The detail involved in running Office 365 is fascinating, at least for nerds like me. I guess that must be why I enjoyed the “Running Exchange Online” session at MEC so much. A different aspect was revealed at TechEd when Jake Zborowski spoke about “Office 365 Change Management,” a session that’s well worth your while spending an hour to listen to if you use an Office 365 tenant.
As we all know, the advent of cloud services has fundamentally transformed the way that software development occurs and the speed in which new features are provided to end users. Google kept Gmail in perpetual beta for years as it tweaked features. New features appeared, were pulled, or evolved and stuck, and end users accepted the changing vista. Of course, Gmail is free and when you use a free service, you never get to vote.
Microsoft had an installed base to deal with and couldn’t take the same approach as Google did. Instead, its software had to be transformed from being on-premises centric to a point where it could provide the basis of a cloud service. The first release (BPOS) wasn’t great and suffered from poor reliability. The second (the original Office 365 based on the Wave 14 release of products) was a lot better. The current (based on Wave 15) is what we have today.
The current code base is cloud-friendly because it’s had years of work poured into it to transform code that ran well inside the unique instances deployed by individual customers to code that works across hundreds of thousands of servers in datacenters around the world to deliver a massive multi-tenant environment.
All of this served as an introduction to the real meat of the session, which is how to manage change in an environment where software is being constantly upgraded. Microsoft development teams are rated on their ability to deliver new features quickly (the code has to be secure and perform well too!) and the effect is in a set of “ripple” upgrades that occur across the service. The extract shown above illustrates the new features that have been introduced into Office 365 since February 2013. The problem for tenant administrators is to know when the changes will occur and how these will impact end users. After all, cloud tenants don’t get to decide when new software is ready for deployment.
Jake focused on three changes that are to be introduced into Office 365 “soon.” First, a new web site will be available to provide public disclosure of a 30-90 day view of what is due to change in Office 365 plus details of some longer-term developments. This replaces the NDA briefings that Microsoft and partners have historically given to customers and is more appropriate when software changes so rapidly. However, although it’s great to have information of what’s due to change, some caution exists in that features might fail to appear as scheduled. In addition, knowing that a feature like “Office Graph” is coming is one thing; understanding what this means to your company is quite another. Knowledge is useless unless it can be put into context.
Second, tenants will soon have the opportunity to have limited control over when new features are exposed to their tenant. This happens through the ability to “opt in” to be one of the first tenants to have features “light up,” meaning that new features will appear 14 days before general availability. You’ll get a minimum of seven days advance warning that an update is coming. The new model governs features in both SharePoint Online and Exchange Online.
Tenants are opted out by default so you have to make a choice here – but you can’t stop new features coming as they will show up eventually. Actually, this is true if you depend on browser clients like Outlook Web App; it’s different when you use Outlook as the version of Outlook determines what features are exposed to end users.
The last change affects the way that change is communicated to tenants. An admission exists that communication has been fragmented and a little inconsistent in the past, so new policies will help tenants understand when system requirements (like supported browsers) change and when “disruptive” updates happen (disruptive means that some tenant action is required by a change such as a deprecated feature or new API). A revamped Office 365 blog and message center will help provide better information to tenants.
I like greater openness wherever it is to be found. People might not use the information that’s provided, but at least it will be there. Change is coming – you have been warned!
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