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Properly Managing Complex Email Migrations

A typical corporate email system might contain some users who have upwards of 20,000 messages, which contain massive amounts of important files that might not be backed up on the user’s CPU or on company servers. In addition, each user has calendar items, tasks, and hundreds of contacts which can be the lifeblood of the organization. Over time, most email platforms reach a point where the users require more features or become increasingly frustrated with slow system degradation.

However, companies of any size or history can’t simply start anew with a new system and resume operations. Email content, contacts, calendar items and tasks all need to be migrated seamlessly with the most minimal interruption to business processes. At some point, after upgrades and patches fail to resolve issues, the company looks to changing its email solution provider. Few issues cause IT staff to tremble more than email data migration. The data is mission critical to the success of the company, and maintaining data integrity during a migration can be a considerable challenge.

Performing complex email migrations requires considerable IT expertise to ensure the switch occurs quickly and with zero errors. Migrations need to manage several large sets of data at once including calendar entries, tasks, contacts, and the actual email files. The data needs to maintain its integrity, especially important in an e-discovery setting or when moving email after a takeover or other corporate ownership change.

Reasons and challenges for email migration:For most organizations, the impetus for migrating to a new system is not related to a massive system failure or sudden corruption. Older legacy systems are often able to provide core functions through patches and other fixes, but they crumble over time. Frequent patches and jury-rigged customization mean the organization relies too heavily on specific IT staff who have intimate knowledge of the system, which presents considerable problems if the staff member departs the organization.

Enhanced features – Newer email platforms might offer enhanced collaboration features such as those found with Microsoft Exchange. Companies are more and more integrated into their global communications, and need email systems that allow modern and social interaction in real time.

Accessible support – Easily available support is also crucial, as IT departments want to know their new platform has a widely available set of support documents and technical notes. Good support correlates directly to greater efficiency for both IT staff and the end-user who cannot afford to experience downtime from email communications. Reduced time spent searching for support documents or waiting to hear back from email-only tech support is invaluable.

Reduce costs – For enterprises of any size, changing processes is typically done to increase efficiencies and reduce costs – time and money. Older platforms have higher maintenance costs and also require greater attention from internal IT staff members and inflated headcounts. Moving to newer servers reduces the costs in dollars and man hours. Transferring to a cloud hosted email provider can produce even greater savings as on-premises staff is no longer needed to manage servers or monitor individual user’s storage usage.

Moving between two very disparate solutions requires considerable technical and software expertise. For example, in the university and school district realms, IMAP compliant legacy messaging systems are being increasingly moved to new systems such as Microsoft Exchange that offer advanced features and improved scalability. Migrations from systems such as GroupWise are very common, and this requires the use of experienced third-party vendors who can handle the data fidelity issues associated with older systems.

The number and complexity of potential migration problems typically relates to how long the company’s current system has been in place. If an older legacy system is operated for years, there will be data corruption that a quality migration solution provider will attempt to fix before performing the migration. For example, with Lotus Notes, the main Notes Storage Facility (.nsf) file is based on certain templates that can be customized over time by internal IT staff. If these adjustments are made, and an email migration is subsequently requested, the migration solution provider needs to be flexible enough to account for the unique customizations and tweak its migration methods accordingly.

Best practices for a smooth migration:
Before the outsourcer performs the actual migration to a new email system, companies can follow some basic procedures to ensure a smooth and corruption-free process.

Upgrade to the most recent email client – Upgrading to new email client versions can help the migration tool better “talk” to the email data.

For example, users of GroupWise should know that certain revisions of the platform just don’t work properly. Perhaps they are running 7.0.1 which won’t properly access data when a migration is performed. For companies that don’t want to invest in upgrades, simply downloading patches such as those for time zone shifts or even the Y2K-related patches can help clear up bugs that might need to be fixed post-migration.

Run maintenance updates – For individual CPUs, normal maintenance is always recommended to help move along migration. Updated and separate network cards are suggested to handle the CPU-intensive pull of the email migration tool used by the outsourcer. Faster hard drives allow the migration to be completed more quickly, leaving less of a window for problems to arise.

Perform pilot migration tests – Proactive IT departments will also choose several accounts as “tests” where they can see the migration in action, and quickly flag any data discrepancies.  Batches of users who contain the least critical email data can be migrated together and then thoroughly evaluated for any potential corruption problems.

Review documentation – IT staff should ask the solution provider for its help files and white papers that discuss in detail the particular migration scenario they are facing. Performing this proactive reading can better prepare your IT staff for challenges. A top solution provider will offer support engineers to help with configuration and set-up issues as well as any product usage questions. Changing email providers can be a significant sticking point for individual end-users who might not understand the broader reasons for making a change. Companies that properly educate their staff on the underlying cost and efficiency reasons for migration will see faster adoption and cooperation. They should educate users on the key differences between the two environments, with special mention of new features not previously available.

Verify data fidelity – When the solution provider is ready to “flip the switch” and move over the data from one system to another, data integrity needs to be bulletproof. A crucial part of maintaining data integrity is for the migration solution provider to ensure the date and time stamp of the data. The date should be based on GMT time, and be adjusted to correspond to the native environment. Companies are not only migrating data, but also their legal, SEC, or other business obligations by ensuring proper dates and times. With usage of paper-based communications continuing to decline, the accuracy of email data is increasingly important for business function and security. Contracts could be questioned or nullified if key start dates are not properly migrated, or if contract agreement emails are simply missing. Internal compliance relating to employee leave or human-resources related disputes.

Finding a reliable partner:
When looking for a qualified third-party vendor to complete a complicated email migration, experience matters. The solution provider needs to have the necessary experience migrating to and from dozens of different email systems, even those that were implemented 10 years ago and are barely supported. Besides email, the migration of items such as address books requires considerable flexibility from the outsourced provider. The vendor should be able to provide examples of migrations where their client required a level of customization and needed issues handled on the fly.

Companies with global presences might migrate the email accounts and other related items of workers who don’t use English in their day to day correspondence. For such instances, it’s crucial to find a vendor with deep experience handling non-English character sets. Migration from same language to same language can be troublesome if the outsourcer’s software does not properly handle Unicode to ensure clean data transfers.

As the complexity of the migration grows, there is a greater need for available support from the migration provider. When choosing a solution, companies should be sure the size of their migration will warrant support assistance. If the outsourcer only provides phone support to migrations of 1,000 or more users, than the medium-sized business can be left in the dark and risk causing substantial harm to their user’s data integrity. Top providers will be able to remote-in to the client’s system and guide them through the migration issue with the same insight as if they were on-site to address the problem.

The solution provider should readily engage in collaboration between your IT department and its technical staff. Any customizations, patches, or other unique features to the current email setup need to be clearly explained and demonstrated, so the solution provider can perform an error-free migration that gets the end-user back to work with minimal interruption.

About the Author:John Hieb is the Director of Migration Services at Transend Corporation, a company that provides industry leading software solutions to convert and migrate email data between virtually all messaging systems. Transend's industry leading software solutions have been used by large and small organizations, as well as individuals, around the world to convert well over 15 million mailboxes between virtually all possible combinations of email systems.  With technology specifically designed for rapid throughput, maintenance of data fidelity, adaptability, migration management and ease of use, Transend's solutions are used by organizations migrating hundreds of thousands of mailboxes as well as individuals converting a single mailbox.

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