Please note that this article is over two years old and has not been updated since its initial publication. Both services have gone through substantial changes. The article may still be useful as a jumping off point on your research, but don't cite anything from this article as fact to your boss!
Many small and mid-sized businesses are re-evaluating their email service. In the past, the de-facto email standard was Microsoft Exchange installed on a Windows server that you hosted in house. In the past couple of years, many new options have emerged and are being considered seriously by small business. The two major competitors in the Software as a Service (SaaS) market are Google Apps and Microsoft Hosted Exchange.
Why hosted email?
Before we can get into the pros and cons of Google Apps and Hosted Exchange, we first have to examine why people are moving over to hosted email in the first place. I think it is safe to say that most users expect email to work ALL the time. For small companies with a small or non-existent IT department, providing a service with 99.9% uptime is fairly difficult and expensive. Anytime that there is a disruption in service, such as the server going down or being compromised, the IT admin has to scramble to get everything up. Any downtime whatsoever results in extremely unhappy users and an exhausted and stressed IT admin. Another big issue for expanding companies is scalability and how much it costs to do that scaling.
How does hosted email solve this problem?
A hosted email solution with a reputable company offers extremely reliable email service without all of the headaches and costs. Scalability is a non-issue, as a company like Google or Microsoft is already handling hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of email accounts. Keeping their system up and running is something that both take extremely seriously, and pump millions of dollars and very talented engineering into. Basically, economies of scale allows these large companies to provide a better email service at a cheaper price.
Google Apps - Market Leader?
Google has been in the SaaS business for a few years now with their Google Apps product. Google Apps rolls a few products into one integrated solution. These products are:
- Gmail - Email
- Calendar - Shared calendaring
- Google Docs - Storage and colloborative editing for documents
- Google Sites - A quick and dirty way of making internal websites for projects or teams. Think "Sharepoint Extremely Lite"
I was unable to pull up any numbers on exactly how many people are subscribed to Google Apps Standard or Google Apps Premier, but I think it is safe to say that it is up there. They have been in the business for a while and just about every IT person I know has heard of it.
Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite
Microsoft has just started really pushing their Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) service. Again, I have no numbers to go by, but since it is such a new service I highly doubt that is has eclipsed Google Apps at this point. What Microsoft really has going for it in this market is their extremely large channel and reseller base that can immediately start pushing this service to clients all across the world. BPOS includes the following services:
- Exchange - Email, calendars, contacts
- Sharepoint - Document storage and sharing, collaboration
- Live Meeting - Web conferencing solution
Now, one important point to make is that I will ONLY be considering the Exchange portion of BPOS. The reason for this is that Microsoft charges for Exchange, Sharepoint and Live Meeting separately. To keep the prices between Google Apps and BPOS remotely close, I have to exclude Sharepoint and Live Meeting.
Google Apps and Microsoft Hosted Exchange Compared
Google Apps and Microsoft Hosted Exchange are similar in a few ways. Let's take a look at just exactly where they are similar:
- Email - Both services are going to give you extremely reliable up-time on your email service
- Spam Filtering - They both offer excellent spam filtering
- Multiple domains - You can have multiple domains, or aliases, per account (Had to talk with a Microsoft rep to get that info...)
- Web interface - Both offer a web interface to their email service
- Archival - Both offer email archival included in the price of the accounts
Okay, so now you know where they are similar, but how do they differ?
- Storage - Google offers 25 GB per user, Microsoft 1 GB per user
- Price - Google is $50 per user per year, Microsoft bills in monthly increments at $10 per user per year, coming out to $120 a year
- Document Collaboration - Google offers their Google Docs service, Microsoft gives you nothing. You have to pay extra for hosted Sharepoint.
- Desktop email client integration - Exchange, frankly, kicks ass here. If your users use Outlook heavily, Exchange is the way to go. Google provides IMAP and POP access, but uploading calendars and contacts requires a Google Desktop Sync application that only runs on Windows.
- Web client - While both services offer web interfaces, Google takes the cake here. Google Apps was built from the ground up for the browser, and it shows. Exchange Outlook Web Access (OWA) has been improved though.
- Intranet - Google Apps offers the Sites service, which is like an extremely stripped down version of Sharepoint. As I stated earlier, Sharepoint is an extra monthly cost for BPOS.
- IM/Chat - Google Apps offers this out of the box with the Google Talk application, the option is not there even if you are willing to pay for it with Microsoft currently.
- Tasks - Exchange has tasks, Google Apps doesn't.
- Mobile Phone Integration - Exchange takes the cake here, almost every single smartphone on the planet has Exchange support. Google Apps support is all over the map, with Blackberry being the best supported, then the iPhone. Email isn't a problem for either, but if contact/calendar syncing is important and you don't use Blackberry's, stay far far away from Google Apps
- Video conferencing - This is a new feature from Google, but one that is a key differentiator in my opinion. Microsoft does not offer it.
- Support - Microsoft blows Google away on this one. As a reseller, I can call up a Microsoft rep 24/7 with any question whatsoever. With Google, they only provide phone support if the service is down, they do not help you implement it in your organization. Google does provide excellent online documentation.
- Active Directory Integration - No surprise here, hosted Exchange is much easier to integrate with AD. There are ways tointegrate Google Apps with active directory, but it requires some Python scripts. Microsoft wins here.
That pretty much covers the major differences that I have come across in my time working with both products. For my final comparison on what one came out best, I put together a little spreadsheet. I scored both services over a variety of key (in my opinion) features and put them on a 5 point scale, with 5 being the best. The highest score possible is 45.
As you can see, Google Apps just beat out Hosted Exchange. The key was all those extras that Google throws in and that Microsoft does not.
If I was starting a company today, and needed to choose an email/collaboration system, I would go with Google Apps. The main reason for that is cost, Microsoft is simply charging too much. I am also extremely comfortable with web applications. But just because I like it, doesn't mean your users will. I would highly recommend doing a requirements study, and seeing just how users are currently utilizing their email system. Both services have their upsides and downsides, but overall, both are excellent and would serve most organizations well.