Is Office 365 suitable for small companies?

An interesting “The Register” article on June 15 titled “Office 365: This cloud isn’t going to put any admins out of a job” contained some assertions that I thought were valid and worth repeating and some that seemed odd; but such is the nature of commentaries. The discussion focused on Exchange Online and ignored SharePoint Online and Lync Online. It often happens that Office 365 is equated to Exchange, possibly because email is the primary reason for companies to consider moving to Office 365. 

In any case, the article started off with:

As a salable product, I find Office 365 extremely curious; it's workable enough if you have a decade or two's experience beating Exchange into submission ... but a little too complex for anyone else.

I probably fall into the category of those with a decade or so of Exchange experience, which is why I might find Office 365 to be more approachable than the author. The article then goes on to discuss basic email and compares Exchange Online to sendmail, concluding that the restrictions imposed by Microsoft are “severe”. There’s some validity to question the limits that Microsoft has chosen, but I think it’s also fair to say that most hosted services impose some restrictions on users (otherwise a rogue user might consume a large percentage of available system resources) and that Microsoft increased the original limits in January 2012 as a result of user feedback. Office 365 is still a relatively new service that’s growing rapidly and a reasonable case can be made that Microsoft needs to err on the side of caution until they develop more sophisticated methods for throttling user demands.

The article then referred to public folders, saying that:

The Office 365 solution to public folder management? Outlook and/or OWA + PowerShell.”

I thought that this was an odd conclusion because Office 365 doesn’t support public folders at all, one of the key blocking points for some companies who would like to use Office 365 but can't because they have either a large amount of data in public folders or use Outlook 2003. The current Office 365 solution (move to SharePoint) has remained a largely theoretical exercise since SharePoint 2001 was first introduced without any great evidence that it is viable except for the simplest public folders. 

In any case, at this point the article started to focus in on a very real issue, which is that the management of Exchange Online still requires administrators to dive into PowerShell too often. I think this is fair and it’s because the browser-based Exchange Control Panel (ECP) is relatively immature when it’s the only tool that novice administrators can use. Those who run on-premises Exchange servers have the Exchange Management Console (EMC) to fill in all of the functionality gaps that ECP has and don’t need to revert to PowerShell as much. Even so, I’m not sure that:

But while PowerShell was an absolute necessity for Exchange 2007, Exchange 2010 largely removed the need and started moving us back towards an MTA as easy to use as Exchange 2003.”

Was Exchange 2003 really all that easy to use? It seems to me that Exchange 2003 is certainly simpler in terms of functionality and possibly more understandable because its management is GUI-centric. But Exchange 2003 also relied far too heavily on undocumented system registry hacks to alter server behavior. Speaking for myself, I welcomed the introduction of the Exchange Management Shell (EMS) in Exchange 2007 simply because it allows administrators to automate commonly-performed operations as well as access some of the parts of Exchange for which EMC never catered.

However, the next statement caused me more bother:

Office 365 is a step backwards here. It simply isn't a solution I can set up for a client and wash my hands of. Your typical small business moving away from Small Business Server 2003 is not going to be able to manage and maintain Office 365. They will still end up needing an IT guy for any but the most minor changes.”

Market indications are that many small companies have moved from platforms like Small Business Server to Office 365. Perhaps it’s because these companies consider moving to the cloud to be less painful and less painful than to master the complexity involved in upgrading their servers to a new operating system (Windows 2008 R2) and the new architecture implemented in Exchange 2010.

It’s absolutely true that many of these companies have paid external consultants (or internal IT resources) or bought third-party software to help migrate their users to Office 365. After completing the migration, they might need further support to tailor Office 365 to meet certain requirements, including using SharePoint Online to host part of the company’s web presence or setting up Lync Online. However, I hazard a guess that these are one-off activities rather than constantly running to the “IT guy” to fix minor issues. Also, SharePoint and Lync are probably “added-value” from Office 365 as they are likely not to have been used before.

There are going to be times when future support might be necessary to maintain Office 365. For example, I think that the transition to Exchange 2013 when that version is introduced into the Office 365 datacenters will cause some disruption because all of the signs are that Microsoft will refresh its browser-based user (OWA) and management (ECP) interfaces. But again, this will be a one-off activity rather than something that needs to be addressed weekly.

There’s a lot in the article about Office 365’s anti-spam functionality. Speaking as a tenant administrator, I haven’t experienced any issues on this front and relatively little spam gets through, but I am perfectly willing to accept that the author might well have run into problems that he’s had to solve for his customers. Experience is a great former of opinion.

The article concludes with:

At the end of the day, Office 365 is an enterprise product. It is full featured, but it needs to be managed by an enterprise email administrator. Unfortunately, an enterprise email administrator is going to be easily frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary system-wide limitations imposed by Microsoft that you don't have any power to change ... even through PowerShell.”

“What the customer wanted was the power of Exchange with a Fisher-Price-and-Crayons interface. One that exposed every last iota of functionality through a reasonably simple web interface backed up by a kick-ass wiki full of walk-throughs.”

It’s entirely possible that Microsoft will grant the author’s wish to see a Crayon-like interface by delivering Metro-based browser management tools for the version of Exchange Online based on Exchange 2013. We’ll have to wait a little longer to see what those tools look like.

As to the system-wide limitations imposed by Microsoft… well, once you migrate to a cloud service based on a multi-tenant shared infrastructure, accepting that you’re going to more limited than when using on-premises servers is just part of the deal. It’s certainly a cultural shift that takes time to get your head around, but I think most enterprise administrators will cheerfully give up the mundane necessity of day-to-day server management in exchange for access to a reduced set of PowerShell cmdlets that are accessible through EMS.

My own feeling is that Office 365 (or rather, Exchange Online) is fit-for-purpose for small companies. Some effort will be required to move from on-premises Exchange, but that effort should be largely one-off and I think that the ongoing support effort will probably be less than you'd imagine. At least, it has been in my experience.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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