I had hoped to put the cloud computing debate to rest for a while, but after publishing recent commentaries about cloud computing (see MOS or Windows SBS 2008? Vive la Diff?rence!), I received an interesting request from Azaleos, a company that neatly straddles the line between on-premise solutions and hosted, cloud-based solutions. Their approach to Exchange management is best described as a hybrid model in which companies retain Exchange servers on-site but allow them to be managed remotely, from the cloud.

Here's the thing. While capable and powerful, Exchange 2007 is a complex product with multiple roles and complicated deployment requirements. It is the product most responsible for my reservations about SBS 2008, for example, and my excitement about Microsoft Online Services (MOS), which offers to host your Exchange infrastructure remotely, in the cloud.


Microsoft's architectural diagram for Exchange Server 2007. Simple, eh?

The problem, of course, is that some companies simply can't offload their email resources off-site, for regulatory, legal, and other reasons. And some companies just aren't ready for such a dramatic change. So as we've discussed previously, these companies are typically forced to deploy Exchange and other traditional server products onsite, along with all of the resultant expenses and complications.

Or so I thought. I turns out that Azaleos' hybrid approach provides a second option for these companies, and it's one I think you should know about. Azaleos lets you keep your Exchange infrastructure on-site, behind your corporate firewall. They'll even come in and ensure that's its set up and deployed correctly. And then they'll monitor from a NOC in Seattle, managing it remotely with Exchange Certified Professionals. In other words, it's the best of both worlds.

"Microsoft says that 50 percent of all Exchange installs will be hosted online by 2012, but that's a bit aggressive," Azaleos vice president Scott Gode told me. "We're bullish on the cloud stuff. But, the reality is the shift will take time."

The Azaleos approach is interesting. It requires a small agent install on the Exchange servers. This agent pulls an amazing amount of data about the Exchange server--but not about the contents of email, of course--and packages it into data that is reassembled in a visual dashboard back at Azaleos's NOC. This dashboard is used to manage the remote environments. Anytime something serious is required--a software update or whatever--Azaleos uses its Secure Exchange technologies to package up PowerShell scripts that can run locally on the Exchange server using AD permissions. The timing of these updates is agreed to as part of the SLA (service level agreement).

"From a security standpoint, we satisfy the needs of even our governmental customers," Gode said. "Our customers know we're there when we're there, and we log a record of what we did, when we did it, and who did it."

The two biggest markets for this kind of service--financial services and healthcare--are predictable because of the regulatory needs of those industries, but of course the model is universally applicable. And Azaleos is already serving over 70 customers from a variety of business types including governmental, retail, manufacturing, real estate, and many others. "What it comes down to is that companies all have unique policies about data security and integrity," Gode told me.

As far as cost goes, Azaleos charges on a per-user-per-month basis that is similar to hosted solutions. It can cost anywhere from $4 per user per month to 20 for the full meal deal, the latter of which also includes other services, and there are volume discounts. "The cost breakdowns we've done show that for email, one of the biggest problems is around good exchange admins, which can cost upwards of 100K a year," Gode said. "So our customers can offload that salary from the IT budget and free up those dollars for other things: Contractors, new LOB application development, whatever."

Looking ahead, Azaleos is looking into offering remote management of other Microsoft servers, like Office Communications Server (OCS), and they're already moving aggressively into products like SharePoint. They're also offering to virtualize Exchange 2007 for customers, which is itself a complex and daunting task, though one that will likely be made more mainstream by the next Exchange version.

For now, of course, Azaleos offers an interesting hybrid model for those companies that aren't quite ready--or will never be ready--for the full-blown cloud computing experience. If you're still sitting on the fence, or worried that you will never be able to take advantage of the cost savings of such a solution, it's something to look into.

An edited version of this article appeared in the December 9, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul