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Transitioning from Exchange 2003: It's Harder Than You Think

Time is running out for organizations running Exchange Server 2003, but Microsoft hasn't made it easy for those wanting to move away from the decade-old mail server.

On April 8, 2014, Exchange Server 2003 will lose "extended" product support, just like Windows XP, which means there will be no more security patch support for it. After that date, Exchange 2003 will be open to attacks that won't get patched by Microsoft, leading to potential security issues for organizations.

Getting off Microsoft's aging mail server in a couple of months could pose difficulties for organizations, given all of the steps involved in carrying out a migration. Exchange 2003 use represented 16 percent of all Exchange Server deployments worldwide, accounting for 66 million mailboxes, according to a March 2013 report (PDF) by The Radicati Group. The research firm estimated in that report that 6.3 million small-to-medium businesses in North America were still using Exchange 2003.

Other time bombs on the horizon for some organizations are Outlook 2003, Exchange 2010 Service Pack 2, Office 2003 and Windows XP. They all lose extended product support on April 8, according to Microsoft's product lifecycle descriptions.

No Upgrade Path for Exchange 2003
Organizations running Exchange 2003 face a special problem in that they cannot perform an in-place upgrade to Exchange 2013, which is Microsoft's newest mail server product. The exception may be offerings from third-party software vendors, which promise to simplify such moves.

Exchange 2003 migrations to Office 2013 aren't simple because Microsoft did not create an upgrade path for it -- a typical Microsoft practice for its products that are three generations old. For instance, it's not possible to install Exchange 2013 so that it coexists with Exchange 2003 in a single Active Directory forest. Instead, migration from Exchange 2003 typically might entail upgrading to Exchange 2010 first. Next, if an organization wants to get to Exchange 2013, they'd have to repeat the upgrade steps all over again, according to Exchange expert J. Peter Bruzzese, in a Redmond article.

This lack of an upgrade path from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2013 isn't explained in much detail by Microsoft. However, Microsoft MVP Ed Crowley does offer some advice in this Microsoft TechNet forum post. He also recommended moving to Exchange 2010 first. Analyst and consulting firm Gartner Inc. also advises that path as well.

"To move to Exchange 2013 from Exchange 2003 is a dual-hop migration because you have to move to Exchange 2010 first," explained Bill Pray, Gartner research vice president for technical professionals, in an e-mail. "For most organizations in this situation, that means migrating to Exchange 2010 and then stopping -- putting off a migration to Exchange 2013 until sometime in the future. The exception is that if they have a compelling business case to move to Exchange 2013 for the new archiving functionality."

Pray said that Gartner doesn't track overall Exchange use. However, the research and consulting firm does offer advice on deciding which Exchange version to select in its publication, "What's New in Exchange 2013, and Should You Move to It?" Organizations might also consider whether they are ready to use software-as-a-service e-mail solutions or not, instead of just weighing which Exchange Server version to move to, according to Pray.

An Exchange migration involves upgrading all Internet-facing Active Directory sites first, according to Microsoft's planning roadmap for Exchange 2003 upgrade and coexistence guide. The guide then broadly describes five more steps to carry out, including upgrading Exchange 2003 to Service Pack 2 first. This seemingly simple advice flies in the face of IT pro experience and advice, though, which paints a far more complicated picture.

For instance, Microsoft MVP Jaap Wesselius recommends moving to Exchange 2010 by first integrating it with an existing Exchange 2003 environment. He outlines the concepts in Part 1 and Part 2 of an Exchange migration article hosted by software tools maker Red Gate Software. The basic idea is to establish "coexistence" with Exchange 2003 by installing an instance of Exchange 2010. That installation takes place before trying to move mailboxes over to the new server, which can take a day to complete. Wesselius describes that process as performing an "intraorganizational migration," also known as "transitioning."

"Moving from Exchange Server 2003 to Exchange Server 2010 in the same Active Directory forest is called transitioning," Wesselius explained in Part 1. "Building a new Active Directory forest with a new Exchange Server 2010 organization and moving mailboxes from the old Active Directory to the new Active Directory is called migrating."

The final step is uninstalling the Exchange 2003 server. However, moving off Exchange 2003 turns out to involve a lot more than just five steps, with plenty of pitfalls along the way, according to Wesselius' account. In addition, IT pros may have to switch between management capabilities when Exchange 2003 is set up to coexist with Exchange 2010. Microsoft's planning roadmap publication explains that administrative groups are used in Exchange 2003, but they aren't used in Exchange 2010. That technology difference affects management tools use, as described in this TechNet article. For instance, System Manager in Exchange 2003 can't be used to manage Exchange 2010 objects.

Microsoft does provide some help for Exchange migrations. In addition to its TechNet resources, Microsoft provides a guidance tool in the form of the Exchange Server Deployment Assistant. This Web-based portal asks questions based on an organization's Exchange plans. It asks whether the installation is staying on premises, going to the cloud (Office 365) or based on a hybrid configuration. The Deployment Assistant then produces a report with steps to follow.

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