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Smaller businesses may opt <br />for managed e-mail hosting

Electronic mail is a technical necessity for businesses of the twenty-first century. Indeed, e-mail takes the functions of the office telephone, fax machine and old-fashioned postal mail and bundles them into a single--and indispensable--means of communication. With more than 1 trillion e-mail messages sent and received every year, electronic mail is perhaps the most crucial single method of communication in today's work environment--and, for some businesses, outranks even the telephone in importance and effectiveness.

The gold standard for electronic mail platforms has long been Microsoft's Exchange software. Exchange powers Microsoft's Outlook software, which not only provides the ability to send and receive messages, but also facilitates shared calendaring, task management and business contact storage. In fact, when businesses reach a certain size, Microsoft Exchange is necessary in the never-ending quest to communicate, manage projects, and track resources.

For smaller businesses, however, it may be difficult to justify the cost to acquire a server to power Microsoft's Exchange platform and purchase the licenses that allow a company's users to utilize the software. Furthermore, many businesses find it worthwhile to allocate training dollars toward Microsoft Outlook to ensure employees are able to fully use the seemingly endless features of the technology world's premiere e-mail and calendaring program.

What, then, are the options available to smaller businesses, or to those just getting off the ground? Simply put, managed e-mail hosting provides an attractive, affordable alternative to businesses not ready to take the Exchange plunge. As an added benefit, many of today's managed e-mail hosting solutions provide functionality that rivals Microsoft Outlook, thereby allowing businesses to take advantage of collaborative tools such as shared tasks and calendaring, without parting with the budget dollars necessary to install and maintain a full-fledged Exchange environment.

Managed e-mail hosting has a number of benefits. In addition to providing an affordable alternative to Exchange--hosting solutions are typically billed monthly, quarterly, or annually--managed e-mail hosting also frees businesses from having to support and maintain the server and e-mail accounts utilized by their employees.

Many area I.T. companies, in fact, offer packages that start at as little as $5 per mailbox account. Such services allow business owners to dictate which employees are granted an e-mail account, the rights or restrictions placed on these accounts and each mailbox's storage size. If you add a new employee or need to have a password changed, you simply contact your I.T. service provider with your request and avoid having to tinker with the complex settings within Exchange--and, in turn, avoid making a change that causes complications across your office network.

Furthermore, you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your I.T. Provider is managing your e-mail solution and is performing routine maintenance, installing patches, and running antivirus software to protect your company's critical data. Your I.T. provider can also perform a daily backup of your e-mail data to ensure it may be retrieved, for archival purposes or in the event that records are lost due to natural disaster, fire or network intrusion.

As your business grows, there may come a time when Microsoft's Exchange platform becomes a necessity. Until then, look into a managed e-mail solution for functionality and flexibility and a more affordable price.

- Jason Facer is the president and COO of Area-Wide Technologies. He can be reached at (217) 359-8041 or