Ask LH: How Should I Host Business Email?

Ask LH: How Should I Host Business Email?

Dear Lifehacker, I have been running a family member’s small business web site for the past couple of years. They finally want to get on the personalised email bandwagon (and move away from their address), which means I need to set up some email hosting for them.

Currently the domain points to a free webhost. It’s a good one considering that it’s free, but the email storage is only 250MB. I feel this will run out very quickly!

Now that Google Apps isn’t allowing newcomers to use its free service for domain hosting, what options do I have for an online solution? I’d happily use a mail client to download all the messages off the server, but then they lose the ability to check the email on different computers or mobiles – right? Any suggestions? Signed, Support Never Ends

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Dear SNE,

Here’s the plain and slightly blunt truth: if it’s a business web site, then paying for email hosting (and site hosting) is the sensible thing to do. This does not need to involve massive expenditure. For instance, if you did go with Google Apps, that’s just $50 a year. If $50 a year is going to make the difference between a business being profitable and unprofitable, then it’s time to close up shop.

Who would I recommend? Rather than singling out a specific provider, I’d suggest this: do some searching and find someone local (and by local, I mean in your relative’s region and time zone). The cheapest hosting options tend to be based out of the US, but that’s less than ideal if there are any problems. Picking a hosting company closer to home gets you off the hook when it comes to support. It’s lovely that you’re being helpful, but that process has its limits.

You’re correct in stating that once you’ve downloaded email off the server, it won’t be accessible on other devices. That said, if you do want to pursue the free route, one option is to back up mail to a standard Gmail account. That gives you a searchable archive of received mail, and a generous 10GB of storage if you do need to check from another device. It’s a useful secondary strategy, but in this case the better move is to pay for hosting.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Most hosting providers use cPanel, which comes with three different webmail interfaces. I have always quite liked Roundcube, and you can obviously still configure all of your third party mail apps as well. I was disappointed when Google got rid of the free version of Google Apps, can’t blame them though.

  • “which means I need to set up some email hosting for them”.

    or not.
    you can use their current email address provider and some custom dns rules and email client configuration.

    their isp could probably do this also.

    • This. I have a customs domain name, and I simply use zoneedit to forward my emails to my Gmail account. I’ve then set up Gmail to use my ISP to send emails so I get to keep my address without the “sending on behalf of gmail” annotation Gmail normally puts in to it.

  • If they have a server onsite for data storage etc, and it is Windows Server, look into Exchange, most small businesses buy servers with Small Business Server installed, which include Microsoft Exchange, then all you need to do it point their mx records to their IP, forward a few ports to the server from their router and done, they are hosting their own email, no storage limits other than what Exchange/Outlook stop you at, and most of all, complete control. If they don’t have Exchange already, it can be pricey though, but maybe they want a server upgrade as well.

    I only mentioned exchange and nothing on Linux as I work with Exchange everyday and haven’t touched a Linux server in years so I’m unaware of what offerings are out there.

    • We’ve been running exchange since v5.5. While it has been fantastic for a medium sized business ranging from 50-200 users in that time, the most recent versions (2007, 2010) have started to get very bloated and convoluted to support. Sure their web and business integration may be somewhat incomparable to a majority of email solutions, but I dread the ever increasing and somewhat unnecessary complexities of every new version.

      As a company that doesn’t wish to have their email hosted in the cloud, what I’d give for a stand-alone Gmail server!

      • I agree. I’ve run Exchange for medium size companies since version 5.5 through to 2010. Each new version has been a bigger pain to manage. It used to be a easily managed, trouble free, bullet proof system, now it is problematic, complex and time consuming. It isn’t a product I now assume I’ll keep upgrading without looking at alternatives.

    • I generally recommend small business avoid locally hosting email. Unless you have somebody in-house for maintenance, it only takes a couple of support calls to suddenly be more expensive than a hosted option. blacklisted domain by an anti-spam company? exchange logs filling the server because they only clear when you perform a full backup? sent out a 20mb email to 50 recipients, only to choke your upstream so hard it starts looping failed sends forever? getting somebody out to fix it will probably cost you a few hundred which will pay for a year or two of google apps.

      I used to recommend google apps but alas, no free option. if you only need one email address ([email protected]) or you don’t mind paying $5/month it’s still great, otherwise you can go for a still-free option like

      Whoever you’ve registered your domain through will probably also have a basic hosted email option – it varies a lot depending on the company, but they might offer one or two addresses included in the price.

      • My business is business support, and once setup properly, onsite Exchange can be pretty easy to manage/maintain. Most of my clients are on support contracts, they pay x amount for unlimited support, makes no sense for them to pay x amount more for something they can get included in what they currently pay.

        • I agree with you, and I also run exchange servers. It can be set up solidly, and once you hit a certain size it’s cheap even including support.

          But I still wouldn’t recommend it for a small business. When you have 5 email accounts exchange is overkill.

    • You’d better start looking elsewhere for Exchange then. SBS goes end of life this year and will be replaced by Windows Server Essentials, which is effectively SBS but without Exchange capability. Microsoft are pushing their Office 365 online email instead. Perhaps start looking at Zimbra or other options.

  • “The cheapest hosting options tend to be based out of the US, but that’s less than ideal if there are any problems.”

    Not necessarily. I use a US host and support isn’t a problem.

    A year’s hosting is not much over $100. Everything is pretty much unlimited. And on the few occasions I’ve had problems, it’s been fixed quickly.

    Most of the big US hosts run 24/7 “live-chat” service support and have impressive uptimes. I’d rather go with an outfit with lots of resource and staff than a local mob who don’t offer out-of-hours support (or charge like a wounded bull for it).

    In any case, hosting is designed by its very nature to be remotely administered. If the client really wants a local service and complete control, they should be buying a cheap server and a static IP.

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