A Microsoft Online Report Card

Over recent weeks, I’ve shared the announcement of Microsoft Online and some guidance for getting subscribed and set up with as few bumps as possible. Today, I’d like to share my evaluation of my experience moving to Microsoft Online and deliver a report card for Microsoft’s initial foray into online services.

Reduced TCO: A+
When I decided to move my hosted Exchange service from another provider to Microsoft, and to take advantage of SharePoint and LiveMeeting through the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), I found that I could not only save hard costs, but costs related to support and lost productivity as well. The ROI of Microsoft Online is real. Too many companies spend far too much money on what are, in 2008, "plumbing" services like messaging. Let me paint a picture of a typical client of mine-see if this sounds familiar. Messaging (email) is considered critical to business operations. So it’s hosted internally, and lots of money is spent deploying, supporting, troubleshooting, and upgrading the service over the months and years. But there’s great hesitancy to outsource some or all the messaging infrastructure because of perceived risks to confidentiality and availability. The number of admins who have far too much access to data is insane, but for cultural reasons those risks are under-weighted. Geographic redundancy is on the wish list but not yet a reality. Availability is less than three nines. And in some of my clients, support for messaging is outsourced to a third-party IT services organization, which pretty much destroys any claims for concern about confidentiality, doesn’t it?

Let me tell you, it is almost certain that you will reduce your TCO by outsourcing messaging--all of it or some of it. It’s not rocket science, it’s just time consuming. Microsoft’s robust, geo-redundant data centers, availability guarantees, first-rate security and spam protection would be very expensive to implement and support as well, internally, as Microsoft’s dedicated teams can provide. So, for reducing TCO, Microsoft gets an A+.

User Experience: A
I was very impressed with the simplicity of configuring Outlook profiles with the Microsoft Online Single Sign In client. It just worked. I’ve had a few users reporting what they perceive to be very slightly slower responsiveness, as compared to our previous Exchange host, but the quantity and quality of the reports is not enough to worry me. My own experience is that performance is quite peppy. I’m thrilled with it. So we’ll give Microsoft an "A" rather than an A+ for the user experience. I’ll add that our migration took us from OWA 2003 (previous host) to OWA 2007 (Microsoft) and that alone has been fantastic, so for OWA and the "Deskless Worker" version of Microsoft Online, the grade would be at least an A.

Migration: B+
Caveat: My migration will be very different than yours, and yours will likely be smoother. Most migrations will be from internally hosted mailboxes to Microsoft Online, and Microsoft’s mailbox migration tools seem like they would do the trick quite nicely. I was moving from one hosted Exchange service to another, and that means I didn’t have anything more than user-level access to the old mailboxes--not any kind of administrative access. So my migration path was one of two options: "download" mailboxes as PSTs then "upload" them to Microsoft (export/import PSTs) or use Microsoft’s mailbox migration tool to do IMAP-based migration. The PST-based migration went flawlessly, but took forever per box. The IMAP-based migration was a bit faster (one operation instead of two), but I found it a bit flaky. Some users’ calendars and contacts were transferred; others’ were not. So we did some folder-level copy and paste to fix those problems. Again, a straight Exchange (internal) to Exchange (Microsoft Online) migration is likely to be much smoother.

Administrative Interface: B+
The Microsoft Online Administration Center (MOAC) is the web-based interface used to administer users, services, domains, and such. It works well, but the pages and Silverlight-based forms can take quite some time to load. This lethargic performance was frustrating, and sometimes I think a page is loaded, and I click on something, and the page generates an error. So there are rough edges to work out, but all in all I’m impressed.

Features: B
Exchange and Outlook are great together, period. They’re an A+ combination. Microsoft Online, in its Standard offering, does not support public folders. That’s what SharePoint is for, after all, right? But since SharePoint doesn’t support email messages as documents, there’s a gap that is unfilled that in some scenarios might be a show-stopper. Exchange Online is also limited to Outlook and OWA access. It does not provide POP or IMAP access.

This is just part of the bad news for mobile devices. Because the service is Exchange 2007, you can only access email directly from Windows Mobile 6 phones (and other ActiveSync phones like the iPhone). POP, IMAP, and Windows Mobile 5 devices are out of luck, as are BlackBerry devices. They can try using OWA on their mobile browser, but please… No… Mobile device support is the big loser for me. I’m actually going to leave Microsoft Online because of this. Too many of my users have phones that can get mail from POP and IMAP servers, but not from Exchange, so this turned out to be a show stopper for me. When will Microsoft "get" mobile devices? This also foreshadows another downside of hosted services: You are at the mercy of its dependencies. What happens if, when Microsoft Online is upgraded to Exchange 2010, that version of Exchange requires Windows Mobile 7? Do I suddenly have to lose mobile access or fork out for cell phone upgrades? That kind of scares me, especially since Microsoft doesn’t give me a more standards-based option like POP or IMAP. What other dependencies will there be? Will I be forced to upgrade to Outlook 2010? Will Microsoft provide it for free? The upgrade path and dependencies story is a trick one for all hosted services, and will be an interesting one to watch unfold.

SharePoint online is a bit better than Windows SharePoint Services because it offers the page-publishing capability of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, but that’s about it. Microsoft didn’t even bother offering its own 40 application templates, which would have been a huge value add in my opinion. Big mistake, I think. Why not??? I also wish there were some way to configure (for a fee) a site that would allow Internet access, for small projects that are easier to implement with SharePoint and which aren’t a fit for my public facing website. Too bad that’s not do-able. I can pay the (low) monthly fee for extranet users to subscribe only to SharePoint online, but if I need something a bit more public than that, I’m out of luck. There are architectural reasons for some of these limitations to SharePoint Online, and I expect the story will improve significantly with SharePoint 14. But other limitations are only business limitations. Hopefully Microsoft’s partners will step in to fill some of these gaps. SharePoint online is a lot cheaper than setting up a remote SharePoint farm for my external and extranet users, so the ROI is definitely there, but the features are not awe inspiring.

Final Report: "A" for Effort & Service; "A-/B+" for Features – Absolutely Worth Exploring
So the features of Microsoft Online aren’t yet what I’d want them to be. The moral to that story is you should use the free trial of Microsoft Online to test the features and performance against your requirements and expectations. You might find (like I did with mobile access) a "show stopper." Or you might find that there are some features you wish Microsoft provided, but that aren’t painfully missed. Then weigh your evaluation against the potentially significant reduction in hard cost and effort to support an internal messaging or collaboration infrastructure. The TCO/ROI story here is possibly so big that it can make a few small pain points not so painful.

And remember, this service can be a piece of your infrastructure, hosting Exchange or SharePoint for some users but not all users. I’ll be going to a partner (Intermedia, specifically) who has provided us excellent hosted Exchange services that meet our requirements (including public email folders and IMAP/POP access), but I’ll be sticking with Microsoft for SharePoint and LiveMeeting services. I’ll be recommending Microsoft Online’s deskless worker option as something worth exploring for every small business. And I know that I’ll be helping clients migrate to Exchange Online, both standard and dedicated versions, for years to come.

What Microsoft has attained in this first release is an extraordinary, robust, enterprise-ready service. I don’t expect there to be many fundamental problems (security, reliability, availability, performance) based on my experience thus far.

I’m actually blown away that the company seems to have done so much right the first time around. I know you know what I mean! I heard about Microsoft Online for the first time 18 months ago, and Microsoft has delivered. It’s competitors can talk the talk, but Microsoft brings it across the finish line. So Microsoft Online is absolutely worth a very close look by any enterprise wanting to improve levels of service and reduce costs simultaneously. Just be sure you’ve done your due diligence to make sure you’re subscribing to the categories and levels of service to meet the requirements of your organization and its users.

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