Major Surgery

Like an open-heart procedure, upgrading to Exchange 2000 demands planning, expertise and a skilled practitioner. Are you up to it?

Electronic messaging systems are the second electronic heartbeat of corporations (information systems being the first). Because any changes to e-mail systems affects the health of the corporate patient, an upgrade should receive the same scrutiny as a potential transplant procedure.

With Exchange 2000 (E2K), Microsoft has continued to augment the products messaging, collaboration and Web-based features, while rewriting the product from the ground up to improve scalability and reliability, according to the company. The Microsoft-supplied customers that we spoke with agreed that the product has been "beefed up." Those improvements should give consultants, integrators and resellers who can install and customize the messaging platform a reason to reapproach existing accounts.

Assess the Risk However, moving to E2K is a major investment of time and money with the potential for misery. We looked at the product in our lab and interviewed several members of Microsofts joint development program. Our conclusion is that the upgrade process is seldom painless—but you can improve the final results and reduce the recovery time if you plan, plan and plan.

Upgrading a working mail system to E2K is not a trivial task. The drag on the upgrade process is that the product is joined at the hip, chest and arm with Win2Ks Active Directory service. What was part of Exchange 5.xs directory store has been moved into the Active Directory data store. It is no mean feat to plan the new Active Directory layout, test the layout and any new servers, coordinate the conversion, install and test E2K, and finally migrate the mailboxes to E2K servers.

Patient Prequalification Dont let any company proceed on a move to E2K without doing the required planning and testing up front. That was the top recommendation from everyone who had started or completed an upgrade. Most companies spent two to three months in the planning and testing process alone.

Greg Scott, an IS manager at Oregon State University, oversees systems that handle more than 5,000 students at the College of Business. Having experienced each Exchange upgrade since 4.0, he summarizes the burden this way: "Exchange 2000 required more planning and more up-front testing than any other product because of the relationship between Active Directory and E2K. The Active Directory Connectors [which connects legacy systems to the new program] required a lot more learning and testing than any other upgrade."

Plan the Procedure in Detail Getting the maximum benefits from Exchanges new features—which include about everything from instant messaging and audio/video conferencing, to wireless access, to dynamically dispensing information for the Web—also requires some up-front thinking.

To plan the move, map out the new Active Directory domain tree, decide how current domains will be consolidated, and pick out the organization units that compartmentalize groups for security or operational needs. While you are overhauling the domains, sketch out the server hardware changes, too. Then take the products into the labs, prototype the setup, and make sure things work.

Consult a Specialist The reason for the up-front work is that back-end moves are painful. The conversion tools migrate users from old domains and legacy systems like MS Mail, cc:mail, Lotus Notes, and Exchange 4.x and 5.x into the new Active Directory structure, but dont help you reorganize afterward. Without third-party software such as FastLanes DM directory management tools, youd better do things right the first time. Your patient may not survive for a second operation.

In the planning process, most large and midsize enterprises are heavily involved, but outsiders are often required. For consultants to full-service companies, the planning process should yield profitable billable hours. ASPs, who usually dont stock those skills, can refer their potential customers to a services partner.

Remember that the conversion to W2K and E2K doesnt mean you need to convert all servers, desktops and the new OS. You only need to bring up a Windows 2K master controller and E2K server(s). Other machines on the network can continue to run on other—including older—versions of established operating systems.

O.R. Advice Although you should never say "never," take this advice to heart: Avoid upgrading an Exchange server thats in place if you possibly can. Our own experience verified what most companies recommended: Do a fresh install of E2K and then migrate the users. When we tried upgrading an established server, problems in getting the Active Directory Connectors to work stopped us cold.

Scott chose the clean upgrade route because the Exchange 5.5 data stores on his servers had some errors that could not be fixed. "Moving into a clean data store forgives a variety of old database sins," he notes. It also meant buying new server hardware, which seemed logical because the colleges Exchange 5.5 hardware was three to five years old.

That circumstance is not unusual in many businesses and represents an opportunity to resellers. The hardware requirements for NT and 2000 differ, and it makes sense to do a reality check. "Besides," quips Scott, "if I need more power, hardware is cheap nowadays."

Some companies, however, have been successful with the upgrade-in-place strategy. Bruce Lyons, director for infrastructure and messaging at the global IT firm Getronics, successfully upgraded an Exchange 5.5 server at a remote office that handles 800 users. "We upgraded the Windows NT PDC to Windows 2K Server, then upgraded the machine with E2K. We did it all at 12:00 a.m., and the next day nobody noticed the change."

Is the Surgery Necessary? Scott recommends that E2K is programmatic overkill for customers that only need e-mail functionality. The customer would suffer less trauma and be more satisfied with earlier versions of Exchange. So whats the bottom line? Either dont mess with a working system or suggest a simpler POP3 or IMAP mail system.

Transfusion for ASPs ASPs, who can benefit by customizing and hosting the product, will find the Web-based feature additions a boost to their business models. Scott Chasin, chief visionary officer of USA.NET, cited the products ability to add more servers as needed or run multiple companies on the same server as key reasons. "Exchange 2Ks distributed scalability lets us build our infrastructure based on our customers volume and traffic. We can add investments in servers and capacity as it is needed."

Chasin also believes Exchanges reliability is a requirement for e-mails mission-critical corporate role. "Reliability is what customers demand. With Exchange 2K, our core offering of operational excellence is one companies can embrace."