Many small and mid-sized businesses rely on Microsoft Exchange servers and services to manage e-mail and collaboration processes.
But there are a growing number of alternative products on the market, each trying to chip away at Microsoft’s market share by delivering similar functionality for less money, making its software available on a non-Windows platform, or offering unique products and services not found in Microsoft Exchange.
What Microsoft Exchange is
Developed by the Redmond, Wash. software giant, Microsoft Exchange is the leading messaging and collaborative software solution, widely embraced by both small and mid-sized businesses and larger enterprises. Installed on a company’s premises, this server-based software is used for managing e-mail, calendaring, contacts, and tasks — all part of the Microsoft Office suite on the client end. Exchange also supports mobile and Web-based access to company info. Additionally, Microsoft’s offerings offers data storage, shared folders, and unified messaging solutions — such as accessing your voicemail box via e-mail or listening to your e-mail over the phone.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the ‘de facto’ server solution but it’s certainly the leader in both revenue and the number of organizations,” says Mark Levitt, vice president of collaboration and enterprise 2.0 strategies at the Framingham, Mass.-based IDC research firm.
“Because Microsoft has established itself as a provider of many applications and products, companies see value for a single source that offers a variety of management solutions, all using the same underlying Windows platform,” Levitt says. “Plus all upgrades and patches for multiple products can be handled by one company, which is very appealing.”
The trouble with trying to compete
According to Gary Chen, a senior analyst for enterprise research at the Boston, Mass.-based Yankee Group, e-mail management is “pretty much a two horse race” between Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Domino and Notes.
“Exchange is definitely the leader — they’ve come up a lot over the past few years — though [IBM] Lotus Notes has really put a lot of effort into making a resurgence, and they have some interesting things on their roadmap,” says Chen. “Exchange can be hard to manage and the alternatives are cheaper, so [competing products] may find a niche for themselves.”
Along with IBM Lotus Notes, Chen says Novell GroupWise is also a popular alternative for mid-sized businesses.
“There are clear advantages to going with an accepted platform like Exchange, though,” concedes Chen. “In terms of the skills, ecosystem, and add-on products that you can take advantage of, Microsoft applications dominate [small and mid-sized businesses] and mid-market, and Microsoft has been integrating heavily with Exchange and SharePoint.” For some companies, e-mail isn’t a top priority, adds Chen. “Many rely on advanced functionality, applications that might be critical to their business, like unified messaging and shared folders – something Exchange does well.”
PostPath and others
Levitt says there are many alternatives to Microsoft Exchange. Along with IBM Lotus Domino and Notes and Novell GroupWise, competing integrated collaborative environments (ICE a.k.a. “groupware”) include Oracle Collaboration Suite, Yahoo!’s Zimbra Collaboration Suite, and PostPath, “which looks just like an Exchange server to other Exchange servers and to Outlook clients,” says Levitt.
Sina Miri, spokesman for PostPath, which Cisco agreed to acquire on Aug. 27, says their clients prefer PostPath to Microsoft Exchange Server for a few reasons. The most critical is PostPath performs better on all hardware, says Miri. “This is especially true with modest and even low-end hardware, plus it’s low maintenance due to its architecture and the use of the file system as opposed to Exchange and its Jet database,” explains Miri.
Standalone e-mail server software competitors include Sun Mail Server, CommuniGate, Ipswitch, MailSite, Gordano, Mirapoint, Scalix, and the Unix-based Sendmail. Levitt says free hosted consumer-oriented webmail services are often used by individuals for business purposes — such as Yahoo!, Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail — or free mailboxes bundled into Internet connectivity services, such as AOL, Comcast, Earthlink, Research in Motion, Verizon, and so on.
Linux has grown to be a low-cost alternative to Windows, says Levitt, and so companies like IBM, Novell, and Sun “have embraced the alternative operating system with competitors to Microsoft Exchange, which operate on the Windows platform.”
The open-source movement can’t be ignored, says Levitt, especially with relatively high upfront costs for Microsoft Exchange, “not to mention ongoing upgrades, some of which you have to pay for, as well a licensing complexities when you’re dealing with multiple computers.”
On the flipside, however, it might be harder for IT people to manager alternative software, which might add to your bottom line. “Many rush to open-source products because there is no initial check to write, but you don’t get anything for free,” cautions Levitt. “There are always associated costs when you’re dealing with a product not as well established or supported as Microsoft Exchange.”