The National Association of Realtors needs state-of-the-art messaging in order to serve its 1.1 million members with alerts from Washington, D.C., faster than they can get them elsewhere. But the association couldn’t depend on its aging IBM Lotus Domino and Lotus Notes system to deliver the speed and reliability that it needed, nor to fully support the staff’s mobile phones. So, the association migrated from Domino and Notes to Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 and Microsoft Outlook 2010. The results: Employee productivity has increased along with the reliability of the messaging system. Calendaring is more efficient and employees have full messaging support on the phones of their choice. The association estimates that once its Notes applications are fully migrated in a couple of years, it will likely save U.S.$900,000—savings it could reinvest in its core mission: providing member service.Situation
When Mark Lesswing went to work each day, he felt like he was stepping back in time. Unfortunately, Lesswing isn’t nostalgic.
Lesswing—Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of the National Association of Realtors—would get that feeling whenever he scheduled a meeting, attempted to check his calendar from his mobile phone, or tried to view a link sent to him in an email message. The cause of this feeling: the software that powered the association’s email system.
That software, IBM Lotus Domino and Notes, had been in place at the association for about 20 years—not long, considering the association’s 100-year-old history, but an eternity in the age of technology. What had once been an engine for productivity had become an obstacle to it, with the current generation of staff unfamiliar with the software.
Lesswing and his 350 colleagues at the association felt the pain every time they tried to schedule a meeting. “We were very challenged to organize meetings that included our staff and our members,” he says. “We had trouble checking availabilities and sending meeting invitations in standard iCal format, so calendars became underutilized. Nor was it easy to work with our members in real time. I could be on the phone with a member who could request that I set up a call with colleagues, and the best I could say was ‘let me get back to you.’ And it would take at least a day to get back to the member.”
||We want to streamline spending in areas like IT so we can move more of our revenue from members’ dues into programming and educational services for those same members. Microsoft is helping us to do that.
Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President,National Association of Realtors
That was a tremendous issue for Lesswing and the National Association of Realtors, an educational and lobbying association serving 1.1 million members throughout the United States. “We exist to serve our members,” Lesswing says. “Member service is everything we’re about. If we’re not relevant to our members, we have no business being here. And our members are constantly working—it’s a 24-hours-a-day business. We had trouble getting our email, calendaring, and scheduling to work 24 hours a day, too.”
Added to that concern was the need to provide those services not just at employees’ desktops, but also remotely. Association staff often worked with federal legislators and their staffs, or attended congressional hearings. They needed to be reachable wherever they were, and they needed to be able to send email alerts to members notifying them of developments in pending legislation. For those alerts to have maximum value to members, they had to be sent as soon as possible. The association used a connector between Notes and Blackberry devices, but that only served employees using Blackberry phones.
The association faced other issues. For example, availability could be uneven, with Notes offline for hours at a time during business hours. Notes opened links in email messages using its own browser, rather than the default browser on a desktop; often, webpages using the latest technology, such as HTML5, didn’t display properly.
Lesswing knew he had those concerns. He didn’t know what concerns lay in wait around the corner—and that was yet another concern. “The roadmap with Notes was getting muddled,” he says.
“Notes didn’t work well with our intranet portal,” says Lesswing. “We had to write more code for it than we wanted to. Just as important, the world is moving away from Notes—less than 1 percent of our members use it. We knew that to truly understand our members, we should be using the technology that they were using—that was a powerful motivator for change.”Solution
The National Association of Realtors saw an opportunity to reconsider its choice of messaging software when it began to make its IT environment more energy-efficient as part of a broader effort to gain certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard, popularly known as LEED. Moving its software to new hardware raised the question of what messaging software it might use to greater benefit.
It considered Google Apps. The option troubled the association’s lawyers, who didn’t want sensitive information outside of the association’s control. Google Apps troubled Lesswing, too, who found that third-party resources, such as consultants and solution providers, were “not available for Google Apps.”
But consultants and solution providers were available for a different messaging software: Microsoft Exchange Server 2010. “We talked to other companies and found they had a great response to using Exchange Server in the corporate environment,” says Lesswing. “Exchange Server is mature and reliable. It has the rich functionality we wanted to meet our business needs. Almost everyone uses it and there’s a broad market of consultants and resources for it. Exchange Server was our choice.”
To implement that choice, the association turned to CDW, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network. “CDW was a compelling partner,” says Lesswing. “During the planning process, they laid out exactly what needed to happen over the following nine months of implementation. They recommended that we build a separate environment for Exchange Server and then cut over to it from Notes. We had no disruption of business function.”
To accomplish the migration, the association and CDW used popular Exchange Server migration tools from Quest Software. They also used those tools to address another aspect of the migration: Notes wasn’t just the association’s email system. The association also had about 600 custom Notes applications, called “databases,” many of which relied on messaging to send data to other systems. The Quest tools also provided a bridge between Notes and Exchange Server so that the Notes applications could access the new Exchange Server deployment. The association plans to migrate the Notes applications, mostly to Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, over the next two years.
On the day of the migration for each department, association employees in the given department participated in a three-hour session that introduced them to Exchange Server and to the Microsoft Outlook 2010 messaging and collaboration client. During that time, the migration was implemented. When the employees returned to their desks, the new messaging system was available to them.
||We’re on an equal footing with our members, so we can do a better job of communicating with them. Our technology doesn’t hold us back.
Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President,National Association of Realtors
To address the need for better mobile phone support, the association used Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, which is built into Exchange Server. That technology provides interoperability between Exchange Server and major phone brands
, without the need for separate, mediating servers. For remote access to Exchange Server from a web browser, the association deployed Microsoft Outlook Web App.
With Exchange Server in place, the association is now testing the use of another element in the broader Microsoft Unified Communications solution: Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2. The association’s IT group is now using that software for presence and instant messaging—and gaining broader capabilities than it had with Lotus Sametime. The association recently upgraded the network architecture between its Washington, D.C., and Chicago offices, leading to its interest in also using Office Communications Server for its web, audio, and video conferencing capabilities.
“We’d like to deploy Office Communications Server, or its successor, Microsoft Lync Server, more broadly,” says Lesswing. “It’s a fantastic package. Together with Exchange Server, it gives us the ability to move seamlessly among email, instant messaging, and conferencing, depending on what form of communication would be the most productive at any moment.”Benefits
The National Association of Realtors has seen messaging reliability and productivity go up, and average meeting time go down, with its move to Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft Outlook. Employees have better mobile support and the freedom to choose their own phones. And, when its migration of Notes applications is complete in a couple of years, the association will likely save U.S.$900,000 in annual IT spending—funds that it will be able to reinvest in member services.
Greater Reliability, Productivity Boost Member Service
The association has succeeded in its primary goal to make its employees more productive so that they can provide better service to the association’s members.
“Now, with Exchange Server and Outlook, we just put proposed meeting dates out to employees and members, and they can respond,” says Lesswing. “We can respond to meeting proposals. My schedule appears on all my devices. What’s commonplace to so many organizations was foreign to us until a few months ago. Now, we live in that world, too. We’re on an equal footing with our members, so we can do a better job of communicating with them. Our technology doesn’t hold us back.”
The use of Exchange Server and Outlook similarly mitigates the other concerns that the association had with Notes. Links in email messages, for example, now open properly, making it possible for employees to participate fully in email exchanges that include them.
Part of the greater productivity that association employees gain from Exchange Server is based simply on its higher availability. “We follow Microsoft best practices for Exchange Server,” says Keith Garner, Vice President of Information Technology Services at the National Association of Realtors. “That just leads us naturally to a system with great failover capability and high availability.”
||With Exchange Server, employees can choose the phone that lets them excel, and we’ll support it. We always hear ‘IT is making the choice for us.’ Now, we’re turning that choice back over to our employees.
Vice President of Information Technology Services, National Association of Realtors
As a result of that high availability, association employees rely on email more than they could before. The use of calendaring has increased. Also, meetings are more efficient, because of the ability to schedule them promptly and to share documentation beforehand in the meeting invitation itself, rather than in separate messages.
Better Mobile Support Gives Employees Choice of Phones
Employees away from the office—whether they’re at congressional meetings or working late at night from home—now send and receive email messages and meeting invitations as readily as they can at the office. In contrast to the limited calendaring capability formerly available only for Blackberry devices, employees have the full range of Exchange Server functionality, and they have it for virtually any phone they want.
The expanded functionality—provided through Outlook Web App support for web browsers, and through Microsoft Outlook Mobile and Exchange ActiveSync support for phones—was of particular help during the association’s recent annual conference. Employees could send and receive email as quickly as the members they were serving, and could send timely alerts to members regarding changes in the conference program.
The new freedom that employees have to use the association’s messaging system with the phone brand of their choice has a decidedly nontechnical benefit. “We can give our employees freedom of choice in which phone they buy,” says Garner. “Our employees increasingly really didn’t want Blackberry phones, but that’s what they were stuck with. With Exchange Server, employees can choose the phone that lets them excel, and we’ll support it. We always hear ‘IT is making the choice for us.’ Now, we’re turning that choice back over to our employees.”
Continued Migration Likely to Yield $900,000 Annual Savings
With the move to Exchange Server and Outlook, the association sees direct benefits accruing to its IT operations—with indirect benefits for member services.
For example, productivity is up in system maintenance, help-desk, and other management activities. The association uses Outlook Web App to streamline the process of setting up temporary, remote deployments at its off-site annual and mid-year meetings. Licensing for the solution also costs less than it did for Notes, due to the association’s Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft.
The savings are expected to grow markedly over the next two years, as the association continues its migration of Notes applications to Microsoft technology. These savings could eventually amount to about $900,000 a year, 15 percent of the association’s overall IT budget, Lesswing estimates. The association would have the option of reinvesting that savings directly into expanded member services.
“We want to streamline spending in areas like IT so we can move more of our revenue from members’ dues into programming and educational services for those same members, says Lesswing. “Microsoft is helping us to do that.”Microsoft Server Product Portfolio
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