expensive product in this comparison at $7.75 per user, at least for the first year. Annual renewals cost approximately one third of first year costs, putting it more in line with the others.
Given its design as an easy-to-administer product, I can see why small businesses would be attracted in a product like Kerio Connect because they often have a small IT staff. Kerio Connect makes it clear they are going after companies that already have Exchange deployed but are looking for an alternative. If I ran a small business, this would be the first product I would consider.
Pros: Simple admin console, well-designed UI,
Cons: No additional office apps, high first year costs
While Google, Zimbra and Kerio offer three of the most popular options, the email server ecosystem is full of competition including:
Communigate Pro provides a solution with a strong VOIP product that runs on Unix, Linux, Windows and Mac OS X.
MDaemon Messaging Server offers an email solution that touts strong security features, advanced collaboration features and even a fax server.
IceWarp promises many of the same features found in Exchange but at a lower cost.
Scalix offers solutions for businesses of all sizes and can be used alongside Exchange.
If you’re considering an alternative to Microsoft Exchange Server, any of these options deserve your attention, especially if you’re a small-to mid-sized business. Microsoft is still the dominant player in the market, but their market share could decrease as companies that were once locked into desktop licensing programs consider moving their email services to the cloud.
End users typically don’t care what operating system is powering their email. IT managers looking to free up their time, may be more likely to consider a cloud-based email solution instead of adding more services to Windows Server. Doing so would certainly level the playing field and continue to breed strong competition in this mature, critical and ever-evolving space.
Microsoft Exchang management can be made a simpler with the right tools. Take a look at StorageCraft Granular Recovery for Exchange to learn how to make Exchange administration much easier.
Photo Credit: Rupert Ganzer via Flickr