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6 steps to Microsoft Exchange Server migration

News that Microsoft is to end support for Windows Server 2003 on 14 July this year has masked a more pressing issue for small businesses using Windows Small Business Server 2003 (SBS2003) – the Exchange email component of their system has not been supported since 8 April 2014. This means that should something go wrong with your email server, Microsoft will not provide any patches, service or support, placing your data in jeopardy.

The obvious solution to this problem would normally be to upgrade to the newest version of Windows Small Business Server, thereby addressing both the Windows 2003 and Exchange 2003 problems simultaneously. But Microsoft dropped the Small Business Server (SBS) edition when Windows Server 2012 was released.

This leaves you with a choice – upgrade to SBS 2011 which is already four years old, or make the move to Windows Server 2012 Foundation. The sticking point is that the entry-level Server 2012 Foundation edition offers no native email functionality. Instead Microsoft is encouraging small businesses to adopt the Office 365 service which includes hosted email.

But whether you choose to adopt SBS2011 or Server 2012, you will still need to carry out an Exchange Server migration. Because SBS2011 is relatively aged, this guide will look at the move to Office 365. For further information about upgrading SBS2003 to SBS2011, see this Technet guide.

1. Specify the Office 365 subscription your business needs

Although you can purchase Office 365 subscriptions direct from Microsoft, you may find that in terms of accuracy and speed, using the services of a VAR (value-added reseller) may be more appropriate. They will help you understand how many subscription licenses you need to cover your workforce, and the difference between the available plans.

Because you are replacing your Exchange 2003 server with Office 365, you will need to select the Office 365 Business Premium plan which includes hosted Exchange email. On the plus side you get access to the Office productivity suite and Skype for Business Unified Communications tool with your subscription.

2. Take a full backup

You probably already have a backup regime in place, but before going any further, take another full backup which you can roll back should something go wrong. SBS components (Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint) are tightly integrated so changes to one could have major effects elsewhere in the system.

Don’t forget to test the backup and verify that it will be good for a full system restore if required.

3. Complete the Exchange Server Deployment Wizard

Microsoft has developed a useful online wizard that asks questions about your Exchange Server environment, and then provides personalised instructions for your migration project. Open the Exchange Server Deployment Assistant page and select the Cloud Only option to get started.

Moving forward:

  • Select Yes when asked if you have mailboxes to migrate to Exchange Online.
  • Tell the wizard that your current on-premises system is running Exchange 2003.
  • If you plan to replace your SBS2003 machine with a Windows 2012 Foundation Server, select the Manage users on premise

You will then be presented with an 8-step list that needs to be completed in order to migrate mailboxes to Office 365.

4. Schedule some downtime to complete the migration

Once you fully understand the migration process, you should arrange a suitable time to lock users out of the system so that you can complete the migration. It may be a good idea to extend the downtime sufficiently to complete the move from SBS2003 to Server 2012 at the same time.

You should now be in a position to complete the move to Office 365, and begin the process of completely replacing the server and its ageing software.

5. Post migration checks

Once the mailboxes have been imported into Office 365, don’t forget to complete the post-migration tasks, including assigning licenses to users (they won’t be able to access their mailboxes otherwise), adjusting your onsite DNS records to point to the Office 365 service, and updating the company MX record(s) to direct mail requests to Microsoft’s servers.

6. Safe decommissioning

With the new email system bedded in and everything working as it should, ensure that the Exchange 2003 services are disabled on your SBS machine. Because the server still contains sensitive corporate data, you will need to treat it with the same care and attention as when it was the primary email server.

After migrating all data, services and roles from the SBS server, and once you are sure that everything is running correctly on the new systems, arrange for secure deletion of the data stored on it, followed by disposal or recycling by a WEEE-certified contractor.

Don’t forget that the longer you rely on Exchange Server 2003, the greater the risk that something will go wrong, placing your company email archives in danger. As you prepare to migrate away from SBS2003, take the time to build a plan for upgrading your email too.