College pauses email switch after failures
By Jay Webster, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Now in its fourth week, the transition from the old BlitzMail email system to the Microsoft Office 365 Suite server has halted due to unforeseen challenges that emerged during the migration of administrators’ email accounts, according to Ellen Waite-Franzen, vice president for information technology.
The remaining thirty-five percent of administrative accounts experienced either a limited migration of email messages or a total failure of migration in which over 100 messages did not transition to the new server, Waite-Franzen said.
“The issue that we have is that the mail migration wasn’t successful on all of those accounts,” Waite-Franzen said. “About 65 percent of the accounts have fully migrated with no problems.”
The initial email transition, which began with the email accounts of members of the Class of 2013, went as planned, according to Associate Director of Administrative Computing Susan Zaslaw, a project manager for the Blitz-2-Blitz transition. Issues leading up to the migration delays were related to administrative accounts, Zaslaw said.
“Certainly, we encountered a number of road bumps, but we kind of expected that and responded to that,” she said.
The College has already migrated 3,300, but there are a total of 17,000 Dartmouth email accounts, according to Waite-Franzen.
The email migration process has multiple steps beginning with Dartmouth’s server and ending with the Microsoft server, Waite-Franzen said. Before old emails can be integrated into the new client, they must first be sent out to the internet, at which point there could possibly be a “network blip” in which emails are lost in the transition process, according to Waite-Franzen.
Zaslaw added that while this could potentially be an important cause of the migration failures, she is not certain that this how the current problem occurred.
After the emails have been sent out to the Internet, the messages must be re-coded in a “black box of conversion” in order to be read by the Microsoft server, she said.
“This is the most controllable [part of the process,]” she said. “It’s taking our old mail in our old format, changing it to the Microsoft format, and putting it in the right folders.”
Blitz users’ failure to log out of the server at the scheduled time of migration, which interrupts the migrations, caused additional migration problems, according to Waite-Franzen.
This issue is also complicated by the presence of smart phones such as Blackberries, which continually log onto the server, she said.
In addition, some messages may not transition due to problems with specific emails such as corrupt attachments or missing pieces of information, Zaslaw said.
About 500 to 600 email accounts experienced particular difficulties during the migration, Zaslaw said. These accounts included administrative offices, the controller’s office, human resources, campus planning and several deans’ offices, she said.
“Because of the failures, then, we’ve had to assign staff to work with the offices,” Waite-Franzen said. “That’s sort of depleted our resources for our project.”
As a result of these problems, one of the project’s new goals is to better inform users of what to do on the day their accounts will migrate in order to streamline the process, she said.
“If we can stop some of these points of failure that we can actually control, we’ll have much more success,” Waite-Franzen said.
She added that the transition project must adopt a “more personalized approach.”
The project will be working with individual academic departments in the months prior to their email migrations, she said.
“We’re going to get a lot more information about the departments, what kinds of computers that they have,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot more hands-on work with the departments, and a lot more really directed training.”
Zaslaw said that her team “didn’t do a great job communicating” to the migrating users exactly what the transitional procedure entailed.
“We migrated you to your new account, and then we started sending mail to it, but then we kind of let the migration happen in the background,” she said. “That was something we could have done a better job at communicating, that mail would be slowly trickling in.”
Waite-Franzen said some problems are unavoidable due to the large scope of the project.
“There will always be failure because this is just too complicated when you look at all these pieces,” she said.
Zaslaw added, however, that these failures would not affect the migration of future student accounts during Fall term.
In mid-October, members of the Classes of 2012 and 2014, as well as any other students with active BlitzMail accounts, will transition to the Microsoft server, she said. Academic departments’ accounts and student-managed organization accounts will also transition in October.
Although the project has faced difficulties, the College never questioned the decision to move old emails to the new system.
Zaslaw said she was “surprised” by Brown University’s recent decision not to move old emails when it switched to a new email system.
Old emails, according to Waite-Franzen, constitute intellectual property of professors and students. In addition, old emails can serve as a “record-keeping system,” so it was important that they be moved to the new server, according to Zaslaw.