Microsoft Exchange can help businesses manage the e-mail and collaboration services their employees use. However, Exchange is not the easiest Microsoft app to install and keep in good running order, particularly for a small business without a dedicated IT department.

While I believe Exchange 2007 is a little easier to set up than Exchange 2003, the newer version is available only as a 64-bit application; you may need to upgrade your server hardware to run the new Exchange.

The good news is that you don't need to install Exchange on your own server to gain its benefits. You can sidestep all the hassles of hiring an IT pro, buying and installing the software, ensuring 64-bit hardware compatibility, and tackling maintenance issues if you outsource Exchange provisioning to an online hosting service.

Hosted Microsoft Exchange

It's worth noting that Exchange isn't nearly as ubiquitous as POP e-mail, and not every Internet host offers Exchange services. A growing number of hosts have added Exchange to their menu of services, though. Generally the cost is pretty affordable to a small business: Basic Exchange hosted services range from $10 to 15 per month, per employee. Optional extras, such as additional mailbox storage and message archiving, will bump up the tab.

Selecting a service also involves a few other considerations that depend on your business's requirements. For example, antispam service provided at the Exchange server is more efficient than at the Outlook e-mail client level, since users don't need to waste time downloading unwanted messages.
Do you want to help mobile employees keep in touch easily? If so, check out hosted services that also offer e-mail integration with smart phones such as RIM's BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone.
Do you need collaboration capabilities, such as document sharing? Look for a service that also provides hosted Microsoft SharePoint.

Intermedia Exchange Hosting

Few Exchange hosts can match the experience and ancillary offerings of Intermedia. The company has provided Exchange hosting since 2000, and it presents a variety of auxiliary services (some at extra cost), including antispam, mobile message integration, and SharePoint.

Intermedia uses HostPilot, a proprietary control panel, to guide you in setting up its services. I like the way HostPilot keeps you on track for configuring Exchange through step-by-step directions. Online help, including FAQs and getting-started videos, along with e-mail and telephone support, is readily available.

Completing the online configuration for ten users will probably take a couple of hours for an administrator to perform, though that depends on the options you select.

Though I like Intermedia's Exchange hosting, you have many alternative providers to choose from. If you're satisfied with the service your Web host provides, see if the company also offers Exchange hosting; at the very least, sticking with your Web host will simplify domain setup.

Hosted Exchange Costs

Intermedia offers a number of hosting plans, along with optional add-ons. A Small Business Exchange plan for ten users (including 40GB total mailbox storage) is $125 per month. Antivirus, antispam, and SharePoint (50MB storage) are included in the monthly fee. Each user receives a free download of Outlook 2007. Additional mailboxes with 1GB storage cost $12 per month.

Some additional services include mobile support, such as BlackBerry Enterprise Server ($10 per user per month, plus $40 setup) and ActiveSync for iPhone and Windows Mobile devices ($3 per user per month). MessageMirror e-mail archiving costs $49 per month for 2GB storage plus a $100 one-time setup charge.

Is Hosted Exchange Right for You?

If you want to outsource Exchange, you should consider several factors, such as cost, convenience, and flexibility. For a small business without an IT professional on staff, the all-in cost of outsourcing Exchange can save thousands in comparison with the alternative of purchasing hardware, licensing software, and hiring someone--even a consultant--to manage it all. Moreover, hosting providers can easily upscale your Exchange server as your business grows (or downsize it if your business shrinks) without interrupting your service.

Though outsourcing Exchange is convenient, it comes at the potential loss of some flexibility in configuring it and installing add-ons appropriate for your business requirements. A business with more than 100 users, particularly one with more-complex requirements, may find that providing Exchange services through internal resources makes more sense.

Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your connected small or midsize business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.