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Keep calm and message on: Prepping for an Exchange Online migration

Learn how a smooth migration to Exchange Online not only keeps end users happy, but also minimizes IT help desk calls.

As an IT professional, you've watched the tables turn over the past few years. End users have become customers...

in organizations; it's the job of IT to keep them happy and, ultimately, productive.

Exchange Online migrations are often the first major task in Office 365 implementations, so it's important to ensure a smooth end-user experience. To many end users, moving to Office 365 is just another disruption. Some may relish the opportunity to see the new features, but for most, it's an unnecessary interruption and change for change's sake. Although an Exchange Online migration should be smooth, there are steps you can take to ensure it's not disruptive to end users and they have the right information in hand before any changes happen.

The benefits of a smooth experience don't just extend to keeping end users happy; this tip will also help to minimize help desk calls. Proper preparation can be the difference between assisting only one of 300 users and individually visiting every desk.

Prepping for an Exchange Online migration

Before you migrate, there a number of steps you can take in advance to make your job easier and to ensure a smooth migration experience. A move to Office 365 means you're locked into a Microsoft-controlled upgrade cycle. As well as ensuring your Exchange Online migration goes smoothly, this preparation gives your IT team practice and helps ensure they have the information they need when they're required to update clients.

Surveying the existing client estate helps you understand the versions of Outlook in front of end users. In addition to understanding third-party clients and mobile devices, making sure Outlook runs a supported version with required updates will solve most problems your end users and you experience. There are a number of ways to collate this information.

Microsoft's Assessment and Planning Toolkit can help you understand what's out there; scripts that analyze your environment, like my EWS PowerShell reporting script, and logs for POP3 and IMAP4 clients can also help. If you aren't running Office 2013, you'll be well-advised to roll out the latest version of the Microsoft Online Services Sign-In Assistant.

If you're planning to upgrade clients, you'll have additional major challenges on your hands. An Office upgrade often goes hand in hand with training. Unless you plan to use Office 2013 Click-to-Run to run previous versions side-by-side, you'll have application compatibility testing to consider. Those issues aside, the latest version of Office gives the best experience for migrated end users.

Communicating the migration with end users

The next step is to prepare end users for the upgrade experience. Distribute communications and documentation to them before the migration. Use this opportunity to walk through and document the experience they'll have before and after the migration. As client upgrades or add-ins are rolled out, will they see any changes? What changes will they notice after the migration? Document the experience across different configurations within your client estate.

Clearly document any prerequisite tasks end users should perform, and verify with pilot users that this document is easy to understand, clear and concise. For example, if you're doing an Exchange Online migration and you've identified that large attachments must be exported before the migration, make sure end users understand what they need to do, when they need to do this and what happens if they do nothing.

Most of the key aspects end users should know before the migration relate to client sign-in. End users are accustomed to the DOMAIN\username style login, or even just their username. Many Exchange Online migrations include changing the User Principal Name (UPN) for end users to match their email address. It's critical for end users to understand where they should use this new logon format before the migration.

Depending on the migration method you've chosen, the experience for end users will be different. Hybrid migrations will preserve Outlook's offline cache files; if shared calendars and mailboxes are migrated at the same time, access to these resources will be uninterrupted.

For staged migrations, cutover migrations and migrations that use third-party tools, full Outlook reconfiguration and permission setups may be required. For hybrid migrations where end users who share calendars don't move together, be sure users understand they will share calendars using underlying Federated Sharing tools in Outlook and Outlook Web App.

With any Exchange Online migration, mobile devices and IMAP/POP3 clients require a new setup. ActiveSync clients can't rediscover server information automatically after moving a mailbox, even if the login details were entered in UPN format. For a consistent, reliable experience, IMAP and POP3 clients should remove and re-add profiles for mail. Prepare documentation for end users based on the results of your discovery information to help them understand what they need to do on their device so they don't require IT staff to reconfigure their mobile devices.

A great way to deliver information to end users about an Exchange Online migration is through a portal. It uses a SharePoint Online site; collated documentation, screencasts and guides make it easier for end users to navigate the wealth of information you have prepared. You'll also be able to use some of SharePoint's out-of-the-box features for surveys to solicit feedback from end users.

Larger companies often hold workshops for end user groups to help them understand what's happening. Use your discovery information to give end users the right information. And instead of simply pointing end users to the Office 365 migration portal, provide links directly to the information they need in the format that's most appropriate for them.

To get started with documentation, Microsoft provides documentation aimed at end users on its Office Support website or on its FastTrack program, which provisions end user resources into your Office 365 tenant as part of a Cloud Deployment Partner's setup supporting your implementation.

Don't forget about Distribution Group management

A common feature Outlook end users take advantage of is distribution group management. Most deployments include DirSync, which means changes to existing Distribution Groups can't be edited in Outlook.

Create Distribution Groups in Office 365 or provide alternative means of editing groups, such as a custom Active Directory Users and Groups Task-Pad snap-ins. No matter which option you choose, document how this changes end users' experiences.

About the author:
Steve Goodman is an Exchange MVP and works as a technical architect for one of the U.K.'s leading Microsoft Gold partners, Phoenix IT Group plc. Goodman has worked in the IT industry for 14 years and has worked extensively with Microsoft Exchange since version 5.5.

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