When Microsoft ends support for its Windows NT 4 operating system on 31 December, it will mean the end of the line for millions of corporate users of its Exchange 5.5 e-mail software.
Without the assurance of supplier support for the operating system underpinning Exchange 5.5, many organisations are reluctant to continue using it. As a result, some are re-evaluating their choice of e-mail software, and in some cases upgrading to newer versions. Others are moving to alternative packages from different suppliers.
The impact of that will be widespread. Microsoft has a "substantial and persistent base" of Exchange 5.5 users in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said analyst firm Meta Group. Depending on geography, up to 30% of the EMEA base uses it, Meta estimates.
Microsoft's marketing machine is working hard to make that shift attractive by highlighting its cost benefits. When the company launched Exchange Server 2003 in October last year, for example, Microsoft executives claimed that upgrading from Exchange 5.5 to the new system could cut the costs of owning and managing e-mail by about 50% - a figure with which Meta analysts largely concur.
Users, however, are not convinced. "EMEA [companies] have been extremely reluctant to make the change to Exchange 2000/ 2003, citing their happiness with the stability of 5.5 and general fear of Active Directory," said a spokesman for Meta. This is changing, however, as the demise of NT 4 approaches.
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But it is not just Exchange users that face the prospect of migrating users between e-mail packages.
"Many mid-size and large companies have completed e-mail migration projects in the past couple of years, and many more have projects in the works," said Erica Rugullies, an analyst at Forrester Research.
In some cases, the need to migrate is part of a technology standardisation effort after a merger or acquisition.
"A lot of companies have built real monsters by patching and bolting together legacy e-mail systems. And those monsters require a lot of time, skills and experience to keep them alive," said Allister Frost, product solutions marketing manager at Microsoft UK.
At other companies, the need to migrate stems from problems using older systems. Concerns about scalability and reliability of existing systems and the availability of third-party add-on products for those systems, such as anti-virus, anti-spam and message archiving tools.
"No system is going to suit you - or even run for you - forever. Neither are you likely to find support and maintenance for it beyond a certain life expectancy," said Derek Roberts, business executive for IBM Lotus.
Some organisations also face end-user demand for collaboration features, such as instant messaging, team workspaces, document collaboration, application sharing and workflow.
Others want support for remote, mobile and offline use, proper integration with desktop tools - particularly Microsoft Office - and line-of-business applications in areas such as document and project management.
But organisations face the same dilemma: how can they migrate thousands of users to a new e-mail system without causing major operational disruption and incurring huge project costs?
Case study: Yorkshire Group
It is not just Exchange users who face the challenge of migration, as demonstrated by the problem faced by the Yorkshire Group, a global textile dye company.
Until earlier this year, it was using an old cc:Mail system installed in the early 1990s - a system that had started to lose mail, offered poor support for forwarding and attachments and limited calendar features, according to the Yorkshire Group's IT manager Steve Johnson. "The system was unreliable and had become something of a liability," he said.
The need to migrate was clear. "We looked at Outlook but felt that the cost of that migration would be too high," said Johnson. Instead, the company opted to switch to Lotus Notes/Domino on Linux - a more direct migration path from cc:Mail.
Johnson said that to minimise disruption to users the bulk of the migration work was carried out over the Christmas period. It was a key goal of the project to keep users informed of its progress at all times.
"Because users knew what was happening, why, and what the benefits would be to them, the response to the new system has been very positive," he said.
That level of communication is a key factor in determining whether a project is to be successful, agreed Rugullies. Failure to provide clear updates, she said, results in higher-than-expected support costs, low user satisfaction and lower-than-expected end-user adoption rates.
Roll out choice
Faced with an e-mail migration project, companies must decide between a single-stage, or "big bang", migration and a phased roll-out - where old and new systems co-exist and users are gradually migrated between the two.
A single-stage migration, where data is extracted from the source systems and imported into the new system in one bulk transfer, is the best option for companies where fewer than 1,000 end-users are being moved to a new e-mail system, said Rugullies.
Companies planning 1,000-plus user migrations, she said, will need to undergo a co-existence period in which both the old and the new systems are operational. Because temporarily two e-mail systems will be live during the changeover, users may continue to access their old mailboxes as well as new ones.
The cost of migration, however, remains one of the fundamental reasons for corporate inertia. In late 2003, US-based IT analyst company Ferris Research set out to estimate those costs. It found that migrations typically cost from £70 to £275 per mailbox.
But, said analyst David Ferris, this can be reduced to as little as £28 per mailbox in situations where organisations can simply upgrade server software and do not need to make any changes to individual user workstations.
Economies of scale also affect these figures, he said. "A typical migration for 1,000 seats, for example, is likely to cost about $350 (£190) per seat. The same sort of migration for 50,000 seats is likely to cost about $200 (£110) to $250 (£140) per seat."
Those numbers may make IT directors wince. But the cost of staying put on an older e-mail system is factored in, the picture changes.
Poor functionality, lack of maintenance and support - and the very real potential for e-mail outages and security breaches - can quickly eat into budgets. If you can be sure of avoiding these potential costs, the case for upgrading is far more attractive.