Big companies have an advantage over the small company or individual when it comes to email handling and information utilization. Mobile professionals that don’t happen to work for big companies with big resources have the same basic needs as those who do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the same setup to handle your email, PIM functions, and information distribution even though you are a little guy? There’s a simple way to accomplish exactly that which I will discuss in this article. If this situation describes you then read on and see if this is a good solution for your needs.
Exchange Server BasicsAnyone working for a large company that has employees using Outlook for email and PIM functions is likely familiar with Microsoft Exchange Server, even if they are not tech oriented. Exchange Server is the software that usually runs on dedicated hardware and handles all the employees in one place, no matter where the employees physically work. The benefits that Exchange Server provides are numerous and it is no surprise why so many companies rely on it for daily operations. Exchange Server is relatively simple in concept but complex to set up and maintain because it is doing a lot of things behind the scenes.One of the primary functions of Exchange Server is to provide a single repository for all email traffic, both incoming and outgoing, for an entire organization. Each individual user is assigned an account on the server that let’s them access their information once they log in to the server. While all the email, contact, and calendar information appears to reside on the local computer, in reality it is all stored securely on the server. This is a powerful feature for companies that let’s them control access to sensitive information and keeping all of the information in one place makes it possible to keep current backups of the data.Another function of the Exchange Server is to publish public folders that can contain virtually any type of information, from company-wide contact lists to standard documents that all employees need to access frequently. The data is centrally stored, maintained, and updated with controls put in place by the administrators. This makes it easy for organizations to publish and maintain information with a convenient distribution method. The information is there whenever individuals need to access it. Clean and simple.Exchange Server and the Mobile ProfessionalSo what does this have to do with the mobile professional? That’s a fair question and one I will address in this article. If you’ve ever traveled with your laptop on a business trip the Exchange Server is the reason you can log into your email account from the hotel or other site away from your desk. Even though you are not physically tied to the Server as you might be in the office, the Server is accessible from anywhere you have an internet connection. Or maybe you use a Tablet PC in addition to your desktop computer. Keeping the Outlook information in sync is a major hassle that is also eliminated by the Exchange Server. This is the main reason an Exchange Server is a great tool for mobile professionals. But maybe you have a very small business or you are an individual that needs mobile access to your information. Having an Exchange Server of your own would provide a lot of utility. This scenario was impossible until recently for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Microsoft Exchange Server can be very expensive to license. Not very cost effective for those small businesses I mentioned. Second, the initial setup and configuration of Exchange Server is not easy by any means, and big companies often have specialists to do this for them who are certified in that very thing. The small company or individual would be confronted with enlisting the services of one of these outside specialists which is also cost prohibitive. Thirdly, a proper Exchange Server setup usually entails dedicated hardware with protection against hardware failure and power interruption. And lastly, maintaining an existing Exchange Server installation can be quite a challenge, even a small setup that an individual would use. All of these reasons has previously meant that an Exchange Server solution was out of the reach of all but the larger companies.Enter the Hosted Exchange Server ServiceFortunately for those of us who realize the benefits a Server solution would bring but don’t have the resources to provide one, a cost effective solution is now available. A number of companies have begun offering hosted Exchange Server solutions that extends these many benefits to anyone for a modest cost. These companies have dedicated servers that are maintained in their central computer location. They provide the hardware which the user never sees, the access to the Exchange Server software obviating the need for the end-user to pay for a license, and protection of the data against failures, viruses, and spam.I have been using a hosted Exchange Server service for over a year now to run my one man business and it is one of the best moves I have ever made. The company I settled on is DevStreet which provides my MailStreet 2003 service. The advantages of using a hosted service like this can’t be over-stated. The service provider did all setup in the beginning, offers continual support, and keeps my crucial data completely backed up every single day. The monthly cost is quite modest and I have all the benefits the big companies have for my little organization.How a Hosted Service Benefits the Mobile ProfessionalBefore you can determine if one of these services is cost effective for your specific needs it’s important to have a look at exactly how the mobile professional can put the hosted Server environment to best use. Consider this common scenario: you use a desktop computer in your office and take a laptop with you on trips. Anyone who’s done this without an Exchange Server in place can attest to how difficult it is to keep your Outlook data synchronized between the two computers. You get to your destination and realize you didn’t update the information on the laptop. Or maybe you forgot to copy over the important document or presentation you need for your meeting. With a hosted server solution this problem completely disappears. Every time you log in to Outlook all of your contact information, calendar items, and tasks are updated no matter which computer you are using. No muss, no fuss. If you keep important documents in public folders on the server you’ll never be missing that document again. It is there for use on any computer you might be using on the hosted server. This alone can make it worth the cost for most people. This can be significant when you get a new laptop or desktop computer and you want to get all your information onto the new machine. Simply log on to Outlook on the new computer and all your information is pulled down automatically. Sweet. If you’re worried about getting access to your data when you’re not connected to the internet you can simply configure Outlook on your local computer to use “cached offline” mode which forces Outlook to keep a copy of all data on the server on your local version of Outlook. So you can still work with the data on the server even when not connected to the internet. Any changes you make locally will be automatically synchronized with the server the next time you go online. No information is ever inaccessible or out of date.It’s also important to understand that your hosted Exchange Server is fully protected with password control. This makes it almost impossible for outside forces to break into your server. Hardware and software barriers are in place at the host to keep out anyone you don’t want to access your server. The hosts also put heavy duty spam filters in place to help aid that ever worsening problem. Most spam doesn’t even get to your local computer and even though it’s recommended that users keep local spam filters in place the amount of spam traffic I get is miniscule since going with the hosted service. The host also puts continually updated anti-virus protection on the server side so very few emails with viruses get through. Safe and convenient.PDAs and the Hosted ServiceMailStreet also offers a couple of optional services that are reasonably priced that I use every day. If you’re like me and use a Windows Mobile powered Pocket PC (there may be ways to use these with a Palm based device, too) then you may be interested in Outlook Web Access. This is a secure method to use almost any web browser on ANY computer, even computers that are not yours, to access your server just like using Outlook on your local computer. The Outlook experience is duplicated very faithfully allowing you to use “Outlook” on any computer, even public ones. No personal information is left behind on the foreign computer when you log out, making it not only convenient but very secure. I use this all the time on my Pocket PC and it’s just like using Outlook in the palm of the hand. Very nice. I also set up the Pocket PC to synchronize directly with the Exchange Server so I don’t need to synchronize the Pocket PC with any of the computers I use. All the PIM data is synchronized directly with the server via WiFi, eliminating the problem of having to synchronize with both the desktop computer and the laptop to make sure the Pocket PC is completely up to date.Outlook Web Access on a Pocket PC (VGA screen in landscape orientation)ConclusionThis article has described all the many benefits of the hosted Exchange Server solution. This service gives you the equivalent of having your own hardware and software solution without having to provide either. The different companies offering hosted Exchange Server solutions have varying price schemes but they are competitive and quite reasonably priced for the service received. I pay about $30 per month for the service and all the optional services I’ve added. That provides me with two mailboxes in addition to my own mailbox. I think that’s a bargain for the piece of mind of having secure information, backups that protect all my critical data, and the ability to have access to my email and documents no matter what computer I use. This has been a real boon to using the Sony U-70 ultra-portable computer and keeping it up to date with my main computer.