The Army’s migration to an enterprise-wide email system, after years of false starts and execution detours, is gaining significant momentum and appears on track to hit the 1.4 million user mark by March 31, Army program officials told AOL Government.

While enterprise email and communications systems are taken for granted at most organizations, Army soldiers and civilians – and most military personnel – have had to get by without the convenience of having a single globally-accessible email account, capable of communicating sensitive information securely anywhere in the world.

That’s changing. The Army has moved more than 500,000 users on its non-classified network, known as NIPRNet, to a private cloud-based email system managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency.

In addition, nearly 18,000 users from the Joint Staff, DISA, and U.S. European Command are also now on the new system, said Mike Kreiger, deputy CIO/G-6, in an Aug. 20 blog post, in which he acknowledged the efforts of DISA, the Army’s NETCOM unit and the Defense Manpower Data Center.

The migration plan calls for users of Army Knowledge Online Web mail, a popular, but less robust system, to shift to the DISA system in February. And about 200,000 users on the SIPRNet classified network will also migrate to the agency’s globally distributed email servers by March 31, program officials said.

DISA has a huge stake in the success of its Army enterprise email program. The Joint Staff and some combatant commands have committed to the system and if the Army program proves successful, it is expected DISA’s other two big potential customers, the Navy and the Air Force, will follow.

They have “shown interest” but aren’t yet in a position to get on board, said John Hale, chief of enterprise applications for DISA’s Program Executive Office-Enterprise Services.

The Navy and the Air Force are “both in positions right now where contractually they have to finish up what they’re doing now before they make that transition [to enterprise email],” he said. “We’re working closely with them to get them ready so when they’re in the position to make the move, they’re going to make the move.”

The thing I like the most is that it makes collaboration really easy.”

Among prominent features, DISA’s system gives users a single address that follows them everywhere, an increase in mailbox capacity to 4G, from 100MB, and the ability to share calendars and collaborate across the Defense Department’s three commands throughout the world.

While such features seem like standard issue for employees in the civilian world, they represent a significant change for those who’ve grown accustomed to the hardened systems still in use at military installations around the world.

Perhaps the biggest change for users: “When you move from installation to installation, your mail is still there,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Lee, branch chief for programs and projects in the Army’s G3 7th Signal Command.

“I just moved from Fort Sam Houston in Texas to Ft. Gordon [in Georgia] and when I got here all my mail was sitting there in a box. When I travel, I’m able to pull up my mail wherever I go. I don’t have to worry about authentication on individual networks or my email sitting on someone else’s server.” Users are struck by the “enterprise feel” of the system, he said.

But perhaps the biggest improvement for officers and managers is the ability to collaborate is a critical attribute of enterprise email.

“The thing I like the most is that it makes collaboration really easy,” said Lt. Col. Peter Barclay, director of advanced technologies for the Army. “I can coordinate calendars with people in Europe or the Pacific where before [enterprise email] they were on different [Microsoft] Exchange servers and I couldn’t see their calendars.”

Access to the Defense Department’s global address list (GAL) is also a big hit with users, according to DISA’s Hale.

“The No. 1 feature that every user loves is the GAL,” he said. “For the first time, they have an email system that has every single person in the Defense Department. There are 3.7 million persons in the GAL, along with another 200 or 300 distribution lists and organizational mailboxes.”

Skepticism Begins To Wane

While the Army is now proceeding rapidly toward its goal of full deployment of enterprise email, some managers, including IT professionals, weren’t always so upbeat about the system, program officials said.

Before the first users were moved to the DISA cloud, in early 2011, some partners expressed skepticism about whether a project of such immense scale-and a radical, new paradigm for the Army’s acquisition of email services –could be viable.

“We’ve had some failed attempts with large [IT] efforts like this,” said Hale. “This is a case where our mission partners just really wanted to see us prove that we could do what we were saying we could do. Historically, people don’t like change…[cloud-based enterprise email] is a fundamental shift in the way people think about doing business.”

With the Army’s senior leadership tenaciously behind the project, any resistance to the new system began to evaporate once the transition to enterprise email got underway.

“As we hit a major milestone, 500,000 customers, people are starting to get on board with the whole idea that [enterprise email] is really going work and that enterprise services are the right thing to do from a department perspective,” Hale said.

A much bigger challenge to deploying enterprise email was technical in nature – a lack of uniformity in desktop configuration at installations where users were migrating to the new system, said Barclay. “It’s the single biggest challenge that the Army has faced,” he said.

“We thought we had pretty good control of the desktops, only to find as we rolled out enterprise email that we didn’t have the control that we thought we had. We didn’t realize that we had such a wide range of configurations,” he said.

“We found over time, when we go through all the pre-migration checks and make sure we have control of the desktop, and all the patches and updates have been applied and the configuration is right, then it’s a smooth, easy migration,” Hale explained. “When we don’t have that and migrate them…we get called back later about problems with it.”

One location had 12 to 15 different desktop configurations, Barclay said. “Some installations have five or six different commands operating on the installations and they each had slightly different baseline configurations,” he said.

Congressional delay

Not all of the challenges were technical. The roll out was suspended between late December 2011 and March 2012, after DISA had migrated 310,000 accounts, to address new requirements under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Army to certify that its acquisition approach to enterprise email was in the best technical and financial interest of the Army.

The delay had the benefit however, of giving technical teams more time to clear up desktop issues. It also gave program officials a chance to formulate more detailed pre-migration procedures before resuming the roll out.

They also developed a system-check tool to automate and streamline pre-migration processes at the installations. The tool “goes out and runs against those computers, checks and reports back. It can tell you item-by-item where they meet [configuration requirements] or where they’re lacking,” Barclay said.

“The biggest single lesson learned is having control of the desktop – to be able to have the standard baseline configuration that you know works, that is vetted and validated and applied across the board,” he added.

But to a lesser extent, the migration also had to contend with legacy networks at the military installations which supported the desktops and the email systems that ran on them.

“The networks at the local levels were not optimized to use cloud-based services,” Hale said. “We had to do a lot trouble shooting at the local level to ensure that we got the configuration correct so that users could use the cloud-based services and not be impeded in any way.”

But the massive email migration effort has also produced a larger benefit: By imposing uniformity on desktop and network configurations to roll out enterprise email across the globe, the Army is better positioned for future IT enhancements – and perhaps as importantly, better positioned to move more of its IT operations into a cloud based platform.

Enterprise email has “paved the way for other cloud-based services because we’ve already done all the dirty work,” Hale said.