Considering a Move to the Cloud? Consider Microsoft Office 365

Increasing numbers of organizations are considering making the move to the cloud, but trying to navigate the myriad solutions on the market and the intricacies of deployment options can be challenging. Despite the uncertainties that come with adopting any new technology or service, the cloud is here to stay and offers many advantages to the business, its IT organization, and the end Users. Microsoft has fully embraced the power of the cloud with Microsoft Office 365™, its business productivity suite that can greatly simplify the life of an IT department, save operational costs, and provide greater uptime.

Save the Hassles of Managing the Platform

Switching from an on-premise to a cloud solution naturally relieves an organization from the hassles of managing the platform running the solution. Start listing all the components of an on-premise email solution: maintaining support contracts on every piece of hardware involved; replacing hardware when it nears the end of its lifecycle; managing support options for the email software; and upgrading it to newer versions. It takes a lot of time (and expense) to manage the solution and can induce considerable risk and disruption to your business should an update or upgrade run into issues.

No Longer Shoulder the Risk

Another advantage is that cloud-based offerings include built-in disaster recovery capabilities. That is another expense and risk that your organization no longer has to shoulder. Naturally a cloud solution, with its smaller local footprint, will be easier and take less time to manage, so organizations can be more flexible when it comes to staffing. In short, choosing a cloud solution greatly lightens the load of an IT organization by letting the cloud provider assume both the maintenance tasks and the risks associated with IT systems.

Make the CFO and CIO Happy

There is also a financial, rather than operational, benefit to switching to cloud solutions. While the cost and expense of implementing or upgrading a new solution on-premise typically involves a capital expenditure, cloud solutions are generally “pay as you go” offerings, and therefore an operating expense. Similarly, they have no (or very few) fixed assets to track or depreciate. This accounting distinction makes cloud solutions attractive to CFOs, while the operational advantages appeal to CIOs.

Understanding Private Versus Public Clouds

This doesn’t mean that all cloud solutions are created equal, or that they all will fit into an organization’s IT strategy in the same way or give the same benefits. One clear differentiation is the choice between single-tenant and multi-tenant models, sometimes referred to as private versus public cloud. A multi-tenant solution leverages a common hardware and software infrastructure across many Customers, which maximizes resource utilization but at the expense of flexibility (since customizations for one Customer would affect all Customers, multi-tenant solutions rarely allow for customizations or integrations.) A single-tenant, or private cloud, allows for much greater flexibility by compartmenting each tenant, meaning that a tenant’s data is isolated from that of other Customers and allows for a full range of customizations (and reduces the risk that changes in one client’s setup would affect others).

The Flexibility of Office 365

Office 365 is the centerpiece of Microsoft’s cloud offerings. It is actually made up of four distinct components: Exchange Online, SharePoint® Online, Lync®, and the familiar Office 2010 Pro Plus, the mix of which depends on what particular plan is assigned to each User. Some plans, each with a monthly price point, include only access to a 25GB mailbox, while others include the use of browser-based applications and SharePoint Online, a license for Office Professional Plus, and the option to use Lync not just as an IM and Live Meeting tool, but also as a phone system upgrade (or replacement). Different Users can be assigned different plans, allowing for flexibility and cost control – Office 365 administrators can grant Users any one of a variety of plans at any time. There are even some kiosk options, designed for employees who traditionally don’t require an IT footprint. Think of shop floor employees or delivery drivers who do not require a full-fledged desktop now having access to a mailbox and browser-based Office applications at a reduced monthly rate ($4 or $8 monthly, based on features).

Four Plans, Your Choice

In addition to the “Exchange only” option, costing $4 per month, there are four plans tailored to traditional knowledge workers. The first adds SharePoint online functionality (including the use of the browser-based applications to read Office documents) for $8 per month, and the second allows the use of the browser applications to create Office documents for $14 per month. It is worth pointing out that the “traditional” Office 2010 is able to open and edit documents as well. So, if your organization has already licensed Office 2010, these two plans could be used to leverage SharePoint Online and basic Lync (IM) capability.

The third plan, priced at $20 per month, packs in some compelling features. For one, email storage now becomes unlimited, as email archiving (including legal hold capability) is enabled. Users can also leverage advanced voice (hosted voice mail, auto attendant) solutions. Also standing out is the Office 2010 Professional Pro Plus subscription. This subscription allows for up to five installations per User, so it can be an attractive solution for power Users who have multiple devices. It is worth noting, however, that due to the licensing mechanism of that subscription, this particular version will not work in terminal server environments, for which the traditionally licensed Office is still required.

Finally, the fourth plan unlocks the full functionality of Lync by replacing or enhancing a local PBX. This allows for true unified messaging, in which one phone number can roam between a desk phone, cell phone, or even a “soft phone” on a User’s laptop.

All of these plans work seamlessly together and can be integrated with Active Directory using ADFS, or Federation Services. Office 365 can either be standalone, with its own username and password sets, or tied to a local Active Directory for account and password synchronizations – making the product even easier to support. Most smartphones are supported as well, either through ActiveSync or a cloud-based BlackBerry server.

Need Integrations and Customizations? It’s Possible.

I have discussed above the trade-off between single and multi-tenant cloud solutions. Office 365 is a multi-tenant offering that offers limited room for customization. This can be an issue for complex email infrastructures with a large number of relaying applications or convoluted mail flow. Thankfully, Microsoft offers the option to run the Exchange Online portion of Office 365 in hybrid mode, in which the cloud becomes an extension of the existing, on-premise Exchange infrastructure. This allows the customizations to remain in place on the on-premise server(s) but move User mailboxes to Office 365 and leverage the Microsoft cloud’s disaster recovery and high availability.

While there are a few other considerations to explore as part of a pre-migration due diligence effort, Office 365 has shown remarkable resilience and uptime and can greatly reduce the burden on an IT department, as well as save costs for the organization. It offers the cost benefits of a multitenant solution while leaving the door open to integrations and customizations. It is easy to use, versatile, and flexible.