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Driving E-mail To The Cloud Wed 12 May 10

With the right applications, e-mail in the cloud could be a productivity boon.

Autoroute à emails There has been a lot of discussion about companies moving their email systems from in-house operations to a cloud application--in other words, to a hosted platform on a remote server or data center. Much of the talk centers around two topics: cost and functionality.

The cost question explores whether or not going to the cloud saves companies enough money (or any at all) to make it worthwhile. Arguably, large IT shops may be able to provide email services less expensively than using the cloud. For smaller operations, the savings aren't always enough to entice people to take the plunge.

Much of the functionality question deals with whether or not the cloud's calendar/scheduling functionality--as characterized by Google apps--is good enough to replace the in-house Outlook/Exchange standard. As the incumbent, Outlook seems to have the edge. Google hasn't been able to make an overwhelming case yet.

Cloud apps are rapidly improving, but most of the improvement is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Costs are coming down and apps are getting better, but the same is true with in-house applications. Some say the way the cloud delivers services is fundamentally different, but the services themselves are not all that different.

As such I believe the switch of corporate email systems to the cloud will be a long, slow process. A rapid, large-scale movement to the cloud would have to be driven by user demand, but large user demand won't be created by incremental, evolutionary improvements. It will take functionality beyond what in-house services can provide to drive that type of demand.

For some idea of this new functionality we need only look at how "e-mail" currently works and what its limitations are. I say "e-mail" because most people think of e-mail as more than the delivery mechanism for digital messages.

File Transfer, Storage and Management - We use e-mail to deliver messages, of course, but also to transfer spreadsheets, documents, PowerPoint presentations and other sorts of files. We use our e-mail client to store the documents e-mailed to us and then move them along with the related e-mail messages to create project folders. 

The problem with this is multiple copies of the same file, which creates issues with storage space, version control and compliance with document retention policies.

Calendars / scheduling - An important part of our "e-mail" is the ability to schedule our daily activities via the calendar function and also to see our co-workers' schedules and to arrange meetings. Our calendars are full, and we can't live without them.

While our e-mail calendar works well for setting up meetings with our co-workers, it is very difficult to establish meetings with people on the other side of the corporate firewall. We go through countless e-mails asking "Are you available Tuesday at 2:00?" before we can finally get it setup. Then we cross our fingers and hope we don't have to reschedule.

Chat / texting - E-mail is really not a good tool to carry on a conversation. Yet we constantly try to use it as a very bad chat/texting tool. How many times have you seen an e-mail chain of 5, 10 or even more back and forth e-mails trying to resolve an issue?

Collaboration and file sharing tools such as SharePoint can be set up to allow us share files outside of the firewall. Likewise, there are chat clients that can be used with people outside of the company, but in many cases we configure it for internal use only--for security reasons. As with calendars, we provide a great internal tool but are limited in using it externally and end up trying to carry on a conversation via e-mail.

The advantage that the cloud may have in improving the functionality is that by being outside of the firewall (which causes other security issues) we may have the opportunity for significantly improved communication and collaboration with those outside of our company.

The cloud should build on the fact--the advantage, really--that it is outside our firewalls and act as a secure conduit between corporate environments. If cloud apps can be developed for this purpose, it will solve a huge unfilled need. It will also shift the discussion from cost to value by providing what cannot be met in-house.

Developers of cloud apps need to think beyond providing the same functionality as in-house apps toward doing what in-house e-mail can't or isn't permitted to do. If this happens, then you'll see e-mail shift to the cloud much more quickly.  

"autoroute à emails..." photo by Mzelle Biscotte / CC BY-SA 2.0

Mike Schaffner directs information technology for the Valve and Measurement Group of oil and gas products and services company Cameron in Houston and aims to infuse a business-based approach to IT management. He also blogs regularly at Beyond Blinking Lights and Acronyms and you can follow him on Twitter at mikeschaffner.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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