Office 365 is a collection of Microsoft applications hosted in the cloud. Microsoft refers to it as “the online companion to Office”. It comprises hosted e-mail, hosted calendars, web conferencing, web & desktop versions of Office applications, file sharing and corporate websites.
The facilities you get depend on the plan you pay for. At the basic level is the hosted email service for £34 per annul per user.
Going up a notch, plan E1, at £69pa per user, includes hosted email and hosted file storage, Finally plan E3, at £180pa per user, adds email archiving and unlimited storage, and desktop Office apps.
Office 365 is managed via a web portal which is reasonably straightforward to use. The main aspects you need to deal with are DNS, firewalls and directory synchronisation all of which should either be managed by your IT Team or a competent Microsoft partner
Office 365 versus on-premise To understand whether you should be going for an on-premise offering or a cloud offering, we’ll look at each of the components and discuss how well (or otherwise) it’s suited to cloud operation.
We mentioned earlier that Office 365 is termed “the online companion to Office”, and it’s in the web applications that this applies to most.
The message is clear, you’re probably not going to use the cloud-based version of the basic Office apps (Word, Excel, etc) in place of the desktop versions. The Cloud apps are there to supplement the desktop apps. So the cloud version integrates nicely with the desktop version, and being a Cloud offering you have the obvious bonus of being able to share documents with colleagues and work on them via the web wherever you are. The vast majority of organisations will, however, be perfectly content with the desktop-based applications and will use the web alternatives sparingly, if at all.
The file sharing aspect of Office 365 is actually rather more than the name on the tin suggests. It’s SharePoint-driven, so it gives you all the functionality you’d expect from a SharePoint site, collaboration, file versioning and check in/out, blogs, wikis and searching within files across directory structures.
Office 365 features The file sharing aspect of Office 365 is therefore the first area in which you can choose between an on-premise offering and the cloud service. An on-premise solution has all the advantages you would expect it’s close to your users, and well that’s about it.
You need a reasonable amount of server power to drive it, both in the front-end servers and in the back-end systems that underpin it such as SQL Server (for data storage), storage hardware and backup systems. SharePoint’s a hugely flexible system but in practice you can’t run it on puny hardware so the potential investment in hardware is massive.
Web conferencing If file sharing is the first potential area for considering a cloud offering instead of an on-premise one, web conferencing is quite the opposite – that is, one has to wonder why you wouldn’t just use an external service anyway instead of bothering with an internal system. Hosting a reliable, scalable web conferencing system internally is relatively straightforward for small organisations, but if you’re reasonably large and you use the service as a genuine business tool you need to be able to rely on it. So that means resilient inbound Internet feeds, hardware that scales to conferences with potentially dozens of participants and a level of Internet bandwidth that can support these many, many participants for not just text messages but also voice, video and desktop sharing.
Email and calendaring We’ll deal with these last two together because most of us are so used to them being automatically linked anyway an Outlook user will generally use it for both email and calendar functions.
Email functionality has three aspects: getting email in and out of the organisation, storing that email somewhere, and letting users interact with the email system to send and receive messages.
Getting email in and out of the organisation is relatively straightforward on the surface, you need an Internet connection and some MX (Mail eXchanger) records in your DNS. Of course, life’s seldom that simple and in the case of email your main concern is malware and primarily viruses.
You can run anti-malware software on your mail server (it’s actually a good idea to run at least two or three different offerings, to be sure that your system can recognise new attacks as early as possible into their existence), or you can take the approach that an increasing number of organisations do these days and use an external anti-malware service to cleanse your email before it arrives (and preferably to do a similar action on outbound messages, just to be sure you’re not sending infections outbound). To send and receive email you’ll need mail servers preferably a resilient cluster to ensure maximum uptime.
Storing email is pretty simple: the mail servers mentioned above need storage. Even in a relatively small businesses of, say, 10 or so users the storage requirement for email can easily be measured in 100’s of Gigabytes, which although not a totally alien concept with today’s hard disk technology is still a significant sum (not least with regard to the price tag). You’ll also have to think about backing up the huge mail files that you’re storing, and with an eye on compliance you’ll be needing to store messages for a significant time – potentially a few years – which although you can do it using offline or semi-offline storage is still a significant task.
Allowing the users to interact with the email servers via their desktop mail clients or a browser-based mail client is a pretty straightforward task. And even though browser-based clients are popular, users really do prefer having a full-blown client on their desktop and will continue to do so for a while.
An entirely on-premise offering therefore needs some pretty expensive components: server hardware, storage hardware, malware inspection capabilities and an appropriate Internet connection.
The requirement for Internet connectivity will never go away, of course, but since many people already outsource the malware inspection, why not just outsource the hosting of all the email?
The hardware requirement vanishes, instead you rent space on servers run by an organisation that benefits from the economy of scale of buying servers by the thousand rather than in ones and twos), the malware inspection is dealt with for you, and the storage aspect works on exactly the same cost benefit as the server hardware.
The one thing you will have to spend a little more money on is the Internet connection, entirely because of user perception. The occasional outage in an Internet connection on an on-premise setup won’t affect the users’ ability to interact with the mail server and they may not even notice if emails are delayed by a few minutes, but in a hosted service it’ll cause an “Mail Server is offline” when they hit “Check Mail” and then the trouble starts.
Office 365 takes away the costs of hardware, software, maintenance contracts, support staff and their training costs and gives you a service with a fixed per-user-per-year cost that makes running it and scaling it to a growing user base no harder than simply hitting “Create User” and letting someone else worry about the performance.