Friends Don't Let Friends Run Exchange Servers

Chris Shull, CIO, Engagement Partner, Tatum, a Randstad Company
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Chris Shull, CIO, Engagement Partner, Tatum, a Randstad Company

Several years ago,my former company invested heavily insophisticated, state-of-the-art servers to provide Microsoft Exchange email services to roughly 15,000 users. To ensure high reliability, we devoted five highlyexperienced and expert FTEs to managing the servers. Despite amillion-dollar investment and our best efforts, we had a number of small outages, and one catastrophic outage. Imagine every person in your company being shut out of email for three days. The idea alone is enough to send shivers down the spine, but I assure you the backlash was horrific. Some user email boxes weren’t restored for over a week!

In any organization, even brief email outages are painful, and longer ones can have devastating implications in a world where lost time is lost money. In one company, a recent outage impacted a non-negotiable deadline, leading employees to use their personal email accounts. While this prevented a loss in productivity and what would have been a missed deadline, it presented an obvious security risk.

Time and time again, small and middle-market businesses find that Information Technology investments are unable to provide the required IT services reliability.To address this gap, it is essential for companies to differentiate between largely generic IT services that can be acquired as commodities and those that require special industry knowledge or company-specific integration, which cannot easily be purchased. Email is the lifeblood of many companies, but excellent operation of email servers is very expensive, scales very well, and is largely generic - making it a perfect target for outsourcing to the cloud.

  â€‹Microsoft Office 365 is now one of the most compelling choices on the market, especially for organizations already using Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange  

Microsoft Office 365 is now one of the most compelling choices on the market, especially for organizations already using Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange. Microsoft hasseveral strong competitors in the market for cloud-based Exchange, and just a couple years go there were many reasons to prefer other providers. Among the reasons, Microsoft:

1) hadn’t yet quite figured out how to deliver services reliably,

2) wasn’t willing to modify its terms of use to ensure compliance with federal laws; for example by executing HIPAA Business Associate Agreements with healthcare organizations,

3) lacked excellent tools to support migration from on-premises Exchange systems, and

4) didn’t have competitive pricing for non-profits.

For these reasons, I am just now managing my first conversion to Office 365, having migrated ten organizations to cloud-based email over the past seven years (eightnon-profits to Google Enterprise Apps and twofor-profits to hosted Exchange services from third-parties).

But all these reasons are now history!

The top five concerns I hear most commonly from organizations center on security, privacy, cost, features, and migration. While each of these is critically important, Microsoft has done much to addressits former shortcomings in these areas and now provides excellent solutions for each:

Security: Microsoft provides a broad array of security tools – from administration, audit and compliance tools to virus,malwareandspam protections – all managed in ways beyond the means of small and mid-sized businesses. For example, one clientrecently implemented 2-Factor authentication for all its systems using the Duo Security system, which Microsoft supports, along with several alternatives.

Privacy: Office 365 wasn’t an option for many organizations with regulatory requirements to protect privacy, such as health care organizations that required Business Associate Agreements. Now Microsoft is willing and able to do so, with minimal complexity at that.

Cost: Looking at cost can become complicated as Microsoft offers many different options, but the costs compare favorably to honest assessment of the full cost of on-premises options. Non-profits should be particularly drawn to the free versions of the service. Microsoft’s free Office 365 Non-Profit E1 subscription offers not only Exchange email boxes with 50 GB mailbox quotas, but unlimited archival email boxes, access via Outlook or Outlook Web Access, integration with Active Directory domains, 1 TB/user of online storage call OneDrive, SharePoint services, and more. Further, systems administrators need to spend very little time and need limited expertise to administer Office 365.

Features: The many options for Office 365 subscriptions provide a wide range of choices, from just the “basics” of Exchange, SharePoint and OneDrive, to levels that include both on-line and desktop versions of the complete Microsoft Office suite and options to add Dynamics Accounting and/or CRM software.

Migration: Migrating or upgrading from one system to another can be challenging, even when both products are from the same provider. In the past, migrating from on-premises Exchange to Office 365 was difficult. Microsoft has dramatically simplified this process with a set of solidtools. By using a hybrid environment that joins the on-premises and Office 365 Exchange environments, migration is almost completely transparent to users.There are some minor factors to manage. For example, people who have shared or delegated access for mailboxes and calendars need to be migrated at the same time to avoid disruption. Similarly, Public Folders are no longer supported in Office 365, so alternate means such as SharePoint and OneDrive may be needed.

Working around these limitations, it is possible to migrate user email boxes with no downtime. Very large mailboxes take a long time to migrate, so experimentation must be conducted in an effort to accelerate migration.

Best practices for Office 365 adoption include: Pick the right subscription: Use an experienced consultant to help select the right subscription or set of subscriptions for your organization. This can be tricky due to the large number of options. For example, some subscriptions may have a limited number of users or may not be combined with other subscriptions. It’s critical to weigh the options and find the subscription best suited for your specific needs.

Configure optimally: Have your consultant configure your Office 365 environment and your hybrid Exchange configuration. There is a large amount of on-line documentation, but optimal configuration requires careful consideration of many options. Systems teams are too busy to figure out all the right options. Better to have an experienced guide explain and show the way.

Pilot representatively: Select a challenging pilot group that represents both normal and unusual users of email and calendaring. This may include users with very large PST archive files, users who manage multiple mailboxes and calendars, Mac users, remote users who are rarelyin an office, users with low complexity needs, and role-based “users.”

Add 3rd Party Backup: Microsoft’s Service Level Agreement (SLA) provides guaranties for the availability of the Office 365 services, but is relatively silent on ensuring data will not be lost or corrupted. So while Office 365 also provides strong technology support, third party backups from another companycan provide vital additional protection.

At Tatum we have enjoyed great success helping our client companies achieve more robust, secure and functional email services such as Office 365 with minimal difficulty, and would encourage anyone thinking about an email upgrade or change to consider this option – particularly if you haven’t taken a look recently. 

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