Texas A&M University at Qatar is a branch campus and valuable part of the famous Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Located on the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, Texas A&M at Qatar is part of an initiative known as Education City. Education City covers 14 square kilometers and houses educational facilities and branch campuses from some of the world’s most famous universities, including Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. The branch campuses that make up part of Education City work to serve Qatar and to enrich its greatest natural resource — its people — by making fundamental contributions to teaching, engineering, and research in Qatar and the region.
Texas A&M University at Qatar first opened its doors in 2003, welcoming 29 students into its engineering programs. Today, the branch campus plays host to a mix of 550 Qatari and international students. Texas A&M’s mission in Qatar is to educate exemplary engineers and develop world-class leaders; generate new knowledge and intellectual capital through innovative research; and advance the development of goals of the State of Qatar and the region through expertise and engagement that expand human capital . More than that, the forward-thinking government of Qatar realizes that fossil fuels are not the future, and is investing heavily in education to lay the foundation of a knowledge worker society that will help the region utilize solar energy, increase efficiencies in petrochemicals, and help to clean water efficiently.
For the past six years, Texas A&M at Qatar has relied on an Exchange 2010 collaboration system as the primary source of communications for its 2,000 user population of students, faculty, & staff.
With the arrival from the United States of a new Enterprise IT Technologist, Thomas Mather, Texas A&M at Qatar evaluated its existing Exchange 2010 system and realized that the system was quickly approaching the end of its life. It was time to upgrade to the latest version of the Microsoft platform — Exchange 2016 — and migrate its existing 2,500 user mailboxes.
According to Mather, “Our email system is one of the most mission-critical systems we have here at our branch campus. It is our primary means of communicating to our employees and university community, many of whom travel abroad frequently for business and personal travel. The system needs to be available 100 percent of the time.”
- Design a new Exchange 2016 environment primarily using existing hardware and interfaces. As well as deploy, test, and tweak the system, leveraging expertise eight time zones away
- Ensure that there is ZERO user inconvenience or disruption of services during the migration to Exchange 2016
- Completely finish the project before the end of the branch campus’s fiscal year.
Leveraging the financial offices of its Texas-based flagship university, Texas A&M at Qatar put out a request for proposals for an “in-place migration without any disruption to services.” The branch campus received responses to the RFP request from many vendors, in addition to fielding numerous questions from others, but in the end selected Netmail based primarily on Netmail’s thorough proposal, the qualifications of the Netmail team, Netmail’s experience in the field of education, and the cost of the project.
Like most universities, shrinking budgets have forced Texas A&M at Qatar to develop its own internal expertise when it comes to designing new systems; but with a mission critical service like Exchange needing a complete re-design and upgrade, bringing in outside experts was an easy decision. According to CIO Kevin Davis, the team at Texas A&M at Qatar wanted the Netmail team to validate its hardware design, make sure the project was scoped properly, and assist with the migration to ensure that there was no downtime.
Once selected for the project, Netmail helped the university evaluate load balancers, add layers of security, and ensure multiple backups to the system, as well as design the new Exchange 2016 system. “The Netmail engineer we worked with was knowledgeable and responsive to our needs,” Mather said.
One of the biggest challenges was the fact that the university in Qatar was eight time zones away from Netmail’s head office in Montreal, Canada, so the project had to be very tightly choreographed between the Netmail team and the personnel in Qatar and completed before the end of the branch campus’s fiscal year. In the end, the project was completed in 60 days.
On the subject of roadblocks, Mather admits there were a few bumps along the way, having discovered some Active Directory objects left behind from a previous migration project with another vendor. “We had to troubleshoot, identify, and remove the objects before moving forward with the migration,” Mather said. “This wasn’t in the scope of our project, but the Netmail engineer helped us remove the objects and, more importantly, keep the project on track and on time.”
Post-migration, Mather says there were no issues. “I have to commend Netmail for the thoroughness of the migration plan. During the post-migration phase, all the old servers were properly decommissioned and removed. Everything had been factored into the original migration project. There were no issues whatsoever.”
“At the end of the day, it was all about a successful migration,” Davis said. “Our users didn’t even notice that the migration was taking place. We are really happy with the outcome of the project.”