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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.

This was last published in May 2012

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How is 'The Cloud' new school? Perhaps if you've only been in IT for 3 years.

The cloud is just leasing server-time and storage, what is old is new again.

The biggest stumbling block is where are these servers hosted? Sure, there is no absolute security, but that is a false dichotomy: If you can get your hands on the metal, getting information is orders of magnitudes easier.

Thinking that 'The Cloud' isn't the hottest thing in industrial espionage is EXTREMELY naive. Moving your business communications to leased servers in countries you may not even consider doing business in - knowingly or unknowingly, is simply embarrassing.
The "Where we're at" may describe some people but not us. Our in-house Exchange server allows our users to connect with a number of devices. We have not used POP3 for email in the last twelve years. Remote laptops use Outlook Anywhere, mobile devices use Activesync. All of the other small businesses I know of are configured similar to ours. Are people really configured as you described? Also, you can configure SMTP clients to leave a copy of the message on the server so multiple devices can get a copy.
Honestly, this isn't even close to where we are at.

We have switched to Exchange, due to the fact that no cloud service has been able to adequately keep up with the amounts of emails that many of our users send and receive. Both in quantity and size, overall many users get over 100 messages, totaling around 1GB a day each.
Gack...this article is horrible and obviously paid for by a cloud service. This is the most innacurate portrayal of corporate email.
Wow, what they list as pros for cloud is laughable. Our current e-mail system does everything they list as pros for the cloud and more and is hosted in our private cloud in our own data center. People that fall in to this cloud hype are uneducated, unknowledgeable IT types. The only thing we would gain by moving to the cloud is the cons. Why bother?
> ...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

IMAP only deletes the emails on the server if you've set it up WRONG in the first place. The only benefit of the cloud at that point is that the hosting company may have some people more competentent than the obviously dimwitted admin you have in house. Of course, the reality is the cloud host will have the same level of dimwits as well.
The only future for the cloud is like rain its coming down! The only reason for the hype about cloud is the companys who want to sell SAAS.
All you need to know is right in the article:

"Most cloud providers don’t guarantee security, but there’s no such thing as absolute security -- hackers can gain access to any server. "

Fort Knox is not absolute security, but I'm fairly certain it is safe, and they do guarantee security.

If we used the 'Cloud' model, Fort Knox would be a couple of tool sheds in Rwanda. With no doors. BUT! It's practically the same thing - Remember, there is no absolute security. LOL

If you value the security of your corporate communications, customer info, and trade secrets, it's pretty clear which implementation makes more sense.