Air Mobility Command consolidates e-mail

Air Mobility Command

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The Air Force's Air Mobility Command has completed a three-year consolidation project that transitioned 65,000 e-mail users from 90 servers to 16 and centralized the e-mail administration functions into one data center.

In the course of the project, the group standardized its 12 bases, or "wings," on Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange 5.5 and installed management software to free up more than 450G of storage space. The command flies support missions worldwide, such as equipment transportation, midair refueling and emergency evacuation of troops.

The project was born in 2000 when then-Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters and other officials began to look at private companies and their methods of managing e-mail, said Col. Gregory Touhill, communications group commander at the command's headquarters at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

Peters and others met with major information technology vendors, including Microsoft and Sun Microsystems Inc., Touhill said. "Based on that, we decided we wanted to consolidate to make the most of our resources," he said. "The Air Force realized that new technologies were coming into play that we wanted to leverage. At the same time, we had limited resources, both in personnel and dollars."

The project got an enthusiastic start, he added. "The Air Force elected not to do the full business case, but decided to launch based on the fact that industry has been able to do this," Touhill said. Along with Microsoft, the Air Force chose Ixos Software Inc. for storage management software, EMC Corp. for storage systems and NetIQ Corp. for enterprise management software.

The work started at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina in 2000. After officials and the organization's vendor partners were sure the solutions worked, they rolled it out to the rest of the command's bases, work that is just now coming to completion.

The project began with an assessment. "They didn't know exactly how much mail each particular organization was holding," said Mark Meaders, director of federal systems at Ixos, which also aided in the transition. "What we found was eye-opening. The civil engineers had the largest amount of e-mail of any organization on the base. These guys are passing [computer-aided design] drawings, project plans — some pretty large material was going around."

Actually transitioning users proved to be a challenge, Meaders said. Users wanted minimal interruption in their e-mail service. Meaders accomplished that by archiving all the e-mail messages that were older than three days for the users being moved.

"The critical thing is that the user has to be off-line when the move occurs. I'm taking their e-mail service away from them," he said. "So if I'm moving 5M mailboxes, I can do it much faster than if I'm moving 50M mailboxes." Meaders explained the technique to the command's IT staff, who then did most of the migration themselves.

"As we've completed this migration, we've seen the reliability of the system improving," Touhill said. "We estimate that we've saved at least 200 servers by doing this. We've been able to free up a lot of IT professionals in the command. We've freed them up to go do other tasks. It's been a force multiplier" across the command.

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User input

Along with deploying new technology, the Air Force had to solve pressing management issues when it came to e-mail consolidation. The service's Air Mobility Command has 12 bases nationwide. But, it had no standard business rules for handling and storing e-mail.

"They varied by base, and sometimes by organizations within the base," said Col. Gregory Touhill, communications group commander at the command's headquarters at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. "We wanted to set some rules. You can't store everybody's e-mails indefinitely."

The lack of standards led to backup slowdowns at some bases, as workers tried to restore massive volumes of stored mail without rules to govern which collections to restore first.

Now, the command divides its users into four classes. Those whose work depends on e-mail access and is most critical to the base's operations have less chance of losing access and get it back first if there is a problem. So do many less critical "power users" and the organizational accounts that serve workgroups. Other users are considered lower priority, Touhill said, and may wait hours or days for service to return.

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