Real-World Exchange 2010 Migration: Preparing for the Move

Penton Media, the company that owns Windows IT Pro, recently completed an upgrade to Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, moving from Exchange 2007. After the migration was complete, I had a chat with the two members of the company's IT team most responsible for handling the transition, senior systems architect Brent Mammen and Exchange administrator Sean Cox.

Brent has been with the company for just over four years, and was also involved in the merger of Prism and Penton at that time. A big part of that merger was upgrading to Exchange 2007 while converting half of the company from Lotus Notes to Exchange. Sean joined Penton a little over a year ago, but he's been working with Exchange Server since the days of Exchange 5.5. Although his title says Exchange administrator, he also works with storage, VMware, and other systems, as you might expect.

The company has 20 offices around the United States, as well as one in the UK, one in Canada, and one in Hong Kong. Brent and Sean are based in Overland Park, Kansas. In this first part of our discussion, we talk about why the company chose to upgrade from Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2010 and how the IT department prepared to make the transition.

BKW: Describe the Exchange Server environment we're talking about: how many mailboxes; how many servers; how everything is distributed, and so forth.

Brent: We're kind of unique since we're a publishing company, so we have a lot of different namespaces out there. I believe we've got somewhere around 2 terabytes of email out there on two mailbox servers—which doesn't really sound like a lot, but we're also accepting email for about 197, close to 200 email domains. That's a lot of management there. I believe we have around 2,300 mailboxes on our servers.

Sean: A lot of those, I'd say 40 percent, 45 percent of those are resource type—not tied to a specific, physical user. They're out for whatever purposes people need, global mailboxes that multiple people have access to.

Brent: Just to give you an idea, our employee base is somewhere around 1,200 employees, but we actually have 6,500 unique email addresses on our system. We filter our email through Microsoft Forefront Online Protection, so we use an outside filtering vendor. So far we've been pretty happy with that. We block on average 400,000 messages classified as spam every day. Only about 11 percent of the email filtered is actually delivered to our Exchange servers. Our current Exchange 2010 environment consists of two Mailbox servers that also host the CAS and the Hub role, and then two Edge servers, two UM servers, and one DR [disaster recovery] Mailbox server. So, basically seven servers total.

Sean: And there's a UM server that's going to be going out to our DR location in Cleveland. Those two servers—the Mailbox/CAS/Hub and the UM in Cleveland—are physical boxes. The two Mailbox/Hub/CAS servers here locally in Overland Park are physical. The two Edge servers are virtual.

BKW: So you're using virtualization?

Brent: That probably rolls into why did we the upgrade. Our DR site is more of a build out because we've had the opportunity since we've moved to Exchange 2010. Back when we were on Exchange 2007, we were running approximately 10 servers. At the time that we did the upgrade, the company was financially challenged, so there wasn't any money for new servers. So part of the selling point on this was being able to drop the number of servers that we had and then repurpose those for DR functionality. That, along with the fact that we had maintenance on our Exchange servers, so the upgrade to Exchange 2010 was covered. Those are some pretty big selling points. Plus we were able to drop our disk storage to using slower drives, less expensive drive space, which we already had, and repurpose the faster drive space for other needs.

Sean: We're running on SATA disk on both the Mailbox servers—actually all three, the Cleveland DR and the two primary servers here locally. They're running on EMC SANs, SATA2 drives.

Brent: And that's RAID 5, where before we were actually using RAID 10, so we were using more disks and more expensive disks.

Sean: Yes, those were all Fibre Channel disks, what was on Exchange 2007. Those are getting repurposed to whatever else we might need for faster disks.

Brent: It's interesting to note that we don't have maintenance on Outlook. So some of the benefits that clients would see from the back end upgrade aren't there until we are able to buy the licenses to upgrade to Outlook 2010.

BKW: So by "maintenance" you're talking about a contract like Software Assurance?

Brent: Right. We had a premier agreement with Microsoft for most of their product suite, and when the company was in financial difficulty there for a while, we were forced to drop that. But it was at the beginning of 2010, and so the upgrade was still a part of that agreement. We owned the upgrade to it and it made sense with what we just talked about to go ahead and proceed with it.

BKW: You were able to use fewer server, repurpose disks to other tasks, and the upgrade to Exchange Server 2010 itself was covered under the agreement.

Brent: Right. And even though Exchange 2010 is different, from a management perspective, it's not a lot different than Exchange 2007. Sean and I looked at it, and I guess the DR piece—going from CCR clusters to DAGs, database availability groups—was a lot different for us. But the day-to-day management—so, for our Help desk, and the people managing our Exchange system on the front end—it wasn't a big change.

Sean: The biggest reason on the back end to make the upgrade, at least initially, would be the DAG. The fact that databases moved from server based to organization based, so they weren't tied to specific servers. The benefits of DAGs would be one of the biggest reasons we decided to do the upgrade when we did, so we have that availability. That enhancement is pretty nice in Exchange 2010.

BKW: That's something we've done a lot of articles about, a very popular feature. What sort of research did you do in preparation for the move—what resources did you look at to help out?

Brent: It's funny—we do run across a lot of Windows IT Pro articles—we did, when we were doing the upgrade. You had initially asked what tools or what resources did we use when we were looking at making the migration. Obviously the Microsoft Deployment guides. We get a lot of our information from TechNet, but then we do run into Windows IT Pro stuff and it actually gives us a warm feeling to know you guys are doing a great job, and have very talented people on the Windows IT Pro staff.

BKW: Thanks! We're really pleased to be able to work with the top names in the field.

In the second installment of this interview, "Real-World Exchange 2010 Migration: Staging the Move," Brent and Sean talk about how they staged the migration, how they maintained communication with end users throughout the process, and some of the problems they encountered and had to overcome as they went through the migration. In the final installment, "Real-World Exchange 2010 Migration: Implementing the New Stuff," we talk about some of the odds and ends of the migration and how the new features of Exchange 2010 are working in the environment.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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