Office 365 book is a curate's egg for Exchange administrators

I’ve been reading a copy of the free ebook “Microsoft Office 365: Connect and collaborate virtually anywhere, anytime” by Katherine Murray. The book was released in mid August and is the first Office 365 title from Microsoft Press. Normally a major Microsoft product launch is accompanied by a flood of books on the topic, many of which are based on beta software. A casual scan of for Office 365 books revealed just a few, some of which have received some poor reviews and I’m surprised that more books aren’t available, especially since the basic technology underpinnings of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync are well understood and documented. However, more books on the way and we shall just have to see what they contain when they’re published.


Before commenting on the ebook, let me preface my remarks by saying that writing about a cloud-based solution poses some interesting problems for an author. I think there are three basic approaches to writing about any application. You can take the approach of concentrating on what the user sees and explain all the different options that they might take to do useful work. Alternatively, you can write for the administrator and explain how they can set up and manage the application as a kind of “how-to” manual. Finally, you can attempt to explain the system architecture and how the application actually works behind the scenes so that administrators and other interested parties can do a better job to make the application run smoothly in production. However, given that the cloud obscures so much of the working of the system behind the ramparts of massive datacenters, it’s hard to describe how any cloud application works at any depth unless you are allowed access to internal documentation. This is as true for or Google Apps as it is for Office 365. In short, there’s lots to describe from the user perspective, including administrative interfaces, but the really interesting stuff remains cloaked in secrecy.

Katherine Murray is an experienced author whose previous works, largely about the Microsoft Office applications, fall into the first category. As such, it should come as no surprise that her book about Office 365 takes a similar approach. I think that her target audience is composed of small businesses with just a few users who will delight in the functionality that Office 365 delivers at a reasonable cost. However, this is not a book for the experienced Exchange administrator as it is ultimately unsatisfying in its treatment of Exchange. Indeed, Exchange is afforded the weakest coverage in the book and you’ll get far more value from the pages devoted to SharePoint, Lync, and perhaps the introduction to setting up Office 365 for a small company.

As an example of the fly-by coverage often afforded to Exchange topics, the text devoted to adding your own domain to Office 365  (page 56) so that you can send messages stamped with an SMTP address like [email protected] rather than [email protected] (the form of the default domain assigned to an organization when it signs up for Office 365) is much less detailed than the online help on the same topic available from Microsoft. You might ask why I focus on this particular issue. The answer is simple: companies that migrate from on-premises Exchange to Office 365 are likely to have their own registered domain and will want to continue using that domain, so this operation is a fundamental part of the migration and therefore deserves more explanation than the bland treatment given in this book. 

The writing style is reasonably informal throughout but I wonder how much effort went into the technical editing. For example, on page 38 the statement “Exchange Online is based on Active Directory services, which enable enterprise users to access the global directory with all the contacts available in the organization”. This single sentence poses a few problems for anyone who knows Exchange. First, the assertion that Exchange is based on Active Directory – there’s certainly a huge dependency, but hardly based. Second, is it only enterprise users that access the Active Directory? Third, the phrase “with all the contacts” seems strange. And last, only contacts?

You could complain too about some of the hyperbole such as the opening sentence on page 70 that proudly proclaims that “One of the beautiful things about Office 365 is that it’s built on a model of efficiency…” and North American Office 365 users will enjoy the remark on page 44 that informs the reader that “To help ensure that your work is always accessible to your team, many data centers all over the world host redundant network configurations. So if one data center is unavailable, another one takes its place so that your work can continue uninterrupted.” Ah, August 17’s network outage was clearly not foreseen and the advice on page 72 that “Anyone who has ever spent time on the phone with technical support knows this universal truth: it is not fun.” will ring true to those who experienced phone calls to Office 365 support on that day.

Even with the caveat that some important topics are not covered in the way that I think they should, I still think that Exchange administrators will discover value in this book. I’ve been saying for some time that Exchange administrators who keep their head in the sand and pretend that the cloud will disappear to leave on-premises deployments undisturbed are on course for a career termination. Companies will decide to move to Office 365 for many reasons – cost, flexibility, or simply because it makes more sense to move there rather than going through a migration from an old and creaking Exchange 2003 deployment. If this happens, the Exchange administrators have to get with the program and figure out how they can add more value to their company after the work that they do on day-to-day Exchange server administration is transitioned. And the chapters covering SharePoint setup and customization and how to get Lync up and running for your company will help people make the transition from looking at Office 365 as a fancy replacement for on-premises Exchange to something that can deliver more than just email.

At the same time, this book is not designed to meet the needs of Exchange administrators who have to deal with migration of more than a few users in a one-off operation. Don’t look for the finer points of Active Directory Federation Services or free/busy synchronization because you won’t find them here. Nor will you discover anything of use when planning a hybrid deployment with some on-premises Exchange 2007/2010 servers working with Office 365. I guess that book has yet to be written. In the meantime, Exchange administrators will have to rely on:

  • The web to read blogs and other reports of migrations as well as tips and techniques for managing Office 365
  • Conferences such as Fall Exchange Connections 2011, where there’s a good line-up of Office 365 sessions from real-world experts
  • Books on Exchange 2010 to get information about the fundamental underpinnings of Exchange Online in Office 365, such as Remote PowerShell, Exchange Control Panel, and so on.

My conclusion therefore is that the free ebook is a curate’s egg, good and bad in parts. The value you extract from the book will depend on the needs of your company and, as noted above, I suspect that most will find that that the text devoted to SharePoint and Lync is more valuable than Exchange. But at the price point, you won’t lose anything by taking the time to download  and read the book to see what value it can offer to you.

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