E-mail is the killer app of networks. But maintaining older systems or trying to switch to new ones is killing IT staffs as companies push e-mail to do more than it ever was intended.

In many organizations e-mail has eclipsed the telephone in importance. Many managers have stretched e-mail to become a sort of teamwork applications platform, including elements of work flow, collaboration, and automatic alerts for business processes. E-mail is also where the highly valuable company directory often resides.

Indeed, the Gartner Group, a Stamford, CT-based market research firm, predicts that about 80 percent of knowledge workers will be working on teams linked primarily by e-mail, groupware, and conferencing technology by 2005.

  • By 2001, 40 percent of companies will outsource their e-mail.
  • Outsourcing e-mail will become a $2.56 billion annual business in North America.
  • Most companies outsourcing e-mail will be small to midsize.
  • Some 70 percent of companies don’t know the true cost of their e-mail systems.

Source: Gartner Group Inc., Stamford, CT
Is it any wonder that companies wait until the last minute before tinkering with such an important element of their business?

Yet because e-mail has evolved into a business platform for many companies—the mission-critical means of communication for many dispersed workers—it creates a quandary for those who need to upgrade systems.

“There will be a continued need for messaging integration solutions as organizations implement new technologies and respond to mergers and acquisitions,” said David Ferris, president of San Francisco-based Ferris Research, an industry research firm specializing in messaging, directories, and collaborative applications.

Here’s the challenge facing a growing number of small to midsize businesses: The e-mail system is reaching the breaking point. How can we perform a desperately needed upgrade without disrupting service to the workers and business processes now almost entirely dependent on a functioning e-mail system?

Fortunately, that question is being answered now better than ever, thanks to a budding industry devoted solely to e-mail migration issues and to the migration tools and services offered by today’s highly competitive messaging systems vendors.
The need to migrate e-mail systems as older ones become obsolete or overburdened has become an ongoing concern for IT administrators. Rolling out new messaging systems to end users takes most organizations more elapsed time than they expect.

  • Nearly 75 percent of organizations use consultants for at least some part of their migration effort, but only about one-third of the total person-hours involved in a migration project is accounted for by consultants.
  • Thirty percent of organizations migrating to a new messaging system spend more on consultants than they expected they would.
  • The typical end user of a new messaging system is 18 percent more productive than before the system was implemented.

Source: Michael Osterman, Creative Networks Inc., Palo Alto, CA
E-mail’s evolution
Not very long ago, e-mail systems were under the auspices of the legacy IT structure on the mainframe and available only to users lucky enough to have access to a networked terminal. Such systems evolved into the IBM Profs, DEC Mail, and Banyan products.

The wired PC revolution, however, opened up e-mail to a vastly larger group of users, and separate messaging and collaboration systems evolved to target the PC e-mail user. Among the most popular systems were Lotus’ cc:Mail, WordPerfect’s e-mail (now Novell GroupWise), and Microsoft Mail.

The older systems makers got wise and allowed a client-server use of their mainframe-based systems so that users could tap into the legacy messaging systems in use.

What’s happening in the market
In the past three years, a smaller group of top-tier messaging vendors has emerged. In doing so they have been waging a quiet war with their latest products: Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, and Novell GroupWise.

It’s been a horse race, with Lotus and Microsoft duking it out for the top growth spot, and Novell working to hold its own. During the first half of 1999, for example, Microsoft Exchange sold 8.1 million seats worldwide, compared to 7.4 million Lotus seats and 2.69 million seats for Novell GroupWise, according to International Data Corp. in Framingham, MA.

Despite softening sales in the U.S., Lotus is selling well in Europe—some 2.2 million seats sold compared to Microsoft’s 1.9 million seats sold—and in the Asia-Pacific region, where Lotus sold 1.3 million seats in the first half of 1999, compared to Microsoft’s 577,000 seats, IDC stated.

Cambridge, MA-based Lotus, a division of IBM, remains the most popular messaging vendor globally, but Microsoft continues to chip away at Lotus’ lead, researchers said.

New Internet players enter the field
In the midst of this race, a host of new Internet-based systems—think of them as a Hotmail for companies—have also emerged so companies can install their own browser-based systems or outsource their messaging needs entirely to Internet service providers (ISPs) and application service providers (ASPs).

Messaging administrators are being sought out by two somewhat overlapping camps: the client-server variety of messaging, albeit with thin-client front ends, and the pure Internet players.

A real-world example
Deciding on which system to adopt and to what degree to outsource has been vexing for many IT managers. At Wingra Technologies LLC in Madison, WI, dealing with these decisions has become a growth industry.

Wingra uses its modules and processes to allow e-mail systems to coexist to keep the functionality in place and then segues over to the new system as users become accustomed to the new interface.

Lately, companies have been consolidating on one system or another, doing away with disparate messaging products between different departments.

“We’re seeing more migration between current systems, like Notes and Exchange. Before it was more migrating off of older systems,” said Dave Nelson, director of marketing at Wingra. Large enterprises are consolidating their messaging systems among divisions and between acquired companies.

The task of migrating among systems, in fact, has become tantamount to maintaining systems. It seems that no e-mail system is ever stagnant, that the process is routinely fluid and new functions and upgrades are invariably being installed.

In such cases, the best strategy, Nelson said, is to create processes that allow the ability to change by having organized and standards-compliant directories, repositories, and networks. “There’s a penalty to be paid for not having a strategy,” in that you can get stuck in a project while the world moves on, Nelson said.

Additionally, waiting to adopt new systems and technologies also comes with a price. Your competitors may be able to work better by using better e-mail and calendaring programs.

“If you don’t have calendaring and collaboration, and your competitors do, they can be more productive,” Nelson warned. “You need to be collaborative and have workgroups, especially over the Internet. If your competitors can collaborate better, and communicate better, they will have a competitive advantage over you.”
E-mail boxes used to be for just e-mail, but not any longer. A new type of unified messaging inbox is emerging that can handle all types of messages, whether voice, e-mail, or fax.The adoption of such unified messaging systems is expected to be explosive, growing dramatically from 35,000 such inboxes in 1998 to 25.4 million by 2003, predicts market research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, MA.Unified messaging means a user can retrieve messages through a telephone as well as a Web-enabled and connected PC. By getting all types of messages on a single screen, it becomes easier to prioritize, especially for scores of voice-mail messages. Users can, at a glance, know who has phoned, rather than listen to all their messages in sequence via voice mail.Among those flocking to the new service: mobile professionals who routinely work on the road or from home, analysts said.Today such services are primarily provided by Internet service providers, wireless carriers, and local exchange carriers, though corporations are jumping aboard the trend for their workers. This year, some 30 percent of unified message inboxes are offered free, but that is expected to decrease to 15 percent by 2003 as early users realize the value in the service, IDC said.Moreover, the corporations that do end up supplying such services to their workers are expected by IDC to buy the services outsourced from resellers such as GTE Internetworking. Compaq Computer even recently entered the unified messaging field through a partnership with TelePost.The home user may be next to flock to unified messaging. According to an IDC survey of U.S. households, nearly 24 percent said they were interested in unified messaging.

Dana Gardnerhas been a reporter and editor since 1980, covering engineering and computing for the last 11 years. He joined InfoWorld in 1995 as the founding news editor of InfoWorld Electric. As an InfoWorld editor at large, he has responsibility for coverage of application development, Java, application servers, application integration, and Internet commerce platforms.