Teach for America (TFA) is a national nonprofit that works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for underserved children by recruiting talented individuals to teach in low-income schools. This year, TFA has 8,800 corps members teaching in over fifty urban and rural regions, and more than 42,000 alumni who work across sectors.
Managing the internal Exchange 2007 infrastructure for the staff who support these corps members and alumni had become too cumbersome: they had reached end-of-life for their email archive solution, and engineers were spending two to three hours per week moving around mailboxes that were too big for storage. Because TFA’s staff is spread across the nation and highly dependent on shared folders, user directories, and email, any migration to a new exchange environment had to be seamless.
Kris Gamache, Senior Managing Director of Business Analysis for TFA, explained, “We are more reliant on email than on any other mode of communication. We had an outage related to Hurricane Sandy, where email went down for the entire organization and we had staff that didn’t know how to reach other staff. So we were looking for more security and stability.”
"[New Signature] listened to us, which was refreshing. They were very professional and really took the time to understand Teach For America and our business drivers and the environment that we were in and trying to get out of. They really partnered with us to come up with a solution rather than dictate a solution."Ryan Riggins, Managing Director of Production Quality
They knew it was time to transition to Microsoft Office 365, but how could they move 10.5 terabytes of data and 152 million emails without disrupting the vital support that TFA staff provides to its teacher corps, alumni, and partners?
The Cognizant Microsoft Business Group and TFA worked together to enable a new environment through a rigorous “look-before-you-leap” piloting process to ensure the smoothest possible migration. Several steps were taken to minimize service disruptions:
- The team decided to use Exchange 2013 hybrid servers for the migration period, before shifting entirely to the cloud. Maintaining some on-premises resources provided a contingency, in case of performance or corruption issues during the transition. They also chose to update their Office 2010 Professional on-premises software to meet the requirements for Office 365 Service.
- Completing a full assessment of TFA’s directory and email systems confirmed that Office 365 was going to be the right fit. “We had a few moments when we were unsure if this was really going to work or not,” said Ryan Riggin, Managing Director of Production Quality for TFA. “Our legacy domain name, for instance, didn’t match our email address, which 365 requires—so we were facing a really tough change management process in teaching more than 2,000 staff members to use a new login. But Cognizant Microsoft Business Group figured out a way to run a conversion in the background that solved that.”
- TFA and Cognizant Microsoft Business Group then built a unique test environment to mimic the production of the new solution, for QA purposes. To minimize costs, TFA engineers planned to complete the migration on their own, so running a concurrent pilot environment not only gave TFA’s team the confidence to do so, it also made the final environment much stronger and smarter.
Cognizant Microsoft Business Group provided detailed documentation on the pilot migration process and trained TFA staff to respond to the issues that arose during the pilot. Additionally, TFA’s engineers shadowed Cognizant Microsoft Business Group throughout the design phase and the migration of the first few mailboxes.
“The migration was planned very well,” said Amish Chudasama, Senior Managing Director for Enterprise Services & Integration and tech lead for the project. “When users were in the office, we did the cutovers to Office 365. That way, if any actions generated issues, we had helpdesk staff lined up to take immediate action on a support case. And because we documented almost all of the possible issues beforehand, we had those articles prepared for our support staff so there was no delay in responding to the user requests.”
After the pilot, TFA successfully migrated the rest of their staff members to Office 365 on their own, on-time and on-budget, with no major service disruptions and no lost data. A recent end-user survey showed that people in the organization are happy with the new system. Users no longer need to log into a VPN to use their email, worry about archiving, or watch their mailbox size any more.
Michael McSteen, Managing Director of Enterprise Services and Integration and a key team member during the transition period, described the impact the migration had on his team’s day-to-day operations. “Being able to shut down our legacy exchange environment was fantastic for us. We no longer have to support Exchange 2007, which was the biggest single drain on our operational efforts, time, and budget. We’ve dramatically reduced the number of mail-related support tickets, and removed the need to constantly schedule maintenances for the older servers and storage devices. Now my team can look forward to leveraging the constantly expanding technologies available in o365, as well grow the single sign-on solution we implemented for o365 to all of our other applications.”
TFA kept an agreement open with Cognizant Microsoft Business Group for further support and assistance, but they were happy to find it was not needed. “[The experience] really strengthened our team,” Riggin says. “Our engineers learned a lot by working side-by-side with Cognizant Microsoft Business Group. They knew exactly what needed to be done. They’ve done this so much, so often. Doing the pilot with them really taught our guys everything they needed to know.”
“From an IT business perspective, we’ve absolutely accomplished all the goals we outlined in the beginning,” Gamache said. “We have the business continuity we need, we’re not susceptible to localized disaster events, and we have the space to grow as we want. It was a really smart move and long-term, it’s going to be really smart for us from a financial perspective, and will allow our staff members to focus on supporting our corps members and alumni.”