Recently I decided to move my primary email to a hosted Microsoft Exchange provider. At the same time, one of my Web hosting providers (who I’ve used for seven years and where my primary domain name is hosted) decided to offer Exchange hosting, with a deep discount during the introductory promotion. Considering the timing providential, I signed up for the service and set up Microsoft Office Outlook for the hosted Exchange on my primary desktop and notebook.

This resulted in my first encounter with the company's technical support for their service. The automatic configuration tool for setting up the Outlook 2007 and 2003 client didn’t run on Windows Vista, which I was using on my notebook. The tech support person told me I was one of the first people to ask about Vista, and I'd get an answer shortly. An email message came a few hours later, with detailed directions for configuring the Vista system manually, as well as setting up my smart phone as an Exchange client, which I had asked about in passing.

Things went fine until the beginning of August. I started experiencing email problems; downloads took forever and Outlook would often time out when sending or receiving mail. The support tech said it was the result of an antivirus update, and I should disable my antivirus software and relaunch Outlook. I was skeptical but tried it. Outlook was still very slow, but it wasn’t timing out. I enabled my antivirus software and disabled its inbound/outbound mail scanning; same result. The tech told me that if the performance didn’t get better, I should re-enter all of the Outlook configuration information for accessing the hosted Exchange server.

The next day the performance wasn’t any better, so I took the tech’s advice and re-created the Exchange account, which didn't seem to make a difference, so I used only Outlook Web Access (OWA) to get to my email. Every now and then I would check on my Outlook client and it seemed to be updating, albeit very slowly. This got me through the weekend. At one point, the provider’s Web site mentioned problems with the Outlook 2007 client accessing mail, so I thought the provider was working on it.

But when I looked at my email on Monday morning, my Inbox had three messages in it rather than the 2000 that were there the day before. My Exchange storage information indicated I was using about 60MB, rather than the 250MB before. So I called tech support again.

When the tech started to walk me through basic Windows troubleshooting, I asked to speak to a supervisor. After 10 minutes on hold, I was told that one would call me back shortly.

Three hours later, I called back. Now I was told that the problem had been escalated to the Exchange support group (why hadn’t it started there?), and I would get a call back by midnight that day.

Midnight came and went, and approximately 36 hours after my first call the previous day, I got a call from Exchange support asking what my problem was. I explained the missing email messages and was told, “No problem; we maintain backups for problems such as this.” They would get back to me shortly to let me know when my mail would be restored.

Fortunately, my critical email messages had been copied to local folders, but not at the site where I currently was. I could recover stuff on my own if necessary, though it would be a major inconvenience.

Three days later, Exchange support called me back. I asked what took so long and learned that the company doesn't actually host its own Exchange servers; it uses another company. That company said that I deleted all of my email intentionally. It could be recovered for $500, and it would take three to five days.

Given that I could only use OWA to access email, I asked the tech if she thought I had deleted 2000 messages one screen of 25 at a time and forgotten about it? Or if after spending the necessary hours to do this deletion, I changed my mind when I was finished and immediately called support to get it all back? She clearly didn’t understand what I was talking about and simply reiterated that I had to have deleted the mail myself and it would be $500 to restore it. Once again, I asked to speak to a supervisor; after 10 minutes on hold, I was disconnected.

While searching the Web provider’s Web site to get additional phone numbers to find someone competent to talk to, I noticed that my service ticket had been closed, with the notation that I had said I wouldn’t pay $500 to recover the mail I deleted. Also in the service ticket was the email exchange that the Web provider had had with the company that provided the hosted Exchange service--an entity called groupSPARK.com in Massachusetts.

groupSPARK provides private label Exchange hosting to Web providers that in turn resell it to their customers. I called the media contact person at groupSPARK and the one at the holding company that owns my Web provider.

groupSPARK arranged for me to talk to the head of support, who walked me through the basic questions that should have been asked by the tier one support at my Web provider. He also told me that the original problem I'd had was related to a massive spam attack that happened at the same time. Since Exchange mail usually doesn’t disappear, the best answer we came up with for the missing mail was that one of the steps the original tech suggested might have caused Exchange to create a local PST file and delete my mail from the server, and that somehow the PST file got corrupted on my machine. groupSPARK assured me that my email would be restored ASAP.

I also learned that my Web provider wasn’t using groupSPARK's first tier tech support for its private label Exchange service. If it had used groupSPARK's first tier tech support, a call for Exchange support would route directly to the Exchange people at groupSPARK, working under the alias of the Web provider. When I spoke to the Web provider, its VP of support brought this up on his own, stating that the company was thinking about using the groupSPARK first tier tech support option, as training of its personnel had clearly failed in this situation.

My provider and groupSPARK both followed up to make sure I was satisfied with the resolution of my problem. I asked them “If I wasn’t with the media, would I have gotten the resolution that I did?” The best response my provider could offer was “I like to think so.”

This experience taught me a few lessons:

1. When evaluating a hosted application provider, your first question should be “Do you host your own servers or are you reselling someone else’s service?” It’s OK if the provider is reselling services, but it should tell you so.

2. Ask more questions: Does the company provide its own tech support for the services? Are its tech people completely trained in the hosted application? If the company is a reseller, is it providing the tier one support or is the actual hosting company doing so?

3. Ask what the process is for recovering lost data. How quickly can it be recovered?

4. If possible, back up your own data locally, especially email. Like many small businesses, if I had lost my important email for the previous five months I could have been out of business, or at least in a very unpleasant situation.

Applications as a service can be a very cost-effective solution for many businesses. Just make sure you know what your options are when things aren’t working. And don’t use the marketing information on your provider’s Web site as a guide or guarantee.