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.

From Exchange to Google Apps: 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.

From Exchange to Google Apps: Weighing alternatives
The next step was to look at other options. There are several alternatives to Exchange, many based on open source projects, but none offered a bigger bang for the buck than Google Apps for Business. I wasn't a stranger to Google Apps. I had converted a personal domain over to the free version of Google Apps a few years before. About a year ago, I migrated my church over to Google Apps, since nonprofits can use the service for free. In both of these cases, email is the main service, and many other Google Apps features such as calendaring and Google Docs collaboration are not used.

I struggled with the decision of moving my company. It wasn't just the control that I'd have to yield; I also had to ask whether the data was safe and secure in Google's cloud. The benefits were great, especially in comparison to what we had, and we could simplify our internal infrastructure greatly by removing various pieces of hardware we used to support email on Exchange. I viewed many of the videos Google had on its site, checked out numerous white papers, and read and watched many customer testimonials.

Once the decision was made, it was a quick transition. Users were informed of the change in a few weeks, and we started discussions with Google on how to do the migration. My team is seasoned and not strangers to the hidden world of how email works. We knew what was needed in regard to MX records and LDAP migrations. Judging from our discussion with our Google representatives, we were much better prepared for the migration than the customers they typically deal with.

From Exchange to Google Apps: Productivity gains
Google Apps is a very powerful system, and our users are getting much more functionality than what they had before. Some users hated the Web interface from day one and wanted Outlook back before the Web page even stopped loading; I expected that. Other users were extremely excited by all the new functionality and took to the system immediately. As a company, we really wanted people to use the Web front end. We rolled out Google Chrome at the same time, and I would recommend this approach to anyone moving to Google Apps.

For users who just can't leave Outlook behind, Google has a connector (an Outlook plug-in) called Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook. At first it didn't sync Outlook Notes, but Google recently added that functionality. Still, users don't always get consistent behavior between Outlook and Google Apps. A perfect example: Google Calendar allows you to include an attachment with your meeting request (great feature), but these attachments don't show up in Outlook. Issues like these make you want to force the use of the Web front end.

The good news is that Google is adding new capabilities all the time. These include Gmail features from Google Labs such as "Got the wrong Bob?" and "Don't forget Bob?" and the ability to turn off the autosave for email addresses. The company has also made big improvements to Google Contacts; though it still has a long way to go, it's getting better. It seems like something new is added to Google Apps every day, and that gives me hope most every complaint might be addressed over time.

Although email and calendar were our first priority, we are slowly taking advantage of other Google Apps capabilities. We've moved our intranet site to Google Apps so that the various departments could manage their own documents and have them automatically updated online. Google Docs has started to gain traction, and we're rolling out Google Cloud Connect to sync users' Office documents to Google Docs. Google Talk may be the biggest surprise. Many of our executives have started using it to videoconference and make free phone calls when on the road.

From Exchange to Google Apps: IT assessment
For my team, the migration and integration has not been an easy task. I think Google's migration and integration tools are half-baked, and their support is glacial. It took me a week after the migration to get a Google Enterprise Support Portal user account for myself, and a month to get two other accounts for my team. When you call Google's 800 number for support, you're reminded time and again that the number is for service outages only. That bothers me. First of all, I'm paying money for this service. Second, if I had a way to submit cases via a portal, I wouldn't be calling.

When you do ask questions, be prepared to wait. You can search through the documentation online, but don't be surprised to find information that's contradictory or frustratingly unclear.

In summary, I'm happy we did the migration because it's been good for the company. I didn't enjoy placing the fate of a critical IT service in the hands of an outside company, but Google has not let me down. The new functions being added to Google Apps all the time provide more good reasons to stick with Google. But Google should seriously consider investing a chunk of its cash reserve into improving the customer service experience if it's serious about converting the enterprise.

This article, "From Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in applications and cloud computing at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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