The road to Office 365: The present

In part two of my three-day series on Microsoft's road to Office 365, I look at the evolving services and support cultures that affect how Microsoft develops, delivers and maintains its growing family of hosted services.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Today is part two of a three-part series about Microsoft’s Office 365, the company’s software-as-a-service offering. (In part one, I focused on the history of the platform.)

When Microsoft announced its plans for Office 365 in October of this year, few were cognizant of the five-plus years of groundwork that preceded the launch of its hosted-application platform. Few also seemed to understand why and how Microsoft is attempting to coalesce its varied hosted app offerings under a single brand and infrastructure. I’m hoping with this series to explain the past, present and future of one of the most important elements of Microsoft’s cloud strategy.

Office 365 is the new name for the Microsoft services offerings currently known as Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), Live@edu and Office Live Small Business. Office 365 is in limited beta now and will be available to customers in the first half of calendar 2011. More nuts-and-bolts details about Office 365 are available via my ZDNet Webcast, “Office 365 Essentials,” which is downloadable for free (with registration). Building a services culture

Developing and supporting online services is different from doing the same with software. Release cycles are shorter, customer feedback is more immediate, and being on call 24 X 7 is the new reality.

The Windows Azure team learned that lesson back when that platform was codenamed "Red Dog." And the BPOS, Live@edu and Office Live Small Business teams have assimilated it, as well.

On the BPOS/Office 365 side of the house, Microsoft was fortunate to bring on board early on several individuals who had experiencing running datacenters and services to jump-start Microsoft's move to the cloud.

David Howell, Director of Online Services Engineering, for one, started his Microsoft career in 1994 at MSN, working on version 1. Back then, when Microsoft was focused on developing a competitor to AOL, MSN had its own datacenter in Bellevue, Wash., Howell recalled. Howell later moved to Exchange and unified messaging. He became part of a handful  of managers and architects working with the former head of the Microsoft Business division, Jeff Raikes, on crafting an online services model.

That core team outlined the business case, the technical case and the Microsoft case for moving to more of a services model. Delivering functionality that previously was available only via software would insure that customers were running the most recent versions of products. The Internet and datacenter technologies were ready, and Microsoft had a portfolio of products that were ripe to deliver in services form.

"But we needed to deliver an alternate way of consuming these services," Howell said. And first, "we had to internalize the entire customer lifecyle -- billing, subscription, online ticketing, support, online help."

Initially, Howell and his engineering team -- the folks charged with building the Online Services platform -- were simply running the infrastructure powering Microsoft's growing family of hosted services. But the Redmondians came to realize that the teams building Microsoft's on-premises servers and online services needed to work directly together.

"There are core engineering teams at Microsoft that now think about services as their bread and butter," Howell said.

And those teams have helped institute changes in culture inside the various business units currently delivering Microsoft's software-as-a-service offerings. There's now more of a connection with design, as some of the lifecycle user experiences are broader with services than they are with software, Howell explained. Operations and support are integrated with engineering from the get-go. And often times, Microsoft is now responsible for "things we may not build" -- i.e., third-party applications that interoperate with its platform, Howell noted.

There's a daily ship-room meeting involving engineering, operations and support, where participants discuss the past day, collect customer escalations to review and create plans for applying immediate fixes. On the operations side, there's a 24 X7 services operation team; operations teams that are experts about different pieces of the Microsoft Online Services platform; program management teams that handle releases of updates; higher-level services infrastructure teams that work with engineering on network, storage and other core "layers"; and a monitoring team that keeps constant watch over the services.

"Our engineers understand how our customers are using these technologies daily. That has changed how we develop software and services," said Mike Ziock, Senior Director, Online Services Operations -- another member of Microsoft's hosted services team who has been involved in running services since he was part of Placeware, the company Microsoft acquired in 2004 and which morphed into Live Meeting.

On the support front lines

When a Microsoft-hosted service goes down -- even for a few minutes and/or for a small subset of customers  -- the Online Services knows. (Immediately, as three back-to-back BPOS outages demonstrated.) Microsoft hears from its services customers early and often about features, reliability and stability.

No one knows that better than Matt Fingerhut, Microsoft General Manager of Services Support. Fingerhut has been on the front lines of support at Microsoft for ten of his 13+ years at the company, handling everything from Windows Vista, to Blaster, to MSN support. Two years ago, when Microsoft created a services-only support organization at the company, Fingerhut and his team became responsible for Azure, BPOS/Office 365, Live@edu and Windows Live support.

In the good old/bad old days, support meant "how quickly could we push bits for something like XP SP2 to consumers," Fingerhut said. But now, "things are radically different," he noted. "The support is the experience." When it comes to online services, "there isn't even a server to kick any more."

Support is part of regular reviews involving engineering, operations and marketing, Fingerhut said, both with the current family of Microsoft Online Services, as well as the coming integrated Office 365 ones. As Microsoft starts moving customers from BPOS, Live@edu and Office Live Small Business to Office 365, the role of the support organization will change to some degree, he said. With BPOS, Microsoft didn't focus much on the different experiences that customers with one, ten or a huge number of seats were having. But with Office 365, "we are creating different front-line experiences for different customers," Fingerhut said. At the same time, Microsoft is working to make it easier for customers to do more self-management, he said.

"Support is the IT staff for Office 365," Fingerhut said.

On (virtual) paper, these all sound like good changes, but what can existing and new Office 365 customers expect when Microsoft "flips the switch" and turns on Office 365 in 2011? I'll look at the plans and promises in tomorrow's installment of my Office 365 series.

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