The news that Microsoft has made it easier for customers to switch Office 365 plans might not be deemed to be earthshattering, even in August when the pace and impact of technology news sometimes slows to the speed of molasses, but it is important in the context of the growing maturity of the platform.
Flexibility is always good. Certainly the Office 365 plans were not at all flexible when the service went online in June 2011. Customers were forced to select most appropriate plan for their business and the notion of switching easily from a small business plan to an enterprise plan was not entertained. I suspect that this was because Microsoft’s internal processes were then focused on allowing customers to join the service rather than worrying about how they could evolve within the service.
You therefore had situations such as a small business that had started with an Office 365 professional or personal plan (P) being restricted to no more than 50 seats and not being able to expand if successful. Moving to another plan was possible, but only by switching tenants (cancelling one subscription, taking out another, and reassigning user licenses). In short, not really practical.
Over the last two years lots of change has occurred inside Office 365. Most obviously, Microsoft has introduced the Wave 15 set of applications and is busily moving tenant domains over to the new platform with the aim of completing the migrations by the end of 2013. But more importantly, their engineering processes and procedures have had a chance to mature, bed down, and expand, which then leads us to the point where greater flexibility can be allowed. After all, if you had just launched a massive multi-tenant environment, you would probably want to exert strict control over what was possible. But two years down the line, you would be less cautious if things had gone well with the service, which is the case with Office 365 after some initial glitches in the late summer of 2011.
Within plans, Microsoft makes good use of Role-Based-Access-Control (RBAC) permissions to restrict the ability of tenants to access different features in Exchange Online. As you probably know, the Exchange 2010 Control Panel (ECP) and the Exchange 2013 Administration Center (EAC) browser-based consoles only reveal functionality to users if the RBAC roles that they hold allow access to those features. Thus, my Plan P administrative account doesn’t reveal the presence of transport rules. Even though discovery management is enabled for Plan P, I can’t use the Exchange 2013 in-place hold feature. (A good overview of the features enabled for the different plans is available here).
Some other new Exchange 2013 features such as Data Loss Prevention (DLP) are not revealed to Plan P tenants. You can argue that these features are most useful for larger enterprises, but I can imagine situations where they might be required in a small business, such as a law office. Although Microsoft’s August 1 announcement doesn’t yet allow a tenant to move from Plan P to Plan E, the promise is there that this will be possible “later this year”. It would make sense that this would happen after Microsoft has completed the migration of all tenant domains to Wave 15.
Plan P has served my needs since the debut of Office 365, but I think I’ll be switching to Plan E soon, if only to test whether the procedure works. After all, if Microsoft can make it easy to upgrade, I’m sure that they’ll make it as easy to downgrade back to Plan P as well. Or so you’d hope!
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