Office 365 Beta Proves Promising

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 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 Online.

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 hood" operations.

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.