AF command right-sizes its inboxes

The Materiel Command's Fred Altum offers straightforward advice to other agencies considering major e-mail migrations: 'Plan, plan, plan.'

Skip Peterson

What's it like to migrate 140,000 users to a new mail application?

Chaotic but also cathartic'especially behind the scenes'the Air Force Materiel Command is finding out.

Over the next year and a half, the command will move users from Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5 to Exchange Server 2003. And in the process, it will reduce the number of host servers from 400 to 140 and consolidate operations for 19 locations nationwide at four sites.

The command also will introduce a third-party application to manage Exchange capacity and reduce the number of duplicate documents passed around via e-mail.

The upgrade is now in the pilot phase, said Fred Altum, a Materiel Command program manager at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He heads a migration team of three federal employees and 20 contractors from Titan Corp. of San Diego.

By creating host sites at four bases, the command will reduce its mail maintenance chores, Altum said. Besides Wright-Patterson, the host sites will be Hill Air Force Base, Utah; Robins Air Force Base, Ga.; and Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.

The number of e-mail servers spiraled over the years as the message load grew. Exchange Server 5.5 cannot host as many mailboxes per server as its successor.

Last year the IT staff acquired all the hardware needed for the migrations at Wright-Patterson and Robins. Beginning this month, 5,000 to 6,000 users will move to the new platform for a trial period of up to 60 days.

'We will try to understand the impact of the migration on the users and understand what we have to do to finish the migration,' Altum said.

Managing mail

If all goes well, full deployment will start in March. By the end of the year, Altum's team will move on to the Tinker data center and in early 2005 to Hill. The project should be done by September 2005.

Previous versions of Exchange Server required the Materiel Command to limit mailbox size, Altum said. Users had to spend a good part of their workday managing their e-mail, not simply deleting messages at will.

'Legally, 90 percent of the e-mail I get could be deemed official Air Force documents,' Altum said.

The Exchange Server migration will lessen the need for mailbox management. 'We'll present to the user what appears to be an unlimited mailbox,' he said.

A third-party app, IXOS-eCon Server 2.0 from IXOS Software Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., will let the IT staff archive messages on less expensive hardware and manage the number of documents that go into Exchange Server databases in the first place.

E-mail is so prevalent that people tend to use their messaging app as a file system, Altum said. When someone circulates a document to a number of people, it generates multiple copies in the Exchange database.

The eCon server software stores the document only once in the database, and the message recipients get pointers to that document. Altum called it 'true single-instance storage.'

The command has an EMC Symmetrix DMX system from EMC Corp. of Hopkinton, Mass., as its primary storage area network for Exchange Server. For archiving seldom-used content, the command will use an EMC Centera system. The cost to keep growing the Centera storage is less than for Symmetrix, Altum said.

Altum's team also will use IXOS-eCon to keep the Exchange databases at a constant size.

Exchange Server 2003 will run on four-way Dell PowerEdge 6605 servers, and the command is also buying dual-processor PowerEdge 2650 units for backup and other tasks.

Asked what advice he'd have for Exchange Server upgrades at other agencies, Altum said, 'Plan, plan, plan.'


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