Office 365 has passed SharePoint as Microsoft's fastest growing product: at the company's financial analyst meeting recently, Kevin Turner called it the fastest growing product in the history of Microsoft.
It makes perfect sense for businesses; every business needs email, but buying your own mail server and paying Exchange experts to run it doesn't make your business stand out at all. Buy email as a service from Microsoft and you can spend the money on something that differentiates your business.
But getting onto Office 365 isn't necessarily painless, especially if you don't already have Exchange; migrating from desktop mail apps that have been grabbing mail via POP or IMAP means spending time on every PC to get messages transferred to the server.
SkyKick has a service that walks Microsoft partners through the steps of a migration, with tools that automate a lot of the process - from finding the email address of everyone you need to migrate to getting them to install the new Office software on their PC.
The reason Microsoft partners are signing up in their thousands to resell Office 365 isn't just that they can't sell you Small Business Server any more, it's that they can build tools that add extra features and management to Office 365.
We asked En Pointe Technologies (one of the larger Office 365 partners) which tools they were finding the most useful and their cloud architect Ramin Archer gave us a list of three; one for migrating onto SharePoint Online; one for managing identity and single sign on; and one for monitoring the applications once you're there.
While Exchange Online is almost exactly the same as the on-premise version (except you can't run the PowerShell that allows your users to get their email on more than ten devices), SharePoint Online has some limitations.
If you run custom code on SharePoint, you're going to have to run that on Azure and connect to it from SharePoint Online. Even if you only have your own taxonomy for organising documents and personalising search, you need to migrate that - and you want to do it without losing metadata, version history and any tags and keywords applies to the files.
Archer recommends MetaVis, because it keeps all of those, even when you migrate public folders. "Customers would try to move the data over manually, which would result in the loss of the ever important meta data," he told us. "We also saw issues with file names concerning special characters which would not migrate over." MetaVis keeps all of those intact when you migrate your SharePoint files online.
If you want to let users log into to both Office 365 and other systems with their Active Directory account and password, you need to set up single sign-on (SSO). You can use Active Directory Federation Services to allow Office 365 sign in relatively easily, but it's more complicated when you want it to work with other services. Plus, this makes your Active Directory a point of failure for cloud services, so you need to make sure it's going to stay running - and if you're moving to the cloud because you don't want the cost and effort of buying and running your own servers, beefing up your on premise Active Directory to cope with SSO seems counter-intuitive.
Okta is a cloud-based SSO that can integrate multiple apps - like Gmail and Salesforce as well as Office 365. Archer likes Okta so much he's going to run En Pointe's own SSO with it.
Office 365 has a good SLA and uptime is excellent; for the quarters between July 2012 and June 2013 it's been available 99.98 percent, 99.97 percent, 99.94 percent and 99.97 percent of the time (you can see the latest figures at http://trustoffice365.com/). And you can see the status of all the Office 365 services in the admin portal.
That's not enough information for some admins, who are used to getting a lot more detail about the performance of in-house servers and applications.
Archer recommends Exoprise's Cloud Ready which gives you real time statistics, trends and performance tracking by running synthetic transactions on the Office 365 service. That lets you keep an eye on logon times and compare them with what other Office 365 users are seeing.
"The monitoring service provides IT administrators with visibility into the entire Office 365 structure, ranging from online transaction response times, to Active Directory Federation services and even network and bandwidth utilisation," Archer told us. If there's a problem you'll know about it before users complain.
Running services in the cloud means you're letting the service provider do a lot of the work. Adding your own tools to integrate and monitor cloud services means you don't have to give up all the control and as the Office 365 platform matures, we'll see a lot more of the tools you've had for enhancing on premise services showing up for the cloud too.