Last week, Microsoft announced Office 365, which will be the next version of its online services, formerly known as Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). The big piece here, along with the name change, was the addition of Office Web Apps to the already impressive lineup of Exchange Server, SharePoint, and Office Communications Server (now renamed Lync). As part of the announcement, the company mentioned that the server products included would be based on the 2010 versions, but left it a little vague—at least in my mind—when exactly those 2010 versions would be included.
To find some clarity, I spoke this week with Jon Orton, product manager on Microsoft's Exchange team, who specializes in "helping people understand the technical capabilities of Exchange Online" (according to his bio on the Exchange Team Blog). Orton said, "Exchange Server 2010 Service Pack 1 is the engine that will be powering Exchange Online in Office 365. It's the same code base as its server equivalent." So, Exchange 2010 SP1 is what you get if you're in the beta now for Office 365 and what users will get when Office 365 is released to the public sometime next year.
"Because Exchange Online in Office 365 is built on that same code base as Exchange 2010," Orton went on to say, "all the key features we've been talking to people about over the past months will be there, including the personal email archive that lets companies move away from having PSTs scattered over their organization, and legal hold capabilities, and powerful role-based access control. If you're familiar with the capabilities of Exchange 2010, they're all coming to Exchange Online."
I was a bit surprised that Microsoft and the Exchange team in particular didn't make a bigger deal about Exchange 2010 finally being offered from Microsoft's own hosted services. In contrast, third-party hosting providers seem to make a competition out of who can get the newest version released to their service first, or who has the best user interface, and so forth. No doubt part of Microsoft's decision was simply to give the spotlight to Office 365 itself, without diluting focus too much to the individual server products.
Orton said they had internal discussions about changing the name from Exchange Online to Exchange Online 2010, or something like that, but they ultimately decided to stick with the simpler name. "The idea is that we'll be rolling out capabilities in years ahead in these services sometimes in advance of when they're available in server products, and so we wouldn't name them with years and versions, and things like that—it would always just be Exchange Online," Orton said. So during the development of future version of Exchange, you could see features that particularly benefit cloud environments make it into Exchange Online while the overall product isn't yet ready for release.
Another thing I've questioned has been why it's taken so long for Microsoft to offer Exchange 2010 in its hosted environment considering the product was developed and tested extensively for just such deployments. Some Exchange experts I've spoken to have suggested that Microsoft has realized how difficult it actually is to upgrade massive datacenters when you've already got tons of Exchange users paying you for uninterrupted service. Orton, however, suggested some practical, developmental reasons.
"There was quite a bit of investment in SP1 related to the cloud service," Orton said. "Service Pack 1 added a web GUI that lets you run reports and see things like who has changed configuration settings on your Exchange environment. And in an environment where you have shared mailboxes and multiple users logging in and sending mail, you can tell who's accessed the mailbox when. And [you can see] the same thing in delegate relationships. That's a feature that our on-premises customers like, and in the past they've had to go to logs or use third-party tools to find that information. Now it's just out of the box in Service Pack 1, and it lights up in the cloud service."
Orton continued, "And then there's behind-the-scenes investments like plugging in to the Office 365 platform infrastructure that will provide capabilities like completely seamless enterprise single sign-on, where all you do is log in to your PC or laptop with your corporate credentials to start your day, and then you just launch Outlook and it runs—there's no pop-up or anything like that, it's using your corporate AD credentials to authenticate you and log you in to the service behind the scenes." Orton also mentioned that they had worked "to provide a unified experience for administration, billing, directory synchronization, single sign-on—all those things that customers expect."
So that's the scoop on Exchange Online and Office 365. Check out the Office 365 blog or website for more information, of course, or to take part in the beta. So, what do you think now? Is Office 365 a hit waiting to happen? Or is Microsoft's latest push for the cloud nothing but vapors?
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