Standardising postmerger e-mail an IT headache

A merger can be a colossal nightmare for IT departments that are called upon to make disparate systems play nice. And, as recent mergers and acquisitions have shown, nowhere is that more clear than in the effort to standardise postmerger e-mail systems.

"In the last 20 years, large companies have literally grown to having one to 20 to 30 e-mail systems out there" as a result of mergers, said Sven James, president of CompuSven. CompuSven, which helps large companies consolidate their e-mail systems, has more than 100 clients, each of which is trying to move to a single e-mail system, he said.

To make multiple systems work together inside one corporation, "the pain level is so high," James said, arguing that standardisation is a must.

That standardisation process tends to boil down to the question of whether to opt for Microsoft's Outlook and Exchange or Lotus Development's Notes and Domino.

Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC has gone the Exchange route. Tom McCormick, Microsoft Exchange administrator at Marathon, said he needed to pare down six messaging platforms, including homegrown systems built on mainframes, Notes and Novell's GroupWise.

McCormick said the motivators to go to one system were compelling: Marathon would have a common application interface and a common development environment for administrators; it wouldn't need experts in multiple systems; and it could provide a single form of access for users who move among locations.

McCormick said he can consolidate servers and administer remote users and five regional server locations from a central server hub.

"Exchange 2000 allowed us to have centralised migration and management while having a decentralised implementation" in terms of server location, he said.

Vicki Fredrick, head of the project to migrate to Exchange 2000 at Aventis SA, said the process was difficult, but in the end, helped her streamline administration.

Aventis, a pharmaceutical conglomerate, was formed last year by the merger of France-based Rhone-Poulenc and Germany-based Hoechst. One of the world's largest drug makers, Aventis decided to standardise on Exchange 2000 and became a partner in Microsoft's beta-testing program to move the migration along.

Aventis rival GlaxoSmithKline PLC decided to standardise on Notes shortly after the December merger of Philadelphia-based SmithKline Beecham PLC and London-based Glaxo Wellcome PLC. The new company is temporarily based in London. Both firms had significant investments in Notes and its companion Domino server, said a GlaxoSmithKline spokesman.

"The possibility of continuing with some sort of hybrid between Microsoft Outlook and Notes was considered but discarded as impracticable," stated a Feb. 28 companywide memo.

But the kind of e-mail unity that postmerger corporations seek can be elusive, said analysts and industry experts.

"I would say [that] 90 percent of the time, corporations do not get to a standard as quickly as they intended, and sometimes never," said Jan Eddy, president of Wingra Technologies LLC. Her company, like CompuSven, helps corporations migrate to a single e-mail system.

But according to David Ferris, president of Ferris Research in San Francisco, standardisation may not be the Holy Grail it's made out to be.

"They want one [environment], and they're naive in that," Ferris said of many companies. "It won't be practical; it requires too many resources that won't be practical enough for IS, and users won't want to migrate."

Coexistence often makes more sense, he said, because most e-mail systems have good connectivity tools. And with the development of standards based on Web protocols XML and HTML for e-mail and Web-based applications, the point becomes moot, he added.

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More about AshlandAventisCompuSvenFerris ResearchGlaxoSmithKlineGlaxo WellcomeHoechstMarathon Ashland PetroleumMicrosoftNovellSmithKline BeechamWingra Technologies

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