Earlier this week Brian K. Winstead, the author of the Exchange and Outlook blog on http://www.windowsitpro.com, contacted me to ask about the keynote that I’ll be giving at the Spring 2011 Exchange Connections event at the JW Marriott Resort hotel in Orlando from March 27 to 30. The resulting conversation is available online.
I’ve said before that 2011 will be a year of migration. According to this blog by Ian Hameroff of Exchange Product Management, they believe that 60% of the Exchange 2003/2007 installed base will upgrade this year. The choice facing many companies is to proceed with an on-premises or a hosted deployment, including the option to use Office 365, and this is one of the topics that I plan to talk about in Orlando. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about Office 365 and have had some exposure to its predecessor, the variant of Exchange Online that’s currently available as part of the mouthful called Microsoft Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS). Of course, this version is based on Exchange 2007 rather than Exchange 2010, which is what Office 365 uses, so it’s not the same. I was therefore keen to get hold of an Office 365 account and hoped that Microsoft would accept my application to be part of the Office 365 beta. Alas, this didn’t happen. To their credit, Microsoft was swamped with applications to join the beta. Even though I write about the technology as a contributing editor to Windows IT Pro magazine and am a current Exchange MVP, my application was duly dispatched to the wastebasket or filed under “maybe, some day, perhaps”.
In any case, InfoWorld columnist and fellow MVP, J. Peter Bruzzese, received access to Office 365 (he reports some of his recent musings about Office 365 here). I guess InfoWorld carries more weight with Microsoft PR than Windows IT Pro. So be it. Peter was kind enough to offer me an Office 365 from his test domain and I accepted the offer with thanks. I’ve been using my 25GB Office 365 mailbox complete with an online archive for a week or so since. Not long enough to learn everything about a product that is still in beta, but certainly long enough to arrive at some early conclusions.
So here’s the thing about Office 365 – it is totally boring for anyone who’s been trained as an Exchange administrator. All the fun (???) of setting up and running servers is removed because Microsoft does it all for you and hides the interesting technical detail behind a boring web-based administration console that could be managed by my grandmother. And that’s the point of a utility email service. It has to be boring, and robust, and dependable, just like any other utility service. Think of electricity or water – would you want to have administrative control over their delivery to your house? The answer is a resounding “No” – all you need is a meter to tell you how much of the utility you’re using, which is roughly the equivalent of the Office 365 administration option that tells you how many users you have in your domain and what licences are assigned (or in Office 365 parlance, the “plans” used by each user; a plan dictates what functionality is available to the user). Apart from checking the meter from time to time (or ignoring it until a utility bill arrives), the only interaction you have with a utility is to connect a new device. You might be brave and change a plug for an electric device before you plug it into the socket, but that’s about it. The equivalent in an Office 365 world is to set up a new user, an operation that is much easier than rewiring a plug.
There is some new administration work to do in a co-existence scenario when part of the company uses on-premises Exchange servers and some users connect to Office 365. Federation and directory synchronization are two critical activities to master here. But I suspect that the administration effort will peak sharply at the time when users first migrate to Office 365 due to the need to establish high-fidelity connectivity between the on-premises and cloud environments and to move mailbox data.
Companies should not underestimate the effort required to migrate users or that required to ensure that the right networking and operational configurations are in place to support Office 365. This is especially so when users want to move large mailboxes from on-premises servers to cloud-based servers, unless of course your company possesses ultra-wide network connections to transport all the data across the Internet to Microsoft’s datacenters. Of course, asking users to clean out mailboxes before the mailboxes are moved is often an act of total futility as has been proved in previous migrations over many years. Users are simply too busy to do this kind of housekeeping and anyway, why do you need to do it when storage is cheap?
After the initial burst of activity (which could last several months for a large company), I suspect that the migration and interoperability workload will decline to allow administrators to concentrate on other more productive activities.
From a user perspective, Office 365 is very much the same Outlook Web App (OWA) experience as delivered by Exchange 2010 SP1 (including selectable themes). The only issue I encountered was using the Chrome browser – OWA didn’t seem to want to allow me to save or send a new message. If you elect not to use a web browser, then you can choose an RPC-over-HTTP (aka Outlook Anywhere) connection for Outlook. It took about ten seconds to configure a connection between Outlook 2010 and Office 365 and, as far as I could tell, the subsequent experience was exactly similar to that when connected to an on-premises Exchange 2010 server, which is exactly what you’d expect.
I also connected my iPhone to my Office 365 mailbox. Curiously, I wasn’t able to use the inbuilt Microsoft Exchange-type connection and had to revert to using an IMAP setup. Fortunately Microsoft has published all the necessary settings via ECP and I was able to plug the settings for IMAP and SMTP into the iPhone and then synchronize.
Administrators get a web interface that’s a modified version of the on-premises Exchange 2010 ECP plus a separate Office 365 web interface that’s used to configure other non-Exchange options. The Office 365 version of ECP allows for options such as selecting the plan associated with a mailbox and displaying some mailbox data that is accessed through EMC for an on-premises deployment such as current mailbox size. If you know ECP for Exchange 2010 you won’t find much different here, nor is there anything different about connecting a mobile device to an Office 365 mailbox.
Office 365 therefore delivers exactly what it says on the box: a utility email service. This will be exactly what many companies need. I can’t, for instance, see the logic why a new start-up company would deploy on-premises servers unless they had a really good reason for doing so (such as being in the business of developing add-on software for Exchange). On the other hand, the utilitarian nature of Office 365 cannot deliver the flexibility or custom-built environment that is possible with an on-premises deployment and I suspect that there are many large companies that will find Office 365 to be a compelling vision that they cannot use at this point. The situation is likely to change over time as company requirements evolve and Microsoft builds out Office 365 and its successor products so that they can respond to the needs voiced by customers.
One interesting question exists that I can’t find an answer to yet is how Microsoft plans to migrate BPOS accounts to Office 365 (“move mailbox” is not a complete answer!). As covered here, creating and using new Office 365 mailboxes is straightforward but given the careful planning and enormous effort that companies dedicate to migrating from Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2010, a huge amount of work must be going on behind the scenes for Microsoft to prepare to move the millions of BPOS mailboxes they currently support. Like any migration, this has to be done with as little disruption on the end-user as possible and that’s where careful planning and solid execution pay big benefits. Some insight into the technical details of this transition would be compelling information. Maybe I shouldn’t care because when you’re using a utility, you don’t have any exposure to what goes on behind the scenes and couldn’t care less as long as the service stays running. But the technologist in me just wonders and this is the first time that Microsoft has had to cope with the migration challenge for millions of mailboxes!
All of this is interesting stuff and I look forward to debating the topic of Office 365 amongst others with those who attend Spring Connections. And I am sure that we will have similar debates at the Exchange 2010 Maestro events later on this year!