Software

How to centralize e-mail and calendar data for optimum availability

Brad Bird addresses the common challenge of trying to keep email and calendar information centralized and synchronized, especially while on-the-go and working with multiple systems.

Recently, I found myself with a daunting challenge. Like many IT professionals, I needed to record my appointments and meetings, and as a consultant, I also needed to keep track of e-mail in many different mail systems from the various partners and organizations that I work with. It sounds simple, but it depends on a lot of coordination and synchronization that doesn't happen by magic.

I need to keep all my calendar items and e-mails as centralized as possible, especially when I'm on the go. Working with multiple Microsoft Exchange systems, Outlook, and various e-mail programs, how can you  make it all work together? I'll tell you how I've solved the problem of centralizing all my crucial information and sharing my Calendar with the select people who need to see it.

How things have been done

I had a partial solution for a while: leveraging Microsoft Exchange. I would save any meetings from my other mail systems as .ics files and import them into Outlook using the File | Import/Export menu in Outlook 2007.

Once this was done, I needed to make sure that the appointments copied over from the Personal Calendar that I imported were then synced to the Calendar folder hosted on the Exchange server. This process was still somewhat manual, but the benefits made it tolerable.

However, I kept discovering new challenges in trying to access my Calendar and meeting appointments while on the go. If you travel a lot like I do, managing your bookings, hotel reservations, flights, and car rentals is a job in itself. It often required me to have a lot of paper on hand to keep it all straight.

My solution for this issue is a free Web site called Tripit.com. I created an account on Tripit and associated several e-mail addresses with that account. From here, whenever I receive an e-mail confirmation for flights, car rentals, or hotels, I forward them to a central e-mail address: plans@tripit.com. Tripit (Figures A and B) assembles my details into individual trips based on the longest start and end dates (these usually correspond to my flight departure and arrival dates).

Figure A

I can edit the trip details.

Figure B

I can keep it all in one place.

The best part about Tripit is that after customizing my trips, I can export all the details to an .ics file and import that into my Outlook, which will synchronize with my Mobile Device using Activesync. This has trimmed a lot of paper from my travels.

A major advantage of this when used with Exchange is that the data is centrally stored so if my phone has an issue and needs to be wiped, I reconfigure the Exchange server information with Activesync and I am good to go!

I am similarly protected from Outlook issues on my laptop in this way.

Calendar-sharing: Last piece of the puzzle

In Outlook, I can configure users with whom I can share my Calendar as far as reading and writing capabilities. Only users in the Exchange organization have this ability, though, so it is limited.

Recently, I found myself no longer able to remain dedicated on one Exchange system. I am doing business with several partners. Using Activesync, I am not able to tie into more than one Exchange system. Outlook will also not allow more than one Exchange server to be configured at a time.

This brings me back to the problem of not having a single, central Calendar. I know that there are some Internet Calendar options, but how will these work and will I be able to share my Calendar with potential clients to view my availability?

Solution

Google to the rescue! With Google Calendar, I can add all my different Calendars and manage them centrally online (Figure C). Using Activesync, you can add the address of the Calendar on the Web. You'll then have the ability to sync with your mobile device!

Figure C

Take advantage of Central Google Calendar.

As a much-needed addition, I can share my Calendar(s) with whomever I choose. I can also allow read/write access to them individually. These features are part of the Google Calendar application itself.

By using an online Calendar, I can easily integrate this into my existing Web site where I host my blog so the different partners I work with can get a bird's-eye view of my availability and get ahold of me for work. This process would involve some coding unless there is a platform that will allow syncing the Calendar similarly to the way Activesync does in the Mobile phone.

I've found a solution that works for me and the platforms and applications that I use. Have you had to solve similar interoperability challenges with your own setup and devices? Which productivity suite is the best in your opinion? If you've got all of this down pat, I would love to hear about your solutions.

About Brad Bird

Brad Bird is a lead technical consultant and MCT certified trainer based in Ottawa, ON. He works with large organizations, helping them architect, implement, configure, and customize System Center technologies, integrating them into their business pr...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox