Officially launched in June 2011, Office 365 is Microsoft’s response to the runaway success of online and cloud-hosted application suites – most notably Google Apps – which are steadily eating away at its bedrock of revenue from sales of on-premise software licences.
Office 365 is a significant upgrade to previous Microsoft online apps, including the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), based on 2007 versions of Microsoft’s Exchange messaging platform as well as Lync communications app, SharePoint collaboration app and Live@Edu and Office Live Small Business.
Comprising email, messaging and collaboration tools, as well as web-based versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Office 365 can be leased for as little as £4 per user per month under the Professionals and Small Business price plan. Larger organisations that prefer the touch and feel of on-premise applications can opt to download and install the Office 2010 software suite, or its individual elements, on local hard disks according to requirements or individual preference.
This flexibility is by far Office 365’s greatest strength. It recognises that different employees have different work profiles and software requirements, and allows employers to choose a variety of service plans or individual applications per user as required.
Support is an issue that research company Gartner advises organisations to consider carefully before moving mission-critical applications into the cloud. Level 1 support for Office 365’s predecessor, BPOS, was provided by a number of offshore vendors, including Wipro in Mumbai, as well as Sonata Software, Schakra, Xtreme Consulting and Covestic. According to Gartner, it left a lot to be desired.
“Our research indicates that Microsoft’s support track record with BPOS is mixed. Customer complaints ranged from concerns over inexperienced support staff to lack of diligence in determining the root causes of problems. Microsoft must improve its support infrastructure for Office 365 to succeed in the long term,” wrote Gartner analyst Matthew W Cain in a research note in June 2011. “The immature support infrastructure is one of the main reasons we continue to counsel clients to move slowly to collaboration services in the cloud. Most organisations should wait a minimum of six months after the release of Office 365 to commit to the cloud service.”
As is good practice with all cloud-based services, Gartner advises companies to perform a thorough evaluation of the support infrastructure before signing up. It specifies that IT departments contractually oblige the vendors involved to meet specific support requirements, include all support costs in the cost of ownership calculations, investigate alternative Microsoft and third-party support options, restructure internal support processes to work with vendor-supplied support services, consider integrating internal monitoring and operations centre workflows with Office 365 support, and record and review all support interactions until satisfied that support is consistent.
Migrating from Exchange to Office 365
For those IT departments confident that cloud-based Office 365, or a hybrid approach under which some apps remain in-house, provides the reliability and potential cost savings they are looking for, the next question is how to effect a smooth transition. Planning is everything, as is validating existing domains such as the principal names in Active Directory, which is what end users will employ for their Office 365 login. Companies will also need to develop a communication and training plan to inform users about the changes they will see on their desktop PCs and other devices. For example, Office 365 uses the latest 2010 versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Office, which are markedly different from their predecessors in some ways.
Migrating Exchange email to Office 365 can be done either in a single move or in stages. IT managers can migrate up to 1,000 Exchange 2003, 2007 or 2010 mailboxes in a batch, but those using older versions of Exchange must either upgrade to a more recent iteration first, or consider doing an IMAP migration or using a third-party tool or service.
There are a lot of online resources offering detailed technical advice on how to proceed, most from Microsoft itself as well as its partners, but also independent consultants. UK consultancy TechQuarters offers useful advice for an Office 365 Exchange migration plan here (pdf).
Start by setting up your account with Microsoft through the 365 portal screen (http://bit.ly/wglhTj), creating new users, and buying new licences or setting up a 30-day trial that provides 10 user licences for Exchange, SharePoint and Lync (licences can be purchased and the trial upgraded at any point during the 30-day period). The set-up process goes through a number of OS-related tasks and certain updates may need to be downloaded and installed.
Migrating a new or existing Exchange messaging platform to private domains needs more work. This includes the verification and activation of existing domains by adding text or mail exchanger (MX) records to the host DNS, purchasing licences from the online hosting provider, adding user numbers, and setting up group mailboxes, user privileges and distribution lists.
All end-user desktops and mobile devices must be updated with new profiles that point them to the messaging servers on the Office 365 site, which can either be done remotely or by a member of the IT staff visiting the physical location.
Migrating old emails off an on-premise Exchange server and onto Office 365 can be achieved using several different methods, the easiest of which involves the Exchange migration tool. IT managers need to ensure that user numbers, names and other details match the mailboxes on the Office 365 and in-house portals, then choose whether to copy all messages, or only those within a certain date range, before changing the MX records to point at the new user mailboxes. Once those users have switched to the new profile, their old profiles can be deleted from the devices they were using to access their messages. However, it is important to remember that old signatures are ported, and archived messages in .PST files are either reattached or uploaded into the new mailbox.
Migration to Office 365 from BPOS is trickier, as Microsoft itself needs to undertake the data migration, something it has promised to do for all BPOS users between September 2011 and September 2012. The Online Services transition centre at http://bit.ly/zmeUd7 offers guidance on how best to proceed. Useful advice from other organisations that have prepared the ground prior to Microsoft migrating their data is also available at the Online Services TechCenter under “Manual migration from BPOS to Office 365?”.
The last step in the Office 365 migration process should involve IT managers signing into the new administration portal to certify that the transition has been completed successfully, and creating or assigning a billing administrator.