Here’s the problem. You are running some older versions of the latest Microsoft server applications such as Exchange 2003 and SharePoint 2003 and need to make some decisions about how to revamp your infrastructure. You’ve been diligent at accumulating information about the latest software and have attended some conferences, virtual and physical, while also reading blogs and articles to discover the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches. But you realize that deep down the only way to really understand technology is to get some hands-on time.
The traditional approach to solving the problem is to install some test servers. This approach remains a reasonable course to take as it allows you to recreate the essential characteristics of your production environment by installing whatever versions of Microsoft and other products you need. The downside is the time and expense involved in creating the environment, including the cost of the physical systems.
Recently, physical computers have often been replaced with virtual servers. Apart from testing the kind of hardware you might use in production, virtual servers permit you to install and configure the same software at much reduced cost. Virtual servers are great for demonstration and training purposes too and, in fact, are increasingly used in place of physical computers for production systems, so there is much to be said for concentrating your efforts on a virtualized platform.
Of course, deploying either a physical or virtual test environment involves a large amount of what can be mind-numbing mundane tasks to install operating systems and applications, configure disks, download patches and Windows updates, multiple reboots, and so on. You can’t beat a heap of installations as the best possible creator of opportunities to drink your favourite beverage, which probably accounts for the gently swelling tummies seen in many IT workers, including myself. See, it wasn’t the sugar in those carbonated drinks after all. The real problem was having to fill time while watching yet another installation program report that it had moved from 20% to 25% to 30% and so on.
Let me therefore suggest that if you need to test some new Office technology, you drop all ideas of building a test environment and head quickly to the nearest browser and head to www.microsoft.com/office365 to sign up for a free 30-day trial. Make sure that you select one of the enterprise plans to ensure that you have access to maximum functionality, even if you don't plan to test everything. Thirty days is more than enough to figure out whether new technology will solve some business problems for you, especially because you will save so much time from not having to install anything.
This epiphany came to me after I had spent several days struggling with SharePoint 2013 to persuade it to work nicely with Exchange 2013 so that I could play with site mailboxes. I’m sure that SharePoint 2013 is a perfect delight to those who have invested the time to get to know its foibles, but the last time I spent any time working with SharePoint at a technical level was with the original SharePoint Portal Server 2001 product. I liked that product very much and drove its introduction as the basis of a Knowledge Management platform within Compaq and later HP. However, SharePoint 2001 is a dim point in SharePoint’s history at this point, kind of like the Ford Model T was to the modern Ford Focus.
In short, I did not enjoy my SharePoint 2013 experience, which led me to thinking whether a better way existed. Roughly 45 minutes later, I had a new Office 365 trial tenant up and running, complete with working site mailboxes that Outlook 2013 was content to access. I had my answer.
Not only is Office 365 remarkably easy to deploy compared to on-premises software, it provides an instructive benchmark for how software should work. By comparing how SharePoint worked on Office 365, I was able to figure out how it should work on-premises. Or at least, good enough to make site mailboxes work. I am not declaring that I am a SharePoint expert.
Test deployments on real-life hardware (or virtual servers) won’t stop just because cloud platforms exist. However, setting up a test domain on Office 365 is a great way to kick the tires for the Wave 15 products. If you like what you discover, it’s a good indication that you probably will like Exchange 2013, SharePoint 2013, Outlook Web App 2013, Lync 2013 and all the other Wave 15 bits and pieces once deployed on-premises. Think of an Office 365 test domain as another tool in the administration toolbox, one that doesn’t cost anything but provides a great deal of value. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?
Follow Tony @12Knocksinna