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Avoid common pain points when migrating to Exchange Online

Every Exchange Server configuration is unique, which makes a move to hosted email in Office 365 a complex undertaking, but some stumbling blocks are more frequent than others.

A migration from on-premises Exchange to Office 365 is more than just a matter of putting mailboxes into Microsoft's cloud. There are several factors that can slow this type of project, and some issues won't arise until you thought the project was done.

There are quite a few organizations still running an Exchange Server platform, but many of them are looking at migrating to Exchange Online and hand over some of the administrative burden to Microsoft. In my experience, I see four common problems for organizations that can be avoided. With a little preparation, you can avoid these stumbling blocks and make the experience a positive one for both IT and the end user.

Update on-premises software

Near the top of the list of common issues is not having the current versions of software running on premises.

Active Directory, on-premises Exchange, Outlook, Windows clients and servers all need to be up to date to give your organization the best possible migration experience. At one time, Microsoft's organizational posture was more forgiving and would support older software, but today, the company wants all software that touches Exchange to be on the latest version. Some of the older Office suites will still work but only with basic functionality and end users will miss out on newer features, such as Focused Inbox.

That many enterprises struggle with keeping their software current isn't a surprise, because it's difficult to patch and deploy updates in a timely fashion. In some cases, organizations depend on third-party software that is rarely updated and may have compatibility issues with a frequent update schedule. There is no easy solution for these problems. But as IT pros, we need to sort through the updates and find a way to get all that software on the latest release.

Understand mail flow scenarios

The next area that hinders a lot of organizations migrating to Exchange Online is not understanding the different ways to set up mail flow into and out of Microsoft's hosted email platform.

Only when you fully understand all the pieces in your organization's transport stack can you set up a mail flow that meets your needs.

Microsoft designed Office 365 and Exchange Online to be very flexible with regards to the support of different mail flow scenarios. Email can go to on-premises Exchange first, then into Exchange Online. Mail can also go to Exchange Online first, then flow to the on-premises Exchange servers.

During a hybrid migration, the most common scenario is to leave the mail flow configuration to reach the on-premises Exchange Server first, then use hybrid configuration to forward email to mailboxes in the Microsoft cloud via the hybrid routing address. This hybrid routing address, which looks something like johndoe@contoso.mail.onmicrosoft.com, is an attribute of the on-premises Active Directory account.

When you set up an Exchange hybrid deployment and move mailboxes properly, that address is automatically added to the user's account. This mail flow arrangement tends to work very well, but if that address is not added to the users account, mail flow won't work for that user.

Another popular option is to route email through Office 365 first, then to your on-premises mailboxes. This option puts Exchange Online Protection as the gatekeeper in front of all your organization's mailboxes.

Ultimately, your decision comes down to what other services your organization has in that mail flow path. Some organizations use third-party antivirus products, some use a vendor's encryption services, while others depend on a particular discovery application. Any of those third-party services may be cloud-based or installed on premises. Some of the services need to be placed before your end-user mailboxes in the transport flow, while others need to be at the end of the transport flow. There is no one-size fits-all configuration. Only when you fully understand all the pieces in your organization's transport stack can you set up a mail flow that meets your needs.

Understand authentication

A move to the cloud means added complexity to your end-user authentication process. Microsoft provides a wide range of authentication options for Office 365 and Exchange Online, but that flexibility also means there are many choices to make during your migration.

Active Directory Federation Services, password hash sync and pass-through authentication are where the authentication options start, but any of those options can be deployed with multifactor authentication, conditional access and a whole load of Azure Information Protection options. Add in some encryption and the migration process gets complicated quickly.

All these choices and security add-ons help protect the business, but it's a complex undertaking. It takes some effort not only to settle on a particular authentication but to implement it properly and do thorough testing to avoid an avalanche of help desk calls.

Understand accepted domains

Over time, many on-premises Exchange organizations tend to collect multiple accepted domains. Accepted domains are the part of the email address after the @ symbol.

I see many customers have issues when they move mailboxes to the cloud because they forgot to verify all the accepted domains used on those mailboxes. This problem is simple to avoid: Review the accepted domains in your on-premises Exchange organization and make sure they are verified in your Office 365 tenant before migrating the mailboxes.

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