Migrating from one software solution to a different one in an enterprise environment can involve all kinds of challenges. This was brought home to me recently when I talked with a colleague about a migration project he was working on. Martin Urwaleck has been working in IT for almost two decades and was previously head of desktop and shop operations for a company in Hamburg, Germany. He currently resides in Vienna, Austria, where he manages the IT operations for a public company. Being in charge of IT means, of course, not just running day-to-day operations but also looking toward the future, and in this regard, I’ve already talked about how Martin had to restructure the company’s legacy network using VLANs and how he’s had to deal with the problem of poor and missing documentation at the company. But those are only two of many different projects Martin has planned or was recently involved with, and along the lines of what our Trench Tales series is all about, we’re now going to examine another challenging IT project that Martin is facing — migrating away from an existing messaging platform — and see what we can learn from how he handles it.
The actual situation is probably not one that many of our readers will need to deal with. Because it involves migrating away from using what used to be called Lotus Notes as a messaging platform. Lotus Notes and its partner product Domino were acquired by IBM in 1995 and were recently re-sold to HCL Technologies, a company based in India. I never used Lotus Notes myself although a close friend of mine used to administer it at his company and showed me what it was capable of. Lotus Notes was indeed well ahead of its time when it first came out, but its use declined during IBM’s tenure, and it’ll be interesting to see how the platform evolves under HCL’s ownership.
But while you may not have ever worked with Notes at your own company, you’ve probably had to face the challenge of migrating from some legacy software product to a modern solution. And the lessons you can learn from one migration — even a relatively obscure messaging platform migration — can often help prepare you for success in any future migration projects you might be involved with.
I started by asking Martin how the product was being used at his company. “It’s just not Notes,” he replied. “I’ve learned that Notes is the client and Domino is the server. Domino is at the heart of our company’s web site and it’s running a lot of internal applications as well. In fact, it’s the mail gateway for our IBM iSeries (aka AS/400) too.” I asked him for me details about how Notes/Domino was implemented and he replied that “according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, we currently have two internal servers running as a cluster: a gateway server for fax & SMS; and a cluster in the DMZ running our web site and webmail service and also support for Verse, the mobile client for Notes.”
I asked him next why their messaging platform needed to be changed. “Most of my users are using just messaging,” Martin said, “and no other Notes applications. If you are using Gmail privately, you expect certain features that are not available, and for an Outlook diehard like me it’s nearly unusable. Mail, Contacts & Calendar are all different applications in different windows — in fact messaging is just a Notes application.”
And there’s another problem. “Another issue is that the UI is somewhere between weird and ugly,” Martin said. “The UI hasn’t been changed for years — nine years to be exact — and users prefer UIs they are used to like Outlook or Gmail. They simply don’t care about the potential of the UI because they don’t use it.”
Naturally, when you retire one solution you need to replace it with another. And when I asked Martin what he was going to replace Notes with as a messaging platform he replied with the obvious answer. “The successor to Notes Messaging for us will be Exchange/Outlook.” I asked him why and he replied that there were several reasons for this decision. “First, we will be getting an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft soon, so I will have all the licenses available with our Microsoft 365 E3 contract. Second, Outlook is widely known as a messaging client so I will have nearly no investments needed in training or support. Third, there are a lot of migration tools available out there for doing this type of migration, which will make the transition easier.” I jumped in at that point and asked him what migration tool he was going to use. Martin replied, “I’m currently considering Mail Migration from BCC running myself and Panagenda to do the full migration project.”
Martin’s fourth and final reason for deciding upon Exchange/Outlook for replacing Notes as his messaging platform was that it “would enable me to get a foothold in the cloud for our company.” When I countered this by asking why he hadn’t decided upon using Exchange Online instead of hosting an Exchange Server on-premises, he replied that “from an economic point of view there’s no reason not to go to Exchange Online, but I have to convince my company of course that cloud is here to stay. If you move the right workloads into the cloud, that is. At the moment as I’m waiting for my Microsoft contract, my team is building up the first Exchange server. As soon as we have our IT mailboxes running on Exchange, we will use the migration tool we’ve chosen to help establish coexistence between Notes and Exchange.” When I asked him how long he thought the whole migration project might take, he replied, “From the experience of other Notes migrations I would expect a project duration of six months maximum. The biggest issue is that we have is to get some intelligence (i.e. routing information) in our mail gateway so we can handle two messaging platforms in parallel.”
I finished my discussion with Martin by asking him if he had any final comments, and he said, yes, he had one about Lotus Notes in general. “Notes is an incredible product that was in its beginning far ahead of its time. It improved very fast, and the code was stable. The turning point was when IBM acquired Notes and tried to integrate it into its own portfolio. It simply didn’t work out, so IBM lost interest and stopped innovating the product. When I entered the company this year, Notes 9 was the current release — and Notes 9 was released in 2013! And, except for some fix packs, Notes received no updates until 2019! This year Notes 10 was released, but with a lot of trouble accompanying it. And then Notes was bought by HC, the biggest Notes customer of IBM. Notes 11 will soon be released, and not just the client but the Domino server gets a new version as well. So, we are currently implementing oauth2 in Domino and will proceed with running our website on Domino for the near future because even node.js is available. But in the meantime, we don’t have to stick on pure Domino development.”
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