Wednesday, January 25, 2012

May I Exchange this for another, please?

We detoured briefly into a live ERP implementation. It's moving forward, hiccups and all. Many of our users are beginning to understand the power of our new system. With great power comes great responsiblity - er, I mean major configuration pain. So we're learning the ins-and-outs of QAD.

I started this journey with the intent of simplifying our IT infrastructure by reducing cost and complexity while adding features. So I'm going to save the new ERP explanation for later. I think I remember telling you that I really don't like Exchange. So let's get back to that. 2002 through 2007 were major growth years for our business. We moved into a larger facility. We updated, upgrade and expanded our IT infrastructure. Our user population was growing faster than we could keep up. I had me, a sysadmin, a project specialist and a contract programmer. And I was still working late nights!

Many of our new users came from larger corporations. And they were used to certain features. Features we didn't offer. Exchange, Sharepoint, collaboration, full mobility. I loved our rock-solid IMAP / SMTP server. It offered calendaring and shared contacts. But think back to web-based offerings in 2005 and you'll remember that our solution didn't quite compare with Active Directory + Exchange + Sharepoint. I'd implemented Exchange several times in the 1990s and didn't much care for its tendency to complicate what should be simple. But my resolve began to crumble as user after user made the case for better collaboration and mobility.

So we made the jump to Exchange 2007. I regretted it immediately. I liked the AD integration. But my first surprise was the requirement for either another Exchange server in a network edge role or ISA server at the edge. I already had a capable router and firewall team; why add another system to learn and admin? But we needed it, so I chose ISA 2006 running on a dedicated server. ISA proved problematic over the first two years so I thought I'd simplify by replacing it with a dedicated ISA appliance. That worked even worse. So in the end I dumped the Exchange Server into a DMZ and called it a day. Sharepoint was coming up and I needed to stop playing with Exchange.

In the meantime the economy tanked and along with it my budget. No money for Sharepoint, no money for training, no money for consultants. But the need for collaboration didn't go away, and when our México plant came online that need became critical. I was still a one-man shop and simplicity was a necessity. What's an over-worked and under-funded IT manager to do?

Go over to the Dark Side, of course. Google Apps had been on my radar for a while, to be honest. It helps to keep your finger in a few pies so that you have some choices when you need them. Google Docs looked like it would fill the needs of most of our users, Gmail would do admirably, collaboration was built-in and there were many great admin add-ons. I began to pencil it out in my head. 2011 would be then end of our initial four-year app cycle - Exchange would be up for renewal and so would MS Office. Exchange vs Google Apps was about equivalent. Exchange + Office vs Google Apps was a no-brainer. So back to the CFO I go.

I got approval for the numbers, with the caveat that our "power users" could keep Excel indefinitely. No problem, we'd need to keep Access around for a short while too. We had plenty of MS Office licenses, we just wouldn't upgrade them this cycle. Now off to the Director of Operations I went. No problem there - he likes new features at less cost too. The next question was how to proceed. I like to Poke The Box, a.k.a. "Press the GO button."

With the help of my trusty new sys admin, I began preparations. Contact Google, assemble training materials, evaluate migration methods, make decisions. One of those decisions was to ditch Outlook and force all users to the web interface. I can't begin to describe how well that's worked out. Users love Outlook, IT staff hate it (well, at least I do). Outlook is a chain around your ankles and an albatross around your neck. There, I've gotten it out of my system. I don't like Outlook. Goodbye Exchange and Outlook! The next decision was the go-live date. With everything assembled why wait? So we picked a date one week hence. We spoke with each user and worked to make them as comfortable as possible. Of course most users don't like change until you change. But we did our best.

Going live was relatively smooth. Import your users and migrate their messages. Log in and test. Set up routing and groups and filters and signatures. Change your MX records. Sit back and watch it over the weekend. Have fun on Monday.

Really, that's how it went. I kept the help links handy so we could rapidly reply to the influx of help requests. We found out quickly that it was best to host all Google Apps on Chrome, so we quickly rolled it out and set up a group of auto-start tabs for Gmail, Calendar and Docs. A few weeks down the road we added ZOHO Projects and ZOHO Meeting to the mix. They integrate nicely with Google Apps domains.

The best part? It's simple, so simple. Users are happy with Google Docs for the most part - real-time collaboration with multi-user editing is absolutely awesome, even over the Internet. Video and chat work well, hand-in-glove with Gmail. Shared contacts and calendars are very straightforward. Niggle: Google doesn't hold your hand. There is enterprise support, but it's bare. Purchase your Google Apps through one of the third-party firms and you'll get better support. We like Promevo, and their gPanel app is wonderful.

So that's it. I'll talk about our ERP selection process soon. But for now, I've got to start packing my bags for a nice vacation. See ya!

UPDATE 2014-Mar-24: ZOHO has requested that I remove the links to their products. You can find them at zoho [dot] com.