Cloud Computing | Feature
Lessons Learned: Taking E-mail to the Cloud
Although data migration was a headache for Prince George's Community College, users are pleased with their new cloud-based e-mail system.
If you fly into the clouds, expect to hit some turbulence. It's an apt metaphor for what happened at Prince George's Community College (MD) when it migrated its staff e-mail system to cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 in 2012. According to Joseph Rossmeier, vice president for technology services, and Ric Gould, director of special projects, the transition contained its fair share of nasty bumps, bounces, and unexpected drops. By the time the transition was complete, though, PGCC had emerged into mostly smooth skies: The 3,000 campus employees are happy with the new system, and the first few months of service have generated few complaints.
The decision to move to Office 365 was driven by several factors, including the obsolescence of the school's existing system, Novell Groupwise 6.5, which was nine years old. It lacked full integration with Office and Windows 7, and PGCC was experiencing frequent downtime due to infrastructure problems. The college was also inspired by the experience of the county's K-12 school system, which had successfully moved 17,000 employees and 122,000 students to Google's e-mail service.
Despite the school system's positive experience with Google, Rossmeier leaned toward Microsoft. "We offer a lot of Microsoft-certified programs in the college, and we want to be integrated with the Microsoft core road map," he said.
Before they made any decision, though, Gould and Rossmeier first drew up a checklist of must-have points of integration. "The e-mail system cannot stand alone," said Gould. "We already had student e-mail on Microsoft Live@edu, and Microsoft had informed us that they were going to force us to go to Office 365 for student e-mail sometime in 2013."
Also on the requirements checklist was an e-mail client that worked well on both PCs and Macs, and integrated with as many mobile devices as possible--as well as with Windows 7, Office, and SharePoint. "We saw e-mail as an integral part of our overall infrastructure," continued Gould.
The decision wasn't just about Google versus Microsoft, though. As part of the due diligence, the school also wanted to compare the virtues of an in-house, server-based implementation with those of a cloud-based one. Gould's list of the benefits of a cloud solution was compelling, however. After all, Microsoft was promising to provide 24/7 service with 99.9 percent uptime and offer users 25 gigabytes of storage space.
"We could escape from all system development and from worry about performance, backup, and recovery," said Gould of the Microsoft offer. "The cloud presented an opportunity for someone else to take care of those things. The cost seemed reasonable or better, since it was free."
While the e-mail service itself might be free, migrating to a new platform definitely costs money. In their initial cost estimate for the transition, Gould and Rossmeier designated $75,000 for outside consulting. Later, they added another $56,000 in consulting fees. An additional $52,000 was spent to license a system-migration tool from consulting firm Quest, bring the total estimated cost of the transition to $183,000.
On the cost-recovery side, the school stood to save $70,000 in annual Novell licenses, and the move to the cloud would also free up infrastructure. "We estimated we would recover $140,000 per year, every year," Gould said. "So we could recover our costs in just over one year, and the savings will go on year after year."
The project, which began in January 2012, was expected to take six months but ended up taking closer to nine. PGCC worked with consulting firms Bell Techlogix and Quest, as well as with Microsoft. From February through May, they worked on Active Directory preparation, provisioning Office 365, virtualizing the Groupwise client (so faculty and staff could use both simultaneously during the transition), and user training and practice with Outlook.
When PGCC hit the data-migration phase in June, however, it ran into delays. The school expected to go live with the new e-mail system by June 30, but it actually took until September to accomplish the move.
"Our consultant did not understand how difficult this migration would be," Gould said. "The Quest migration tool wasn't quite ready for Office 365. Our version of Groupwise was the earliest that the migration tool still supported, so we were at the two extremes of the migration tool's capability."
Migrating the data was painfully slow. "We got it up to a gigabyte and a quarter per hour," Gould recalled of the transfer speed, "but we had terabytes to move, so it just ran and ran and ran." IT eventually committed 20 virtual migration servers to the task, but it still took 2,400 hours to do all the data migration, far surpassing their initial expectations.
Among the migration errors were some notable lapses: Recurring meetings in calendars did not migrate; permissions did not migrate; and some user content was only partially moved over. The run reports were unreadable too, Gould said, causing the PGCC team to re-run migrations.
Once PGCC cut over to the new system in October, the school discovered some surprises with Office 365, including some unforeseen loss of control.
- The synchronization from Active Directory to Office 365 occurs only every four hours. With an in-house server, on the other hand, you can synchronize anytime you want.
- The global address list is refreshed only once every 24 hours.
- Certain housekeeping tasks are labor intensive. When PGCC needed to find and delete an errant e-mail, for example, it took more than 20 hours. "If we had in-house Exchange servers, we could have found it in 15 minutes," Gould said.
- Large mailings cannot be sent via Office 365, because Microsoft limits users to 1,500 e-mails per 24 hours per sender. Instead, PGCC has to have an in-house e-mail server to send out large mailings.
- PGCC's existing fax server was not compatible with Office 365, forcing the school to buy a new one.
- The college has experienced more spam, especially phishing. To deal with the spam, it may have to upgrade to the "preferred" service for a fee.
- Normal e-mail actions are almost instantaneous, but large data moves (e.g., blocks of folders or contacts) can take overnight to complete.
A Positive Move
But none of these issues has dampened PGCC's enthusiasm for the new cloud-based system. "This was a game-changing event," Rossmeier said. "The users like it, IT likes it, and now IT is looking for additional cloud opportunities."
Since the college launched Office 365 last October, it has experienced no outages or major systemwide disruptions, and only one delivery slow-down lasting four hours.
With the benefit of hindsight, Rossmeier and Gould would have done some things differently. To reduce the migration headaches, for example, they would have moved over less mail history (they did three years' worth). They would also have migrated fewer accounts by doing more purges beforehand. Quest, which has since been purchased by Dell, now offers to do all the data migration as a service and has a co-existence tool that enables cut-overs in phases, by department or campus.
David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.