The invitations have been printed and Steve Ballmer is making the final touches to the PowerPoint that he’s scheduled to present at Microsoft’s formal launch of Office 365. The grand event takes place in New York City on June 28 before a carefully-assembled audience of industry observers, journalists, and others.
All of this is good news. The software is obviously ready – I’ve been a very content user for several months now and think that Exchange Online and SharePoint Online (the parts that I use) are very solid. There’s no reason to believe that Lync Online is any different. The only issue I see is the different administrative interfaces that are scattered across the product suite. There’s no collective or cohesive interface that brings the three products together into an integrated whole, something no doubt that’s indicative of the fact that each product is developed by a different team of engineers who don’t really seem to work to a common plan. I hope that Microsoft address this issue in the future.
Apart from my small gripe, which won’t be visible to any user and is totally unimportant to the vast bulk of the population who might use Office 365, is there anything that might cause you not to consider making the plunge to become a fully-fledged cloud-based organization? Well, there are a couple of niggling doubts that creep into my mind, some provoked by remarks made by Group Manager Kevin Allison at The Experts Conference (TEC) in Las Vegas in April. You can read my report from the keynote here.
Kevin has a very interesting job as he’s responsible for the development of both the on-premises and cloud versions of Exchange plus the operation of Exchange Online. In short, the buck very much stops at his desk. As such, anything he says should be taken seriously. Two of the points Kevin made during his keynote at TEC are pertinent to this discussion. The first is that Microsoft has a considerable lead time (five months) between the forecast of customer demand and the point when the necessary infrastructure is deployed in their datacenters to meet that demand. Everything goes smoothly if the sales motion with customers is aligned with the smooth deployment of capacity (servers, software, operations oversight, network, power, cabling, cooling, etc.) to meet the result of selling.
Companies pay a lot of attention to predicting likely customer demand and tracking results against those predictions but the potential always exists that demand could surge and surpass the ability of the provider to deploy capacity to meet that demand. My view is that there are a lot of companies that currently run Exchange 2003 who are prime candidates for early movement to Office 365 simply because it’s an easier and possibly cheaper option than a traditional on-premises upgrade to Exchange 2010. If this feeling is correct, then Microsoft might be faced with the welcome but difficult problem that occurs when demand is too high and sufficient capacity cannot be put in place to meet that demand. Success has some downsides!
The second factor that Kevin discussed is that currently there is a relatively small number of people available to help customers move to Office 365. If you look for a consultant today who has experience of large-scale Office 365 (or BPOS) deployment, you might have to wait before someone is available. This scarcity of resource is caused by the knowledge gap that always occurs when new technology shifts happen in the market. Expertise and experience is particularly important for the larger, more complex projects but is also a critical factor for small to medium companies that can typically take an easier migration path to Office 365. The knowledge gap will close over time as Microsoft trains more people and independent consulting companies beef up their own level of expertise around Office 365, but a shortage exists today. Again, this won’t be a problem if the predicted demand matches capacity but could be an issue if Office 365 is tremendously successful. In other words, if you think that you want to move to Office 365 soon, you should make sure that you have secured the right level of expertise available to solve issues such as migration, interoperability, monitoring, single sign-on, security, and privacy to allow the project to proceed as planned.
The last point I’ll make as we head to the formal launch of Office 365 is to repeat the very good advice offered by Mark Minasi during his keynote at Spring Connections 2011 when he emphasized that it is in the interest of every company to understand exactly how much it costs them to provide email today and how good the quality of service is when measured by the business. If IT departments don’t understand their costs and whether they are meeting the needs of the business, they are in no position to make an intelligent decision about whether Office 365 offers real advantages in terms of cost, access to new technology that makes a real difference to the company by enabling solutions to real business problems, and long-term usefulness and flexibility when compared to an on-premises deployment of Exchange 2010.