Delays plague record Web-based mail rollout

Fourteen months after announcing the largest e-mail outsourcing deal ever, United Airlines has yet to take flight with its Web-based service or save a penny from the much-touted arrangement with provider USA.Net.

The United Airlines project underscores how complex providing corporate e-mail systems has become. It also shows the importance of understanding user needs and coordinating with other ongoing IT development efforts.

While still optimistic about the Web mail project, United and USA.Net officials admit it was much more complicated than anticipated.

"This is not a trivial exercise," says Ajay Singh, director of research and development at United Airlines Operations. "There were network deployment issues and various planning to do with this kind of migration. But we're now in a beta-testing phase with our select mobile users."

"The United project, being as large as it is, did have more complexity than our other opportunities," says David Ramon, president of USA.Net. "It did take longer than anticipated, but in the end it'll be a better result."

In November 1999, United made headlines by becoming the first large company to choose hosted Web mail for its entire 100,000-person workforce. United awarded USA.Net a five-year deal that analysts estimated was worth $6 million per year.

The main driver behind the deal was United's need to communicate electronically with mobile workers such as pilots and flight attendants, who demand anywhere, anytime e-mail access via the Internet. They also wanted to save money and free IT staff to work on other projects.

Analysts heralded the deal as a boon to the fledgling e-mail outsourcing industry, which also includes Critical Path and Mail.com.

"When [this deal] was announced, people said, 'Wow! We can't believe a company this large is going to outsource messaging,'" recalls Paige Cattano, director of product marketing at Critical Path.

Since then, other large companies have followed suit, including Circuit City, which migrated 65,000 users to Critical Path's Web mail service this fall, and Sabre Holdings, which will provide Mail.com's Web mail service to 100,000 travel agents by year-end.

"It's amazing how far we've come in a year," Cattano says.

United, however, didn't make as much progress in 2000. The company still runs Hewlett Packard's Open Mail software on two servers in its data center in Chicago and provides e-mail service to only 20,000 of its management personnel.

The original plan was to replace Open Mail with USA.Net's Web mail service. Then United would begin rolling out Web mail to pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and customer service representatives - about 80,000 workers that have no e-mail access today.

Instead, United found the real demand for Web mail was from mobile workers. So pilots and flight attendants will get the service first, followed by mechanics and customer service representatives.

"We saw the value we could derive out of getting this service to the mobile users," United's Singh says. "As we progressed with the project, that became more apparent."

United also found that it needed to do more planning and integration work. The company bought six additional T-1 lines to form a triangular network architecture that includes United's Chicago and San Francisco data centers and the USA.Net data center in Colorado. The Web mail project heightened the need for Web-based security systems, which were being purchased under a separate initiative. It also required coordination with an ongoing effort to Web-enable the company's core flight-scheduling systems.

United also decided to integrate its corporate directory with the USA.Net service to ensure that mailbox provisioning would be done in conjunction with other human resource functions. Now user names and passwords will be the same in the corporate intranet and the Web mail system.

All this integration work left United's Web mail project nearly a year behind schedule.

"This deal was the right thing to do, but clearly we didn't leave ourselves enough time to internally absorb the impact of the project," Singh admits.

In December, United began a beta test with 250 pilots and flight attendants who can access their e-mail from home or on shared PCs located at airports. After the test ends in February, United will begin rolling out Web mail service to all mobile workers, an effort that should be done by year-end.

Ultimately, United may not offer Web mail to its management personnel. Instead, the company is considering a hosted version of Microsoft Exchange 2000 that is also available from USA.Net and offers greater functionality. That decision is due this summer.

"The fact that it's based on the Web doesn't make the project any easier," Singh says. "You need to do all the due diligence that you'd do on any outsourcing project, especially one that's this strategic."

Critical Path's Cattano says other large companies that outsource e-mail run into the same problems as United.

This story, "Delays plague record Web-based mail rollout " was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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