Taking the plunge with Office 365

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Jon Honeyball shares his experience of migrating lock, stock and barrel to Office 365

I've taken the plunge and moved my daily workload into Office 365, Microsoft’s online productivity suite. Having recently moved into a new bricks-and-mortar office, I decided now would be a great time to rationalise my email, domain names and phone numbers to match.

Ditching my old domains jonhoneyball.com and woodleyside.co.uk (my company is called Woodleyside IT Ltd) for a single new work domain of woodleyside.com afforded a rare opportunity to perform a green-field, scorched-earth, mixed-metaphor clean out, and if you ever get the opportunity to do the same, it’s worth planning carefully how best to do it.

I thought long and hard about my mail options. I could have stayed with my ISP’s hosted IMAP/SMTP/web interface, which I adopted prior to my previous office move two years ago (because it let me dump the Exchange server I was hosting at my old office and ensured continuity during the move). Why didn’t I stay with this ISP solution? Because I was unhappy with it: the web interface tended to lose my login information and required me to log in manually time after time.

I could have installed a new local Exchange server, but I prefer to reserve my local server farm for local R&D tasks, to avoid the temptation to run test software on a line-of-business hosting server (thus breaking the separation of church and state that underlies any well-designed IT infrastructure).

the online Outlook web client is superb, a huge improvement over the clunky thing that haunted those of us who grew up on Exchange 2000/2003

Had I plumped for a local Exchange server I probably would have migrated to the shared on-site/off-site model that Office 365 supports. You host your own Exchange server and it communicates with the cloud server in such a way that all internal messages go to the local server, external ones to the external. It’s a great solution if you want to manage your migration to a pure cloud environment, letting you progressively move mailboxes from the internal server to the external one. But remember, I had a green-field site to play with, and assuming my main machines all had copies of the archived emails, I really could start from an empty server – it made more sense to leap straight into a fully cloud-hosted Office 365 environment.

Of course, no-one with any sense would perform such a leap onto an unproven solution (by which I mean “unproven to me”). Having the new domain name helped, since I could point a 30-day trial of Office 365 at that, and then kick its tyres hard for several weeks before deciding whether to go ahead. My first impressions are that it’s a good-quality product: it behaves just like a local Exchange server without the noise, power consumption and rack space, and setting it up is fairly straightforward, with a couple of caveats.

Which plan?

First, you’ll need to decide which version of the product to buy: a P plan or an E plan. P plans are for small businesses, while E plans are for enterprise users. For example, the P plan costs only £4 per user per month, for which you get an Exchange Server account with 25GB of mailbox storage and a 25MB attachment limit. You can work online using the Office Web Apps and keep a SharePoint Online database, plus you get Forefront Server antivirus and spam filtering for the Exchange server, and all the Lync Server telecoms capabilities. It’s aimed at businesses with up to 50 seats, but it has two major limitations: no serious technical support (online community only) and you can’t migrate from plan P to plan E. That’s fine if you’re small and plan to stay small, and four quid per seat per month is cheaper than chips.

Move up to the E plans and you’ll find a range of extra options: E1 starts at £7 per user per month and offers Exchange Server, SharePoint, Lync and Forefront, along with licences to run local on-premises deployments of those servers (CALs in old-speak); E2 at £11 per user per month adds the Office Web Apps; E3 at £16 brings a rolling licence for Office Professional Plus for each desktop, more advanced SharePoint Server capabilities and archiving, unlimited storage and hosted voicemail on Exchange Server; and at £18 E4 tops the bill with enterprise-grade voice PBX abilities via an on-premises Lync Server.

For me, the E3 bundle was the sweet-spot, offering sufficiently rich enterprise services without delving too deep into PBX mysteries (which I’d already decided to provide via the excellent and familiar 3CX).
Buying the service was easy, requiring only the waving of a credit card; buying additional seats is simple, too, as is bolting on extra storage for SharePoint Server. To actually get everything up and running requires some DNS work, however, and changing over your DNS is a process involving several steps.