April 1998 // Featured Products
Exchange at ECU:
The Initiative to Find Messaging Solutions
by Richard Brown and Ernest G. Marshburn
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Richard Brown and Ernest G. Marshburn "Exchange at ECU:
The Initiative to Find Messaging Solutions" The Technology Source, April 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Life experiences in a university are characterized by the free exchange of ideas, intensely passionate debates, and long conversations that can take place during any hour of the day or night—perhaps, given the unique perspective of students, one should say especially at night. In education, nothing is more important than communication.

East Carolina University (ECU) is the third-largest institution in the sixteen-campus University of North Carolina system, offering more than 200 undergraduate and graduate degree tracks in fields ranging from medicine to underwater archaeology. Although similar to many medium-sized state universities, ECU is atypical with respect to its priority on communication. While many universities say their goal is to stimulate communication between the faculty and student communities, ECU has implemented an initiative to provide the university's faculty, staff, and students with the tools to promote electronic communication across the university intranet and global Internet. Underlying this decision is the shared belief that the integration of enterprise-wide electronic messaging technology in higher education is an urgent priority. Thus, the initiative seeks to improve communication by tearing down many conventional barriers to learning and creating a new paradigm in which it no longer matters who you are or where you are; every member of the university community will be provided complete access to the new electronic communication system.

The Great Messaging Paradox

Previously, ECU had what was in many ways a very reliable and effective communication system. However, this system did not have a GUI interface, and provided only limited gateway support to other e-mail platforms. It also lacked important office automation features, such as the ability to attach documents to e-mail. Moreover, the previous system was not scalable, was command-driven, and proved difficult to use from off-campus locations. As a result, ECU was eager to take the next evolutionary step in electronic communication.

In early 1996, ECU Chancellor Richard R. Eakin established a comprehensive initiative that radically changed the electronic communication paradigm throughout the university. This initiative focused on exploring new electronic communications solutions while dealing with real-world problems, challenges, and opportunities that accompany the incorporation of campus-wide messaging technologies in a higher education environment. Beginning with a task force composed of faculty, staff, and students, the search for a new electronic mail solution proved to be neither quick nor simple, spanning more than 18 months of product research and evaluation before arriving at a final recommendation.

During that period, some departmental units began addressing the need for improved electronic communication independently by installing their own e-mail systems. Consequently, campus electronic communication problems intensified as the number of competing and incompatible e-mail systems on campus increased.

Although many solutions were evaluated, five leading message solutions, composed of different software packages from several leading companies, were identified for extensive study. Each proposed solution was subjected to extensive research and rigorous field tests as a part of the review process.

Factors such as cost efficiency and scalable architecture were viewed as strategic requirements; however, the most significant factor influencing our decision was the ability of the product to meet the needs of the "nomadic" user. Unlike the business community that defines mobile computing as a "laptop," members of the education community routinely move between dorms, offices, and public access labs while requiring e-mail access from any available workstation.

Changing the Delivery of Instruction

Following the review process, the decision was made to select Microsoft Exchange as ECU’s electronic messaging solution. This decision was the result of several factors:

  1. Office automation emerged as a strategic administrative priority.
  2. POP-only clients were ruled out as not satisfying the nomadic user requirement.
  3. IMAP clients were not yet commercially available.

Ironically, none of the proprietary solutions fully met the nomadic user requirement and were also significantly more expensive to implement. The turning point was a meeting with Microsoft officials, who expressed an interest in developing a partnership with ECU. The partnership objectives were designed to demonstrate that Exchange could be successfully implemented in an educational setting. The partnership also offered ECU the opportunity to become a model for other universities interested in capitalizing on cost-effective intranet- and Internet-based educational information technologies. Although Microsoft Exchange had been widely accepted within the business community, the unique environment of academia has caused institutions to exercise great caution before considering the adoption of significantly different e-mail technologies.

While cost efficiency was a major consideration, implementation costs, long-term maintenance, and ongoing training requirements factored heavily into the decision-making process as alternative solutions were reviewed. Significantly, the cost of implementing Microsoft Exchange end-user support was significantly lower due to its GUI interface and techniques for seamless integration with other popular Microsoft products.

A New Mode of Interaction

When Microsoft Exchange 5.0 was introduced in March 1997, ECU became the first educational institution in the nation to implement it on an enterprise-wide basis. As mentioned earlier, University administrators emphasized communication as a vital part of the educational process; therefore, Microsoft Exchange was selected as the campus electronic communication standard with the intent of increasing and strengthening interaction across the university and especially between university faculty and their students. Notably, university officials credit this top-down broad-spectrum campus approach as being the single most important factor contributing to a successful outcome of this initiative.

Now that Microsoft Exchange is the new ECU electronic communication standard, for the first time all faculty, staff, and students have been issued an e-mail account and PIN number. Additionally, everyone is provided access to the campus intranet and Internet. Individual online calendars provide an efficient way to schedule campus meetings. A Web-browser interface allows access to campus resources from any location with Internet access, including e-mail access from both on- and off-campus locations. As a result, the Microsoft Exchange Web connector became the campus standard, designed to meet the needs of nomadic academic users. Our goal was to actively engage everyone in fully integrating electronic technology into all aspects of university life. From simple, easy-to-use electronic communication, to the complexity of integrating instructional technology and distance education into the curriculum, the electronic communication choice for the educational environment became clear. The Microsoft Exchange Initiative created an easy-to-use ubiquitous environment in which all would have the option to pursue their academic goals. By implementing it we’re not just adding technology, we’re changing the delivery of instruction.


Certainly hindsight is 20/20 as we reflect upon the successes and failures of the ECU Microsoft Exchange Initiative. The period between the faculty/staff rollout and the student rollout proved uneventful, with the exception of two incidents that reinforced our confidence in this solution. The first incident occurred when a faculty member inadvertently initiated a looped e-mail message sequence that generated more than 11,000 e-mail messages in less than an hour. Only a slight degradation in system response time was noted. A similar problem on another campus crashed that e-mail system for several days. In a separate incident, two separate unexpected power outages occurred during a weekend, resulting in two successive Exchange server crashes. To our surprise and delight, the only evidence of these crashes on the following Monday were the reports in the system logs.

From our perspective, we have found the Microsoft Exchange LAN client to be exceptionally stable and reliable. Regrettably, the student rollout did not proceed as smoothly. Student access to Microsoft Exchange was exclusively designed around the Microsoft Exchange Web connector. At first, the Web connector lived up to expectations as the ideal nomadic user client. Unfortunately, as the Fall semester progressed, the Microsoft Exchange Web connector experienced increasing degradation. Under the previous mainframe-based e-mail system, concurrent user loads under 150 were observed even during exams. Within a month following our Fall semester student rollout, concurrent user loads on the new system were in excess of 600, with more than 6,000 logins per day.

While the intensity of this load is believed to be a contributing factor in the response degradation, it should be noted that only the Exchange Web connector was affected. Exchange access through other means showed no signs of system degradation. When intensive efforts and an upgrade to Microsoft Exchange 5.5 failed to ease this degradation, other alternatives to provide students with Exchange e-mail access were sought. Microsoft has remained a steady and committed partner during this ordeal, providing significant technical support. However, while progress involving Exchange Web connector stabilization continues to be made, the solution remains elusive. As a result, a strategic decision was made to enable two alternative Exchange access solutions. Beginning in Spring Semester, POP and (new in Exchange 5.5) IMAP access was enabled. Conversely, while the activation of these protocols significantly improved student access to Exchange, neither option provided a solution applicable to the needs of the nomadic user.

In most every cloud, there is a silver lining. In this instance, a staff member in ECU’s department of academic computing developed an interface between the Microsoft Exchange LAN client (the same one used by ECU faculty/staff) and any university user. The installation of the Microsoft Exchange LAN client was not initially possible in public access labs or prior to the development of the nomadic user/Exchange interface, due to the complexities of individually configuring access profiles for every person who might utilize a specific public access workstation. The interface developed by academic computing enabled access profiles for any user to be built on the fly. Additional benefits included the provision of personal address books in public access labs (through the use of a diskette) and the development of consistency between the e-mail systems used by faculty and students. This consistency has also proved beneficial to faculty, who provide students with assistance in using Microsoft Exchange through knowledge gained from personal interaction with Microsoft Exchange in their office.

Has the rollout of Microsoft Exchange at ECU been perfect? No, but given the technical complexity of this challenge, should we have expected perfection? In retrospect, if given the opportunity, would we choose to follow the same path again and install Microsoft Exchange? The answer is yes. This experience has taught us many lessons concerning the implementation of a client-server system. Most notable is the need to consider the benefit of a carefully managed incremental rollout, especially with respect to the student community, rather than a desperate attempt at a "quick-fix" solution. Also, while not an option at the time this project was implemented, a closer look at IMAP as an additional strategic component designed to augment the LAN and Web client solutions should be considered.

The bottom line is that East Carolina University has very high expectations when it comes to its enterprise-wide communication system. Our resolve and commitment to meet these expectations will continue.

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