El Reg drills into Office 365: What's under the hood?
Sysadmin Trevor tells us what's the score
Microsoft's cloudy services offering have had an overhaul. Office 365 is faster, stronger, smarter, better and more like TIFKAM (the interface formerly known as Metro), or Modern User as it is now called, than ever before. The new overhaul is a major upgrade in usability and administer ability.
Let's take a peek under the hood and see what is on offer.
The first thing to note is that Office 365 comes in a variety of tiers.
These stretch from email-only at £2.60 per user per month (with an annual commitment) through to the Small Business plan at £5.20 per user per month and Mid-sized Business at £9.80 per user per month all the way to the with-bells-on Enterprise E3 plan at £15 per user per month (again, with an annual commitment). Finding the right package takes a little nosing through the website.
What's in the box
The small-business package is pitched at up to 25 users and the mid-sized one at up to 300 users. Enterprise is unlimited. The mid-sized and enterprise packages include an installable copy of Office for up to five PCs or Macs per user.
All plans are compatible with desktop versions of Office 2007, Office 2010, Office 2013 and Office 2011 for Mac, but sadly there are no installable iPhone or Android versions available yet.
For customers who just want to subscribe to Office in the cloud there is Office 365 ProPlus. This includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, Publisher and Lync. This is more of an enterprise option and costs £10.10 per user per month.
Office 365 subscribers gain access to Office Web Apps. These are in-browser variants of the installable Office applications. Currently supported are Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Onenote. Hosted email plan customers do not have access to Office Web Apps, but can view attachments.
Email is provided by Exchange Online, the Office 365 variant of Microsoft's Exchange Server. Previous versions of Exchange Online included Forefront Online Protection for Exchange (Fope). This has been replaced by Exchange Online Protection, in which the administrative interface for spam and malware protection has been completely reworked.
Fope was complicated and decidedly user-unfriendly. It was designed for dedicated exchange administrators who had time to wade through thick tomes of technical information before daring to touch the sacred controls.
Exchange Online Protection is designed to be comprehensible to the small-business power user who has been jumped up to Office 365 admin in a company without any real sysadmins. Microsoft has done a wonderful job cleaning this piece of the interface up and deserves an accolade for it. (Yes, I just complimented Microsoft on a user interface, try not to faint.)
In addition to Exchange Microsoft offers Lync Online, Microsoft's unified communications service. It offers instant messaging, voice, video and desktop sharing and also merges other collaboration elements by integrating tightly with Outlook/Exchange for email and Sharepoint.
Speaking of Sharepoint, that is also part of Office 365. Sharepoint Online is perhaps the most natural fit for a subscription cloud app that Microsoft has in its arsenal.
Sharepoint in the enterprise is a finicky, miserable-to-administer thing requiring a fair amount of expertise. Sharepoint in Office 365 has its own App Store. This moves it on from the Wordpress-for-business role it typically has when installed on premises to something more akin to collaboration-as-a-service. I have never had much time or use for Sharepoint before but the Office 365 version has opened my eyes to its possibilities.
There is Skydrive Pro for file sharing and synchronisation. It works well and integrates directly into the installable version of Office. If there is a quibble to be had it is that it comes with only 7GB per user.
Enterprise users of Office 365 can turn to Active Directory Integration to enable single sign on between their local domains and Office 365. There is also Project Online for those who want it and Microsoft covers the whole lot of its cloudy offerings with a 99.9 per cent guaranteed uptime service level agreement.
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.
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. ®