Five Steps for Migrating to Hosted Exchange

Jim TrummAug 15, 2017

So you’ve decided to migrate from your own server to a hosted Exchange. It’s a big step, but one that can be very beneficial in the long run. Maybe you feel anxious about outsourcing a task that your organization has previously done in-house. As with any project, a thorough understanding of the dimensions of the task will make you feel better - and will yield a much better end result.

Step One: Gather, Understand, and Analyze

It might be best to approach the migration project like Socrates: assume you know nothing and gather all the information you can about your network and email infrastructure. How many clients are you running? How much traffic do they generate? How will the organization’s anticipated growth affect these numbers in the coming years? How much legacy data will you want to move to the new host? What add-ons, custom apps, and third-party applications do you use?

The more data that’s migrated, the longer the process will take. Reviewing your organization’s data retention plan - and perhaps modifying it, if necessary or desirable - will help you and the host estimate how much time to allot for the migration and what method of data transfer should be used.

Less obviously, the more you’ve modified your out-of-the-box Exchange server, the greater the potential for problems with the move. In fact, some of those modifications may not work at all with the hosted version of Exchange. This might be a good time to determine which add-ons are essential to your organization’s proper functioning and which can be replaced, rewritten, or eliminated.

Step Two: Negotiate, Anticipate, and Shake Hands

Now that you’ve gone from assuming that you know nothing to knowing more about your messaging system than you ever wanted to know, it’s time to sit down with the lawyers and vendor, and hammer out a contract.

Ideally, the IT department should be represented at every substantive meeting with the hosting company. This is your opportunity to discuss your project management goals and timelines. You want to come away with a clear understanding of when and how the hosting provider will report on the status of the project and what you can expect by way of progress toward specific benchmarks.

The duration of the overall project and the achievement of milestones along the way will be significantly affected by the version of Exchange you use. Generally speaking, the older the version, the more glitchy the migration may be and the longer it will take. If you are migrating from a non-Exchange email infrastructure, the process may be even more fraught.

One occasionally overlooked aspect of the project is anticipating the worst. Suppose your company runs into budgetary problems and has to scale back or cancel the migration? What happens if the hosting provider proves unsuitable or incompetent? What will you do if your company’s legal, security, or data retention requirements change suddenly? With all of these scenarios, it’s good to have a reverse-migration plan in place and to understand how much help you can expect to get from the provider.

Step Three: Take a Deep Breath, Get Ready, and Move

Once a contract has been signed, the real fun begins: all your messaging data has to be transferred to the provider.

Small companies and organizations may be able to send the data to the hosting service directly over the internet. Larger organizations, however, may have to copy the data onto portable hard disks and physically deliver them to the provider. The provider then sets to work replicating your Exchange configuration and data inside its own system. Once that’s been done and the system is operating as expected, it’s time to cut over to the new host. The timing of this should be considered carefully. If problems occur - and you have to assume they will - you’ll want them to happen at a time when disruption of your company’s operations will be minimized and when there will be time to troubleshoot and repair without causing a crisis.

Step Four: Ask for Help

In a perfect migration, cutovers would occur seamlessly and invisibly, and endusers would scarcely notice the change. Perfect migrations, however, are like unicorns: everybody talks about them, but no one’s actually seen one. This is why migration assistance and support is a critical service. It’s important to recognize that once migration is complete, your job has changed. Instead of being the person who fixes problems as they occur, your task will be to communicate with the hosting service and to ask for support when needed.

Step Five: Celebrate

Migrating an email infrastructure to a hosted server is a big project, but it need not result in the loss of hair from the top of your head. If you’ve taken pains to understand your organization’s existing system, planned ahead for multiple worst-case contingencies, timed the cutover as best you can, and gotten the help you need to troubleshoot the inevitable problems - congratulations! It’s time to enjoy yourself. Take a well-earned vacation and ask for a raise.

And be sure to pat yourself on the back for a job well done before getting back to all those other IT tasks you've been putting off in the meantime.