IT Brief Australia - Technology news for CIOs & IT decision-makers
Story image
How free migration tools compare with paid solutions
Fri, 8th Apr 2022
FYI, this story is more than a year old

The road to the cloud follows two common paths: via economic first-party migration tools from public cloud providers or third-party solutions from specialist vendors.

After a business decides to migrate, managed service providers and internal IT departments must choose one of these paths. Their usual questions are about the advantages and drawbacks of each approach and have a common theme: Why pay for a tool to move users and data when free alternatives exist?

Let's examine the basic properties of free migration tools from Microsoft and Google and compare the available alternatives.

Google and Microsoft have an incentive to remove barriers to cloud office adoption. Once the budget and executive buy-in are cleared, the physical migration of users and data is often the biggest challenge. We're talking about complex projects with high costs of failure. Think downtime and lost data.

Both mega-vendors have developed tools and programs to simplify migration to their platforms. These tools may offer a slightly better alternative to a manual migration for some. Most can handle moving the basic components of a mailbox, including mail items, calendars and contacts. Some can scale up and handle migrations in the 100 or 200-seat range.

These offerings target the most common migration scenarios, such as direct moves between Gmail and Exchange or between Office 365 tenants, so they're an option for most smaller migration projects. But users must beware: free tools are rigid and lack the sophistication of third-party tools. Users must have a firm grasp of the migration process, including project setup and preparing a new environment. Many unforeseen challenges can arise, and free tools do not provide customer support.

Assessing tools

Performance for any migration project starts with speed, which is affected by factors including project type and amount of data, available bandwidth, throttling, source environment and more.

Compared to tools from Microsoft and Google, third-party solutions offer faster data migrations. Free tools rarely scale to handle user counts in the thousands, nor can they migrate as many users concurrently.

This should be a primary consideration before cutting all users over a weekend and avoiding downtime on Monday. Speed, project setup and prepping for a new environment are essential during the pre-migration phase. Configuration and planning are key to a successful cutover.

Free migration tools are designed for narrowly prescribed scenarios with restrictive sets of supported dependencies and requirements. On-site server software, additional server configurations and costly certificates are often required.

Free tools may work if a company has the resources to plan, configure and test its own migration, and owns the essential server hardware and software. But the cost of ‘free' migration tools is often spent on technical support items like software licensing, hardware and engineering.

To determine the best approach, conduct a proof-of-concept with a few users to test the performance and configuration time necessary to complete a migration. This allows the team to understand the process better while determining whether a first or third-party solution is ideal.

Control and visibility

Many first-party solutions offer limited customisation and reporting options. One common example is support for a pre-stage migration approach. Pre-staging mailboxes are the most frequent strategy employed. It involves migrating most user data in the background before the MX record cutover.

This reduces the data volume and bandwidth required during cutover and enables faster execution of larger projects. Some first-party tools do not support this approach, limiting their scalability.

In other cases, tools may not deliver the same live, granular reporting on project status and errors that third-party solutions deliver. Migrations will encounter errors, and understanding where those occur to individual item level helps IT troubleshoot and guide migrations.

This capability becomes even more important for high user counts or high-compliance environments. Migration project managers shouldn't need to dig for critical data.

There's little to no visibility built into services like Microsoft FastTrack. Some businesses may like the hands-off approach of providing users and credentials to Microsoft and working within a general timeframe for migration. Yet this black-box approach can leave end-users and management in the dark regarding the migration's status. Third-party tools provide much more control and visibility over the entire project.


Migrations are complex, and even successful projects can err. For example, an item doesn't migrate and logs an error, a password was entered incorrectly, or a source endpoint is misconfigured. Yet errors don't have to mean disaster. Most are a quick fix, although accessible support is essential when things go wrong.

Engaging with first-party solutions means relying on large vendors for support throughout a migration project. Companies that qualify for support are unlikely to receive top priority and often find online documentation and training materials limited. SLAs for free tools tend to take longer or are non-existent.

Weighing the ROI

While there are benefits to first-party solutions, these could ultimately cost more than low licensing costs from third-party solutions. Alternatively, the benefits of third-party tools can help a business realise its return on investment quickly.

Unlike first-party alternatives, leading solutions continually undergo feature and performance upgrades, making them faster and more scalable for a broader range of projects.

The SaaS nature of some will scale up or down automatically depending on project size. Certain tools can migrate several hundred users concurrently and reach higher data transfer speeds than first-party tools by leveraging the best available APIs from Google and Microsoft, accelerating project completion.

SaaS-based solutions reduce time and complexity in the pre-migration phase. All the installation and configuration needs of the free tools don't exist with top-class migration tools. They run entirely from a web browser and need only endpoint credentials to connect to source and destination environments.

Consider how much time a company's engineers will spend with free solutions or on-prem third-party tools in the configuration phase. All this time and additional work will erode the margins expected from using a free tool.

Control is crucial to any project. Unlike the first-party tools, the best vendor tools offer far more granular control over a migration, with support for different strategies and visibility into progress and errors.

Advanced options enable users to customise nearly every aspect of their project if desired, including date-range filtering, recipient mapping, error thresholds and automated end-user notifications.

The journey to the cloud is complex. Organisations should think very carefully when considering why they should pay for a tool to move users and data to the cloud when free alternatives exist. Because ultimately, an organisation will pay one way or another.