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Entries in Exchange (3)


5 Steps to Working Anywhere

As a “migrant white collar worker” IT consultant, we spend a lot of time with our clients.  In fact, I like to say if we are in the office, we’re not doing our jobs.  How do we do it?

When we founded Harvard Partners, it would have been easy for us to bring all the heavy lifting in-house, and spend a lot of time building our environments.  We didn’t, and it’s one of the reasons our overhead structure is minimal.

1.  Email – Exchange

For our email, we debated Exchange vs. Gmail.  We went with Exchange from Intermedia, and haven’t looked back.  We wanted complete interoperability with our clients, and so far every single client we have uses Exchange.   For our travelling consultants, we either use Exchange or a (less expensive) POP email, based solely on need.

We also use Intermedia for secured document storage.  We use SharePoint, and while everyone in the company knows how to use it, everyone feels it is a compromise.

2. Phone - Asterisk

For telephony, we wanted a VoIP solution.  We chose a hosted VoIP (asterisk) system from dao Consulting.   Our hosted solution allows hardphone access (I happen to use a Polycom phone), or softphone.  Our voice mails are “sent” to email (and thus the handheld).

We use this system for internal conference calls, too, with InterCall as the (somewhat pricey) backup when quality is important (i.e. client conferences.)

3. Video – Skype

While we all travel, we do try to stay in touch.  Skype offers free point to point video, and a paid group video for up to 10 people.  We all use Skype, and find its presence and text messaging capability very convenient.

4. Desktops/Laptops/Smartphone – Bring your own technology

As technologists, we all find we like to use different technology.  While for years in larger companies we advocated standardization, in our own business we are accommodating whatever technology people want to bring.

For PCs, some use Apple PCs, some buy higher end laptops, others buy the cheapest laptop they can and then “turbocharge” components.   We have company standards on virus protection and encryption; beyond that people can bring their own.  We do insist on the Microsoft Office suite for interoperability, and are surprised to find even now the Apples can struggle with 100% interoperability.

Everyone chooses to use a so-called smartphone, and we have one of everything.  Intermedia supports all our handheld devices, whether the venerable BlackBerry, the delightful iPhone, or the scrappy Droid. 

5. WAN connectivity

We’ve become adroit at establishing connections at our clients.  We never, ever use a client’s wired network.  Some clients have guest wireless, and we’re surprised how unreliable these systems are in practice.  If we can’t secure a solid wireless connection, we’ll either use a MiFi connection (through a mobile hotspot “card” or the Droid), or will tether to the smartphone.  It’s my personal experience having various connection types is important (I carry a Verizon MiFi hotspot and when it can’t connect, will tether using my AT&T BlackBerry.)  Using two vendors has always assured me a connection, and we know McDonalds, Starbucks (aka Fourbucks), and Staples have free wireless in a pinch.

We’ve tried USB wireless modems, and frankly they don’t seem to work nearly as well as the HotSpots, and are useless if more than one consultant is at a client.

So, as strategic IT consultants, we’ve outsourced all our systems.  This allows us to use “commercial grade” systems housed in high tier secured data centers.  We’re able to focus on our clients, and not on our technology.

What have we missed?  Are there other technologies you use?


How Do Mere Mortals Do It?

Last month we upgraded our email from Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2010 and SharePoint from 2007 to 2010. What should have been a straight-forward experience turned into 8 – 12 hours of pain.

 In the spirit of “eating our own dog food”, Harvard Partners uses Software as a Service (SaaS) or the Cloud for almost all our server-based needs (email, SharePoint, VOiP phone system, etc.) We are a small company and believe in focusing on our clients and our business, rather than our data center. SaaS provides enterprise benefits (high availability, disaster recovery, BlackBerry, ActiveSync, integration, etc.) with little to no administrative time on our part (or so we thought).

Most of the problem came from our vendor. We utilize one of the leading hosted email, SharePoint, etc. vendors in the world. Their products, reliability, service, and costs have been outstanding. So, what went wrong with our migration?

  1. The vendor had us create new email accounts in an Exchange 2010 and SharePoint 2010 environment. This required us to migrate administrative settings (server-based) from one account to another. They had a wizard to help us, but it was only 80% effective.

  2. Once our accounts were created in the 2010 environment, we notified the vendor and they began a move of the data from 2007 to 2010. We thought this was the beginning of a migration, but it was really a mock migration to make sure they got things correct.

  3. With the mock migration behind us, we were required to change our DNS records to have our email point to the 2010 Exchange environment rather than the 2007 environment. With any DNS change, there is the obligatory 72 hour waiting period.

  4. With that done and tested (we are still doing all this work and testing) they then moved our mail (for real). Now, they claim we will not lose any mail during this process. They know when the mail migration starts and when it ends. For whatever reason, the smaller mailboxes moved first. This meant while the larger mailboxes were moving, email for the smaller mailboxes was still going into Exchange 2007. Oops!

  5. With the completion of the mail moves, we then had to create new Outlook profiles to point to the Exchange 2010 environment. If you have never done this before, creating a new Outlook profile means you have all new Outlook settings and things like memorized email addresses are gone. Note to self: create an Outlook contact for every new email address you encounter.

  6. We are now hours into this process and we think we can now rest easy. Wrong!

  7. Time to delete and reinstall BlackBerry and ActiveSync devices. Yes, eliminate the old account and enter a new account.

  8. Now, on to SharePoint.

  9. The vendor has us create accounts in a SharePoint 2010 environment. Not a big deal.

  10. Then we find out the vendor does not migrate content. You must figure out a way to do that yourself. BTW, there are server-based tools that can do the migration.

  11. So, we mount the old and new SharePoint sites as a WebDAV drive and copy the files. As the files and directories are transferred they lose their modified date and are given the current date. For us, this is a nightmare. Document dates are part of our “document management” strategy. The vendor had no sympathy for this issue. They did not understand why it was important.

  12. The vendor says there is no way to avoid this. We do some research and find someone has written a script that does this correctly. It is a bit buggy, but it gets the job done. We gave the script to the vendor and recommend they clean and tighten it up for their other clients.

  13. Now, we think we can rest easy. Not!

  14. Moving documents in SharePoint via WebDAV does not move web/wiki pages you create. We still have no clue how you systematically move those, so we recreated them and used cut and paste within each web page to migrate the content.

Most of you who read this have IT departments with Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint gurus who make this look simple. I want you to send each of them a thank you email for all the work they do and you DON’T have to do.

As far as our email vendor, we are still using them. They claim Microsoft makes it too hard. We reference corporate migrations. You leave on a Friday on Exchange 2007 and return on Monday on Exchange 2010. No problem. It didn’t resonate.

The title of this post is “How do mere mortals do it,” and I need to question why this must be so hard? I am sure Google does email upgrades and I know their users don’t even notice. I think about non-IT people who want to use Microsoft Exchange, BlackBerry, and SharePoint and wonder how they get through something like this. Do they really know what an MX record is? How familiar must they be with BlackBerry Enterprise Activation?

If SaaS and Cloud are going to win (and we think it should), it needs to be transparent to the user and more reliable than hosting your own solution. Saas and Cloud vendors must recognize this reality and make the investment necessary to achieve that goal.

Consumers of these services (us) must make our voice heard and let the vendors know this is unacceptable and we will move to another vendor thus “voting with our dollars.”

This is one of those areas where I feel we are moving backwards.



Robust Software

We use Microsoft Exchange as our email platform and purchase it as a service from a leading (and very large) hosting company. In general, it works well, but they do seem to have many small outages. Our clients also use Microsoft Exchange, but internally hosted. They do not seem to have as many outages.

As we see more-and-more people working from home (be they employees or consultants) we are challenged with maintaining a productive work environment. Downtime from telecom vendors and home PCs, software, and devices is high. All of those represent single points of failure and therefore a potential for outages. Consumers have accepted a lower standard of reliability than companies. How much time is wasted because software does not work properly?

Why should we be concerned with single points of failure?

Businesses invest a large amount of money in high availability to eliminate single points of failure. They do this to avoid user impact from a hardware or software failure. I fully appreciate the need for redundancy for hardware failures, but I can’t understand why we should have to pay for software companies’ inability to build software that will not fail.

Why build robust software?

I would postulate that software companies are not incented to prevent software from failing. We have come to accept a level of failure from all software and have also come to accept our software vendor’s weaknesses. We also accept that we should pay software vendors an annual maintenance fee (around 20%) to fix problems in their software. Shouldn’t they incur the cost of fixing those problems? Is it that they don’t make enough money?

In addition to maintenance fees, we (as buyers) are not willing to pay for more robust software, but we are willing to pay for more features. If you are a software company, where are you going to invest?

What can be done?

This is a wide-open question and one that is very difficult. In many areas quality standards are high or there is regulation protecting us. You don’t hear (too often) about medical devices failing or having bugs. That would be bad. There is now talk of more rigid testing standards for on-board computers in cars (post Toyota debacle). This is a good thing.

Software defects are only tracked internally by vendors. Wouldn’t it be great to see the count posted on their web site? Wouldn’t it also be great for software companies to admit when they have a problem? When was the last time Microsoft admitted it had a bug in a product. I remember working for a hardware vendor (years ago) where the acceptable level of bugs for release of an operating system was 10,000! Bringing transparency and awareness to the issue will help to make software companies accountable.

As consumers, all we can do is vote with our dollars. Unfortunately, our choices are limited. There is little, real, competition in the software industry.

There is one solution, Linux. Linux software is very robust, efficient, and functional. The reason for this is simple. Development and selection of features is a community process driven by consumers. Who wouldn’t put robustness, efficiency (small footprint), and cost as high priorities. They can’t be captured in a screen shot, but they make our lives more productive.