Argonne Lab Puts Zimbra to the Test

Zimbra Collaboration Suite entices independent lab divisions to consolidate services.

In some ways, Argonne National Laboratory, located 25 miles southwest of Chicago, is unlike most companies you're likely to come across.

A direct descendant of Enrico Fermi's metallurgical research lab--site of the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction--Argonne was chartered in 1946 as the first national research lab. It is now a Department of Energy lab run by UChicago Argonne.

The lab has some 2,800 employees and an operating budget of about $530 million. It maintains about 200 research projects, ranging from nuclear physics to global climate change.

But in other ways, Argonne resembles a lot of large, siloed organizations: It comprises two dozen quasi-independent divisions, funded by grants the divisions apply for themselves. Each division has its own mandates, budgets, technological needs and, ultimately, IT departments.

Argonne management decided to begin centralizing IT services within the shared CIS (Computing and Information Systems) division in an effort to help those divisions invest more of their grant money in scientific research, as opposed to IT operations.

"One of the goals in the long run is that it's more efficient for the lab as a whole to have a smaller number of people focused on giving a service and doing it well, and allowing people providing localized services to focus on more scientific activities, like mathematical modeling of a supernova," said David Salbego, Unix, storage and operations manager for CIS.

The first task that Salbego and Deputy Manager Brian Finley took on was providing an alternative to the centralized Microsoft Exchange environment.

The lab's divisions run a number of e-mail server applications, including Microsoft Exchange and various types of Unix-based programs. To entice the departments to use CIS e-mail systems, Salbego and Finley knew they had to offer both Exchange and an alternative to Exchange--and, in both cases, the environments had to have the kind of service and scalability that individual departments had come to depend on.

"What we came to realize internally is we can get more [users into the CIS-controlled environment], but [not all divisions were] going to move to our Exchange environment for various reasons," said Salbego.

Unix-based divisions, in particular, were more open to consolidating if they could do it in a Unix-based environment rather than on something with the Microsoft label. "If we were going to bring up a new e-mail service, it was clear we needed to target the Unix-centric divisions. And it had to meet the high levels of reliability, performance and features provided by existing e-mail services, including CIS' own Exchange service," said Salbego.