Office 365 – Surviving Migration

Office 365 is one of the best solutions Microsoft has ever produced. Organizations are exponentially better off once they are fully operational on the platform. However, getting from where you are today, over to this utopia, can range from simple and painless, to the most excruciating thing you have ever done with IT.

So what’s wrong with Office 365? Nothing, nothing at all. It works flawlessly, the problem will be on your end. Forceworks has migrated thousands of seats to Office 365. When there are issues, and there frequently are, they boil down to the user’s existing hardware. In every initial client meeting I will say “Migration is short walk through fire”. The length of this walk and the temperature of the flames has to do with the client’s starting point, and every one of them is completely different. So if we can’t keep you from getting burned, why bother to engage us?

cross_ravineThe fact is, migrations are extremely tricky, notwithstanding anything any other consultant says. If they truly believe migrations are simple, then the have not done any. If they have done a few and they still say migrations are simple, then they are just lying to you. In fact, I am trying to come up with something stronger than, “Walk through fire” that does not scare anybody from ever moving. But “Steve” you say, “why would a Certified Cloud Deployment Partner like yourself say such things?”. Because all partners, including ourselves, need to do a better job of managing our client’s expectations.

So why are migrations challenging? Multiple factors come into play to conspire against a painless migration. First, Office 365 only runs in certain (read current) hardware/software configurations. Many clients are spurred to consider cloud to avoid expensive server upgrade costs. If their servers are old and out-of-date, most likely their user machines are too. So who is going to solve this problem? Well, it is probably not us. We are cloud partners, our expertise is in cloud solutions like Office 365, SharePoint Online and Dynamics CRM Online. We are no more qualified to deal with your hardware issues than your IT Manager is to deal with cloud Solutions. This is the first part of the problem, a client’s misunderstanding that all I.T. is the same skill set, an assumption that is radically incorrect today.

The biggest issue is not migration per se. Getting your email from wherever it is, over to the servers at Microsoft’s datacenters seldom presents a problem. But for a client, this is only part of the “migration” process. A client needs to get this stuff working on their users’ machines. The time to get hardware up-to-snuff is before a migration, but too often migration is what ends up surfacing the deficiencies, and then it’s scramble mode. Nobody realized that the boss’s machine is running XP, and he ain’t getting email. There is a whole market of tools forthcoming for partners to offer to clients to check their “readiness” for a migration, but these are not free, nor is the labor to run them and diagnose their findings, much less perform the remediation that may be required. So, are customers willing to pay something upfront, just to see what their impacts might be? I am strongly considering finding out.

On the actual migration side we have a few different tools that take a few different approaches. Most of these cost partners, and therefore customers, money. Each also provides a different set of features from next to nothing to almost turnkey. When contemplating a move to Office 365 you better have a handle on this cost as well as what is, and is not, handled by the chosen tool. As you would expect, the lower cost options provide the least capabilities, and the lowest cost option is ironically from Microsoft and is included in the Office 365 service. Microsoft’s free tool will migrate email from your server to theirs, period. No contacts, no calendars, no todos, no shared folders… just mail. This, of course, does not solve any of the problems I described that plague migration success. Moving up the list are a couple of tools that will migrate these additional items, at a cost, but again do not solve any of the other problems. There is one tool, available today to partners only, that not only migrates everything, but also attempts to solve many of the other typical problems, but at a significant premium cost. As of now, this is our tool of choice, and the higher cost is chalked up to risk reduction. We will no longer even offer the lesser options unless you have a full I.T. department, as the problems that arise, that are neither in our control nor that of those tools, still reflects poorly on us.

So what do we recommend? Ironically, we as partners, make the least amount of margin on the most expensive tool, but that is what we recommend. Particularly if you have a distributed workforce, or minimal I.T. resources. Looking back, the additional cost is more than offset by after-the-fact diagnostics, remediation and resultant ill will. Even this tool cannot remediate everything, for example it can’t upgrade XP for you or apply service pack, but at least it can identify those machines with those issues in advance of migration and allow for their remediation before the wheels come off. My hope is that this tool will become even better as it is developed over time, or better yet, that Microsoft just buys it to replace their crappy tool, and offer it to everyone at no cost.

So why our change of approach now? Forceworks is primarily a cloud SharePoint and Dynamics CRM customization and development shop. The first step in a cloud transition is almost always moving email. Moving email is not a profit center for us, it is just something that needs to be done before we can get down to our real work. If a client is unhappy during that first phase, regardless of the fact that issues they may have had are almost always beyond our control and agreement scope, we will still get painted with the brush. This can potentially prevent us from remaining involved for the work we really live for, and I can’t have that.

Feel free to share some of your migration pains in the comments section.

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