The Cloud: A Great Place for Enterprise E-mail

The following is an article I recently wrote for “Cloud Computing Journal.”

The Cloud: A Great Place for Enterprise E-mail
Cloud-based e-mail architecture might well be better, faster, and cheaper than any of the alternatives

Recognizing e-mail as the central tool in today’s contemporary business model is effortless – any breakdown in this mission-critical instrument and companies come to a virtual halt. Staff collaboration is limited, customer and vendor relationships are potentially compromised, and IT resources must be re-allocated to administer first aid, leaving other work sidetracked. The necessity of restoring the system becomes paramount, the monetary toll is secondary, and the debt to be paid is always exacted.

In addition, e-mail is one of the first entry points into an organization and perhaps the single most targeted vector for enterprise security attacks. A recent Google-led study estimates that 94 percent of all e-mail is now spam, with threats that go far beyond the annoyance of unwanted e-mail to include malicious components such as phishing attacks, worms, Trojans, bots, and other Internet crimeware. Ever more sophisticated attacks, such as location-based spam, ensure the continued expansion of the volume and depth of spam that will assault the enterprise environment.

Considering the multitude of threats enterprise e-mail faces in conjunction with the vital role e-mail plays, deciding on an e-mail infrastructure becomes a decision that will impact not only a company’s bottom-line, but also its corporate mission. While several years ago IT managers may have been choosing simply between an in-house or hosted solution, today’s enterprise IT leader can examine many service architectures, several of which include cloud-based components. These models include hosted e-mail with a cloud-based e-mail service provider, hosted support services whereby some e-mail services run in the cloud (such as keeping mailboxes on-site with e-threat protection being cloud-based), or splitting it completely, with some users on-site, some users cloud-based. Service models that leverage the cloud are able to offer a number of advantages in-house and hosted solutions may not necessarily be able to, and should be given strong consideration when deciding on best e-mail practices for an organization.

For enterprise organizations that require “five 9s” reliability, cloud-based e-mail services are a good fit because of their dependability, which surpasses that of most in-house counterparts. Also, cloud-based services bundle in important security advantages, not the least of which is that e-threats can be addressed and mitigated well before they enter the enterprise network. What makes both of these advantages possible is the ease of scalability provided by cloud-based services. Small-to-medium sized organizations operating in the enterprise are able to take advantage of an economy of scale once only available to the largest of organizations.

With the considerable rewards of cloud-based e-mail – increased reliability, heightened security, and the ease of scalability – cloud-based e-mail architecture might well be better, faster, and cheaper than any of the alternatives.

“Five 9s” Reliability from the Cloud

One of the IT department’s primary roles is to keep the network infrastructure focused on, and undistracted from, its role of managing inbound and outbound e-mail – quickly and securely – with the necessary level of reliability. This critical role is not without considerable cost due to the array of resources that are needed for the undertaking.

While the cost of maintaining reliable e-mail is high, the expenses associated with a lack of reliability are even higher: e-mail malfunctions, hardware failures, denial of service attacks, or unplanned downtime come at a steep cost that affects all departments. There are the obvious direct IT costs associated with fixing reliability issues in-house, but also indirect ones, including cost to re-direct resources, corporate functions that wait, diminishing client confidence, and finally time-sensitive information delayed or lost.

According to a 2009 Forrester Research study on e-mail in the cloud, Should Your E-mail Live in the Cloud? A Comparative Cost Analysis, most executives haven’t put forth the effort or resources to understand the real cost of hosting and operating enterprise e-mail with reliability. The study revealed that most firms grossly underestimated the fully loaded costs of their enterprise e-mail – an expenditure that includes staffing costs, maintenance, storage, archiving, mobile e-mail, and financing.

Taking these direct and implied costs into consideration, cloud-based e-mail services may be a good choice in terms of both reliability and cost savings. Cloud-based e-mail services tend to have a higher level of reliability than what the majority of firms can deliver individually – and at an economy of scale that lowers individual cost dramatically.

Much like the egalitarian model of a utility, a cloud solution delivers identical reliability and consistency to every participant, from the largest multi-national organization to the smallest three-person startup. Every user is assured the same advantage as the other participant. Smaller and mid-sized firms are not able to allocate sufficiently to even partially approximate a similar level of e-mail reliability, service offering, breadth of technologies, and consistent application of the cloud-based offering.

Any business-centric tool that must be fully operational at a near-flawless level is going to extract a more than equitable quota of mind-share, money, and manpower. Shrinking the gluttonous resource drainer that e-mail reliability can be to a more manageable and fixed cost is compelling enough to give serious consideration to using cloud-based architecture.

The Cloud Heightens Security

Closely linked with the issues of reliability are the security concerns that naturally encircle e-mail. As one of the primary portals for entry into an organization, the threats to enterprise e-mail are both tangible and costly. It is a fundamental law of network infrastructure security that the further away the threat, the safer the enterprise environment. Because cloud-based e-mail services are able to mitigate threats to the enterprise environment in a remote location, away from the network architecture, they allow you to better sequester the network from contamination. This translates to a higher level of security – the farther away threats are from the in-house network, the better.

Of equal consideration is the benefit of reducing the strain on bandwidth and the conservation of resources that comes from off-loading the intensive, tedious work that e-mail processing can be to the system. Off-loading e-mail from the network server can reduce the heavy e-mail lifting for the server and reduce bandwidth requirements. Using cloud-based services keeps the enterprise network focused on more dominant and core assignments.

Those who voice concerns about cloud-based security traditionally cite discomfort with control and data storage, lack of clarity about security mechanisms, and the travel of data between the LAN and the cloud destination (encrypted or not, encryption key management concerns, and the like) and finally who has access to the data. Questions are raised about how the provider would respond to a security breach and recover losses.

Such concerns disregard the inherent weaknesses that exist, but are more easily overlooked, with in-house e-mail solutions. There is a one-eye-shut mentality toward the real dangers of security breaches at the local level and the greater likelihood that such infractions would occur at this closer level. The challenge, cost, and difficulty of securing the on-site enterprise infrastructure are as underestimated as the level of investment cloud providers are focusing on their security.

Earlier this year, companies including eBay, In
tuit, DuPont and ING came together to form the Cloud Security Alliance, a group dedicated to the education and promotion of best security practices for cloud-based providers. As groups like these forge ahead to ensure that cloud security measures are more fully understood, developed, adopted, and standardized, these measures will eventually be recognized as no less threatening than those at the LAN level.

The ability of your infrastructure to maintain an adequate security posture is a complex mix of hardware, software, and the staff to administer it all. The total expense can be daunting. Cloud-based services are compellingly attractive to reduce the liability and financial burden of security. They also diminish the accompanying need to stay current with software and hardware advancements and changes. Doing an adequate job in-house can often mean paying for and maintaining a mix of several tools that can either be redundant and/or might mean gaps in security to avoid redundancy and the costs that would accompany that. In a cloud-based environment, you pay only for what you need and don’t allocate resources to chasing down the latest security instruments.

The Scalability Advantage

Scalability is the determinant that allows for the exceptional reliability and security advantages within cloud-based e-mail solutions. In-house solutions can rarely mimic the cloud solution’s ability to scale easily and near-instantly – and conversely down-scale – to reduce the financial burden when no longer needed.

Before the emergence of cloud-based e-mail solutions, only the largest of organizations were able to employ off-site back-up data centers and multiple levels of redundancy at costs that were tolerable. Employing cloud-based architecture now means that even the smallest organizations can benefit from the advantages of scalable e-mail infrastructure.

But the scalability advantage is much more than just the provisioning of additional staff or subsidiaries, which a cloud-based solution will perform exceedingly well and with the rapidity unlikely to be matched on-site. The scalability of the cloud also means that you don’t pay for the kind of performance – meaning hardware, software, or resources – you don’t need or might not be using currently, yet you have it as quickly as the needs might arise. This can be advantageous for changes in the business model due to seasonality or fluctuating demands that can’t be readily predicted or always anticipated.

In the case of shifting scenarios, capital expenses are not impacted, and don’t unexpectedly arise. Cloud service ramp-up will be reflected as an operational expense and easily lowered as quickly as it’s driven upward – when needed. Staffing isn’t impacted when the needs elevate or reduce, and the IT team is never driven from business objectives by changing course. They can remain consistently on-point with those actions that directly impact revenue or goals. Administrative burdens and technology challenges are sidestepped consistently and don’t drag down the IT resources.

Are Cloud-Based Services Right for You?

Increasingly, firms are recognizing the advantages that lie in changing their e-mail service delivery to a cloud-based or hybrid model. For some, a hybrid mix of mailbox servers in the data center and utilizing the cloud for e-threat mitigation will be ideal. Whatever the decision, cloud-based e-mail is not a single option, but rather a multi-layered choice – never all or nothing – and very customizable. A cloud-based architecture can not only increase the reliability and security of your organizations’ e-mail, but it can also decrease the associated time and cost of e-mail.

As cloud-based e-mail services are becoming increasing available and affordable, everyone with the budgetary responsibility for e-mail should be casting an eye on cloud-based offerings and asking the hard questions about what they are paying for e-mail, what they should be paying for e-mail, the advantages of off-site management, and how it can best be structured for their firms current and evolving needs. With every software upgrade, every technology change, and every additional user added, careful consideration should be paid to evaluate more secure, economically stronger and scalable options that are often in the cloud.