For organisations of all sizes, email has predominantly been an internal function delivered by the local IT department and managed within the business through applications such as Microsoft Exchange. However, as the IT industry focuses its attention on reducing cost and management overheads as promised by cloud computing, businesses are now looking at whether the email infrastructure can be delivered outside of the organisation. Large global providers, including Azure and Google, have made cloud-based email a very straightforward process, with transparent costs that can be scaled up or down to support demand.

So, on the surface, the benefits are plentiful, with potential cost reduction and improvements in efficiency, not to mention the reduced direct management overheads achieved from cloud delivery.

However, email is more than a general communication tool. It is an integral part of workflow processes in most organisations, so the promise of cloud email must be balanced with corporate and governance responsibilities. Central to this is ongoing IT continuity and availability - one of the key challenges outlined by experts around the cloud is one of application and data availability. Whilst moving email out of the organisation may deliver some tangible benefits, these must be weighed up against the potential risks and the impact on core business processes. Losing access to email even for just three or four hours will have a serious impact on the organisation's entire business operations with consequential impact on revenue, profit and reputation.

For most organisations, email is now a tier one application. Email underpins CRM, accounting, order processing and a plethora of other systems. It acts as a central point through which the corporate business communicates with sales and then in turn with the customer base. In fact, email is now regarded by most companies as one of the most business-critical functions, with downtime simply unacceptable.

Given its tier one status, doubts about the resiliency and availability of email within the cloud must be addressed as part of any cloud-sourcing project. In addition to the age-old 'where is our email and is it secure?' concerns from the internal business, IT managers looking to the cloud now also have to weigh up the challenges of the impact of downtime and latency which are crucial to restoring an internet-based service should an outage occur. High-profile failures of Amazon Web Services and Google Calendar have done little to restore the faith in the cloud as a platform for these critical applications, yet businesses should take a step back and ask some fundamental questions about their needs before either moving to or dismissing the cloud out of hand.

There is no hard and fast rule to moving to the cloud, however, the first issue is to establish how critical email is to the business. Tolerating some level of downtime of email makes the medium through which it is delivered less of an issue. Businesses should take into account the Service Level Agreement (SLA) promised by their cloud provider around availability, how quickly the service can be restored following an outage and whether this can realistically be enforced. It is important that the SLA is backed by a significant liability on the cloud provider should the SLA be breached. Remember that loss of email for a day can result in five- or six-figure costs for the business and this should be reflected when negotiating any financial penalties for missed SLAs.

It is important in this case to make clear distinctions between IT continuity and disaster recovery as these are two very different things. Continuity addresses ongoing availability and resiliency of services whereas disaster recovery edges more towards back-up (i.e. the organisation has already failed and now must recover the data or applications to restore service). Again, the importance of the business process or data in question is the deciding factor here; an email archive from 2008 which is being stored for compliance purposes may tolerate an outage lasting several hours, or even days. Yet if email contains sales report, contracts, policy definitions, financial reports and other time-sensitive documents, the tolerance for downtime could be virtually zero.

As email is engrained in the everyday fabric of the business, the reliability and resiliency of the platform is crucial. The cloud offers a great deal of potential, however businesses looking to move critical applications outside of the realms of the existing IT infrastructure need to be mindful of the potential pitfalls and make sure their business is prepared for every eventuality.

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