Moving To Cloud Based Email–My BPOS Story

When I first stuck out on my own (OK…some time before I struck out on my own..), I knew that I was going to need to come up with a good email solution. My requirements extended beyond those of the consumer market, and ultimately I needed the power and control that commercial email system would offer. I really didn’t know Exchange very well, and I wasn’t about to set up a Domino server (which I knew very well) as it was no longer the direction I was heading in.

I signed up with a hosted Exchange provider. This worked quite well, and was very reliable, but I quickly bumped into size limitations and integration problems. I think that at the time the maximum size mailbox was 25 MB.  I also wanted to gain experience with Exchange, so I bit the bullet and setup up a full domain with Exchange 2003 (including a Blackberry BES server) in my basement. That setup ran (in various guises) from mid 2006 to this past weekend. Initially it was comprised of multiple Exchange servers on virtual machines (required for remote Exchange access with 2003) to a single Exchange server without the BES after upgrading to Exchange 2007.

Hosting my own Exchange server was instructive, but ultimately a pain. My home internet connection is a consumer plan, and my service provider implemented multiple approaches to prevent any server hosting. This initially included blocking SMTP traffic inbound and ultimately (at a particularly bad time) blocking outbound SMTP. I quickly found workarounds to these problems (if you’re interested, I’ve used DynDNS for years, and I find their service to be exceptional. I’d recommend them in a heartbeat), but each one of these represented a significant drag on my time,and I’m not getting any younger.

In addition to the active blocking attempts,consumer ISV service isn’t exactly industrial grade. To be fair, they don’t claim that it is. In fact, ISPs typically go out of their way to not promise uptime reliability. Far too frequently after an outage, communication or power, my automatic DNS synchronizer wouldn’t update quickly enough and mail flow would be interrupted. Backup was another maintenance headache – yes it was getting done, but I had to have the infrastructure to support it, etc. All of this, and a few other things have prompted me to keep an eye open for alternatives.

My company is a Microsoft Online partner. We initially signed up to this program in the early days because of our extensive work with SharePoint, and recently, we have targeted online services as a significant growth area. One of the packages offered in Online Services is BPOS – The Business Productivity Online Suite. Simply put, this is hosted Exchange, SharePoint, Unified Messaging, and Live Meeting. All of this is offered at a very reasonable rate – $12.50 per user per month.

I decided last week to take my home Exchange system and migrate it to BPOS. The process went incredibly smoothly. The BPOS portal lays out all of the steps, but it can be a little confusing. I’ll quickly summarize them below.

1. Sync the Active Directory with BPOS

This sets up a one way synchronization between your Active Directory, and your BPOS Active directory. To be sure these are 2 different directories, and this just allows for simple user maintenance in the cloud. This step is not required for operation, but it is required for mailbox migration. One annoyance here – the synchronization tool must run on a domain joined Windows server running a 32 bit (!!!) OS. Since I only have 64 bit server set up, I had to spin up a new one. Ultimately, I would hope this was replaced by some sort of claims based model.

2. Set up your domain records

There are a number of steps here that are well documented in the setup section. These steps will allow your Outlook clients to auto discover your hosted Exchange mailboxes.

3. Migrate mailboxes

There is a tool that sets all of the appropriate user records, migrates mailbox content, and sets up email forwarding for the migrated users. It’s a VERY good idea to clean up all of your old junk before migrating. I, of course didn’t. That said, my largest mailbox (~2GB) took only about 6 hours to migrate. During the migration period, mail is still delivered to the on premises server, and it is kept both locally and in the cloud for migrated users. If a migration fails, it can be rerun and will pick up from where it left off. Once a user is migrated, and tested to be working, you use the tool to remove the mailbox from the on premises server, which will also remove forwarding. All mail will be delivered to the hosted mailbox.

3.5. Optionally, set up handheld connections to the hosted mailboxes.

4. Set Domain Records

Once all mailboxes have been migrated, set your domain’s MX record to now point to the hosted server, and use the administration portal to set it as authoritative, and to allow incoming mail. Once this is done there will be a lag while the changes propagate through the internet. Mail will not flow for a period of time, so don’t be alarmed.

5. Shut down your on premises Exchange server

…and rest peacefully.

Performance on the BPOS system has been great, and there appear to be no capacity issues. The per user mailbox limit can be set on a per person basis and the maximum is 25 GB. My mailbox is less than 2GB, and I do next to nothing to keep it cleaned out.

The only potential problem I see with it is integration. The Hosted server IS out in the cloud in a different domain, and therefore can’t reach back into the internal systems when necessary. For example, if running in a coexistence mode, free/busy time searches won’t work between the two groups of users. Also, on premises servers that need to send email won’t be able to use the hosted server to do so. Again, I hope that the promise of claims based authentication will help to alleviate these issues going forward.

BPOS is still using the 2007 Suite of products… Exchange 2007 and SharePoint 2007. They are slated to be moved to 2010 this fall, and I’m anxious to see what that will bring. When I know, I’ll certainly be posting back here.

I’m very happy with the results I’ve achieve, and heartily recommend it to any small-medium sized business. In fact, given the cost savings that can be achieved, I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to go this route.

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