Why an Infrastructure Check is Important Before Choosing a Hosting Provider

In the previous post I discussed why information checks are important. Here is a comment worth mentioning here from Maurene about my information check posting. She says,

“Under “What is your core business,” you say “… who are solely operating and managing Microsoft Exchange and related technologies… ” Many providers may host Exchange along with their own messaging service (USA.net comes to mind). IBMGS provides outsourcing for both Exchange and Domino. It’s the word “solely” that I’d question — the decision should be made as a reflection on the quality of the provider’s Microsoft expertise — independent of what else it may be hosting.”

Thanks to Maurene for correcting, but I was kind of Microsoft biased when I wrote this post. 🙂 Let’s continue with the Infrastructure side. Below are some of the key questions in my mind and I will continue to write a couple of more posts on the same topic soon.

1. What kind of complimentary services do you provide – for example, mobility, VoIP, security, archiving?

I believe some of the services should be complimentary such as mobility, faxing via email, etc… You can ask about more like VoIP, archiving, etc.

  • Mobility – every organization needs it. Wireless email gives your staff always-synchronized, anytime-access to email and other data such as calendar, contacts, docs, SharePoint etc. Ensure the hoster has better device coverage by supporting all popular Smartphone and PDAs. The hoster should be able to deploy and maintain the entire service from their data center which includes all necessary updates and patches. Blackberry, Windows Mobile & Good are the main wireless email service options available in the market today.
  • Outlook Web Access (OWA) – Traveling users love these features. OWA can be used from the Airport, Hotel Rooms, Internet cafes and any other places that have internet connectivity. OWA has two flavors in Exchange 2003 and Exchange 2007. The “Premium” User Interface (UI) is rendered for Internet Explorer 5 and later; IE7 is best for the new version of Exchange 2007 Outlook Web Access. The “Basic” UI is rendered for other browsers such as Firefox, Safari, and Opera etc.
  • True Internet Faxing over email There is a nice comment from Brad Nickel about Internet Fax. Read it here.
  • Sometimes complimentary services include Exchange Hosted Filtering, Hosted Encryption, Hosted Continuity and Hosted Archive which are provided by Microsoft along with their Exchange Hosted Services

These services have matured now compared to hosting in the earlier exchange versions of 5.5 and 2000. In response to my earlier posting on this topic, Francois Depayras of Ensim commented as below. He says,

“I may, however, differ on your recommendation to track their records on Exchange 5.5, 2000, 2003 and 2007 since 5.5 was horrible to host and 2000, not much better for basic security reasons. Also, DSL was not as widespread as it is today and MAPI was still pretty fat (unusable while using dial-up), while OWA certainly not as sexy as it is today. Hosters who launched their solution in 2000 have obviously acquired tremendous knowledge about the technology but have had to custom build a lot of their infrastructure as Microsoft provided very little information on best practices apart from a “yellow pages” sized white paper. Today, these same hosters find themselves with an – often – stable environment, but lack basic extensibility to integrate other hosted services such as faxing, mobility, VoIP, etc… Once a business has decided to outsource their email solution, additional services that are part of the Exchange eco-system often make sense as well.”

I agree with all his points. Again, these functionalities have been further enhanced to the next level with the latest and greatest Exchange 2007.

2. Who are your third-party vendors? How do you qualify these third party solutions before you offer to customers?

Many third party vendors’ solutions are incorporated along with Exchange Hosting.

Some examples below:

  • Good Messaging* & Blackberry in Wireless Email Messaging
  • Cisco in Networking solutions
  • Dell, HP for Server Hardware
  • EMC, NetApp in Storage solutions
  • E-fax, myfax in Faxing
  • Filtering, Archive, Encryption, continuity from Microsoft’s Exchange Hosted Services

Note: Good Messaging is now part of Motorola (read more info here)

3. Is the hosting in the hoster’s own data center or in a co-location data center? If co-located, how many are there and which is your preferred one?

In most cases, the e-mail infrastructure is located within the hoster’s Data Center and incorporates a range of functionalities from security, storage, content, monitoring and management features in addition to redundant network systems and skilled administrative staff. The servers are owned by Hosting providers in this scenario with a predefined configuration. Hosters will always have various options available, depending on the specific requirements of the organization, users, volume, traffic, etc., so watch out for their option names, e.g. Exchange Basic, Lite, premium, etc. OR Small Business & Enterprise edition so on and so forth. Different companies will have different names, you just need to go through the list to ensure you get the right features and not the unwanted ones.

If you choose to co-locate a server (or servers) with hosters, you will provide the server. Then it totally depends on you what software you intend to install on it provided those installed are legal and according to the agreement with the “terms of service” document. Hosters will have to ensure that you can connect to it over the Internet. Again, hosters offer support for applications installed on the server, but usually this depends on the customer. Overall, you can see that co-location has more flexibility in terms of tweaking the options & functionalities compared to Dedicated Servers.

4. What is the hoster’s arrangement with the co-located data center should the co-lo go out of business?

Make sure hosters have an alliance with reliable co-located data centers. These data centers are specifically designed to house and protect your mission-critical IT equipment, usually they own and operate technical real estate in key cities. Space should be resilient enough to support diverse needs like data center, data storage and disaster recovery rooms for corporate enterprises. Some offer unrestricted access to multiple telecommunication service providers.

Since any data center migration is a complex and potentially disruptive undertaking that involves thorough planning and execution, you and your co-location data center partner should identify key issues and create a checklist to ensure you achieve a seamless transition when migrating your data center should the co-lo go out of the business.

5. What’s your basic server configuration? Will it offer redundancy if a single server? Do you provide active/passive clusters?

A Server is a server, however, ask the hoster about the server configuration which will be hosted for you. It all depends on how critical your email application is in your business irrespective of the number of users. In some cases, if you’re a company with a couple of hundred users, perhaps the hoster would offer you a single server with some level of redundancy. It will be expensive to provide clustering which provides a backup system in case the primary server fails. Industry research shows that it’s always challenging to deliver > 97.5% reliability in a single server setup, in other words this downtime is 18+ hours and the trend is longer downtime if an outage occurs in worst case scenarios. Here is good review about Benefits & Expectation about MS Exchange outsourcing by Information Technology Enterprise. Here is quote by them on the cost of downtime by messaging system,

“The Radicati Group and Creative Networks estimate that the productivity loss caused by messaging downtime could result in annual per user costs of anywhere from $36 to $93.Creative Networks adds an additional $261 lost per user annually to cover revenue losses and has reported that downtime could constitute as much as 50% of the total cost of ownership of a company’s messaging infrastructure. These figures suggest that downtime costs could easily reach $350,000 for an organization of 1,000 users.”

Why Clustering?

According to Wikipedia,

“A computer cluster is a group of tightly coupled computers that work together closely so that in many respects they can be viewed as though they are a single computer. The components of a cluster are commonly, but not always, connected to each other through fast local area networks. Clusters are usually deployed to improve performance and/or availability over that provided by a single computer, while typically being much more cost-effective than single computers of comparable speed or availability.”

For example, if one server in the cluster group is not available for any reason, it can failover to other servers. So in active-passive clustering, two or more servers are configured in the cluster but only one is active, and the backup must be activated whenever required. Most of the hosters utilize active/passive clustering in using 2003 servers, enabling the customers to deliver 99.9% system availability at a highly competitive cost. Again, this only provides Exchange service availability because in active-passive clustering all the nodes are sharing one shared data storage. So the Database is still prone to a single point of failure in Exchange 2003. With Exchange 2007, now we have more built in high availability solutions such as CCR, LCR & SCR. Out of all these, Cluster Continuous Replication (CCR) provides the best in terms of Exchange & database availability, CCR uses Log Shipping Technology.

There are other questions to be asked and clarified. In my next post, I will cover more on storage, protocols, hardware procurements, data center facilities & single point of failures.

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