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El Reg drills into Office 365: What's under the hood?

Sysadmin Trevor tells us what's the score

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Making it go

A list of applications and services doesn't tell you much about how well everything actually works. Opinions will vary according to administrators’ familiarity with cloud computing as well as its alternatives, including Microsoft's own on-premises offerings, but I find that within certain error bars the new Office 365 works pretty well.

Office 365's value is best revealed by comparing it with Microsoft's on-premises offerings. Exchange, Lync and Sharepoint are multi-headed hydras if you are not a dedicated admin.

They are miserable, complex affairs replete with a plethora of options that your average small business is never going to remember, let alone get around to configuring or using.

Using Lync as "just an instant messenger" within a company is like swatting a fly with a deorbited moon. Exchange has grown more knobs than a nuclear submarine – way too much for the business that just wants individual email, group email (public folders) and shared calendars.

It hides the most unused items so you don't have to think about them

Many SMEs don't have the budget to license and install the numerous copies of these server applications required to do things by the book. Office 365 takes the installation and configuration headaches away. It hides the most unused items so you don't have to think about them and presents you with a simplified and (mostly) intuitive interface.

In 2012 there were a couple of highly publicised outages in the US but the service undoubtedly provides better uptime than many SME sysadmins can offer, and the hosted services integrate well with the new generation of Microsoft client apps.

In short, Office 365 does what it is supposed to do, and does it quite well. Indeed, from a security and legal compliance standpoint most businesses are far better off with Office 365 than they ever would be with their own offerings.

Some SMEs may have hot-shot sysadmins capable of making the world dance on the head of a pin; most don't. They should be using something like Office 365 to make sure they have a service as good as their larger competitors.

The devil in the details

Nothing is perfect: there are gotchas with Office 365 as there would be with any other product. The first caveat is price.

Office 365 makes perfect sense if you belong to the Church of the Three-Year Refresh. In my experience, there are a whole lot of small businesses that find six- and even 10-year refreshes serve them just fine. This might not be advisable, especially as old versions reach their end of life in terms of support.

But you won't be selling Office 365 on price here unless you can start convincing them that it removes the need for an admin or two.

The interface is another bugbear, as interfaces always are. I suspect that hard-boiled systems administrators will find some element of the Office 365 interface that gets under their skin. Junk mail filtering in Exchange Server 2007 is a great example.

To prevent false positives I have always found I need to tweak the Spam Confidence Level settings. There are generally three you need to change, but only two are changeable in the GUI. To get at the third you need the Set-ContentFilterConfig Powershell command.

Why was this design choice made? I have no idea, but find it irritating.

My pet gripe is the remarkably simplified Lync interface. Ever since Office Communicator 2005 I have used a feature called "custom tabs" to graft a small company intranet into the instant messenger installed on all the users' computers. It is compact, has links to company resources and everyone is utterly reliant upon it.

There is no option to enable custom tabs in Office 365's interface. Apparently, this is not something most companies do. If you want custom tabs you need the New-CsClientPolicy taburl Powershell command. That might not get my Irish up if it didn't take two hours of punching Google to find it.

Serious contender

I may never see eye to eye with Microsoft regarding its interface design choices. It is probably safe to say I will be sniping and grumbling for years to come. For once, however, the sum total of the offering makes me willing to look past such frustrations.

Office 365 has come a long, long way in a very short time. This is no longer a version 1.0 product. Ladies and gentlemen, Microsoft has perfected "push button, receive enterprise IT".

When you put Exchange and Lync together you have hands-down the best unified communications package that mainstream IT has to offer. You can sign up for and be running the whole suite in less than two minutes. It comes secure by default, monitored, maintained, patched and upgraded. This is an enticing offering.

My first client was upgraded to the new version of Office 2013 only last week. I am still getting to know it and I have quite a few questions still. I am sure you all do as well.

Ask your questions in the comments. I will spend the next month poking around Office 365 in depth to see just exactly how good it really is. ®

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