Thinking about using Office 365

Thinking about using Office 365

Introducing the Office 365 FastTrack Pilot Option

This option can help you assess whether Office 365 is a viable solution in your organization

With Microsoft Office 365, organizations can provide email, word processing, collaboration, web-conferencing, and other capabilities from the cloud. However, doing so might not be the best option for every organization. If you consider the Office 365 requirements and use the Office 365 FastTrack Pilot option, you can more easily assess whether Office 365 would be a viable solution in your organization. But before I discuss the organizational considerations and FastTrack option, let's first take a quick look at the current scene for Office 365.

The Current Scene

Interestingly, it's difficult to find public information about how many Office 365 subscriptions are being sold. Although there's some information available, most of it doesn't represent the current calendar year. Previous data from the past couple of years indicates that small and mid-sized businesses are moving to the cloud most rapidly. These organizations are making the move for several reasons, including:

  • Using Office 365 is more affordable than purchasing the client versions of the software (prices start at $5 per user).
  • Hardware requirements are little to none.
  • Product maintenance and product upgrades are performed by Microsoft.
  • Data security is handled by Microsoft.

Recent case studies published by Microsoft indicate that larger organizations are now starting to show interest and in some cases move to Office 365. However, although Microsoft is heavily promoting Office 365, many organizations probably won't move to the cloud any time soon (if at all). In particular, government and healthcare organizations don't seem to be rapidly adopting Office 365.

Data security seems to be the main underlying reason why organizations don't move to the cloud, despite the fact that Microsoft has gone to great lengths to ensure that Office 365 meets most regulatory compliance and security requirements. Regardless of how secure the cloud-based version of Office is advertised to be, many organizations still perceive it as risky, which means it'll take some convincing to get them to move to Office 365.

Finally, it's important to mention that some early adopters of Microsoft Exchange Online, one of the components of Office 365, have moved back to on-premises Exchange deployments. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this with some of the early adopters. They indicated that too much downtime was the main reason for moving back. Despite their experiences, Microsoft promises a 99.9 percent uptime for Office 365.

Organizational Considerations for Office 365

Organizations need to keep in mind several considerations when making the decision about whether to use Office 365. If your organization doesn't meet certain requirements, Microsoft support will be limited or even possibly non-existent. Here are the requirements and some other considerations to keep in mind. (For more information about the requirements, see the Office 365 system requirements web page.)

Browser. Office 365 works with Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari browsers. For IE and Firefox, Microsoft recommends that you use the most recent version or its immediate predecessor. For Chrome or Safari, the latest version is required. Speaking from personal experience, while smaller organizations are probably running the latest web browser, many larger organizations (regardless of the industry) likely are not. They often have applications that prevent them from standardizing the latest versions of these browsers.

Office clients. Using Office clients isn't a requirement because it's possible to use only a web browser to take advantage of Office 365 products. However, if your organization chooses to use Office clients with Office 365, your organization should plan to use Office 2013 because mainstream support for Office 2010 ends in October 2015.

OS. There are no OS restrictions, as long as your web browser and Office client versions (if applicable) meet the aforementioned requirements and the OS is still supported by its vendor.

Full Outlook client connectivity. Microsoft recommends that Autodiscover be used to configure full Outlook clients when connecting to an Office 365 Exchange Online account. This process is relatively seamless and works with very little configuration. All you need to do is create a new Outlook mail profile, then enter your Office 365 email address and password.

Some organizations might choose to use POP or IMAP to connect to their Exchange Online accounts. Although there might be other reasons, the only compelling reason I can think of to do this would be so you can still connect to your on-premises mailbox when trialing Office 365. However, when using Outlook 2013, multiple MAPI accounts can be opened anyway. A common problem, though, is that many organizations don't allow POP and IMAP to be used in their environments. For security reasons, most organizations use only MAPI with Remote Procedure Call (RPC) over HTTP Secure (HTTPS) for their full Outlook Client connectivity. It's important to keep your organizational security policies in mind when deciding how to proceed.

Mobile device connectivity. Once any necessary accounts have been set up and logged on to, setting up Exchange Online for email access on your mobile device is relatively simple. This can be done through Outlook Web App (OWA) for Apple iPhone, Apple iPad, or Google Android. On a Windows Phone, Microsoft expects that the Windows 8 Mail App on the device be used instead of a separate application. Office 365 will also give users access to OneDrive for Business (formerly known as SkyDrive Pro). This provides organizations with a secure location to save corporate documents to access on mobile devices or through web-based Office 365 access (http://portal.office.com). However, there isn't a mechanism to force users to save to OneDrive for Business if they have a service such as Dropbox on their device already.

Domains. For the purpose of the trial, it's okay to use what Microsoft provides for a domain name, which is typically [email protected] The domain name can be changed at any time to match your organization's domain name, which might especially be of interest if Office 365 becomes the organization's choice for email.

Firewall ports. For the purposes of the trial, you'll likely need to open only a couple basic firewall ports such as port 80 and 443. However, if you decide to subscribe to Office 365, you might need to open additional ports. The Ports and protocols used by Office 365 web page can provide you with the necessary details.

The FastTrack Pilot Option

The FastTrack Pilot option lets you learn more about Office 365 without the risk of impacting your organization's production environment. This free trial can help you decide whether Office 365 would be a good fit in your organization.

FastTrack is simple to use. There isn't any infrastructure hardware to setup, and working through the basic setup wizard takes less than five minutes. For a small trial within your organization, you can set up a couple of PCs, making sure they meet the requirements discussed in the previous section. Here are the steps required for setting up your FastTrack trial:

  1. Open your web browser and go to http://deploy.office.com/.
  2. Click the FastTrack link near the top of the page.
  3. In the Signing up for a trial is easy section, click the For enterprises, sign up here link.
  4. Fill in the information about you and your organization, as shown in Figure 1, then click Next.

    Figure 1: Providing Information About You and Your Organization
    Figure 1: Providing Information About You and Your Organization

  5. Create your first user account by filling in the fields shown in Figure 2, then click Next.

    Figure 2: Creating Your User Account
    Figure 2: Creating Your User Account

  6. To prove that you're not a robot, provide your phone number, select whether you want to receive a verification code by means of a text message or phone call, then click the link that appears. As Figure 3 shows, I choose to receive a text message, so I clicked the Text me link.

    Figure 3: Proving You're Not a Robot
    Figure 3: Proving You're Not a Robot

  7. Enter the verification code you just received, as shown in Figure 4, then click Create my account.

    Figure 4: Entering the Verification Code
    Figure 4: Entering the Verification Code

  8. Save the account information you're provided, then click the You're ready to go link, as Figure 5 shows.

    Figure 5: Receiving the Account Information for the FastTrack Trial
    Figure 5: Receiving the Account Information for the FastTrack Trial

     

After you're inside the console, which Figure 6 shows, the learning and exploring begins.

Figure 6: Exploring the Office 365 Console
Figure 6: Exploring the Office 365 Console

During the Office 365 trial, I would advise against connecting to any of your existing email accounts. Instead, explore the management console, learn about the connectivity options, and check out how you can access the various capabilities (e.g., email, word processing) available through Office 365.

If Office 365 is being strongly considered within your organization and you're interested in integrating it with your existing on-premises Active Directory (AD) and email environments, I strongly recommend that you use a test lab for the FastTrack trial. This is especially important if you want to test Office 365's integration with an onsite Active Directory environment, try migrating data from existing mailboxes to the cloud, test hybrid options, or test any other integrations between your current environment and Office 365. This testing aligns with the many implementation considerations, such as whether DirSync will be used to connect to existing accounts, how paging or alerting will go through an on-premises Exchange deployment, and how to set up mobile device integration. If your organization doesn't have a lab or can't bring one online, then work with your Microsoft representative closely on these aspects to ensure that your organization's production environment can test Office 365 Exchange Online without impacting your organization's users.

Is 30 Days Long Enough?

Is 30 days long enough for an Office 365 trial? The answer to this question depends largely on the features that you want to test and the size of your organization. For getting your "feet wet," 30 days is long enough. However, this time frame might not be long enough for mid-sized or large organizations that want to test Office 365 in a test lab.

Something I did appreciate, though, is that after I signed up the FastTrack trial, Microsoft customer service representatives reached out to me to see how they could be of assistance in trialing the product, not only once but multiple times. They were willing to set up a phone call to make sure I had everything I needed to get started with the product and complete the trial in a timely manner. Bonus points for Microsoft customer service! Microsoft is also willing to extend your trial if you work with a Microsoft technical account representative closely on the process.

Make the Most of Your 30-Day Trial

Office 365 isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. The FastTrack Pilot option will only introduce you to what it's like to utilize email and other capabilities in the cloud. To make the most of your 30-day trial, which will go by fast, it's important to take advantage of the Microsoft customer service representative who is offering to assist you. It's in everyone's best interest to maximize your pilot time and help you make the right decision about using Office 365 in your organization.

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