From Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps

A Google Apps migration is difficult, costly, time-consuming, and virtually unsupported by Google -- so why do it?

You know the story: The economy changes and the company must adapt. As the belt tightens, the IT team shrinks and the IT manager is asked to keep the hardware alive for "just a little while longer." A little while longer stretches into the distance, and several years later, the company is running on a pile of old hardware and software with no budget to upgrade. Worst of all, bringing the software licensing up-to-date would require a small fortune.

This was the road that led my company to Google Apps. As the director of IT, I hated the idea of surrendering control of our mail server to a service provider. But in the end, we could no longer afford to maintain our Exchange server and Google offered the most cost-effective alternative. I cannot say that the decision was easy or that Google somehow won me over. It came down to our Exchange server having more and more problems and my forcing our management to make a decision.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Switching from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps may have many benefits, but the journey is definitely not the reward. See "Microsoft Exchange-to-Google Apps migration survival guide" for the lowdown. | Don't miss your chance to try Microsoft's own cloud-based alternative: "InfoWorld preview: Office 365 beta." ]

We needed a working mail system, and we could not argue with Google's uptime SLA of 99.99 percent. So far, Google has been true to the agreement. We haven't experienced any outages or service issues since we cut over from Exchange on Jan. 14. The migration itself, however, was surprisingly difficult and problematic, and we got little help from Google. (See the companion article, "Microsoft Exchange-to-Google Apps migration survival guide," for the dirty details.)

Is the company happy about the move? From the IT standpoint, the costs are significantly lower than what we would have spent for an in-house solution, and managing Google Apps is brain-dead simple. We run a script twice a day to copy new users and updates from Active Directory to Google Apps. From the user perspective, the feedback is mixed. Some people have jumped in with both feet and love the Google Apps features and functionality. Others have dug in their heels and tried to hold on to Microsoft Outlook as long as possible. Would we go through it again? I'll do my best to provide a complete answer to that question.

Expensive upgrade

Nothing is nearer and dearer to an IT professional than control. Whether you're a network, server, or email administrator, you quickly learn that if your job is on the line, you want to be master of your domain. As the person charged with overseeing the company's networks and resources, I want to keep everything in-house. If the CEO calls and says something is broken, I don't want to tell him that I have to call someone else to find what the issue is. The buck stops here, as the saying goes.

But with a decade under its belt, our Microsoft Exchange server was becoming more temperamental all the time. We applied all the "band-aids" we could. We also built some pretty advanced spam filtering, graylisting, and virus checking using homegrown code, open source tools, and spare hardware to take that load off the Exchange box.

The hardest part of the puzzle is (and always will be) the supported user base. Ten years ago, if you gave users a 100MB email box, you thought they would never fill it. Today, a few marketing folks can fill it in 30 minutes as they email PowerPoint presentations back and forth. The poor Exchange mail store, which was originally designed with a maximum of 18GB (and updated later through service packages), was creeping closer to 80GB. You can ask people to archive to .pst files until you turn blue, but you'll soon realize you're in the middle of a losing battle.

An upgrade was long overdue. Now, I'm not a fan of Microsoft Exchange or Outlook, but most people have used Outlook for a long time and you like to stick with what users are familiar with. I'd be happy with a Unix box running IMAP for email, but straight IMAP wouldn't be the best choice for the company. It was time to get some prices.

This is where things started to snowball. It was easy enough to swallow the prices for the latest version of Microsoft Exchange and the client access licenses (CALs), but the system requirements were another story. As I looked through my hardware upgrades, OS upgrades, desktop software, and PC upgrades, I was closing in on $50,000. It didn't take much thought to realize that I was so far down the rabbit hole, there was no way I was going to upgrade at that cost.

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