Simple things like e-mail, that we tend to take for granted, are critical to the successful running of a small to midsized business – and cloud-based mail and collaboration solutions are the way to go for companies looking to save money and communicate effectively.

That’s the word from Cape Town-based asset management specialists Pragma, who are finding life a lot easier since freeing themselves from the burden of running their own e-mail server last year.

“It sounds obvious, but a business like ours needs reliable, secure, and up-to-date communication and collaboration tools to make our employees as productive as possible and deliver exceptional customer service,” says Darryl Lampert, the ICT manager at Pragma.

Pragma’s story is a familiar one to many local businesses. At the beginning of 2012, the company was still running and managing its own Exchange Server 2003 standard edition. The main problem was that with a maximum database size of 75Gb, each user’s mailbox was a risible 250Mb – which meant users were having to clear their mailboxes monthly, if not more often than that, just to keep getting mail.

“Our on-premises messaging and collaboration solutions gobbled IT resources, and inadequate mailbox size inconvenienced our employees, who wanted modern, integrated collaboration and communication tools they could use on all their PCs and mobile devices. We wanted to help them be more productive. It was time to find a more integrated, cost-effective solution that didn’t involve spending money on servers,” says Lampert.

Towards the end of 2010, Pragma began evaluating online solutions, including Google Apps for Business and Google Mail in particular. But that option didn’t meet the company’s needs.

“There were several problems with Google Mail,” says Lampert. “There were major incompatibilities when using Outlook as the e-mail client. Attachments were stripped from meeting requests and “send on behalf of” did not display correctly. We reassessed Google Apps in 2011, but they still hadn’t addressed these issues and could give us no indication if they would do so.”

Their next stop was Microsoft’s Office365. Pragma worked with Cape Town integrator Space Age Technologies, which had been testing Office365 internally, to set up a pilot project – and when that was successful, to deploy Office365 throughout the company. And here’s the cool part, says Lampert: they migrated from the on-premise Exchange 2003 to a single sign-on Office 365 solution without the integrator setting foot on their premises.

“This highlights a significant advantage for companies that move to the cloud: relatively easy access to top specialists in the technologies they choose to use, irrespective of where they, or their service providers, are located,” says Space Age Technologies’ Chris Welham.

The upshot is that every user now has a 25Gb mailbox, as well as the additional benefits of the latest versions of Exchange, Lync and Sharepoint. Pragma can also selectively and easily enable e-mail archiving for users who need more than 25GB of e-mail.

This has seen a major CAPEX saving, says Microsoft South Africa’s Office lead, Uriel Rootshtain: a traditional Exchange 2010 installation with similar mailbox sizes to that of Office365 would have been prohibitively expensive, not to mention the costs of software licenses, archiving, backups, disaster recovery and associated hardware requirements.

“We often talk about scalability, and this has been the case: the cloud model allows for simple and rapid expansion to cater for company growth. With Pragma having multiple geographic locations, this elasticity is particularly important,” says Rootshtain.

Having had a taste of the cloud, and having liked it, Pragma is now looking at extending its collaboration footprint. Lampert says the company is looking at corporate instant messaging and presence through Lync, and a new Sharepoint-powered Extranet Portal for collaborating with customers and suppliers.