Give E-Mail a Makeover

Student e-mail might be too important to leave to outsourcers or open sourcers.

Student e-mail might be too important to leave to outsourcers or open sourcers.

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A notion gaining steam in the higher education information technology world is that student e-mail is no longer considered a differentiating factor. This leads to the belief that student e-mail is best left to an outsourcer, which frees the resources otherwise spent to maintain and support student e-mail systems.

While this can make sense financially because of the costs of both options, that might not be the best way to look at it. The opposite approach is to build a single, secure, reliable and efficient messaging platform for the institution that once again creates a differentiating factor.

While efficiency is obviously hard to measure and even harder to explain to those looking at the bottom line, the importance of an e-mail system on campus makes it worthwhile to build a modern, efficient messaging system instead of handing students over to the likes of Hotmail or Gmail.

Earlier this year at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in New York state, we moved to a central­ized e-mail platform by getting rid of Novell and some open-source applications and went exclusively to Microsoft Exchange 2007.

Pick a Platform

Many education institutions have several e-mail systems running. This adds to the cost of providing e-mail because they have to maintain multiple servers doing the same thing. They also find themselves with a larger security attack surface because they are open to the vulnerabilities of multiple pieces of messaging software. And it’s likely that if you have more than one system, at least one is old enough that you’re looking at a replacement. All of those things are obstacles to the goals of security, reliability, efficiency and cost effectiveness.

The first task is to research platforms that will work best for your institution. We chose Exchange 2007 for several reasons: First, Microsoft is the market leader in e-mail systems. There is a good chance that students are already familiar with Microsoft’s e-mail platform. And they’ll probably use it when they enter the workforce, so letting them use it now makes a contribution from an educational standpoint.

Also, because it’s natively built on a 64-bit platform, the scalability of Exchange 2007 dramatically beats any open-source solution. Finally, Exchange’s security now rivals — if not exceeds — that of any competitor.

After selecting the platform to unify the e-mail infrastructure on, the steps of the project can be planned. One of the first steps is to make sure that the environment meets the requirements of the messaging platform. Exchange requires Microsoft Active Directory running in your environment. If you are not already running Active Directory, you can populate it with information from your Lightweight Directory Access Protocol or Novell Directory. Otherwise, you’ll have to build a new Active Directory instance.

Spend on Storage

The single largest expense for the new messaging platform will be for storage. If the goal is creating a new messaging platform that users accept without reservation, this is not the area in which to cut costs. Students are used to having access to e-mail inboxes with well over a gigabyte of storage through the likes of Gmail, and they will insist on substantial storage space.

We purchased a new storage system when we upgraded, but that isn’t always necessary. I do recommend you use enough storage to give the users a nice sized mailbox: The rule of thumb is to set aside 20 percent above whatever storage is needed for quotas.

Microsoft provides excellent documentation on how to make the calculations used to plan storage needs. If migrating from an e-mail platform that uses single-instance storage technology for its messages, figure that in, too. A lot of people overlook this when planning their systems, but the total size of the old messaging system on hard drives will not accurately reflect the size of the same amount of data in the new system. Single-instance messaging keeps one copy of content that is shared by many users, reducing the size of the e-mail storage required. When you migrate your e-mail system, the reference pointer used to access duplicated copies becomes the actual message and increases the size of that user’s mailbox on the new system.

Migrate Messages

Getting the messages from one system to another is the most complex part of the process, because many types of items must be moved. Third-party tools such as Quest Software’s Migration Suite for Exchange and free tools from Microsoft can help migrate mail, contacts and calendar items from one system to another. But in the education space, migration might be from open source and homegrown e-mail systems, and migration tools don’t exist for them. That means you will have to write some code to migrate the messages, or leave the messages behind.

One school that I helped through this process was migrating from an open-source e-mail system where some data was stored in a standard SQL database instead of as messaging records. The open-source program used the data to create the look and feel of a message record, but this made it difficult to migrate the records. The administrator chose to leave the old e-mail system running for three months after migrating and told the students they had that long to save any old messages they wanted. After three months, the messages would be deleted.

Data Protection

It’s no secret that the larger the mailboxes are, the harder it is to protect the data. As the size of each mailbox grows, it takes longer to back up. Based on the number of mailboxes in the system, the time needed to perform traditional backups might be too long to do every night. That is the time to look at alternatives to traditional tape backup.

If the storage infrastructure is designed with redundancy in mind, the backup system’s main purpose will be disaster recovery. There are some exciting new ways to make sure that data is protected. One of the easy ways is through the use of continuous data protection software or hardware. CDP allows you to recover saved data at any point in time. Most CDP installations can be set up to move data to an offsite location where it is protected from any disasters at the originating site.

Because e-mail has become a mission-critical application, a school might require 100 percent uptime. If that is the case, look into storage area network replication software or hardware. EMC, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, EqualLogic, LeftHand Networks are among the SAN vendors who have products and services built around running Exchange.

SAN replication copies data to another storage array — preferably off campus — whenever it is written locally, so there are two good versions. If the main e-mail system is lost for any reason, e-mail users can be switched to the offsite location with a click of a mouse. This is the most expensive and complex way to ensure business continuity, but often it’s the only real option in areas prone to earthquakes, hurricanes or other natural disasters.

Ex-changes

If you’re considering upgrading from Exchange 2003, here are some major differences:

  • Exchange 2007 is a 64-bit architecture while Exchange 2003 is 32-bit. This should reduce I/O-per-second requirements.
  • Exchange 2007 supports five storage groups instead of one, with no limit on the size of the Exchange database.
  • Exchange 2007 supports unified messaging.
  • Exchange 2007 has antispam and antivirus protection built in.

First-Class E-Mail Tips

A few things to keep in mind when migrating to a new e-mail system:

  1. Planning and testing is key. More time spent planning will result in fewer surprises when the process begins.
  2. Complexity is often your worst enemy. It is less painful for your users and you if you refrain from using things that try to get different e-mail systems to talk to one another.
  3. The easiest method is often the swift approach. Instead of staggering migrations over a long period, try to get them all done as quickly as possible.
  4. Don’t destroy the old server data until you are certain everything is OK on the new one.
  5. Don’t promise too much or sell it as anything other than what it is. It’s an e-mail system, not an all-in-one utility for saving your network.
Oct 24 2007

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