It’s all too easy for companies looking for their own e-mail and collaboration server to fall into the trap of thinking it’s Exchange or nothing. That’s simply not the case, with numerous alternatives capable of doing much the same job, from basic e-mail messaging through to providing tools to share contacts and calendars, schedule meetings and so on. Moreover, most can to do so via Microsoft’s Outlook client, just like Exchange, as well as provide similar levels of support for both Web and mobile users.
The claimed benefits, typically, centre on cost and ease of use, with Exchange an expensive purchase, especially for the smaller company. Not to mention notoriously complicated to manage. Most of the alternatives also bundle additional tools only available to Exchange customers as third party add-ons to, for example, protect users from viruses and spam and archive messages.
Although also available to run on Linux, the majority of Exchange alternatives are Windows products, with IMail Server from Ipswitch one of the longest established. Now in its eleventh incarnation, we put IMail Server Premium v11.01 through its paces to see how well it measured up.
What is IMail Server and who is it for?
At the core of IMail server is an SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) messaging server, able to send and receive e-mails both over the local network and via the Internet. Aimed, primarily, at the small business market, it can also handle multiple mail domains and scale to thousands of user mailboxes, with users able to send and receive mail using either a Web browser or a custom e-mail client such as Outlook, although any POP3/IMAP4 compatible client can be used, if preferred.
Secure instant messaging is another key feature together with Workgroup Share which adds support for global address books plus shared contacts and calendars accessible both via the Web client and Outlook.
Pricing & setup
What you have to pay for IMail Server will vary depend on the edition, the number of users involved and the extras you think you might need. For very small companies with up to 10 users, for example, there’s a free IMail Express version, but that just delivers basic e-mail messaging and little else.
To get the collaboration, instant messaging and optional security support you’ll need the full IMail Server product which starts at £152.29 (ex. VAT) for 10 users. However, most customers will opt for the Premium Edition we tested which includes additional anti-spam tools, starting at £320.25 (ex. VAT), again, for 10 users.
Anti-virus protection has to be purchased separately – the recommended BitDefender add-on starting at £91.37 for 10 licenses, while Exchange ActiveSync integration, to synchronise mobile devices, can be added for £3.97 (ex. VAT) per user. Discounts apply to all prices as the number of mailboxes increases and you can purchase all products with or without bundled service and support.
System requirements are modest. You’ll need a well specified host system running Windows 2003 Server or later which, by preference, shouldn’t be a domain controller. The IIS Web server is needed to support the administration tools and Web client plus Microsoft’s .net framework which, annoyingly, has to be manually installed before the IMail setup will run. Other than that, installation is quick and fairly straightforward with everything normally loaded onto just one server, unlike Exchange where several servers are often required.
Lastly, as with any locally hosted e-mail server, the public DNS records for your domain need to be changed to direct incoming SMTP traffic to the IMail host. Most ISPs will do this for you, but you may also need to change your firewall to allow messages through unmolested.
Does it do it well?
Despite being aimed at smaller businesses which tend to have limited technical resources, a degree of know-how, especially about how e-mail works, is needed to get the best out of IMail Server. On the plus side, however, it’s a great deal simpler to setup and run than an equivalent Exchange server, with a single Web-based console which can be used to administer the software locally or remotely, as required.
We found the interface very straightforward and by taking the option to integrate the user database with Windows, our users were all added automatically. As such we were able to get straight down to managing individual and group settings. For example, to limit mailbox size, allow access to instant messaging, collaboration features and so on.
We had no problems connecting clients and message handling all worked as expected. As did the anti-virus and anti-spam options which were pre-configured to provide a base level of protection from the outset rather than having to get to grips with what can be quite a complex subject before that can happen. That said, extensive tuning options are still there for those who want to tinker, along with monitoring and logging tools for the server as a whole.
In terms of pricing the biggest gains come if you’re looking to support a large number of users. That’s because there’s a price cap after 1000 mailboxes with an unlimited user license available from just £1831 (ex. VAT). Lower down the scale cost advantages over Exchange are smaller, particularly if you’re buying the Small Business edition of Windows which includes the Exchange software. Plus there are alternatives from other developers which can work out cheaper.
Where does IMail Server disappoint?
Another disappointment was the lack of support for mobiles other than those running Windows. Apple’s iPhone has been added in the latest release, but Blackberry users are still out in the cold.
Would we recommend IMail Server?
Everything a small business needs in a messaging and collaboration server is available in the Ipswitch IMail package and it’s certainly a lot easier to setup and manage than Exchange. It’s cheaper too, and definitely worth considering. However, it’s not the only alternative with a number of competitors that are just as easy to live with, if not easier, especially from the user perspective.
Lastly, it’s worth just mentioning that the e-mail server market is going through a period of rapid change at present, as the ready availability of fast broadband links makes hosted e-mail services a lot more viable. Google has really upset the apple cart here, with its Google Apps Premier business offering while other providers offer hosted Exchange where you simply rent the mailboxes you need, leaving someone else to worry about the server hosting them.