SharePoint Online's Debut

A small step for Microsoft, a giant leap for IT. That’s my “take” on November 17, 2008, the day Microsoft officially released Microsoft Online Services into production.

In case you’ve not been paying attention, Microsoft has been busy over the last two years readying cloud-based versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications Server, and Live Meeting (the latter of which has always been a service), and today in San Francisco, Stephen Elop, president of the Microsoft Business Division at Microsoft announced the general availability of these services for businesses of all sizes in the United States. Should you choose to move part or all of your messaging and collaboration framework to the cloud, you will be joining a number of high-profile (read: Fortune-caliber) organizations as well as many small-to-medium sized businesses including my own business, Intelliem, who have recognized that robust, reliable, redundant, and secure frameworks need not be restricted to local servers and need not be a burden to IT resources.

In the near term, you can subscribe to one or more of the services (Exchange, SharePoint, and Live Meeting), or to the “bundle” of all three called Business Productivity Online. You’ll get plenty of storage: gigabyte-plus email stores and 250MB of SharePoint storage per user, with the ability to purchase additional storage. Your data will be hosted in geo-redundant datacenters with three nines (99.9%) of financially-guaranteed uptime. Your users can access the services using Outlook or web-based interfaces for Outlook Web Access and SharePoint. And the SharePoint service provided is a subset of the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) variety—beyond just Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). And when Office Communications Server comes online in the coming months, you’ll be able to add business-class instant messaging and presence awareness. Microsoft also announced today that they will be adding a service to secure and manage desktops. I’ve not yet received details about this, but it sounds like a subset of System Center and that should be quite exciting not just for SMBs, but also for organizations with disconnected users such as remote sales forces and other road warriors.

Microsoft’s vision is a grand one, and it has been fleshed out over recent weeks. This is just the beginning. Over coming months and years, the new “Services” versions of Exchange, SharePoint, SQL, and more will come online, bringing the “Software plus Services” model that Microsoft has been promising. The model supplements, rather than replaces, the infrastructure and tools that you and your users are accustomed to. You can add richer support for disconnected users, partners, home-based workers. The services can co-exist with your internal server-based applications. For example, you can host mailboxes for internal-only users on your servers, and for other users on hosted Exchange services. Directory synchronization ensures that mail routes correctly and that accounts are kept up-to-date. Even the licensing reflects this coexistence: you can upgrade a subset of the seats you’ve licensed for internal server-based mail or collaboration to Online services, and the Online license qualifies a user for both service and server based usage. Of course, Microsoft would like nothing more than for you to completely replace your internal services with hosted services. Honestly, I’d recommend that to most of my clients who waste enormously talented internal resources on Exchange maintenance, except that most of my clients, like you I expect, are not quite politically and culturally ready to let go of that burden, though most let go of inter-site network and telephony services ages ago. It will happen. I can almost guarantee that your TCO of maintaining Exchange is greater than Microsoft’s!

The truly amazing thing about all of this is that it reinvents the entire application development and “ecosystem” story around Microsoft. Partners will create applications that sit on top of Microsoft services, and add value to them without “reinventing” the hosted service model itself. For example, Microsoft today awarded ThoughtBridge which built a human resources application on top of SharePoint Online. As the months and years progress, particularly once SQL Services becomes available, all kinds of interesting line-of-business applications can leverage Microsoft’s services, and the new synchronization client will facilitate taking apps and data offline. And, unlike some of Microsoft’s online services competitors, Microsoft has proven today that it can deliver enterprise-class services from beta into production, and on an unprecedented scale.

I’m a huge believer in keeping TCO down by enhancing, rather than replacing, existing tools like Outlook and the rest of the Microsoft Office suite. In fact, I moved my company to Microsoft Online as a test, to “dog food” my perspective on cloud-based services. Tune in next week to learn about my experience. Your homework until then: check out to start learning about Microsoft Online.

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