Sunday, April 01, 2012

Migrating to Google Apps - a problem with Microsoft

There's talk that Microsoft will collapse
within a few years. Maybe we should think about
this as a medium to long term risk to be managed.
I've been investigating the user experience when migrating from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps. Predictably, the Google side is friendly, the Microsoft side is disappointing. I've hit a problem with Microsoft Exchange server dropping recipients from email that is redirected to Google Apps mail.

I'm working with a group that have a domain name already, but they have been using that domain for their website only. Their email, calendars, shared documents, and even their desktop computers are split between two parent organisations, who each use a slightly different Microsoft set up. Google Apps might be a way to tidy this up a bit.

Most people know by now, that Google Apps offer a pretty complete service including website, shared documents, email and instant messaging, calendar, blogs, and web analytics second to none, and all of it can be managed within the capabilities of a person with amateur web skills.

Before anyone thinks I'm all for Google, I'm as nervous as anyone about putting all eggs into the one Google basket. I worry about the level of help and support I might be able to expect when going it alone with Google, and am very concerned at the increasing instances of Google services engaging in censorship, not to mention the keeping their services within the auspices of US law. But weighing up these concerns between Microsoft and Google is in many ways like comparing two peas from the same pod - or the same gene of vine at least. I've suggested taking a good look at Ubuntu Cloud services as a real alternative, but the concerns about the abilities of people to handle a migration to free and open source services are still too strong, despite the principles of that service provider being much more aligned to the rhetoric of the organisation I'm working with. So Google it is, and let convenience and 'what-everyone-else' does be the guiding principle.

Google Apps

Registering the domain into a Google Apps account couldn't be easier. You just type it in, and then Google gives you a little file to add into the route directory of the servers used to host the website for that domain. If that's a bit challenging, then simply create your website on Google Sites or Blogger, and register a domain through them and get a Google Apps account along the way.

The setup for Google Apps email, calendar, docs etc, is very straight forward too. You have to go into the settings of the domain server if you want sub domain URLs like, but you can leave the URLs alone and keep it all easy.

The problem is with Microsoft

But, the problems start when looking at how people will manage the move off Microsoft Exchange email, Windows shared folders, and perhaps even Microsoft Office. The biggest problem right now is that one of the parent companies provides email on an out-of-date MS Exchange server (2007 I think) and one of the known issues with that version is that it drops other recipients out of the address fields of mail that is set up to automatically redirected to any other mail server. What this means is that after each person sets up a rule to redirect all their mail from their Microsoft based account to their new Google App based account, any mail that comes to them through that rule will drop other recipients of that message out, meaning the person can no longer just click "reply all" and join a group discussion.

This will create a big headache for people, especially when it is not clear from the email body who else has received the message. Their only option will be to log back into the MS Exchange email, and reply from their - defeating the purpose of the migration, or delaying the establishment of their new email address with people sending them mail. Apparently this is not an issue if the rule runs on MS Exchange 2010. The other parent organisation runs that version so this problem only affects half of the people I'm working with.

I had this same problem when I worked with the University of Canberra. Deep down I knew my time there was not going to last, so I was very reluctant to dilute my online identity with a new and non-sustainable email address. Others at that university struggled to understand my point of view, and preferred to build 2 if not 3 identities for themselves online. For me though, I wanted to redirect all UC mail to my personal Google email, but I had to manage the very tedious problem of the MS Exchange dropping other recipients and making it impossible for me to reply all. Despite my best efforts to rectify that problem at the source, Including having to prove to the IT people at UC that the problem was with Microsoft and not Google, and asking them to delete my UC email address in the staff directory and replace it with my preferred email address, in the end they decided to update their server software about the same time I stopped working there.

What to do?

So what to do I should do this time? In my mind, I'm thinking to approach this problem in the following order:

  1. Try the POP solution described in that Microsoft forum (quoted below) 
  2. If that doesn't work, we'll discuss a more committed approach to the migration, that avoids the redirect mail approach
  3. If that's not feasible, we'll find out if/when the parent company plans to upgrade their mail servers
  4. If that's not going to happen anytime soon, look at migrating everyone to the other parent company's mail servers that are up-to-date, and then redirect to Google mail
  5. At the same time, hope someone out there reads this post and suggests a solution
  6. And if all that doesn't work, we might have to ditch the Google Apps for email idea all together
Darcy Jayne (MSFT) 01-27-10We finally have an answer for you, Brian - this is not supported in Exchange 2007, which is the version of the Exchange server that is hosting your mailbox.  Until your school upgrades to Exchange 2010, redirects will not include cc: information.  I'm sorry we don't have a more satisfactory answer for you. 

BloomUMailStaff - 02-03-10What I would suggest is setting up a pop account subscription (or whatever google calls it) in gmail to POP your exchange account down to your gmail account.  This way you have the full messages and don't have to worry about getting through mail filtering.  Only issue is it will only POP your main inbox.  As long as you don't have rules moving messages to other folders, you should be good.  By default the only other folder that gets mail is the junk mail folder.  You may want to turn off exchange junk mail filtering on your exchange mailbox so everything comes down to gmail for you to see.

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