July 17, 2011


As an IT consultant, I have been around the email block a few times and have seen what works and what doesn’t- for myself and for my clients. Through my IT clients I have seen what poorly managed email looks like and the frustrations it can cause. It drives me crazy how many bad or poorly managed setups I have seen.

As I mentioned in a previous post about Dropbox, I had a server that was loud and noisy. It made lost of heat and ran up my electricity bill. I kept it as long as I did because I liked managing my own server.  Then came a point where the hardware needed replacing and I had to do something about keeping it available during electrical and internet outages. This is where I started investigating alternatives for keeping the type of email service I liked without a physical server at my house.

Below are the key points that I personally look for in an email system:

  • Centralized – No matter what device or way I access my messages, any changes I make should be reflected on any device or application I might use to access my email. This pays in spades on time saved when dealing with email from multiple devices.
  • Reliable – The email system should be robust with little to no downtime. Additionally there should be backups in the event something catastrophic happens.
  • Accessible – There should be at least three ways to easily access email as long as you have access to the internet. Planning this way allows for flexibility when you may not have your laptop with you, or if your mobile device isn’t working and all you have is access to someone else’s computer.
  • Converged – For me I need and want access not to just my email but my contacts and calendar.
  • Manageable – There should be options for managing your email. Options such as additional email aliases and spam control.

What I am going to recommend to you today is utilizing the power of an Exchange server with supported mobile phones and devices; as well as supported applications on your computers and laptops.  Using Exchange as your mail server will give you the advantages of what I mentioned above and more.

Exchange provides access to messages via Outlook which can be used on your computers and laptops, supported mobile devices, and through Outlook Web Access which is accessed through web browsers on computers connected to the internet. More on this in a bit.

For the tech savvy, you might know Exchange as an expensive, corporate server application that IT experts install and manage on company servers. But with the advance of cloud computing, Exchange mail services have been available to the average joe for a nominal monthly fee and provides the advantages I mentioned above.

The recommended setup that I use is as follows:

  • Hosted exchange provider – I use Sherweb for my Exchange services. Their pricing is attractive and their customer service / tech support is American. The support is 365 days a year,24/7 and has been responsive and effective. Sherweb provides licenses to install Outlook/Entourage on your Windows or Mac computer. Sherweb also provides robust, fault-tolerant service, with spam and virus protection on every mailbox. Sherweb will provide everything you need to make an easy transition to their service. If you would like to check out an comparable host, try 123Together Exchange Hosting.
  • Applications for your computer – I use Outlook in Microsoft Office 2010 Professional.  If you don’t want to spring for Outlook or one of the MS Office suites to get Outlook, you can use the provided license from the host provider. If you have a Mac, I suggest using the built in Exchange support of Mail 4.2 or later found in the Snow Leopard update. You can also use Entourage 2008 from Microsoft Office for Mac 2008, it is usable but buggy. Or you can check out Outlook 2011 from Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, my experience has been that it seems to slow the whole system down over time. Hopefully Microsoft will issue an update for that problem. These applications will cache a copy of your email which makes it accessible even when you do not have internet access.
  • Smart phones – I personally use an iPhone. You can also use Windows and Android based phones as well as BlackBerry phones. The iPhone is painless to setup, responsive and very reliable. My experiences with Android phones have been that they are painful to setup and somewhat buggy; they do work once you get past the setup. I am not impressed RIM/Blackberry phones or how they handle Exchange, but they work as well. I can’t say much about Windows 7 phones, but I have used previous versions which sets up easily in some cases, not in all cases- there are some setup issues depending on the phone model or service provider.
  • Mobile devices – With tablets taking off, its worth a mention that the Apple iPad and iPad 2 handles Exchange connectivity very well. I have not had experience with any of the other tablets. But I can recommend the iPad/iPad 2 for Exchange without any qualms.
  • Web Access – You can also access your email via OWA which is essentially “webified” Outlook, this is native to Exchange. OWA works best with Internet Explorer, but I have used other browsers successfully to access and use OWA.

As you can see as long as you have internet access, you can get to your email. Because your messages are stored centrally on the Exchange server, whatever changes you make on one device will be reflected on the other devices after they sync with the server. This beats using POP3 and having to delete the same message multiple times on multiple devices if the email is not deleted from the server. Or downloading an email onto one device, but not being able to access the email from other devices if the email is deleted from the server. IMAP can provide centralized access to email, but it does not handle calendaring and contacts.

Another advantage of Exchange is the convergence of  messaging, contacts, and calendering which carries over to mobile devices, OWA as well as Outlook. This advantage is hard to beat and very useful. There are other alternative to Exchange offered by Google, Apple and others. From what I have seen, the email experience is not the same or as good.

I hope you find this post useful. I have been using the above setup for a few years now and have not regretted giving up my email server. It keeps my email simple, accessible and headache free. This too was a project for me to scratch that minimalist itch I had to reduce the number of things in my possession.

Till next time.

Article by Chris Harris @ Between the TemplesImage credit: Cara Photography

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