Blog Post

Hosted Exchange 101: what is it and do you need it?

Exchange_server_settingsThanks to an e-mail question from TaxMan, I wanted to give a little "Hosted Exchange 101" for a few reasons. First off TaxMan wanted to know what’s the real benefit of this e-mail solution and who it’s for. Secondly, the lack of native Exchange support is one of the few reasons I held off on an iPhone purchase and this gives me an opportunity to re-evaluate my needs. My intention here isn’t to provide an in-depth, technical overview of a hosted Exchange approach, but I’d like to give a quick high-level overview that might help readers understand if this choice is needed and viable for them.

Hosted Exchange: what it is it?

If you do work or have worked in a corporate environment, it’s a good chance that you were using a Microsoft Exchange powered e-mail solution. Exchange is running on e-mail servers in a vast majority of the business world these days. Many of these servers are administered and maintained by the company I.T. department. Since an Exchange server can handle tens of thousands of e-mail accounts, it’s meant for small business sized companies and up. By itself, a dedicated Exchange server is overkill for most individuals: you don’t need the horsepower and capacity that comes along with the job of maintaining it for a single user.

Hosted Exchange is a viable option for those individuals that want to harness the power of an Exchange server but don’t want to pay for a full server license, buy the appropriate hardware and deal with the maintenance. Much like the web hosting industry where a company bundles many customers on a single web server, Exchange hosting (or Hosted Exchange) is a cost-effective option for individuals. The Exchange service provider bundles many customer mailboxes on a single Exchange server for a monthly or yearly fee.

What does it cost?

Costs vary, but in general, they’re much lower than running your own Exchange server. If you were to host Exchange for yourself as an example, you’d need a hypothetical package like:

To run a single mailbox that’s overkill for most; there are likely a few exceptions, but again: overkill.

A hosted Exchange plan, however, costs much less. You can find a list of Microsoft approved providers right here; I highly recommend you research and choose your the best for you. I personally use 4Smartphone while James uses MailStreet. I chose 4Smartphone’s Professional plan which costs me $84 a year. For that price, I get 1 GB of mail storage, a free Outlook 2007 client license, direct push support for my mobile devices, daily backups and more. My mention of the plan isn’t to solicit business for the company, it’s simply to provide an idea of the costs and services provided.

What does Hosted Exchange provide?

Obviously, you have a centralized e-mail server with a hosted Exchange plan, the same as you have with Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and the like. There are a few key differences however; some may help you decide if you need a hosted Exchange plan or not.

One key feature is that Exchange provides not just your mail and all of your e-mail folders, but your Calendar appointments, Contacts, Notes and Tasks. With one single client connected to Exchange, you can keep all of these artifacts in sync. To this point in time, the ability to have all of this information stored, integrated and backed up in one central location has been one of the two main reasons I’ve kept a hosted Exchange account.

The second reason is the support for Direct Push synchronization. This is the ability to have all of my information on the Exchange server sent to my many mobile devices in near real-time. I don’t have to worry about a manual send and receive function, nor do I need to synchronize my clients with the Exchange server: it simply stays in sync. The real benefit here is what I alluded to earlier when I said "my many mobile devices". I currently have three smartphones configured to receive e-mail from my Exchange server. I can leave the house with any of my devices and know that my e-mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes and Tasks are all up to date. No muss, no fuss: it’s all there. This alone has made my service plan well worth the money. When I’m on the road, it’s nice to get an appointment update or invite for example. I can immediately accept or review my up to date calendar before taking the necessary action required and I can do this on my smartphones.

There are other valuable features and functions but most don’t apply to individual mobile tech users. If you’re a small group of users, you might be interested in the support for public folders, global address books and more.

Is a Hosted Exchange Plan right for me?

That depends on your needs and devices of course. I originally went this route due to the Direct Push feature that’s supported on my Windows Mobile devices. Palm and Nokia have licensed Microsoft’s ActiveSync technology so that some of their devices gain this benefit as well. Devices that don’t support Exchange synchronization might be helped by third party solutions like DataViz’s RoadSync I’m using on the loaner Nokia N80.

The recent introduction of the Apple iPhone has nudged me to re-evaluate my needs. Although I’m using an Exchange server today, all of my mail originally comes from two POP3 accounts; I then forward mail from those accounts to my 4Smartphone account to take advantage of the Direct Push feature, daily backup, etc… I’ll be testing the web-based interfaces of my POP3 accounts over the next few weeks to see if I can be productive without my Exchange account.

If you’re on the road and want to always be up to date with your e-mail, contacts, appointments, notes and tasks, a hosted Exchange plan with the right mobile device can definitely boost your productivity at a reasonable price.

21 Responses to “Hosted Exchange 101: what is it and do you need it?”

  1. Interesting timing that I found your post. My personal Blackberry has been hooked to Gmail via BIS (Blackberry Internet Service) and the solution is certainly wonky compared to a Lotus Notes-based or Exchange-based BES solution. No folders on the Blackberry, unpredictable sync and message deletion times, the impedance mismatch between Gmail and “traditional” email solutions like IMAP clients and Exchange (due to Gmail’s conversations and archiving, etc.). I poked around for hosted Exchange solutions and am currently trailing Sherweb. Since it’s BES my Blackberry problems issues are addressed. And I have no issues with Outlook or OWA.

    Definitely a premium to pay (although today’s prices are pretty reasonable) given that most people use free email but the benefits are worth it to me.


  2. I love Exchange! We are using Intermedia to host our Exchange 2007 server and their service has been great. We all have our smartphones or Blackberrys synced with our office email, which makes my day a lot easier.

  3. No Charles, I wasn’t aware of any plan changes or price increases so thanks! I’ve received no notification of any changes from the company and I just renewed my plan about 3 months ago for 12 months. I’m not sure why the price has nearly doubled from what it has been for several years. While I have no issue with a price increase, I think it should be a reasonable amount. Bummer!

    Regardless, the gist of the article is to inform folks about Hosted Exchange plans in general, so this is a great example of the need to shop around for services.

  4. Charles

    You mentioned, and their pricing. You’re apparently no aware of their upcoming price increases as they complete their upgrades to Exchange 2007. The plan you’re currently enrolled in increases in price considerably, along with storage being cut in half. If you want to upgrade to Exchange 2007 now, it’s available, but they will prorate the price increase for the remainder of your plan. If you don’t like this and wish to cancel, fine, but you’ll pay a $15 cancellation fee.

    Also, 4Smartphone has annual contracts only — so when something like this happens, you can’t opt out at the end of a month.

    I’ve switched to another Host Exchange provider: — they are already on Exchange 2007, have a 9.95 monthly plan that includes unlimited storage. Going on my 2nd month — so far, so good…

    To summarize — the new 4Smartphone Hosted Exchange 2007 price with the annual fee for your current Pro plan will come out to 10.95 per month, and you’ll have half a gig of storage.

  5. Josh F.

    Having to hard-reset my Windows Mobile device many times, and not being a fan of Outlook (or any desktop PIM for that matter), I love syncing with an Exchange server. But being cheap, I don’t want to pay $10/mo or more for the service. I use mail2web, who has a free service that I forward my Gmail to. The downside is that I can’t send out emails from my real email acct from, it comes from the address. I’m pretty sure they can actually use your old email if you upgrade to a pay plan. Anyway, it’s a free alternative if you can stand the inconvenience of not sending out emails from your built-in client (I use Gmail java program). I absolutely love not being tied at all to a desktop, but still have a backup/sync with all my information.

  6. Kev,
    Thanks for the compliment! :)

    I’d be really interested to hear your findings with Synchronica. Interestingly, if you have a free domain name that you can manage your own CNAME/DNS records, you can set up an account with Google Apps (for free!) and have a personal/family network of apps including their gmail, calendar, docs, and your own portal start page (igoogle). Plus, you can also set up a WWW page, as well. It’s all very slick and fairly simple to set-up. It’s an interesting alternative to having your own exchange server. You can use gSyncIt; which is a $10 application that synchronizes your gCal with Outlook. Or you could opt for the SyncMyCal (for $25) that even supports all of the color and categorization stuff. They even have a mobile version, which works with the Google Apps domain – though I don’t know if this app syncs “off the wire.”

    Good luck with your stuff!

  7. Great article Paul! I may have to rig something up amongst some of the tools you mention, at least until we have some kind of full Exchange support on the iPhone. I’ve signed up for more information on Synchronica but haven’t heard anything back yet.

  8. Kev,
    Great article, and apropos for my recent line of thinking. It’s funny, I – unknowingly – wrote a similar style article that focused on FREE solutions for the mobile user. My intention was to come up with a way to consolidate email, be able to get to docs/spreadsheets, and other tools that would normally be part of my desktop productivity suite. I also found some interesting and colvoluted ways of tying things together including the use of IMified as an interface into many free online email solutions.

    Not a push for my blog here, but here’s the link:

    I’m still considering the Hosted Exchange route, but William made a great point about the Small Business Server. Outside of having to deal with my own back-ups, what’s one more box in the data center?! :)

  9. William


    You dont need to log your machines on before you leave the house. As long as you have connectivity, EVDO to the rescue!, you just fire up Outlook on whatever device and it’ll sync up. If you are going to be “‘net-less” then you’d want to do a sync before you left your house/office so you have the freshest data.

    A Windows Mobile device will always be up do date using Exchange as they perform over the air syncing.

  10. One more thing that might be a consideration when choosing a hosted exchange provider is whether exchange 2007 or 2003 is offered. The webmail interface in exchange 2007 is much nicer and works a bit better with other browsers than IE.

    I have tried to move away from hosted exchange a couple of times because I find it really annoying to be having to log on to the exchange server every time you start Outlook and because of some performance issues. But I always came back to it because in the end there is no better integrated e-mail/calendar/contacts solution that is so easy to access in different ways (web, outlook, smartphone etc).

    Another strong argument for using hosted exchange is that there is no need to worry about backups, this is done centrally and much more frequently then you could ever do on your own computer.

    I really don’t understand how people can call Gmail a serious alternative for exchange. It does not sync your contacts to outlook, and you will always end up with duplicate e-mails because imap is not supported.

    Note that most Hosted Exchange providers also support IMAP, which means that you can also use thunderbird or mail app to access your e-mail without ending up with duplicate or missing e-mails.

  11. Thomas R. Hall

    For people like James with a BlackBerry, you can set it up with hosted Exchange and syncing notes _does_ work wirelessly, which is great! I sync with a Windows Mobile device and a BlackBerry Pearl without any issues. Just like Kevin, I’ve had multiple Windows Mobile devices syncing at the same time, and it’s a great feature.

  12. Steve Krug

    Great post, as usual. Thanks Kevin.

    You’ve probably pushed me over the edge (in a good way), since I’ve been debating for a while whether to go with hosted Exchange service.

    Basically, I want to synch Outlook on the three tablets (eventually two: trusty M205 and carry-around-all-the-time P1610) that I use. While there are local folder-synching programs that seem fine for keeping most files up to date, nothing seems to be ideal for Outlook. And it hadn’t even occured to me that I could get push support for my smartphone (Verizon’s 700W, which I hate, because its memory shortage makes it perennially sluggish and flakey), which might be a nice bonus.

    Given your experience, is hosted Exchange a good solution for my situation? I’ve never used exchange (always a consultant, working on my own), but I assume that I just log on with whatever tablet I’m taking with me before I leave home, and it brings my locally-stored email up to date?

    The other thing I;d need to sort out is whether I could do this and still keep the mindspring email address I’ve been using for years….



  13. Thanks Elo; I’d read the same. There are other options to sync the iPhone with Exchange as well. My provider actually supports IMAP so I could get my mail on an iPhone, but I couldn’t get my contacts, calendar items or tasks with that method. Synchronica sounds like it would support the synching of contacts and calendar items, but I think the ideal solution for me personally is for Apple to license Microsoft’s ActiveSync.

  14. acjif98

    Great ideas – I’ll have to look into it.
    As a business owner I actually rigged my own poor man’s exchange solution not being aware of the ones you mentioned.
    Free and it works for me since I am the only one who really needs it.
    I use a Moto Q and use Gmail as my primary email account. I was frustrated with not being able to view Gmail as it arrived to Outlook on my notebook, and on my phones Outlook as well. I really don’t care for the Gmail phone/web interface.
    I set up a secondary account in Comcast (my ISP) and enabled forwarding in Gmail to that account while keeping the messages in the Gmail Server. I then set up Outlook on the notebook to pull the Gmail messages. I set up the phone to receive the forwarded Gmail from the comcast account. Voila!
    I have an Ipaq HX2410 that I use primarily for TomTom. I can view my gmail account through comcast there as well.
    About once each month I check the comcast account to make sure that I am under the 250MB storage limit.
    As for online syncing appointments and contacts – I can usually wait to sync the notebook and the phone. Only problem is, mail I send from the phone is sent from the Comcast account.
    I used this set up with my old Treo 650 and I used Chatter Mail. It was pretty flexible in your mail settings and I could receive in Comcast and send with Gmail.

  15. Dave, you’re correct and in the example I gave it sounds like you can have your Notes pushed to a mobile device. As you stated, Notes are only synched within Outlook, so when I use my UMPC on the road, I have my notes. When I use a Windows Mobile device, I don’t have my Notes sent to me from the Exchange server. I can only get them onto the WinMo device by synching to a host PC. Thanks for catching the faux pas; I’ve struck out Notes in that particular section.

  16. Dave Nicholls

    I use a hosted exchange server solution too, but Notes aren’t synchronised. I thought that Notes only worked within the Outlook client and needed direct sync’ing. Can you confirm that it works for you? If so, how did you set it up?



  17. Thanks, Kevin! You really delivered the goods with this post. I think I’m going to keep doing without for now. I’ve got my main POP account set up to forward a copy of all messages to a Gmail account that I don’t use for anything except that purpose. I set up my POP account on my iPhone to remove messages from the server when I delete them from the device. That way, I can delete stuff whenever I want and I can go look it up on Gmail if I need to see it again.

    Tax Man

  18. William

    One thing to keep in mind when evaluating the cost of your own exchange server is the super deal you get buying Small Business Server. SBS2003 includes exchange 2003 and is only $499 for 5 users. Its setup for web access, remote desktop to any attached domain machines, and push email right out of the box. It also includes a number of management tools that are really nice and not available in the standard server2003/exchange2003 setup.

    Just another option to keep in mind. Probably still overkill for most individuals but once you get past 2 or 3 people it starts making a lot more sense.

  19. Great post on the 10,000 ft view of hosted exchange. Even though I am a programmer and had pretty good idea of what it was, this post covered a little more of WHY you would want it. And reenforced to me that not having it is the way for me to go (right now). I have my MotoQ syncing via wireless sync with my work exchange server, and have setup mail for a few of my personal accounts I sometimes want to check from the phone. I have these setup to get my mail but LEAVE on the server, and then my laptop when it checks my mail it gets and removes from the server. So I use my phone for checking on the go when I don’t want to fire up the laptop or don’t have internet connection for the laptop.

    kind of convulted process, but it all works for me… which what the post is covering… wether you need hosted exchange.