Should I Switch to Office 365? A Frank Examination

The Cloud – An Explanation

As time moves on, technology moves with it, and times they are a’changin’! There have been many drastic changes in the world of IT over the years, but the most recent change, the move toward cloud computing, is probably one of the most drastic and industry redefining change to occur since the release of HTTP in the early 1990s.

Cloud computing is, put simply, placing your IT infrastructure into the hands of a third party, and it’s becoming big news for companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple, who are working hard to push the IT world into the Cloud so they can take advantage of the recurring income model that their Cloud systems are built around.

A more complex explanation of Cloud Computing almost always requires a metaphor or analogy of some kind, so here’s mine; Cake. I love cake. Everyone loves cake. If you don’t love cake, you’re crazy and you should give your cake to me. But there is a problem with cake. If you live alone, you can never really have cake, because in order to have cake you usually have to buy or make a whole cake, and if you have a whole cake to yourself, you will very quickly regret having purchased a whole cake for yourself as you roll yourself out of bed and out the door each morning on your gigantic rolls of fat. Then you’ll have a heart attack. Cake is meant to be shared. One cake is enough to allow 12 people (or more, or less, depending on how much they love cake) to have a comfortable amount of cake. This is good for everyone because they all get cake and aren’t fat because of it. So, how is the Cloud like cake? Well, now that computing technology has advanced to the point where almost every computer system provides more power than is necessary for most tasks in the corporate environment, buying and building a complex IT infrastructure that meets all the needs of a specific company can be extremely expensive, and it’s highly likely that much of that infrastructure is going to be wasted because it is more than is needed.

Virtualization was the first step to addressing the concerns of excessive computing power. It allowed IT departments to combine multiple server roles, securely segregated, on a single physical server. Prior to the advent of Virtualization, secure segregation of server roles required numerous physical servers, which in turn required a lot of space, power, and resources to maintain. Virtualization started shrinking the corporate Datacenters of the world, and the concept of Cloud computing seeks primarily to not only shrink the corporate datacenter, but to centralize it

Cloud computing, like a giant cake, allows multiple corporate environments to share a single, gigantic infrastructure system. Rather than each company having their own segregated and wholly owned infrastructure that is managed, configured, and maintained separately, Cloud solutions like Office 365 seek to provide all the services of a highly integrated and functional environment without requiring a fully dedicated infrastructure for each company that needs or wants that type of functionality. This is accomplished through the use of highly customized versions of products that are normally available to individual corporations for a one time investment in a packaged, much smaller recurring fee system. The cloud provider builds, maintains, and supports the Infrastructure and the cloud user makes use of the system just like it was owned by them. In the case of Office 365, every individual or company that uses the solution is effectively lumped into the same infrastructure system and uses the portion of that system that they need, rather than using a portion of their own system and wasting the portion they don’t use. This is handy because one of the worst things in the world is stale cake. I mean unused IT resources.

Getting to it – What Does Office 365 Offer

Office 365, being Microsoft’s Cloud solutions environment, provides most of the IT services that companies depend on Microsoft for. Specifically, Email and Calendaring (Through Exchange), Collaboration (Through Sharepoint and Exchange), Instant Messaging (Through Lync), and centralized file management and storage through OneDrive (Formally SkyDrive, formally something else. Microsoft changes the names of stuff every week it seems, so we’ll just call this cloud storage). If you wanted to compare the Infrastructure requirements you would need to meet what Office 365 provides for its monthly per-user fee (or a la cart if you don’t want all the services together) you would need the following things in your environment:

Exchange Online:

  • At minimum 3 Exchange 2013 servers configured with DAG
  • A hardware load balancer
  • A high-speed Fiber-channel SAN with about 55GB of storage per user (For normal Mailboxes) and an additional 5GB for each resource mailbox (Rooms, equipment, shared calendars, etc.).
  • An infinitely expanding low speed SAN (For archive mailboxes, for E3 licenses and above)
  • A secure email delivery solution to provide email stubbing (for E3 licenses and above)
  • Spam filtering services or a spam appliance

Sharepoint Online:

  • At minimum 2 Sharepoint 2013 Servers
  • Additional high-speed Fiber-Channel space, up to 50GB per user (again…this is space for OneDrive/SkyDrive/whatever they call it next)
  • More Load Balancing

Lync Online:

  • At minimum 3 Lync 2013 servers

Generic Software Infrastructure

  • Several Windows 2008/2012 Licenses
  • Active Directory (2 DCs minimum)
  • Multi-Tiered SAN infrastructure (with multi-site geo-replication capabilities)
  • A Load Balancer
  • Highly secured Firewalls

Software

  • Office Professional Plus license for each user

Physical Requirements

  • Multiple Physical locations spread across numerous geographical regions.
  • Each Physical Location should have Concrete security walls, entry barriers, full time security staff, man-traps, and multi-factor authentication before admittance

And that’s just for basic service. You would also need several employees dedicated to maintaining the infrastructure and supporting the environment, since it is very difficult to find individual IT personnel who have the skill set or mental constitution necessary to manage such an environment.

In other words, if you were to build the infrastructure necessary to provide the same functionality and level of service available with Office 365, you would need to spend several hundred thousand dollars in hardware, software, and manpower. This also does not take into account Architecting and development costs for setting up the environment, which is typically done by third party companies or contractors.

Normally, individual companies would need to spend this kind of money every time they upgrade their infrastructure to keep up with new features and changes in technology. But with Office 365, upgrades, patching and new services/features are released regularly, with no need to manage a patching system. All in all, using Office 365 can represent a significant cost savings for companies that need high availability, accessibility, scalability, and security in their IT infrastructure.

Why Wouldn’t I Use Office 365

If it costs a whole lot less and provides a lot of great features, why would you not want to use Office 365? The answer here is that cloud solutions are designed to meet the needs of the average environment, not every environment. As the cloud begins to mature (it’s really just an infant right now, so don’t be surprised if it tosses Cheerios across the room every now and then) it will become much more customizable, but for now, there is very little customization that can happen with Office 365. For instance, any Line of Business application you have in your environment that must me installed on an Exchange Server is not usable. Many software providers that require this type of functionality are moving their focus to cloud based solutions now, but things like Blackberry Enterprise Server will not work with Office 365. As I mentioned, most companies are building systems that integrate with Office 365, for instance Research in Motion has teamed with Microsoft to build in support for BES features into Office 365. This support has to be activated, though. But there are several things that simply can’t be done with Office 365. I’ll try to provide some of the limitations here. For a more detailed explanation of what Office 365 *can* do, check out the official service descriptions available from Microsoft.


  1. Microsoft limits email restorations to 14 days. If an email is deleted from a Mailbox, the Deleted Items folder, and then purged from the hidden recoverable items folder, you will only have the ability to recover that email for 14 days after being fully purged. Within the 14 day window, a support request to Microsoft is required to recover the email. Outside that Window, there is no possible way to recover it. I should mention that this is a technical limitation of the Exchange Online service. Exchange Online utilizes a 14 day lagged, 3+ copy DAG configuration. This configuration allows Microsoft to use Circular Logging on their databases to reduce resource usage, and allows an extremely high level of availability. However, the maximum amount of time that any DAG member can be lagged is 14 days. Once a full email purge is fully committed to the lagged database copy, there is no way to recover it.
  2. Office 365 does not allow unauthenticated email relaying. In order to send email to Office 365, you *must* authenticate with a licensed user account. If you have Line of Business applications or equipment that doesn’t support unauthenticated email, consider upgrading your version to one that supports authenticated relaying. If this is not possible, it is necessary to utilize an SMTP server in your network that supports unauthenticated relay, such as PostFix or the IIS based SMTP server that is included with Windows Server.
  3. Exchange Online has strict limits on the amount of email that each mailbox can send. This is to prevent spamming from Office 365’s mail servers and reduce resource overhead. Each mailbox is allowed to send to at most 10,000 recipients per day (a recipient is considered to be a single email address listed in the To:, CC:, or BCC: fields of an email, so a distribution list can be used to count as a single recipient). In addition, each email can be sent to up to 500 recipients and each mailbox can only send up to 30 messages per minute. Microsoft will not increase these limits even if you ask. If you have a business need to exceed these limitations, consider using a cloud based mass-emailing service like MailChimp.
  4. Many of the administrative capabilities and controls that are available with an On-Premise Exchange, SharePoint, or Lync environment are not exposed to Office 365 tenant administrators. If there is a control that you would like to enable or use and you can’t find it in the Admin Portal, you may be able to do it in the Remote Powershell sessions provided by Microsoft. Even with Powershell, there is only so much you can do. There are 4 different Modules for Managing Office 365 in Powershell, Exchange Online (with some additional things), Lync Online, Windows Azure AD, and SharePoint Online. As a general rule, though, administrative settings that control server level or organizational level functions will not be available to you. If you have a business need to change a high level configuration, you must prepare and submit a Support Request to Microsoft through the Office 365 Admin Portal. This is a fairly simple process, but support requests can take a significant amount of time to complete, so be prepared to wait for your changes to apply.
  5. If it breaks, there’s nothing you can do to fix it in most situations. Unless you are using ADFS and Dirsync in your environment, bringing Office 365 services back online if something fails is completely out of your wheelhouse. If you do use ADFS or Dirsync, the only thing you can really troubleshoot and fix is Active Directory Object syncing or Login issues. Everything else false under Microsoft’s SLAs and is their responsibility to fix. Microsoft guarantees a minimum service up-time of 99.9% (or 43 minutes acceptable downtime per month). The SLA documents provide exact details on service credits granted for falling below that level, but if your IT management has decided that a higher level of up-time is required, Office 365 may not be a good solution for your environment.

There are a number of other limitations to Office 365’s service, so many, in fact, that it would be difficult to outline them all with a small book. Because of that, Microsoft (and I) typically recommend a short Proof of Concept (PoC) period before migrating to the service. A PoC will highlight errors in your system configuration that will negatively impact interoperability with Office 365 and make sure that your environment and business needs can be completely met with Office 365.

I Work in IT – How Will This Impact My Job

One of the greatest causes of push-back from moving to the Cloud comes from IT staff. Most IT people are justifiably twitchy when it comes to keeping their jobs. There are a lot of people competing for IT jobs and one of the major selling points of Cloud Services is decreased employment costs. Add that to the fact that the first group to get targeted for layoffs during a recession is the IT department and questions about how this will impact IT workers becomes a greatly valid question. The truth is that while movements to the cloud will decrease the need for dedicated IT staff in most companies, it also increases the need for IT staff at datacenters and consulting firms. Skilled IT people are in short supply, so keeping up with the technology trends and times is very important. Learning about the cloud and understanding it will keep you from being unemployed for extended periods (I speak from experience on this, I promise).

That said, large environments that maintain IT staff will still need to keep a significant portion of their IT workers even if they move to the cloud. Microsoft and other cloud solutions do not provide End User Support so there will always be a need for Help Desk and on-site support staff. In addition, companies that migrate to the cloud will continue to need IT staff that can interface with Cloud Services Support Staff. A single support request with Microsoft should convince most of the difficulty that exists in managing support requests and maintaining lines of communication during outages and system failures. There will also still be a need for Systems and Network Administrators (In fact, with Cloud services Network Administrators may be in even higher demand as Internet Connection Up-time becomes more important). In all reality, on-site IT staff will still be very necessary, but the nature of the job will begin to change as more cloud services become available. Instead of fighting fires and panicking about system failures and inefficiencies, IT staff can focus on developing processes and making non-cloud based services work better. Cloud services make the typical IT employee’s job easier, not less necessary.

What is Available in the Cloud Besides Office 365

The primary principal of Cloud Computing is that the equipment that runs your infrastructure no longer exists in your physical locations. There are a lot of ways this is accomplished. Terms like Private Cloud are bandied about by Marketing teams with wild abandon without a really concrete definition. Ask three different salesmen what a Private Cloud is and you’ll probably get three completely different answers (Or some really blank stares. Salesmen. *eyeroll* Am I right?). But essentially, you’re in the cloud if you have to have a Public Internet connection to reach your resources. If you have a dedicated MPLS-like connection to a datacenter and someone else manages, maintains, and updates those systems for you, this is not operating in the Cloud. Some people will call this a Private Cloud, but the real term used to define this type of relationship is Managed Services (since that’s what that kind of relationship was called well before the term Private Cloud was coined).

At any rate, cloud services can range from Solutions like Office 365 and Google Apps for Business to things like Drop-Box and Imgur. For IT purposes, some additional services that may be useful include Microsoft’s Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) Azure solution. Azure allows you to create entirely cloud based Virtual Machines in Microsoft’s datacenters that can be acessed from anywhere. Amazon’s AWS provides a number of services for Web Based businesses to perform necessary functions. Google’s Apps for Business provides similar functionality to Office 365 but with (in my opinion) less polish.

Other Considerations

Migrating to the cloud is a difficult decision to make. There are pros and cons just like any other business decision. Take some time to understand what is involved in moving to the cloud and make sure to plan for life after moving if you decide to do so. One of the best recommendations I can make for people considering a move like this is to contact a company that specializes in cloud services (Like Business and Decision North America, the company I work for. How’s that for shameless plugs?). Aside from being able to explain things in greater detail and help plan for moving to the cloud, using a Microsoft Partner to assist in your move will open up options for quick escalations and better communication with Microsoft’s Support teams in the event of problems. Companies that do not have a partner to assist them must deal with Microsoft’s Office 365 support teams themselves, and this can take up to 2 days to receive the first response , depending on their workload and day of the week (never make a support case at 4PM on Friday. Just a friendly tip). If you work with a Microsoft Partner, this response time can be decreased to the amount of time it takes for someone in Redmond to get their butt kicked (metaphorically speaking). All in all, the world is just now beginning to move into the cloud, so now is the time to begin preparing for the inevitable.

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2 responses to “Should I Switch to Office 365? A Frank Examination

  1. Great post! After working with Google Apps for the past few years I have grown to believe that the power lies in it’s simplicity, scalability and open nature. Simple because it does the basics, 95% of what you need, very well. Scalable because if a small business suddenly decided to take on 500 extra staff located in 30 different offices, starting tomorrow, Google Apps can handle it without breaking a sweat. Finally open because savvy managers can use the API’s to fully automate their business processes, significantly reduce administrative overhead for the cost of a pint of beer. Just a few things to consider.

    • I am not personally a fan of Google Apps (Many of the interfaces and APIs suffer from usability issues in my opinion) but I certainly understand the benefits of it. Google Apps is a solid solution for many environments, but there are also many environments that would see greater benefits from Office 365, just like there are environments that should absolutely not consider moving the bulk of their infrastructure to the cloud.

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