Our first look at Microsoft's cloud-based office suite and services is encouraging indeed.
Using the cloud to deliver
applications isn't a new idea, but it's one that's had to wait until now for
technology to catch up with it. Microsoft's Office 365 is the company's answer
to the increasing demand for anywhere, anytime access to applications and
services. It provides small businesses as well as enterprises with hosted
instances of the company's Office application lineup, while relieving IT staff
of much of the day-to-day care and feeding of those applications.
At first glance, the service,
which opened as a public beta in mid-April, could be a blessing for
organizations that would like to take advantage of the tight integration that
Microsoft offers in its desktop and server applications, without investing in
the hardware or staff necessary to deploy such collaboration and productivity
tools as Lync and SharePoint.
Click here for eWEEK Labs' image gallery of Office 365 in action.
Office 365 encompasses a well-thought-out
collection of services that combine flexibility and stability while conforming
to real-world business needs for compliance and security. In its first
incarnation, enterprise customers can provide their users with email through
Exchange Online, advanced communication services through Lync Online and collaboration
tools in the form of SharePoint Online. The service provides users with access
to locally installed instances of Office Professional Plus as well as the
Microsoft-hosted Office Web Apps.
Although hosted instances of the
Office server apps are already available from third parties, the Office 365
instances raise the bar for what customers should expect. For example, some
Exchange deployments constrain users to a couple of gigabytes of storage.
Exchange Online users get a 25GB mailbox as a default and the ability to send
messages up to 25MB in size. That alone is enough to sell me on the service. I'm
the first person to point out that I'm a bit of a pack rat, but at the rate I
go, it would take me at least a decade to fill up that much space.
Office 365 gives an organization
a choice of presenting the service through a subdomain of Microsoft's
onmicrosoft.com domain, or through the organization's own DNS domain. Depending
on how the organization handles DNS, presenting Office 365 as a subdomain of
the organization's own domain can get tricky. The DNS entries will be child's
play for outfits that run their own DNS servers, but when I tried to set up the
Office 365 services to present themselves through a subdomain of one of the
eWEEK Labs domains, I found that our provider couldn't easily accommodate the service
(SVR) records required to deploy Lync
The management functions of
Office 365 are relatively straightforward. The Web-based front end allows IT
staff to add users one at a time or in bulk through the upload of a CSV
file containing details such as names, email addresses and phone numbers.
Users can be defined as regular users, service administrators or user
management administrators, depending on their roles in the organization. Users
are assigned a license based on the subscription plan. The licenses will
generally fall into one of two categories. The one I evaluated (dubbed "E3" in
the beta) is meant for users who require a full-blown Office setup; the other
plan (K2) is designed for users who might share equipment or log in from a
kiosk, and offers access to SharePoint Online and Exchange Online.
The same front end is used for
managing Exchange Online, Lync Online and SharePoint Online. The service
management tools let the administrator focus on the task at hand. For example,
it may be desirable to federate Lync's presence information with another
organization, or in what may be a more common scenario, with users within one's
own organization who use an on-premises installation of Lync. The domain
federation can be exclusive-by blacklisting domains-or inclusive, by
explicitly listing the domains with which to federate. All of this can be
accomplished with a few clicks of the mouse, and of course, entering the name
of the federated domain.
In a similar fashion, the
SharePoint Online management functions are going to look awfully familiar to
anyone with experience managing SharePoint instances. Site collections can be
created and managed, InfoPath Forms Services can be configured, and user
profile and team store management functions are all accessed from the
administration page. Mobile users are also accommodated through automatic
redirection to pages optimized for the bandwidth and memory constraints
inherent in such devices.
Finally, Exchange Online's
management page controls distribution groups, contract lists and mobile device
access. Device policies can be enforced through Exchange ActiveSync, just as they
would be in an on-premises installation, or a third-party hosted Exchange
service. Calendars can be shared through federation with other organizations
using Exchange Online or Exchange Server 2010.
Of course, some administrators
will want to perform functions that aren't available through the Web-based
management tools. Windows Remote PowerShell allows access to these "under the
Because this is a beta, the
customer experience isn't flawless. The product team has a lot of work ahead of
it in the area of documentation. But my first look at Office 365 leaves me
rather impressed with what Microsoft has accomplished so far. It's a solid
package for businesses that want the convenience of cloud-based applications
while preserving the look and feel of the tools for users and IT staff alike.