Microsoft Office 365 review

21 Apr 2011

At this price, and with these management tools, Office 365 could make it hard to justify running your own Exchange server

PREVIEW: Purchasing and maintaining software for a business, small or big, is a costly undertaking. It isn’t just the licensing that affects your bottom line, but the man hours that go into keeping software patched and up to date, installing it on new machines and maintaining all the servers you need to provide email and online services.

Microsoft’s Office 365, the public beta of which was unveiled this week, aims to make the job easier. It’s the successor to the current Business Productivity Online Services, and shifts a raft of traditionally office-based products and services from the server room to the cloud.

Included are Microsoft Exchange with Forefront Online Protection for anti-virus and spam, SharePoint, Lync Online and the Office Web Apps with (optional) licences for the full Office Professional Plus, plus a SharePoint-based public website.

Microsoft Office 365

It can be used in two ways: alone as an online replacement for email, unified communication and file-sharing that delivers the full Office feature set as it was designed to work; or federated with your existing on-premise servers to give you the same level of control and configuration with far less management and maintenance.

For an enterprise it promises convenience, for a small business it’s far cheaper and simpler than buying and managing a server. But how much of the on-premise server power do you get and is it ready for businesses to rely on?

Features and tools

To end users, Office 365 means extra features. By combining Exchange, Lync Online and SharePoint servers (something not every business has the wherewithal, time or money to do) Office 365 unlocks the full Office 2010 feature set.

Features such as getting a warning that someone’s out of the office when typing an email address, and being able to see the person who made a change to one of your documents is online so you can ask them what they meant in an IM or video call, aren’t available with an Exchange server alone. And there’s a whole raft of other features worth having.

These include being able to attach a link to a shared file so you don’t end up with five sets of comments to read and merge; to take shared files offline and automatically upload and merge changes when you get back to the office; and turn email replies into a database automatically.

Microsoft Office 365

Administrators will also benefit from going down the Office 365 route. Setting up Exchange, Lync Online and SharePoint servers can be a prohibitively expensive and complicated process, and requires ongoing management.

Signing up and signing in for Office 365 is simple, and takes you straight to an online management console. This covers the settings for the service, subscription management for Office 365 accounts and Office client licences, which you can allocate individually or by AD role or using specific policies.

It also displays service health, with warnings for any scheduled maintenance and wizards for creating migration and co-existence plans. All this makes moving to Office 365 a clear and manageable process.

If you’ve used the web management tools for Exchange Server, these are identical but with many of the management features for Forefront, SharePoint and (to a lesser extent) Lync. You can use a limited number of PowerShell management commands too.