Microsoft Online Services Offers SharePoint to Businesses of All Sizes


This morning, in front of the 4,000 or so attendees at the sold-out Microsoft SharePoint Conference (SPC), Bill Gates raised the curtain on a set of services and products that I think will have a wide-reaching impact on the industry and on the way we administer our enterprises moving forward: Microsoft hosted SharePoint and Exchange services for businesses of all sizes. He also announced the availability of the SharePoint Server Express, a free enterprise search tool, and of Silverlight Blueprint for SharePoint, which opens lots of possibilities for rich user experiences to be built on top of SharePoint.

SharePoint Online and Exchange Online lower the cost and risk of entry into these two powerful platforms through a per-user subscription service. These services expand the offerings of Microsoft Online Services (MOS), an effort that launched in mid-2007 to deliver hosted Exchange services to enterprises with 5,000 or more seats. Now, any business will have access to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 and Exchange Server 2007. The services are scheduled to be fully released in the second half of 2008, but a trial, beta program was launched today for US-based companies, who can register here.

Companies will receive named-user licenses for Exchange 2007 and MOSS 2007. The initial release of the SharePoint Online service will support collaboration and content management. Business Intelligence (BI), enterprise search, Excel and InfoPath services are not part of this version of SharePoint Online. Limited customization is supported, including SharePoint Designer, but the hosted service won't allow Web parts with code to be included.

Microsoft will offer Office Communications Online and Office Live Meeting as part of the suite of services or as individual services, as well. A standard license for Microsoft Office LiveMeeting allows 15-user meetings. In my own experience with various online conferencing software, I’m definitely a fan of LiveMeeting.

The new services are managed through a single, secure, Web-based interface through which you can monitor the performance of the services, add and configure users, submit and track support requests, and manage users and licenses.

Pricing has not yet been determined, but in my discussions with the Microsoft product team, I am convinced that Microsoft is dedicated to making the service competitive with or cheaper than existing hosted Exchange and SharePoint offerings. In fact, I’m convinced enough that I’ll be signing my company up for the beta in full anticipation of subscribing to the service when it is finalized.

I was very excited when I first heard about the new offerings, and I must say I only liked it better the more I learned about them. But I also had a lot of questions. I hope my questions, and the answers I was able to obtain, help you better understand what these services mean.

How do these services compare with OfficeLive?
OfficeLive Workspaces and OfficeLive Small Business are services offered by the Live division within Microsoft. They’re fantastic services, delivering SharePoint-based collaboration (in the case of Workspaces) and Web site, email and business applications (in the case of Small Business). Any consumer or business can take advantage of these services, which are free of charge for a baseline service with several for-fee addons. The revenue model is advertisement-driven.

SharePoint Online and Exchange Online are managed services, through which you outsource (so to speak) the management of these complex and costly IT services. The revenue model is obviously subscription-based, and there are guaranteed service level agreements (SLAs). These services are definitely business-focused, and are less likely to be attractive to individual consumers.

How do these services compare with Google Sites?
Last week, Google announced Google Sites (www.google.com/sites), a set of hosted applications and collaboration tools. I’m looking forward to examining this offering more closely, but it appears to be a much more direct competitor to the OfficeLive services than to the Microsoft Online Services offerings.

How will this announcement impact Microsoft’s partners?
A number of Microsoft’s partners—many of them Gold partners—already offer hosted Exchange mailboxes and Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). Fewer offer MOSS. Many of these partners will be migrating to MOS, where the partners provide the front-end and value added services on top of MOS services, including customization, migration, consulting and managed services. In fact, Atos Origin S.A., BT, Ceryx Inc., Evolve, Getronics NV, HCL, HP and Unisys Corp. have already announced they will support Microsoft Online Services and provide offerings based on the new services. I currently outsource my business’ Exchange service to Intermedia. Rurik Bradbury, Vice President of Marketing for Intermedia, said, “Our clients see the Microsoft brand name as industry leading, and its entry into this market gives us tremendous opportunity to grow our business.” In fact, this was a theme I heard from Microsoft as well: Microsoft-provided hosted services validates the entire hosted service model.

Why should I move to hosted services, and will I have to do so some day?
The answer to the second question is, of course, “Who knows?” But Microsoft’s current “software plus services” model aims to allow you to deliver software on servers you manage, as a hosted managed service, or as a combination of the two. Customers with a subscription have rights to both Microsoft Online Services and on-premises server software, giving them the ability to blend Web-based services with on-premises software. This flexible, blended approach is certainly the most reasonable way to address the varied needs of enterprises today.

To make the transition to online services more financially viable, new customers can purchase Microsoft Online Services as a per-user subscription, and existing customers with Microsoft Client Access Licenses and Software Assurance can purchase a user subscription for MOS at a discount.

The reason you should move to hosted services? Cost. My experience has been, both within my own company and in my clients' companies, that a service model is a “no-brainer” from a total cost perspective. As long as SLAs are in place and are delivered, the cost of migration, upgrade, support, and management plummets. One of my clients spends, per-mailbox, at least double what I pay Intermedia (who delivers better service than I get within that client’s mail environment). Another of my extremely large clients has had an internal shared Exchange service for hundreds of thousands of users for many years, relieving its business units from the cost and headaches of maintaining a communications platform.

With online services now taking off, companies can move their communications and collaborations platforms to MOS. Coca-Cola Enterprises, Autodesk, Blockbuster, Ceridian, Energizer Holdings, Ingersoll-Rand Company Ltd., PFT-Medway, and XL Capital are among the first companies to do so, and my guess is the tidal wave will only grow from there. I think this is going to be big.

Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express
Microsoft also announced the availability of Search Server 2008 Express. This tool, announced last year, is a free (did I say free?) downloadable enterprise search product that enables you to easily provide powerful search capabilities across a wide range of information, including SharePoint sites and file shares. A number of vendors are or will be providing federated search connectors. The tool delivers enterprise-class features, including relevancy tuning, security-trimmed search results, and great out-of-the-box administration and reporting. You can learn more about Search Server 2008 here.

Silverlight Blueprint for SharePoint
SharePoint does deliver, in my opinion, a fantastic platform for Web application development. Sure, it’s “version 1.0” but wow what a 1.0 it is! It’s awesome on the ‘back end,’ but we’ve lacked a way to create rich, interactive user experiences. That now changes, with the release of the Silverlight Blueprint for SharePoint. The blueprint includes sample applications combining SharePoint and Silverlight, detailed guidance and best practices from Microsoft (claims Microsoft--I’ll await feedback from developers to confirm or modify that claim), and new business data visualizations and interactivity. You can download the Silverlight Blueprint for SharePoint here.

SharePoint and IT
So if you didn’t already know that SharePoint was “big,” Microsoft announced that it is now a $1 billion (with a “b”) business! Wow. After 18 months of v3/2007, I’d say that rocks! Microsoft also claims that there are already 100 million licenses sold, though I’m quite skeptical about how that number was determined, given that the same announcement mentions 17,000 businesses using SharePoint. My guess is that the 17,000 number (which is impressive in its own right since, according to Microsoft, it is actual “in use” deployments) is the one to watch, and that the 100 million number is some voodoo related to Software Assurance or Vista or some kind of “included” license. 100 million licenses--that suggests 1 out of every 50-60 people on the planet have a license to SharePoint. Hmmm...

Not to detract from how big SharePoint really is, however, and how much people are spending on the platform. Case in point: Microsoft’s SharePoint conference for IT Pros this week drew in the neighborhood of 4,000 attendees. The last two TechEd events drew roughly 10,000 to 15,000 attendees and that included developers and IT Pros across all Microsoft technologies. It’s clear where the focus is right now! It’s going to be a great year!

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