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Hands on with Office 365

Since late last week, I've been living in the future, sampling Microsoft's Office 365 and examining what it's like to go "all in" on cloud services. I like it a lot. My predilections toward cloud computing are probably well known by now, but now they're backed up with some real world experience. And with Office 365, Microsoft is very clearly on to something. 

We last discussed Office 365 back in late October—in "Microsoft Gets It Right with Office 365"—so there's little need to rehash general information about the product or its licensing and pricing. Instead, this time around, I'll discuss what it's like to use the services, from the perspectives of a typical user and an administrator. Both experiences are already very nicely implemented, even in the beta.

Users can log on to the Office 365 dashboard and access web-based versions of Outlook and SharePoint, download the Lync 2010 client, and—if on the appropriate subscription—the Office 2010 Professional Plus client suite. Users who wish to (and are licensed to) use client applications to access Office 365 will need to install an Office 365 first, to ensure that certain system components are up to date. Unfortunately, this client doesn't configure Outlook and SharePoint Workspace for you, but doing so is a simple matter.

From the web-based version of Office 365, you can access your email, calendar, contacts, and tasks, using an Outlook Web App client that is very similar, from a look and feel perspective, to the desktop version of Outlook. Microsoft has dispensed with the previous bifurcation of OWA into low-end and premium experiences, so now everyone gets the premium experience. And aside from a few missing bits, such as the inability to retain custom column widths in the UI, it's quite nice.

Ditto the hosted SharePoint interface, or Team Site as it's called, which is indiscernible from an on-premises install, from the user's perspective. I was up and running on SharePoint very quickly, and even connected seamlessly to the site from the new Windows Phone, syncing the contents of document libraries to the device for on-the-go access.

The new Lync client is an update to Office Communications Server 2007 R2 and it looks and works much like its predecessor. Lync provides IM, audio and video conferencing, shared desktops and applications, and more. While I haven't had a chance to use the version included with Office 365 much, I'd recently used the product separately, and it offers nice presence integration throughout various Office applications and even the Office 365 web applications.

From an administrator's perspective, the Office 365 dashboard offers similar simplicity. There's plenty of documentation, of course, but also management interfaces for users, security groups, domains, the actual web services (hosted Exchange and SharePoint, primarily), and deploying Office.

The only thing I had any difficulty with had nothing to do with Office 365, and is arguably one of the simpler if rote activities one has to perform when moving to such a solution: When I added my own custom domain to the service and configured it for Office 365 via the hosting provider (Go Daddy, in this case), I must have done something wrong because SharePoint access worked fine, but Outlook client access was broken. I finally just started over from scratch and all is well.

Those businesses that are hoping to migrate to Office 365 from a current on-premises solution, or perhaps set up a hybrid environment in which some resources are hosted and some are local, will have a bit more work to do. But Office 365 does  include web-based migration tools right in the dashboard and offers solutions that will get you moved off of your current Exchange 2003, 2007, or 2010 boxes, or even Small Business Server 2003, 2008, or 2011 (the latter of which has yet to ship); however, these solutions are for 1,000 or fewer desktops only.

The beauty of Office 365, of course, is that it aims to work equally well for the smallest of businesses—literally, a business of one—and the biggest enterprises, and everything in between. It's early days yet, and I've got months of testing ahead of me, but my initial impressions are all very positive. I was able to get an admittedly small domain up and running on Office 365 very easily. I suspect those in the trenches will make even shorter work of it.

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