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Will cloud email services replace old-school enterprise email?

IT pros may worry about the security of cloud email services, but flexibility, user-friendliness and reduced overhead might make the cloud an attractive alternative.

IT pros might be wary of cloud email services, but this new-school approach to email has advantages, such as improved flexibility and lower operating costs.

Despite the rise of social collaboration tools, email is still critical to operational success in the enterprise. When mobility became a facet of business communication, companies looked to devices that were optimized for email, such as the BlackBerry. Even as users’ mobile needs broadened to include personal information management, browsers, remote access, file sharing, and cloud-based apps, email has remained a constant. Email isn’t going away, but the way we access it is changing, thanks to the popularity of consumer-focused cloud email services such as Google’s Gmail.

Where we’re at

Enterprise email typically involves a server-based application, such as Microsoft Exchange, and a corresponding client, such as Microsoft Outlook (on PCs) or a mobile client (on smartphones and tablets). Users connect to the network, download new email, upload messages they composed offline and repeat. In this system of operation, messages are often deleted upon downloading from the post office protocol 3 or Internet message access protocol 4 server, and thus, for a given user, usually reside solely within the endpoint client. This general setup is what many IT administrators are used to, but it isn’t the only way email can work in the enterprise.

Where we’re going: cloud email services

Until just a few years ago, users only accessed email on their PCs, and offline editing was standard practice. Today’s continuous connectivity didn’t exist, and users didn’t access email from multiple mobile devices.

Now, the cloud is becoming the logical point of residence for almost every application, including email. Personal and small-business cloud email services from providers such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail are easy to use and fit into both the cost structures and multi-device environments of businesses today. Even enterprise email is seeing increased residence in the cloud via Microsoft’s Outlook Web App and a broad range of third-party providers. Some cloud email apps, such as Offline Google Mail, allow reading and writing without an Internet connection.

Pros and cons of cloud email services

The key argument against cloud email services is that they’re not secure because messages are stored on a server that hosts many different clients. Most cloud providers don’t guarantee security, but there’s no such thing as absolute security -- hackers can gain access to any server. IT should always assume that a third party can read any unencrypted email. Admins should encrypt payloads that company security policy defines as sensitive or use encrypted file transfer or another approach for keeping sensitive messages and data secure.

The benefits of cloud email services can outweigh the risks. Cloud email services improve flexibility, because email is no longer tied to a specific client device, and any device with a compatible browser works. Providers offer and handle archival storage, even over long periods of time, and sometimes for free. Since email lives in the cloud, there’s no need for message synchronization or spam filters. Many cloud email services are free, but even if you opt for a paid service, it can save money -- there’s no need to buy servers or software. With the right polices in place, email’s move to the cloud won’t be such a bad thing.

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