Sharing Calendars and Contacts on a Budget

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted October 13, 2006

A few years ago, I received a call from one of my oldest clients. Apparently, he had been away on a business trip and saw something that he just had to have. The man he was meeting with had been using Microsoft Outlook as his e-mail client and had it configured in a way that allowed his assistant to review and modify his calendar from her desk.

Also through Outlook, this gentleman had a company address book that everyone on the network could access. He not only had access to all of his personal contacts, but to the entire company directory. Considering how often my client runs around to various meetings, giving his assistant the capability to update his schedule would be invaluable. My client assumed since they were already using Microsoft Outlook as the company's default e-mail client, that the software was already on the machine and just needed to be configured. Regrettably, there was more to it then that, and it broke my heart to tell him that we wouldn't be able to accomplish that without making major changes to the e-mail infrastructure — expensive changes.

The reason this other company had this added capability was because they were using Microsoft Exchange server as the core of their messaging infrastructure. My client was not. All of those cool features that he was so excited about were actually a function of Microsoft Exchange. Without an Exchange server, none of that would be possible. However, the cost associated with deploying a Microsoft Exchange solution can be large, and many smaller businesses won't have the funds or qualified personal necessary to take on such an endeavor. The cost associated for the licenses and software alone could send you into cardiac arrest.

For many SMB owners, the most frustrating experience related to Microsoft Outlook is finding out that unless you are using Microsoft Exchange Server, there is no simple, built-in, reliable method for sharing your Contact and Calendar information among employees. Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom (and never-ending quest for more money), decided that if you didn't purchase an Exchange server, you shouldn't need this type of functionality. As a former IT director, I can tell you that these features can be incredible useful and once you have access to them, you don't want to go back.

The primary reason that sharing Outlook data is so elusive is because standalone Outlook stores data in Personal Folders or PST files. However, two people cannot work from the same PST file at the same time, because these files are not designed for shared access. Fortunately, though, there are now options available give you this level of functionality without breaking your bank account.

Go Hosted
One way for small organizations to share information without installing Exchange Server themselves is to lease space on a hosted Exchange server, which is shared among other companies. The benefit to this approach is that you get all of the advantages of a full-blown Exchange server, but without the overhead that goes with it. No hardware or software to purchase, no ongoing support issues and no backups worries. The hosting service handles all of these issues. The only thing you'll need to have in order to access your e-mail and collaboration services is an Internet connection through either the standard Microsoft Outlook client software or through the browser-based Outlook Web Access (OWA) portal.

Exchange Hosted Services provides small offices with a cost-effective messaging solution capable of maintaining the security and availability of your messaging environments. In many cases, it can also satisfy internal policy and regulatory compliance requirements. We've seen prices for this type of service range from $10 -$15 per month/per person. Compared to the time and expense of implementing your own Exchange solution, that's quite a bargain.

A number of companies offer this service, and you should be able to locate them simply by performing a search on "Hosted Exchange Services." Just to get you started, though, a company called ASP-ONE offers all of the features we've discussed here.

Even though hosted Exchange is a far more economical solution, it still might be too expensive for some small businesses. Depending on the size of your staff, it could run into a few hundred dollars a month and several thousand a year. If, for example, you have 15 employees, at $15 per person the cost is $225 a month or $2,700 per year — every year. While this might not seem like a huge amount of money, many small businesses (like my client) run on a shoestring budget and can't afford this type of recurring expenditure. It also means they'd have to abandon their existing e-mail platform. For some people, that's just not an option. Especially for companies that need to accomplish simple tasks like sharing a Contact list or Calendar.

Keeping Collaboration on Your Network
For those folks, there is another alternative. In recent years, a few products have surfaced that bypass the shared access limitations of Outlook's PST files. One of the best ones I've seen is called OfficeCalendar.

OfficeCalendar allows you to share Outlook calendar, contact and task information without the complexity, expense and hardware requirements of Microsoft Exchange Server. Plus it's compatible with all versions of Outlook from 2000 on. OfficeCalendar's Admin/Server component can run on any 32-bit Windows operating system, including both workstation and server versions, making it very accessible to small business owners.

The way it works is simple: you designate one of the computers on your network as the database and administrative host to install the OfficeCalendar Server component. Then you install the OfficeCalendar add-in on each computer with Microsoft Outlook.

OfficeCalendar lets you establish which people can view and make changes to other employees' Outlook calendar and contacts. For instance, you could allow one person to view and edit appointments on your personal calendar, while others could only see your calendar, and even totally restrict others from viewing it at all. Yet you still have the capability to mark entries as private in order to hide them from everyone but yourself.

Once it's set up, OfficeCalendar lets you share and interact with the Microsoft Outlook calendars, contacts and tasks that are stored in your colleague's Outlook Personal Folders from within your own copy of Outlook. It even creates an Outlook group calendar, which shows all everyone's appointments on a single, consolidated calendar.

Also, with OfficeCalendar you can share Outlook information while working remotely over an Internet connection. OfficeCalendar's.NET technology makes it easy for employees working from home, remote offices or traveling out of town to connect to your office's central OfficeCalendar server to send and receive updates as often as they like.

And the best part is the price. Using our previous example of 15 employees, the OfficeCalendar license is $80 per person. That means that it would be a one-time cost of only $1,200. You save $1,500 the first year over the hosted solution and $2,700 for each year thereafter.

Ultimately, this was the solution my client and I chose, and they have been very happy with it. Still, this might not be the best solution for your organization. My recommendation would be to give OfficeCalendar a try before you buy. They offer a 30-day free trail so you have nothing to lose. Worse case scenario, you always have the Hosted Exchange services to fall back on.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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