The American Red Cross consists of a collection of community-based chapters and biomedical facilities across the United States. Until recently, staff used a variety of email systems, which hindered internal communications to the point where the chief executive officer could not reach all 40,000 employees with one email message. The Red Cross standardized on a single email solution when it subscribed to Microsoft Office 365, which offers Microsoft Exchange Online, Lync Online, and SharePoint Online. For the first time, employees and key volunteers share the same email domain and can see each other’s calendars from PC, laptop, or mobile device. With anytime, anywhere access to their colleagues, Red Cross staff members can work together more efficiently to help people in times of need.
Founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, the American Red Cross is a humanitarian organization that shelters, feeds, and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies more than 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission.
The Red Cross has 600 local chapters in the United States. Each chapter had its own chief executive officer, board of directors, and IT staffers, who purchased applications as needed. Its 36 blood regions oversee the delivery of biomedical services and operate autonomously. In 2009, to improve organizational efficiency and reduce costs, Gail McGovern, Chief Executive Officer at the American Red Cross, initiated a project to streamline the organization’s governance structure and to consolidate redundant IT and other business systems, including finance, human resources, and marketing solutions. Most of this work had been done by June 2011, when the organization decided it was time to tackle its messaging and communication environment.
The Red Cross needs a reliable, easy-to-use, scalable, and available messaging and communications solution to coordinate efforts in times of need and to carry out its mandate. However, employees at the chapters and blood regions used disparate email systems and the organization had more than 400 email address domains.
“We had a Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 messaging environment for national headquarters, which was hosted in our Chicago data center and managed by a third-party,” says DeWayne Bell, Vice President of IT Operations and Engineering at the American Red Cross. “The biomedical employees had their own email system but shared the same domain with headquarters: @usa.redcross.org. Out in the chapters, the domains varied widely, and while people mostly ran older versions of Microsoft Exchange Server, I saw almost every other email service out there. Managing all these redundant email services and distribution lists was not a good use of our IT funds.”
Numerous disparate email services interrupted the flow of information across the organization, making it challenging to coordinate nationwide programs or to communicate as effectively as possible during an emergency.
Colleagues couldn’t see each other’s availability or check their calendars to arrange meetings. “In times of disaster, the Red Cross national Disaster Operation Center couldn’t communicate in real-time with responding chapters and relief workers,” says Bell. “Our CEO couldn’t send an email out to the whole organization. We knew we had to consolidate on a single email service but the challenge was finding a flexible, scalable solution that didn’t require a huge outlay in capital costs.”
The Red Cross found the solution to its email issues with Microsoft Office 365, a set of collaboration and productivity tools delivered as a cloud service. It was attracted by the connected, online suite of Microsoft Office applications that provide all the business communications and collaboration tools that its employees need to work more productively.
With a monthly, per-user subscription to Plan E1, the Red Cross would gain instant access to the latest versions of Microsoft business productivity software: Microsoft Exchange Online cloud-based email and calendaring service with a rich web-based mail client, Outlook Web App; Microsoft Lync Online, which offers instant messaging (IM) and screen sharing through its client software, Microsoft Lync 2010; and Microsoft SharePoint Online, an enterprise-level collaboration framework.
“We evaluated Google Apps for Business, but chose Office 365 because we wanted to give employees a familiar, easy-to-use interface,” says Bell. “We had several Windows-based applications, such as our human resources, payroll, and expense solutions, which are hard-configured into our email environment, so the transition to Google would have been much more difficult. And we wanted a solution to promote mobility. We liked how the Exchange ActiveSync protocol, part of Exchange Online, means you can configure different phone platforms and non-Windows devices to access your email, calendars, and SharePoint Online.”
Preparing for the Migration
In June 2011, the Red Cross prepared its employees for a migration to Exchange Online. The IT team rose to the challenge and successfully completed one of the largest migrations to Exchange Online in the United States—almost 40,000 email accounts—and also implemented a single email domain, @redcross.org. As a first step, the IT staff streamlined the organization’s Active Directory Domain Services directory service, which is an integral feature of the Windows operating system, and determined which business enterprise systems would be affected by the migrations.
Throughout the project, more than 100 people in the Red Cross collaborated with a team from Microsoft. “Microsoft Services Consulting was there from the beginning, helping us with design sessions and setting up a test lab environment at headquarters,” says Bell. “We tested more than 150 applications and found that 10 percent of those required some customizing to work with Office 365. A key success factor was cleaning up Active Directory to change and standardize our naming conventions. We wanted everyone on the same domain, so we moved all the chapters to the same Active Directory forest as headquarters and biomedical staff.“
The teams deployed the Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 messaging and collaboration client, ensured that all PCs and portable computers were configured properly to support Office 365, and trained the help-desk staff to support users after the migration.
The Red Cross formed a communications team to evangelize the migration to Exchange Online, which was another key success factor. The team launched an information portal on the intranet where volunteers and employees could find an Office 365 user guide. It also partnered with staff in the marketing department to develop a logo and brand—One Red Cross Email—reflected in posters, videos, T-shirts, cups, and mouse pads that were distributed to all the chapters and blood regions.
Staggering the Migration
Before beginning the migrations, the Office 365 product team invited Bell to be part of the Microsoft Customer Advisory Board. “At the time, we were the largest, multi-tenant Office 365 customer, so the ability to talk to the Microsoft product managers was great,” says Bell. “I also got to share our experience and learn about best practices with other organizations.“
The mailbox migrations began with a small pilot program at headquarters, which allowed the teams to fine-tune the process before launching a series of staggered migrations across the chapters. They planned the migrations carefully so that each one occurred at the optimal time and took only a weekend to complete.
“To figure out the migration sequence, we had to balance number of users per location, dependent mailboxes, size of mailboxes, available bandwidth, and time zones,” says Bell. “The folks at national headquarters had large mailboxes and plenty of bandwidth, so we put them in a separate migration group. We provided ‘white glove’ treatment to our essential emergency staff and volunteers, and to management executives. For our 20,000 biomedical employees who had smaller mailboxes and less bandwidth, we achieved weekend migrations of 3,000 people. We took the chapters one by one, using a predefined maintenance window for each. With Microsoft there every step of the way, we wrapped up the project in March 2012.”
Establishing Hybrid Co-Existence Scenario
The Red Cross easily established a hybrid co-existence scenario during the migration to ensure staff still using on-premises email solutions and those already migrated to the Exchange Online could communicate and share information such as meetings, calendaring, and free/busy status.
“During the migration we were able to connect our on-premises users with the users who were migrating to Office 365,” said Bell. “This allowed for a free flow of communication that we could not achieve across the enterprise with 400 disparate systems. For the first time, as one Red Cross, we had real-time presence awareness, free/busy calendaring, collaboration on documents, and one email system.“
The Next Step: Lync Online
The organization is running a Lync Online pilot project where almost 2,000 people are using IM and presence for real-time communications. “We wanted to take advantage of the interoperability between Microsoft Office 365 productivity services and maximize the benefit of moving to the cloud,” says Bell. “So we established the Office Automation Team, which focuses on merging email, collaboration, and mobility services to provide cloud-based services to end users.”
By adopting Office 365, the Red Cross gained a single email service that is transforming how the organization communicates. Standardizing on Exchange Online is only the first step in democratizing communications services and supporting the free flow of information. “For the first time, our CEO can send a single email message to reach all 40,000 employees and key volunteers at the Red Cross,” says Bell. “Thanks to Microsoft Office 365, we are a more integrated and efficient organization.”
Because Office 365 is a cloud-based service that comes with all the benefits of cloud computing—updates to the latest versions of Microsoft software, minimal IT administration, and zero on-premises infrastructure—the Red Cross is improving efficiency at less cost.
“We saved money when we transitioned to a cloud-based email service, there’s no question,” says Bell. “For the amount of money I paid our IT partner for managing the email solution for 3,000 people at headquarters, I got Exchange Online, Lync Online, and SharePoint Online for 40,000 people.”
Since the Red Cross completed its transition to Exchange Online, the service has been running flawlessly. “The reliability of the email service saves us a lot of time and worry,” says Bell. “We’re no longer seeing the major performance degradations that we had and that means a significant reduction in support costs.”
Improved Tools to Increase Productivity
The IT department spends less time and money managing infrastructure, duplicate distribution lists, and redundant email solutions. But according to Bell, the real value is providing a common email service that people can use to work together and help the organization deliver on its mission. Today, everyone is on the same @redcross.org email domain and there is only one common address list for IT staff to maintain.
“Volunteers and employees can see each other’s calendars and instead of phoning back and forth, it’s easier to schedule meetings and stay in touch,” says Bell. “It sounds basic, but now staff can locate and connect with any of their colleagues. We didn’t have that capability before. This helps us build a sense of professionalism and pride in our organization, and we can get things done a lot more quickly.”
Volunteers and employees are also enjoying larger mailboxes than they had before—25-gigabytes compared with 500 megabytes for most. And the service works well on any device that is connected to ActiveSync, so staff can stay connected wherever they are. This feature also enables the organization to accommodate those who want to choose their own mobile devices. When the Red Cross deploys Lync Online globally, users will be able to connect with each other by using IM, presence functionality, and audio and web conferencing, all with just one click. “Volunteers and employees no longer have to stop work and come in with email issues, especially around their mobile devices,” says Bell. “Now email just works on any device.”
Gained a Productivity Solution for the Future
With Office 365, the Red Cross gains a suite of familiar business productivity tools that fit into the organization’s long-term IT plans. “We have a SharePoint-based intranet and we wanted to move that to the cloud to reduce server footprint,” says Bell. “And with Lync Online, we can retire our Cisco WebEx solution to save software licensing costs.”
Because Office 365 is a cloud-based service, Red Cross volunteers and employees will remain up-to-date with the latest business tools while Microsoft manages the infrastructure administration and security. “Our successful migration is just the beginning of a long-term relationship with Microsoft,” concludes Bell. “Before our transition to Office 365, we thought of Microsoft as a software vendor. Today, we think of the company as a strategic business partner.”