Zimbra TCO Bests Microsoft Exchange in University of Pennsylvania Case Study

In today’s climate IT departments are under a lot of pressure to cut costs yet maintain services that don’t compromise on features.  So it’s no surprise we hear more and more the questions, “How does Zimbra total cost-of-ownership (TCO) compare with Microsoft Exchange?”   In fact, it recently hit #3 on our popularity chart as organizations contemplate Exchange upgrades again (we’ll save the top two questions for another day).

Public field data typically shows Zimbra Collaboration Suite ahead of MS Exchange Server when licensing and hardware costs are compared for various on-premises deployments.   However, while licensing and hardware cost data is readily available, perhaps the most significant recurring cost components in the equation are less well documented — additional time spent administering servers and software and the high cost of support contracts.

This cost differential often gets hazy because most organizations do not closely log time spent on specific tasks, including software administration or escalated user support issues.  Instead, in most circles you simply hear something analogous to “my Exchange servers are really cranky.”   But how much valuable productivity are you actually losing?

It turns out at EDUCAUSE when we caught up with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) they shared some great field data with us on this very topic from their own TCO case study.

Exchange Zimbra
Users 3,100 13,700
FTEs 3.2 2.2
User/FTE 969 6,227
Per User Cost $7.5 $3
Above: Penn admin resource distribution and resulting monthly per-user costs charged back to departments

According to Adam Preset,  an IT Technical Director in Information Systems & Computing (Penn’s central IT organization), Penn’s IT Services added Zimbra 18 months ago to provide departments across the campus a Web 2.0 option in addition to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange 2007 (Zimbra can share Active Directory, resources and free-busy times with Exchange).  Today their split-mode deployment consists of 3,100 Exchange users and 13,700 Zimbra users (each with grad students, faculty and employees) running equivalent feature sets (email, calendaring, sharing, mobile, etc).

Split-mode deployments are not uncommon (see Argonne National Labs), but in the case of Penn, the central IT staff’s administration time is closely logged on each system because they charge back time for service rendered to the other departments.   Combined with a single team managing both systems simultaneously in split-mode and you have a natural control for cost data.

Adam says they have found Zimbra takes significantly fewer man-hours to administer.  In absolute terms Exchange servers take 33% more effort and require one extra full-time headcount per year — even with 4.4 times more users on the Zimbra servers.

Here is a video where Adam discusses their deployment, cost methodology and why more users chose Zimbra over Exchange on campus:

Adam later noted, “to bring the Exchange user base up to Zimbra’s scale and provide the expected level of support we’d need to hire new administrators – probably two or more FTEs, which isn’t practical.”

He also added that common culprits impacting costs in the Microsoft deployment are Outlook client and PST data issues, more support needs on the desktop due to lack of adoption of Outlook Web Access (OWA), Exchange data restores and more frequent server downtime. Whereas advantages for Zimbra are easier overall server administration and fewer help desk incidents because so many users say they prefer the Zimbra AJAX Web Client over traditional desktop clients.

So what’s the key take-away?  Though every organization has different cost sensitivity; data points like this serve as gentle reminders not to forget the whole picture. While a license discount or storage price drop can be helpful for initial TCO calculation, the human capital component is key to understanding real long-term value!

Adam Preset spoke at EDUCAUSE Annual with Pam Buffington of Georgia Tech on “Implementing a Cost-Effective and User-Friendly E-Mail, Calendaring, and Collaboration System.”

8 Responses to Zimbra TCO Bests Microsoft Exchange in University of Pennsylvania Case Study

  1. Lorens April 29, 2010 at 1:19 PM #

    Shouldn’t that be Cost/User?

    • Greg Armanini April 30, 2010 at 12:23 AM #

      Lorens, updated to be more clear. Thx, G

  2. Xavier April 30, 2010 at 3:09 PM #

    Is the “per user cost” per month ?

  3. Adam April 30, 2010 at 11:41 PM #

    Yes, you’ve got it, Xavier. Cost is per user per month.

  4. James Cooke May 5, 2010 at 2:56 PM #

    This is exactly why we promote Zimbra very heavily to our customers the overall cost, particularly the ease of administration is much better than Exchange.

  5. Virginia May 26, 2010 at 3:45 PM #

    Penn may want to take a look at their MS Exchange environment(h/w, configuration and staff) because it shouldn’t take very much effort to maintain if you have the right hardware, configuration and staff in place.
    I have one FTE who maintains MS Exchange for over 4,000 and this is in addition to his many other responsibilities. Moving to 2010 soon which will provide even more functionality with no additional support beyond what I already have.

  6. Anthony  Kent  February 27, 2011 at 1:37 AM #

    Is the cost per user the cost that’s associated to charge back to organization or is this referring to licensing of the Zimbra?


  1. The SAVVY CIO - Highland Solutions » Blog Archive » The Cost of Zimbra v. Microsoft Exchange, Revisited - April 29, 2010

    […] The University of Pennsylvania runs both Exchange and Zimbra. They have nearly 1,000 users on Exchange and over 6,200 users on Zimbra, and the same technical support team takes care of both systems and their respective user bases. […]

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