MS Office 365 Exchange Email

After-the-fact thought: It occurred to me that some people might wonder WHY you might want to host your own email.  Simply put, if you register your own domain (e.g., hokkanen.com), then you can manage the emails and one is never tied to a particular provider (e.g., gmail, yahoo, etc.).  You can do more, your email addresses are always yours, and you can move your email hosting whenever you want.

Blog:

I have been administering email servers for twenty years. For the first five years, I downloaded and ran my own email servers. They weren’t so complicated in the early days, but the issue became one of open relays (spammers), hacking (spammers), and upgrades (spammers). In short, doing it yourself became tricky because the spammers were always trying to leverage your free box as their entry point to sending millions of spam. So I abandoned the idea of running my own server.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve used a few different Exchange hosting providers. I finally settled on Intermedia and used them for most of the past 15 years — up until yesterday. Now I use Microsoft’s Office 365 Exchange Service, for a number of very good and important reasons. I did not PLAN on making the switch this week, so I will digress momentarily on this topic. About 8 months ago, I heard that Amazon was offering Exchange hosting on its servers for about $7 or $8/month. Considering that I had been paying Intermedia $13 (or more) for each account, I thought this was pretty good. I cannot remember now why I did not pursue a switch, but there must have been a reason. However, this past Monday I happened to look at Intermedia’s current product offering, and discovered that my “account representative” had not been keeping me apprised of the offerings, and that now the company had an $8/month (per email account) offering available. (Sound like the typical cell phone plans?) This piqued me enough to ask “Who else is offering services, and how much are they charging?”

To my amazement, I found that Microsoft was now competing with Google by offering their Exchange Accounts for $50/year (about $4/month). I called Intermedia and, of course, my “account representative” was unavailable, and so I talked to another sales rep and asked him why the Intermedia offering at twice the cost was preferable. He responded with three items:
1) Up-time. Intermedia guaranteed their uptime, and I would be more satisfied than at Microsoft.
2) Customer Service. I can call and talk to a technical support person.
3) Control Panel. Intermedia believes their control panel to be much better than the Microsoft panel.

I told the sales rep that I had been a customer for over 10 years, and asked him how long he had been with the company (3 months). I explained that over those 10 years, I had encountered many issues, including down time, routing delays, migration issues, etc. So, I wasn’t convinced that the company that authored and sold Microsoft Exchange would implement their hosted exchange in an inferior manner. I had seen my share of rebates from the uptime guarantee, and frankly, most of us don’t want rebates, we want uptime.

Likewise, I was having a hard time believing that the control panel would be terrible. They have been hosting Exchange for a number of years. And so, I decided to try out the service, and so now I will tell you what I like about it compared to providers of the past.

1) Low cost/low minimums. $4 per month per user. BUT, MORE IMPRESSIVELY, a ONE ACCOUNT minimum. Intermedia has a 3 account minimum. I have needs for 3 accounts, so this isn’t really an issue, but Microsoft’s approach allows an admin to fire up ONE account for ONE month for $4. That’s what I call an inexpensive test. If you like it, then you can migrate ALL your email, ALL your accounts, etc. If you don’t, just turn it off. And so I signed up for one account for one month.

2) Having signed up, I had a chance to examine their control panel and set-up mechanism. Very, very good. Intermedia’s panel is a patchwork of different tools, and over the years you learn where to go to do different operations, but it is a patchwork that is glued together in an inconsistent way. Even their dashboard is a nightmare in some respects. Microsoft’s panel is straightforward, and since it is relatively new, it is consistent. The only slight comment on this is that their front-end user/group/domain administration tools are on one screen, and their Exchange server-specific administration tools are on another. Not sure why this is the case, but it looks like two tools glued together, but it was fairly obvious.

3) VERY CLEAR IMPLEMENTATION ADVICE. Because of their scale, they have detailed directions on how to implement your domain server changes and stuff like that. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so I did not really need it for the basics, but they also step you through what to put for smart phone integration and other tools. INVALUABLE for the person who just bought a domain. Instead of having to try to learn from a manual, the tools step you through the process. IMPRESSIVE. (That isn’t to say that I violated some of their implementation due to my idiosyncratic needs, but for someone who is new, it would be hard to make a mistake.)

4) Capabilities. I have seen capabilities in the Microsoft Control Panel that are nowhere to be found in the Intermedia Control Panel. LOTS of them. Whether it is setting their service as Authoritative or Relay or setting spam response levels, there is much to be leveraged. The defaults, by and large, make complete sense. I deem this much improved over the Intermedia panel.

5) Customer Service. I will say that there is a differnt model in play here. Microsoft seeks to develop online resources capturing community information and then offering that up as support. This CAN be very useful, assuming you know how to search for the right answer. There is online help for Exchange Hosting as well, and I found these documents to be better. I resolved some tricky issues with this material. Finally, you can submit a customer service ticket. I’ll let you know how that works when I use it. Yes, it is nice to get a person on the phone, but I am skeptical that it is worth TWICE for EVERY SINGLE EMAIL ACCOUNT. If I were a complete ignoramus with a 3 accounts, then it might be worth the extra money, but this is thousands of dollars over the life of the account, and if you have 10 or 20 accounts, then I would deem it completely not worth it. You’d be better off hiring a consultant to help you implement the Microsoft setup.

So, within one day of testing on a spare domain, I deemed the Office 365 Exchange Hosting to be better and cheaper than the Intermedia platform. By the end of day 2, I had migrated over my three accounts and all of their email, contacts, etc. I’ll leave the Intermedia account (which is no longer receiving any email) in place for another week or so just as a security measure, but I think my relationship with them is doomed.

There is also a lesson to be learned for corporate vendors…. Keep your customers happy.  Don’t let them think you took advantage of their ignorance.  Intermedia, you “got” me and my money.  But it upset me a little, and caused me to look around.  And so you lost a customer of nearly 15 years.  Was that extra $100 worth it?  I’ll refer everyone to Office 365 now.  That’s something to think about if you are a vendor.