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SaaS Doubts Give Remote Infrastructure Services Life

Remote managed services are a stepping-stone toward cloud computing for companies with economic, legal, or security concerns about software-as-a-service, a Gartner analyst says.
Two years ago, Chiquita Brands International decided to move its 4,000 former Novell GroupWise e-mail users over to Microsoft Exchange. It wanted to get everyone onto the same page as two of the company's other divisions, but it didn't want to deal with the dirty work of a painful migration. And it wanted to avoid hiring new staff to handle the increased complexity of Exchange.

Chiquita found its answer not in software-as-a-service -- which certainly could have sped deployment and made management demands all but zero -- but in Azaleos' remote e-mail management services. Azaleos, run largely by ex-Microsoft employees, moved Chiquita to an on-premises deployment of Exchange that Azaleos monitors and manages from its own headquarters in Seattle.

Remote managed services are gaining acceptance as a stepping stone toward SaaS or an alternative that companies can use when their economic, legal, or security concerns aren't satisfied enough to buy into SaaS, according to Gartner research VP Matt Cain.

And it's not just in e-mail that remote infrastructure management has found some traction. U.S. engine manufacturer Cummins, for example, contracts with HCL to remotely manage four of its data centers. According to a 2007 McKinsey survey, CIOs estimate 27% of their infrastructure roles could be offshored.

Chiquita CIO Manjit Singh isn't one to automatically shy away from software-as-a-service. The company uses HR services from Workday to manage 26,000 employees. But Singh considers e-mail a different beast than human capital management, at least until service providers get the kinks worked out. "E-mail is the No. 1 app inside most corporations," he said in an interview.

Hosted e-mail providers can't yet guarantee Singh the uptime he desires. He's not convinced they'll be able to help him resolve increasingly common e-discovery requests without a significant cost; he doesn't want sensitive e-mails residing outside his data center, and he wants to maintain a bit of control over when and whether patches are applied. (Multitenant SaaS architectures typically keep every customer on the same up-to-date version of software, whereas Chiquita has deployed Exchange 2003 rather than the current version.)

With Azaleos, Chiquita bought Dell PowerEdge 1950 servers running Exchange as well as associated NetApp storage, all through Azaleos, but companies that have their own storage and servers that can run Exchange can keep them. Azaleos installed an agent onto the Exchange servers that gives the company administrative access to Chiquita's servers and visibility into the performance of related storage and identity services, but they can't see the contents of e-mails and they leave a full audit trail for Chiquita to follow anytime they log in. Tasks like policy setting and adding or deleting employees are left up to Chiquita.

The leverage Chiquita keeps by having software on the premises and retaining some control gives Singh a certain sense of confidence. "Because it's my system in my data center, it can be up to me rather than having me being beholden to the vendor," he said. He predicted, however, that in a few years, companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft will figure out how to resolve his main concerns and he'll move more forcefully toward cloud computing. Chiquita uses Azaleos for monitoring and management, which means Azaleos monitors and manages uptime (Azaleos offers up to 99.99% uptime in some situations) and storage, troubleshoots, applies patches and fixes, performs back-ups, and can even do things like detect and fix a delay in the feature of Exchange that checks whether an employee's schedule is free or busy when setting up a schedule.

Other Azaleos services, which Chiquita isn't using, include archiving, disaster recovery, mobile device management, and anti-spam/antivirus. That means companies like Chiquita, which uses Postini for spam filtering, may still need to maintain some e-mail expertise on staff beyond the simple administrative level.

Though Singh predicted he'll one day move much of Chiquita's IT infrastructure toward the cloud, that day remains far away for most, especially for e-mail. Gartner estimates only 20% of Exchange e-mail boxes will be hosted by 2012, which likely gives remote managed services a chance to thrive in the interim.

To help wade through the rest of the SaaS marketplace, InformationWeek has published details on the forces shaping this industry. Download the report here (registration required).