Businesses Face Barriers To E-Mail Upgrades

As Microsoft and Lotus prepare updates, most big companies are running messaging software one or two major revisions behind the maker's most current version.
Most big companies are running messaging software one or two major revisions behind the maker's most current version, a research firm said Thursday as it outlined the reasons why companies put off upgrading this crucial component of their IT infrastructure.

A bunch of barriers give companies excuses to defer upgrading their E-mail server software, according to David Via, an analyst with Ferris Research, a firm that tracks messaging in the enterprise. The obstacles are particularly important now, as both of the two most popular E-mail platforms--Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Notes/Domino--are set to push out updates in the next month.

"Both are really heavily promoting upgrades this year," said Via, "and both are better releases as far as adding value and reasons to upgrade."

IBM has already unveiled Notes/Domino 6.5, and will begin shipping the software on Sept. 30. Microsoft has scheduled a rollout of Exchange 2003, the long-awaited upgrade to its mail server software, for Oct. 21.

Via calls his No. 1 hurdle "if it ain't broke don't fix it"--another way of naming what a host of other analysts have taken to calling "good enough computing." If basic needs are being met, both theories hold, and performance is acceptable to both IT and users, companies are reluctant to commit resources updating technology that's holding its own.

"That's all tied in with the general nature of constrained IT budgets," Via said. It doesn't mean that all companies will defer upgrading, but it certainly is something they take into consideration.

On the other hand, for users several versions behind, the difference between what they're using and what they could be using is more significant than ever. Add to that the vanishing support for aging editions of Exchange and Notes, and "for some, it's moving from 'it's not broke' to 'yes, it is broke,'" Via said.

Second on his list of barriers is the expense of upgrading, both in time and money. Vendors are providing better utilities to automate the process of deploying client software to desktops and laptops and consolidating servers, "but nevertheless, upgrades require significant resources, cause service disruptions, and reduce user productivity for some period of time," he said.

"If you walked into a company and told them that the upgrade was free, they'd say 'absolutely, let's upgrade. But of course, it's not free nor cheap."

Big companies that rely on the older 5.5 edition of Exchange face the unique, and daunting, task of implementing Active Directory, a component of both the existing Exchange 2000 and the new Exchange 2003. "That's not easy," Via said.

And updating to Notes/Domino 6.5, which adds a host of new features, including support for inside-the-client instant messaging, means IT has to take time to test and verify all its new collaborative applications.

Getting a credible return on investment and lowering total cost of ownership are other things that make enterprises balk at upgrading.

"Vendors recently have focused on improved TCO," Via said, "but unless accompanied by a very high return on investment, reduced cost isn't usually a sufficient reason to upgrade."

IBM Lotus has been touting a lower TCO for its messaging software for months now, starting with a release this spring of Lotus Workplace Mail, a Web-based platform intended for workers who don't currently have traditional client-side e-mail because they're not tied to desktops. And Notes 6.5, it claims, carries a lower TCO, thanks in part to its end-to-end support for Linux.

Other reasons why big businesses shy away from upgrades, said Via, include risk avoidance and company policies on refreshing desktops.

"Few users want to be on the bleeding edge," he said--they prefer to wait while more aggressive companies, which immediately jump on the software, shake out the inevitable flaws in the newest version.

Likewise, many companies have a set desktop refresh policy under which they upgrade all systems every "X" months. That prevents them from launching a new server-based mail system until the next refresh date rolls around.

Even with these barriers, however, Via expects that the new versions of both Exchange and Notes will nudge more companies to upgrade than have in the last several editions.

"I think we'll see a lot of people jumping revisions this time," he said, such as from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2003, and from Notes R4 to Notes 6.5.

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