Microsoft’s announcement that they intended to accelerate the on-boarding (migration) of customer seats to Office 365 through the “FastTrack” program surprised some attending the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) last month.
Apparently the idea is that Microsoft will hire (or has already hired) between 250 and 600 new employees to take on the “on-boarding” workload involved in moving customers over from their existing email systems to Exchange Online. The new service will swing into motion sometime toward the end of the year and will focus on closing the gap between the purchase of Office 365 subscriptions and when those subscriptions are actually used.
Apparently some understandable frustration exists within Microsoft that considerable effort often goes into winning an Office 365 deal only for it to stagnate for a substantial period before going live. Despite the upward trajectory for Office 365, the feeling is that things should be going better and that a won but unimplemented deal is always prone to being overturned by a competitor – in this case, potentially a move to Google Apps. Providing an accelerator to deals should move things along faster, or so the theory goes.
The announcement surprised partners who traditionally viewed this kind of work as their bailiwick. With or without Microsoft assistance, a partner would win the deal and then work with the customer to progress through design, planning, preparation, and migration. Given the success of Office 365, migration projects are a lucrative source of income for third party consultants. And that up-to-now reasonably predictable income stream might have underpinned the investment made by partners to build their capability to deliver Office 365 services.
Helping customers to move to Office 365 faster makes perfect sense from a Microsoft perspective. In the early days of Office 365, migrations tended to be more problematic than today. Years of experience, tips and techniques, and better software – both Office 365 itself and the migration utilities sold by third parties – means that migrations are often not as technically challenging as before. Migrations are still boring and mundane work but at least the work is well understood.
But migrations to any new messaging platform can encounter lurking potholes, largely because there’s usually a period when old and new systems run alongside each other. Small companies of less than a couple of hundred users can move over a weekend, but once you deal with larger numbers the need to move mailbox data from on-premises servers across the Internet to Office 365 slows the pace. All of which means that complications like directory synchronization come into play. In short, migrations can be an extended and messy business.
It seems that Microsoft will offer their new services to customers who have more than 150 seats to move to Office 365. According to an August 15 report, Microsoft’s team will be able to migrate users from Exchange 2003 or later versions, Lotus Domino 7.0.3 and later, and IMAP-accessible systems such as Gmail.
It’s unclear whether some of the Microsoft engineers will ever go onsite or if they will always operate from call centers. Details of the exact onboarding tasks that Microsoft will take care of are not yet available but are likely to include the most straightforward and easily scripted processes such as mailbox moves and user provisioning. However, as reported, quite a lot of work will remain as:
“Customers will be responsible for the migration of client-side data — including .pst files, local Outlook settings and local contacts — and post-migration support… Many Microsoft partners offer these types of services.”
To make such a venture possible, I imagine that Microsoft will follow a very precise playbook that outlines exactly how to prepare to execute a migration. Some new tools to automate steps can be anticipated. Any deviation from the playbook in terms of the characteristics of a customer’s on-premises system or the data to be migrated will possibly mean that it will fall outside the terms of this service and have to be referred to a partner. For example, if substantial pre-work is required to update the on-premises environment before a migration can start, that work is likely to be left to the customer or farmed out to a partner.
Exchange 2003 and Exchange 2007 servers are probably the most common email servers found in the target base of customers considering a move to Office 365 and not all of these systems will have been well maintained over the years. I can see some challenges in figuring out basic stuff such as making sure that sufficient network capacity exists to allow mailboxes to be moved. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft validates a customer environment before starting any real on-boarding work. Sometimes it takes the eyes of a skilled human to detect lurking problems in an IT system and that won’t happen when everything is done from a call center.
And you’ll notice no mention of SharePoint and Lync migration or co-existence with on-premises versions: this effort is all about getting Office 365 moving by accelerating the transition of email to the cloud. Given that a lot of small companies don’t use SharePoint or Lync, providing an email-centric migration service is the most effective course to take. According to reports, Microsoft told partners at WPC that this initiative will allow the partners to focus on more complex migration projects where more customized interaction (and therefore billing) is required to enable customers to move. In other words, instead of doing ten small migration projects that can now be handled by a Microsoft call center, a partner can focus on two or three more “interesting” projects and devote the same amount of effort to those engagements.
To ease the pain for partners, Microsoft will continue to fund Office 365 engagements through deployment funds that cover $15,000 for the first 1,000 seats in a project plus $5/seat afterwards up to a limit of $60,000 per customer. These funds cover migration work that cannot be done from a central point.
Continuing funds will help, but partners really need to focus on the big picture and ask themselves whether their business should center on any activity that can be automated and transitioned to a call center. Long-term success is better gained through high-value, high-knowledge activities. Perhaps this Microsoft move will be sufficient to persuade partners who have made a decent business from Office 365 on-boarding that they should concentrate on other aspects of Office 365, like SharePoint deployment, enterprise Lync, or even making sense of Yammer?
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