Free vs. Paid: Selecting the Right Migration Tool

A recent change in Microsoft’s cross-tenant policy has significantly altered the landscape and architecture of migrations. Here are some tips when evaluating a tool to help.

Is free the best price when it comes to migration tools? The simple answer routinely is you get what you pay for.

A recent change in Microsoft’s cross-tenant policy has significantly altered the landscape and architecture of migrations. What’s different now is that if either tenant – source or destination – is covered under an Enterprise Agreement, all users must purchase a license.

That puts a burden on MSPs and IT departments and will likely trigger a thorough exploration elsewhere for competent cross-tenant migration tools to handle the task, which then necessitates the creation of a pro/con balance sheet to determine which one might best meet their data quantity and business objects.

Whether it’s an impending acquisition or merger that will involve onboarding an organization to the cloud or shifting and consolidating the org between tenants, it’s crucial to adopt some best practices and a keen awareness of largely unavoidable surprises, especially when the stakes are extremely high. A pre-planning strategy is paramount. 

See also: Cloud Migration: Enabling Innovation

What To Look for in a Migration Tool

There are several key considerations for IT managers in their migration-tool evaluation in light of the Microsoft policy change. The list of prominent weaknesses with Microsoft’s tenant-to-tenant tool is lengthy, which should push IT managers to seek robust tools and solutions to accomplish their migration goals, including ease of use for the user experience, configuration, scalability, pricing, and support.

Ease of use/user experience. It pays to analyze how the free tools measure up to the enhanced interfaces and advanced automation options found in paid versions. Can your users rapidly grasp the free-tool functionality when weighed against the more intuitive features found in paid options?

Determine which aspects of the migration process are more user-dependent and not tool-driven. Third-party migration solutions can often provide better live, granular reporting on project status and errors. It’s understood that migrations, in general, can certainly throw errors. Knowing how and where those occur, even down to the individual item level, can significantly aid the IT department in troubleshooting and steering the migration toward successful completion.

The importance of those functionalities is even more critical in terms of managing high user counts or more stringent compliance environments. Free tools can impose more severe limitations when having to excavate for mission-critical data in situations where there is obscured visibility and thorny ease of use.

Configuration. It’s critical to weigh the setup and execution of often more streamlined paid solutions compared to free tools. It is best to undergo a proof-of-concept with a smaller user set to analyze and assess the configuration time and subsequent performance required to complete the migration. This allows the team to better grasp the process while determining whether first- or third-party solutions are better suited for the migration.

Scalability. It’s possible there will be cumbersome implications should an organization’s migration requirements grow, and those must be considered. Certainly, some free tools may be adequate for some situations. But wise IT managers will weigh whether a free tool can scale adequately and effectively to keep pace against the robust proficiency and muscle found in paid solutions.

Keep in mind that many factors affect migration speed, including type and amount of data, available bandwidth, throttling, source environment, and others. Free tools may suffice for small, simple projects but are rarely, if ever, scalable if user counts are significant or concurrent user migration is required.

Also, several first-party options can deliver only limited customization and reporting services. Take support for a pre-stage migration strategy, for example. The most frequent and often recommended strategy is pre-staging mailboxes, which involves migrating the majority of user data in the background prior to the MX record cutover – thereby reducing the amount of data and bandwidth required during the time of cutover. It also enables project execution in a shorter time window. Understand that many first-party tools don’t support this approach, severely limiting scalability.

Pricing. Assessing migration costs will quickly pit how free tools measure up to more detailed pricing structures that can include per-mailbox or tenant, typically found in paid solutions. It also pays to evaluate the opportunity cost in relation to an IT pro’s time in a free vs. paid scenario.

Consider that free tools are purposely designed for very narrow circumstances and needs. Bear in mind that on-site server software, multiple server configurations, and often cost-prohibitive certificates frequently come into play, shoving you quickly into the quagmire that the costs of that “free” migration tool on the road to the cloud are actually underwriting server software, hardware, and engineering.

Support. When the going gets tough, the tough gratefully lean on support – if you can get it. No project goes unscathed by unforeseen hiccups, bumps, and mishaps. In measuring these two well-traveled paths – first- vs. third-party migration tool solutions – keep a keen eye on which path delivers the best support and at what levels. Ask yourself: Will the free tool measure up to the comprehensive 24/7/365 support services proffered by paid versions? 

IT experts know well that migrations are complex beasts. And even successful projects can go astray. Maybe an item, for example, doesn’t migrate and logs an error. Maybe it’s an incorrectly entered password. Or a source endpoint inadvertently misconfigured. That doesn’t have to spell disaster and mayhem. Often, there are quick fixes, but as often, accessible support can be essential and provide expertise when things go south.

Though there can be some benefits, first-party offerings can be fraught with risk and liability and end up blowing your migration budget in the long run. Consider, for example, something simple, like bugs. Often, free tools are still in beta, making them susceptible to bugs. Fixing these problems takes significant time and effort, so working closely with the tool’s product team is often necessary. However, a product team may not be readily available to fix these issues for a free tool.

As well, first-party migration solutions may force you to rely on large vendors throughout the duration of your project. If you’re lucky enough to qualify for support, your enterprise may be unlikely to receive a high priority and discover (likely late in the process) that online documentation and training materials are lacking. As well, free-tool service-level agreements are often non-existent or involve protracted reconciliations.

Free vs. Paid: How Clear Is Your Path? 

Once an organization decides to migrate, MSP IT pros and internal IT departments will have to select their destination – free migration tools or paid alternatives – and the debate begins: Why pay for a tool to move users and large amounts of data when free tools exist?

Sorting out the advantages and disadvantages presents an arduous set of challenges, but paying attention to the critical factors will help unearth the answer. Examining and understanding the impact of what each offers for ease of use, configuration, scalability, pricing, and support will help ferret out the ups and downs of both roads. This will lead to building the strongest route to best drive your enterprise’s needs and business objectives, saving you time and resources and avoiding enervating and frustrating IT headaches.

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