Alan Richards has been working in IT for over 17 years and during that time has been at the forefront of using IT. He has led teams that have been among the first to roll out Windows, Exchange and SharePoint. Alan is currently Senior Consultant with Foundation SP, a SharePoint services and delivery company. He's an Microsoft MVP and a regular blogger and speaker at various events.
Is the cloud the right tool for your business and how do you know? As the IT Pro in your business you are, at some point, going to get asked this question or a variation on it. And it’s a perfectly valid question as the cloud is not always going to be the right choice for a business and in some cases it’s the completely wrong choice.
The cloud is at its core a set of technologies that many IT Pro’s are already familiar with and in some cases have been using for years in the guise of their various versions. The cloud consists of; Exchange for email, SharePoint for document management, Lync for communication and Azure AD for identity management. These equate directly to all the onPremise options; Exchange 2013, SharePoint 2013, Lync 2013 and Windows Server for AD.
There are obviously some technical differences between the onPremise and cloud versions, for example not all the functionality that can be found in SharePoint 2013 can be found in SharePoint Online; the reason for these differences is that the cloud obviously runs a multi tenancy model where multiple businesses host their services on Microsoft servers and some functionality found in the ever popular onPremise version of SharePoint 2013 would cause too many security issues if it were to be enabled in the cloud.
SharePoint is a big product in lots of ways, besides it being a very popular product it can also be big in data terms and data storage always has a cost associated with it. It doesn’t matter if you use onPremise SharePoint or SharePoint online you are going to have to pay for storage whether that is the physical storage devices or the online storage that comes with Office 365. There is also the maintenance of that storage, with Office 365 it’s not your problem, it’s all down to Microsoft to ensure the uptime and availability of storage.
While on the SharePoint subject lets also look at apps & code. Lots of businesses use 3rd party tools or custom code in their onPremise versions of SharePoint to provide additional functionality. When considering if the cloud is the right choice for your business you need to understand the limitations on 3rd party applications and custom code. Because of the multi tenancy model of Office 365 Microsoft obviously have to limit what custom code can do as it may impact other tenants or create security holes.
Another consideration is, of course, security. Microsoft adheres to standard security procedures and conforms to the EU safe harbours agreements and also the UK Governments IL2 data level security. But at the end of the day these may not be enough for you. You need to consider the nature of your data and data security policies; is it mandatory, for example that no data leaves the confines of the business. What are your data retention policies? What are your policies on backup and restore timescales? These are all valid considerations and you need to take them into account before you choose the cloud.
Managing SharePoint online is also a familiar experience, as with the onPremise version it is all managed from the web browser but with the added support of being able to carry out many of the tasks using PowerShell from your local PC.
You send email you receive email, that’s it right?
Well if that’s all you do then great, go cloud, but for some business there may be more to take into consideration.
As IT Pro’s we all know that email is one of the security holes that can allow all manner of problems into our network and for that reason whatever version of Exchange or whatever other email server you may be using we all have the most powerful and sometimes restrictive antivirus, anti-spam and anti-malware software we can find installed on our mail servers or a lot of businesses take advantage of hosted email security services.
Exchange online has built in malware & spam filters and as with the onPremise version facilities such as connection filtering are also available. Exchange Online is also preconfigured not to act as a relay and so you are safe in the knowledge that your server won’t be used for relaying spam.
If you use hosted mail filtering software then you can still use that as well, Exchange online provides the ability to create secure connections with hosted mail filtering services so that your server will only accept mail sent from your hosted service. You can also configure Exchange online to send mail out via the same hosted service.
Of course Exchange online also comes with all the usual features such as mail user, mail contacts, mail flow settings and you can of course connect to it from anywhere you can get internet access.
In my opinion Exchange online provides you with all the functionality you could ever want from a mail server with the added advantage that you don’t have to worry about availability of the services or maintain the servers with updates and patches, that’s all down to Microsoft.
And as with SharePoint you can either manage Exchange online from the web browser or using PowerShell from the comfort of your own PC.
Lync is a communication tool and the online version provides full functionality for all the classic functions such as IM and PC – PC audio & video calls.
If you have Lync onPremise then the move to the cloud will not mean any reduction in features unless you are using it as your business telephone system. Lync online can’t provide telephone functionality so if this is one of the ways in which you use Lync then a move to the cloud may not be for you.
For all other functionality Lync online could be the answer. In a previous life I ran Lync onPremise with full telephony functionality and the management overhead along with the number of servers required can be quite daunting, where I work now we are fully cloud based and one of the main advantages is Lync online, we can communicate both internally but with the added advantage of allowing clients to federate with us and also setup online meetings with clients means we cut down on expenses and travel time.
For me Lync online is a no brainer when it comes to moving some services to the cloud.
Azure AD is the identity provider for all of the Office 365 products, this is what you are interacting with when you create users in the Office 365 admin portal.
At the moment Azure AD is not a replica of Windows AD, it just can’t be, that would be too much of a security nightmare for Microsoft.
I suppose the biggest consideration when moving to the cloud is how your users are going to login to their services, we all know how hard it is for users to remember passwords. Creating accounts in Azure AD can be done in two ways either through the cloud or using Directory Synchronisation.
Creating users in the cloud is done using the browser and can be done individually or by using a csv file. However this will mean of course that your users will have different passwords from their normal network password.
Directory Synchronisation uses a tool aptly called DirSync that once configured synchronises your Windows AD user accounts with Azure AD and therefore all your Office 365 services and best of all DirSync has the ability to synchronise passwords so users will be able to login to Office 365 using their email address and their current network password.
And of course, as with the other Office 365 products, you can manage Azure AD using PowerShell. In fact there are a number of blog posts in the internet that provide collections of scripts for not only administering Azure AD but all of the Office 365 tool set.
So in summary the decision to go to the cloud is a big one and should be taken after you have taken into account what services you currently run and can they be replicated in Office 365, do you need all those services? What are you storage requirements, do users constantly upload and view large files which will put a load on your internet bandwidth? What are your security requirements and does the current Office 365 security feature set meet those requirements? How do you want users to access Office 365?
For me the decision process to move to the cloud should come at the end of an evaluation process of your current services, how utilised are your current services? What is used and what isn’t? If you have custom code or use 3rd party applications, do you still need them or are their versions compatible with Office 365?
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