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    The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in anyway.

    Now Using Microsoft BPOS & Exchange Online!

    We've taken a huge plunge, we've migrated one of our primary business domains to the Microsoft Hosted Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).

    Initially BPOS purely represented as a stop-gap measure to buy some time whilst we prepared our own in-house Exchange Server infrastructure, now it's looking at becoming a permanent solution for our business. BPOS was chosen because it offered a relatively quick and painless method to move one of our growing businesses from a standard web host type offering that consisted of SendMail/Horde to our own business grade Exchange Server system which we were in the process of building, problem being is we were in desperate need of it sooner than we could deliver it. We already run our own Exchange infrastructure for a number of other domains but the server is well and truely over capacity and we didn't want to push the existing Exchange Server any further.

    Microsoft's on-line service offering presented our company with an immediate solution and the process also presented our business with a number of opportunities to learn and experience first-hand what an every day customer would have to go through if ever they chose to go down this same path.

    First, by moving one of our business domains over to the hosted solution we could experience first-hand what it was like to migrate between systems. I'm not talking about the technical aspect because on that front we have full confidence in our team of engineers, but more the business emotions such as the concerns and stresses that go with moving a mission critical system from one platform to another. Secondly we could experience the service and support offered by Microsoft's Online services first-hand. These two learning experiences would become invaluable knowledge for when discussing products like Microsoft BPOS and Exchange Online to clients and prospects.

    I also think as a solutions provider it's important to endorse the products and services you recommend to clients and how much of a stronger endorsement can you give than buy using them within your own organisation.

    First Steps

    For us the first step was to expand our existing Telstra Dealership to include the T-Suite range of products. The driver behind this is because Telstra's T-Suite is the only way in which Australian customers can obtain access to Microsoft's On-line services. Given our company has already recognised the "cloud" is the way of the future, we thought it was a good opportunity to get onboard and establish as a Microsoft Online Services Advisor as well as Telstra T-Suite Partner and start discovering what opportunities this clould offering presented and how well it performs.

    To achieve this we had to enroll as a Microsoft On-line Services Advisor and have this reflected within our Microsoft Partner profile, this was achieved by completing a number of Microsoft Partner Learning Tutorials and subsequently passing a number of Microsoft on-line exams, overall not difficult but did take some time. Once Microsoft processed our application and exams we were able to apply for the T-Suite Partner Programme, again nothing difficult but took some time for it to be processed. Although there appeared to be some technical issues between Telstra and Microsoft I have to say Telstra was exceptional, in particular Dave Carden not only got our application processed but he also responded to a number of enquiries out of hours and on weekends. From where I stand this is a real change in attitude from Telstra towards customers, it's as though they're realising customer experience and satisfaction pays dividends. Thanks Dave for your efforts, it was well recognised.

    Migration

    The migration to Exchange Online for us was simple. All we had to do was get the BPOS suite setup along with adding the domain and creating the required user/email accounts, this was very straight forward and it's all performed within a single Administration Console. Having technical expertise in the back end products that deliver the On-line services offering (Active Directory, Exchange, DNS etc) certainly helped with this. When Exchange was setup and the user accounts were created all that was left was to migrate the email from the old system into Exchange, this was done through a series of steps to export from Horde and once Outlook was configured to connect to the hosted Exchange server, we just imported the mail via Outlook.

    When we were confident everything was right to go we updated the MX record on the domain to point to the new servers and within an hour mail was flowing in and out of Exchange On-line. I then went to reconnect my Blackberry, this is the only area where some problems have been encountered. Because the emails were migrated from the old system to the new system, this has created a situation whereby Blackberry considers the emails to be new and now my Blackberry is being bombarded with some 1000+ emails - bit of a pain really especially considering they're not arriving in the correct date order. I personally think Blackberry's sychronisation through Outlook Web Access is less than satisfactory.

    Support

    So far we've only had to submit two support tickets to Microsoft. One was because during our testing on older Windows XP systems running older versions of Office you're required to install an Outlook 2003 Connector in addition to the Sign-on software. For some reason the Outlook 2003 Connector wasn't configuring the Exchange Server connection correctly and on these computers we couldn't get Outlook 2003 working with Exchange On-line. Suprisingly this ticket was responded to and subsequently resolved overnight which was satisfactory for this type of low severity ticket.

    The other support ticket related to an enquiry about using Exchange On-line in a slightly different method whereby Exchange On-line is only used for some email accounts for a given domain and other email accounts reside on a separate email server - such as one hosted elsewhere or in-house. Whilst this ticket was also responded to overnight the respondent completely misunderstood the nature of the enquiry and provided a response that was of no assistance. We replied to the ticket but 3 days later we are yet to receive a response.

    Overall the support response received could have been better. Sure our support tickets were set low priority (as specified in the ticket by us) but in the web hosting industry, even low priority tickets generally get responded to within a couple of hours. I would like to think if we ever encountered a major issue such as an outage resulting in business impact a more timely response will be received. It does play on my mind that we don't have a direct line of communication (i.e. phone) to reach Technical Support personnel, even if they just published a phone number that diverts to Microsoft's off-shore support centers it would provide huge peace of mind because if the whole system goes offline for whatever reason, how are we supposed to submit a ticket, let alone get any communication from them about ETAs for service restoration?

    What To Consider

    The key issue I would stress to anyone looking at this type of solution is the support. Make sure you're comfortable knowing there isn't someone you can just call on a whim and say 'make it work' like you can when you're running your own IT infrastructure and have an IT Managed Services provider looking after it. It does concern me we have now handed the control of our entire email system, support, security, backup and maintenance over to another company who won't neccessarily always act in our best interests let alone have anywhere near the level of urgency and due care towards our business. We know how meticulous we are with our systems and our client systems and we know what it takes when responding to a client reporting something like a critical email server is down because we are emotionally connected to the situation (be it ours or a clients), but you can't expect the same from a company who provides services to such a massive scale of customers, there will never be an emotional connection, therefore there will never be a committment driven by the dedication to achieve the same outcomes as those driven by emotional dedication. The only way you'll get that type of committment from large service providers is if you're a large company with a budget of equal proportion but in this case you wouldn't be looking at services like BPOS anyhow, you would be going down the private cloud path which is really just a different way of selling managed services.

    Security

    The next key issue I would encourage you to consider very carefully is security. You need to ensure you're comfortable not really knowing what is happening in the background within the systems and with your data and I am speaking based on experience consulting for large companies. Large companies employ large numbers of staff to work in their organisations including their datacentres. I can say from first hand experience these large companies don't have a clue what is going on down at the engineer level, they might think they do but the reality is they don't and never will. What I can say as a consultant for many of the large Global firms I've been exposed to, the engineers who manage these types of systems and have access to client data are usually very well intentioned, have good morals and ethics and typically aren't even interested in customer data, but what I do get concerned about is the fact that issues and incidents, usually unintentional are covered up. I've personally witnessed critial systems in large enterprises (one of Australia's biggest banks as an example) was discovered to not have been getting backed up for years and when it was discovered the customer was not informed of the situation as it was simply covered up.

    Why Microsoft?

    At the end of the day, we had to make a choice as to who we would allow (notice I didn't say trust) to manage our data, backup and security. Through the history I personally have with current and former Microsoft staff and over 10 years working with their products, I'm personally satisfied enough to place this level of responsibility with them. For one, I've worked alongside countless numbers of Microsoft staff and engineers and have even worked alongside some of their Developers at various times, I was also once offered the opportunity to work for them. The culture in Microsoft is very strong and a lot of focus is applied to ensuring customers feel secure working with them and their data. Also the fact that I intimately know the products used to make up BPOS which include Active Directory, Exchange Server and SharePoint because you can purchase these products to install and run in your own environment and having done this many times in the past gives me as an engineer and a business owner the confidence I need to know and understand the mechanics of what is going on.

    Why Not Google?

    On the other hand, Cloud products such as those by the likes of Google, whilst these products work exceptionally well and have even been responsible for pushing email to new levels with new functionality, fact is very few people know the products inside-out. Very few people have ever had an opportunity to work with GMail and Google Apps at a detailed technical level (code and functional) and those who have are held to secrecy so who really knows how GMail and Google Apps work and what level of security is realistically built into these products. The fact that I can't purchase, install and run them on my own infrastructure means I can't build an understanding or trust in them, more importantly it means these products will always have a cloud of secrecy surrounding them. Not forgetting the recent events with Google's 'accidental' collection of data by their Street View cars tells me this company is not concerned about pushing the limits when it comes to privacy and clearly this is a culture embedded within the organisation because if a developer has invested time creating code to collect and record wireless access point information, that code would not have been easy or quick to create, it would have been relatively complicated and it would have required a considerable amount of time and effort be invested by a skilled developer as well as planning for the storage of the data which ran into the hundreds of gigabytes. All of these simple facts tell me it's more likely it was planned and it's likely it would have needed to have be approved by a manager (or managers) at various levels. I don't buy for a second this was an accident and it speaks volumes about the companies ethics and morals and I question what else they inadvertantly collected that they haven't yet disclosed or been caught with.

    The BPOS Exchange On-line Verdict

    A week in, the experience so far has exceeded all expectations. The performance and level of service from Exchange On-line has been excellent, we've never had any issues connecting, send or receiving mail and we're not getting any SPAM (though we weren't getting any SPAM before either). The fact that we don't have to worry about managing the infrastructure itself is a completely different experience to what we're used to, admittedly there are pros and cons to consider here though.

    Would I recommend this type of solution? I would but only to specific scenarios because I don't honestly think it's suited to everyone. In my opinion, Cloud driven solutions such as Exchange On-line are best suited to address companies with particular needs - such as businesses that want to run in virtual office spaces and businesses that don't have the need for in-house IT infrastructure. I know a lot of Cloud Computing providers will jump up and down and argue this until blue in the face, but my argument is if you have IT infrastructure internally and you only send some of your IT infrastructure offsite such as email with Exchange On-line, what are you really achieving?

    More Information

    If you're interested in cloud computing solutions such as Microsoft BPOS and T-Suite, additional information is available at the following sites:

    If you would like to discuss BPOS or any of the individual products such as Exchange and SharePoint for your business, contact our office on 1300 66 99 23.

    Posted: Jun 20 2010, 04:38 by Ben Fisher | Comments (0) RSS comment feed |
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