Microsoft IT shares insights about moving to the cloud


October 2015


Executive Summary

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Planning to move your business environment to the cloud is a bit like moving to a new house—you must plan and organize as well as consider the process, costs, and benefits. To advance the vision of our "mobile first, cloud first" initiative, Microsoft IT migrated its own data and applications first. We faced some unexpected challenges, developed several best practices, and learned some lessons we can share with other companies that want to move to cloud computing.

Why Microsoft IT moved to the cloud

Like any IT department, Microsoft IT has a core mission of creating solutions that support its customers—other Microsoft business units. Maintaining and upgrading servers, server applications, databases, and the hardware that these all required was such a huge undertaking that it was interfering with that core mission.

The cost of hardware, data centers, and people—all the assets that were required to maintain the operating systems—was tremendous. Plus, there were ongoing software updates and security patches. This required a considerable budget of millions of dollars a year just to keep the hardware running.

For example, when there was a new product release, Microsoft IT faced the task of upgrading a global collaboration footprint in datacenters on three continents. By moving much of its infrastructure and data to the cloud, Microsoft IT was able to outsource much of that work to Microsoft Office 365 services.

Microsoft IT management recognized that moving applications and data to the Office 365 cloud would improve collaboration and enable access anywhere, anytime—from a desktop or laptop PC, a tablet, or a smartphone—any device that can run Office 365.

Planning and executing the move

Microsoft broke the migration into three steps, which included:

  1. Putting together a plan and a schedule.

  2. Taking an inventory of assets and prioritizing how to move them.

  3. Communicating with and preparing the affected workforce.

The migration was treated as a bona fide project that required careful planning, execution, and communication. Microsoft IT used Microsoft Project software to manage its move, but any project management tool will work.

The key is to follow good project management principles—identify stakeholders and risks, build out a schedule with discrete tasks, and set realistic end dates. Anticipate every possible scenario and be prepared for the unexpected.

Simplifying and speeding up the move

Just like sorting and packing when moving a house, data and applications were evaluated and prioritized. Some assets didn't need to move at all, so they could be archived offline or left behind. Important data and applications were scheduled to move first—then the easy ones—and finally, the difficult applications. Some applications and portals needed to be reengineered to work in the cloud and remained on-premises. These were moved as they were updated.

Microsoft IT had to move large amounts of data—over 40 farms in all. The main SharePoint portal contained 36 terabytes of data. Tests of the network throughput, coupled with the migration process itself, indicated it would take over four years to move. So the IT team developed a strategy of moving data "organically." They opened up enrollment in the cloud for brand new sites and stopped opening new sites on premises. Encouraging users to move their own sites and data (and clean house while they were at it) was a successful strategy.

Moving only active content to the cloud greatly reduced the sheer volume of data to be moved. This strategy also meant that Microsoft IT did not have to spend time and take up space moving and storing unused data. Focusing on moving collaborative content that was needed in day-to-day operations helped to prioritize assets from most important to least important.


To simplify and speed up the migration process:

  • Have users and groups evaluate their own data, then archive anything that needs to be kept but is no longer actively used to offline storage. Leave behind unwanted data that has no further use.

  • Let those who are willing to move themselves do so before the rest of the migration begins. Provide tools and resources for them to move their content safely and efficiently.

  • Teams and users that move their own content get the cloud service sooner and are able to create new sites. They immediately gain the benefits of the cloud platform—accessibility from any device, anywhere, at any time.

  • Promote timely cooperation and readiness and, in return, meet expectations by negotiating and setting firm dates and times for each group's migration, and then following through on schedule.

  • Create new sites only in the cloud—require a legitimate business justification for any exceptions.

Considering architecture

Microsoft IT weighed two factors when evaluating data and applications for cloud migration: technical complexity and business impact. The group proceeded with a hybrid approach—a majority of its content would be moved to the cloud. The remainder that was too costly or time consuming to move, or was nearly obsolete, would stay on-premises.

To serve as a test case for customers, Microsoft IT was not afforded the luxury of simply connecting drives to cloud datacenters and porting the data over at high speeds. It had to send its data through the corporate gateway to the Office 365 cloud like any other customer.

Moving Exchange mailboxes to the cloud

Microsoft IT initially moved approximately 2,000 mailboxes in its first migration to the cloud. Because the necessary infrastructure was not in place to support the large volume of data suddenly flowing between the corporate intranet and the cloud, the entire Microsoft network bogged down when users connected after the move and their mailbox caches started syncing. IT had to back out the changes and work with the network team to improve the hardware and ensure that the move would succeed without disrupting any other services.


Moving an existing infrastructure to the cloud is more complex than just copying data from one place to another. IT must take into account firewalls, data bandwidth limitations, latency, profile synchronization, and other technical considerations that may apply.

Enterprises that use an on-premises Microsoft Exchange server for email should keep these important concepts in mind before migrating to cloud-based Office 365 mail:

  • Move a small group of mailboxes initially to determine if the process is sound and that the network can handle the volume of data moving from the on-premises server through the network gateway and, ultimately, into the cloud.

  • Avoid downtime, and do the move during the weekend or non-business hours.

  • Synchronize users' mailboxes after the move, but before making the switch from the on-premises server to the cloud (that is, changing the path that the mailboxes point to).

  • In case something goes wrong, have a plan in place to back out of the process to eliminate or minimize downtime and prevent data loss.

Identifying and communicating with key stakeholders

In addition to the users and groups that will migrate and the teams that will do the migration, IT must identify other teams that may be affected. For example, the network team may suddenly find that the corporate network is bogged down with an unexpected surge of data flowing to the cloud.

Network teams need to be provided with details of the migration plan and informed that network traffic might suddenly spike. Their expertise is important to determine if hardware is sufficient for the increased data flowing between the cloud and the on-premises network.

A communication plan to share the message about migrating to the cloud should:

  • Reach key stakeholders and end users

  • Be as transparent as is feasible

  • Establish the best communication channels (email, presentations, site messages)

  • Outline timing and scheduling for delivering your message

  • Use targeted email instead of widely broadcast, non-specific messages

  • Update SharePoint site home pages with relevant and timely information

  • Conduct presentations and Q&A sessions

  • Incorporate branding in your communications

Key takeaways

  • Reduce the amount of data to be migrated, to reduce the complexity and time needed to complete the process.

  • Carefully examine the hardware and network to determine if it can handle the additional traffic to the cloud. Consult with experts and upgrade your infrastructure as needed.

  • Use the analogy of moving a house to encourage users to leave behind content they no longer need for their day-to-day business operations.

  • Start the migration with small processes that are likely to succeed on the first try, and learn from and build on the experience to tackle the more challenging projects.

  • Make it a paramount goal to avoid losing any data during the migration. Perform backups and monitor the operation as it progresses.

  • Be agile and plan for any setbacks that might occur.


For more information

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