Cloud-based solutions have so far been largely limited to back-end solutions and infrastructure services that are kept well away from users, but with Office 365 that is about to change. Google Docs has been available for over four years, but this currently requires a constant Internet connection to create, edit, or view documents and so cannot be seen as a replacement for Microsoft Office.
Office 365 includes the locally installed Office software that users are familiar with, allowing them to work on documents when they are travelling, or lose Internet connectivity for whatever reason. This is supplemented by Cloud-based versions of the Office suite allowing document editing through a browser as well as cloud-based installations of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync.
For comments on the business implications of Office 365 see my CM Group colleague Steve Ryan’s blog.
Exchange Online provides all of the functionality of Microsoft Exchange and users continue with their familiar Outlook client and do not notice any difference when using their email and calendar.
The additional benefits of Exchange Online are that users can access their email, contacts, calendars and other Exchange assets from anywhere. They can use a browser or a smartphone and get access to Exchange from anywhere with an Internet connection. Furthermore, if you connect your telephone system to Exchange Online, you can integrate voicemail with email to have one unified inbox with emails and voicemails accessible from Outlook, online, from a smartphone, or through a telephone.
To protect your company and your users from junk mail and malware Exchange Online includes Forefront Online Protection for Exchange. This not only provides a reliable anti-spam and anti-virus system, but it takes away the administrative overhead of maintaining this system in-house.
Documents are stored in SharePoint Online, a fully functional, cloud-based version of SharePoint. This gives you the benefits of SharePoint for collaboration, version control, the ability to set up team and project sites and the advantages of a fully functional document store.
As users access SharePoint either through a browser or through Office applications, the move to SharePoint Online is seamless.
Most functionality available through an on-site installation of SharePoint is available through SharePoint Online however, there are some limitations. Key differences include no FAST search, no combined Internet and SharePoint search and no PerformancePoint or Power Pivot business intelligence capabilities.
Instant messaging and conferencing has become an essential business tool in the last few years. Here at Content Master we have a large number of home-workers and both home and office-based staff have many conference calls. With Lync Online you have all the benefits of Windows Live Messenger, but administered to provide an in-company solution. This is ideal when you want to ask a quick question, or check if someone is free.
We then use online meetings to discuss projects and benefit from desktop sharing to display documents. Collaboration tools such as Lync Online have become so effective that online conferencing is every bit as good as gathering everyone in a room. As well as the online abilities presently in Lync, in the future you will have the ability to dial in to a Lync conference from a traditional telephone system.
Office 365 has tools to remotely manage and secure both Windows and Blackberry smartphones. Smartphones have the ability to connect to Exchange Online as well as edit documents either through native Office applications in Windows 7 or though the online versions of the Office applications.
Users or administrators can go to the Office 365 portal to download and install Office Professional Plus. The process is very straightforward and there is no need for any license keys. There are also wizards to configure Outlook, SharePoint and Lync and these configure the client software installed locally on users' machines to work seamlessly with the cloud-based Office 365 services.
Office 365 administration is mostly carried out through a browser interface with five administration roles to provide granular rights.
Although this is a very straightforward method to perform day-to-day administration tasks, if you needed to perform a task on a large number of users, you may need more automation. This is where PowerShell comes in. There is a Microsoft Online Services Module for Windows PowerShell that enables you to automate administrative tasks in your Office 365 cloud-based systems. This gives you the best of both worlds with full PowerShell scripting for large or repetitive tasks and a Web interface for day-to-day tasks.
You can choose between different identity solutions. You can use Microsoft Online IDs, which removes the need for onsite identity and access management systems, or you can integrate Office 365 with your corporate Active Directory using DirSync. Microsoft Online IDs are a cost effective identity solution for a small to medium business, but users will have a new ID and there is no control over settings such as password policy. If you integrate Office 365 with your corporate Active Directory using DirSync you can provide a single sign on with the user's normal username and password and you can control identity settings locally such as the password policy.
Office 365 has six different plans and so you can choose the level of functionality that you require. This is beneficial as you may well have already migrated to Office 2010 and so there is little point in taking a plan that includes offline versions of the office apps. Once you have decided the plan, then you just pay per user and so costs go up and down on a monthly basis with staff levels. This is ideal if you have contractors for peak times or if your business is expected to expand; you only pay for the licenses you need that month.
There is a guarantee of at least 99.9% uptime and so the costs of providing high availability solutions are also removed.
I have titled this blog post "Office 365 - Bringing the Cloud Down to Earth" because Office 365 is expanding cloud computing from a somewhat niche offering to make the cloud something that users will utilise all day every day. By limiting the direct effects on users, they can continue to use familiar tools and only see the benefits of a migration to the cloud. The organization should see cost reductions through licensing, hardware, administration and the ability to increase or decrease user numbers on a monthly basis, while seeing benefits in high availability, virus and spam prevention and immediate upgrades to the latest software versions.
If you are interested in training your staff on the Cloud and the new Office 365 offering click here.