Monday, 27 June 2011

Office365 (part 2)

After my last post about Office365, I thought that I would write a bit more about why I think it would be such a good product for us; the rationale behind the thinking.

Some 10 years ago, less than half of the office staff had PCs, and there were perhaps 2 PCs in the factory area. Now, everyone in the offices has a PC (some have more than one) and in the factory areas, there are just over 2 PCs for every 5 staff. (These are shared by people and used as required to access relevant data.) As you can see, there has been a significant growth in the use of IT systems in the last decade.

About 6 years ago, some people start working with laptops and they were able to use VPN connections to get access to systems in the office, primarily for email when they were off site. To start with these were senior managers, IT staff and some sales people, but over the last couple of years, the number has increased to include many others. We even have a couple of ladies from our customer support team that regularly go out to visit partner companies that they work with, and they take a ?pool? laptop with them.

As you?ll realise, having access to email, CRM & ERP systems along with data files is pretty important for many of these staff and it helps them do their job far more efficiently. However, although the process to connect the VPN is really easy, some of them still occasionally have difficulties in making the VPN connections and we have been looking to see if there is a way to make their life easier.

One thing that was discussed in the Microsoft ?Jump Start? sessions a few weeks ago was the concept of a ?Hybrid? cloud; one that used both public and private cloud options linked together. In the session, there was a discussion about linking Office365 using LDAP to connect to an existing Exchange Server inside of a company?s LAN. Effectively, this would extend the mail function to allow Active Directory designated people when outside of the network to use Office365, and staff inside to use the normal Exchange Server; but the two linked together effectively as a single system and without the need for VPN connections.

I think that this could be a major benefit for us; it would make life easier for all staff that travel, as they would have access to their email without having to worry about running VPN connections. They could use their laptops, their smart phones, tablets or even a PC from the people that they are visiting to get access to their mail and other material.

As for staff inside of the business, they would continue to use the existing Exchange mailboxes; but they would still see the travelling staff as being on the same system. It might even be an option for some of the staff internally to use a tablet moving around inside of the factory; although I?m not sure that these devices are quite robust enough for some of the heavy handed individuals we employ!

Of course, there are security issues, but that is for a discussion another time. I feel that the hybrid option would make a lot of sense for us; it would provide a sensible and elegant solution to a problem that has caused a few issues and will only get more serious as time goes by. I think that Office365 is a product that deserves some serious consideration and could provide a real option for our travelling staff; and it might be a real advantage to the business.

Monday, 13 June 2011


As promised in my last post, I’m going to write about the new Office365 product for which I have been testing the beta version. If you want to take a look at the beta for yourselves, then sign up here:

Essentially, the concept is simple; this is an online product that provides the functionality of the normal Microsoft Office package. It’s run through a browser window, and the key thing is that it can be accessed from any device at anytime. All you need is a standard Windows Live ID in order to get access to the relevant portal.

The front page is quite straight forward and very “clean” and uncluttered; it gives a brief overview of what tasks need to be done and how to access the key components. There is also a link to support, the community forum, and information on how to perform key tasks.

The Outlook function is accessed from a menu item and is based upon Outlook 2010; even if you are using an earlier version, you will probably be able to work out how to do things. I tried this on an iPhone and there is a slight difference in the appearance as it uses the Outlook Web App (OWA). For those advanced Outlook users, there are a couple of functions missing; the public folders option is one item. However, I found it really easy to use, and I suspect that most others would have no trouble switching to this product from an existing version of Outlook.

There is also the calendar, contact list and tasks list functions as well. We use this on our normal Outlook function, so it might be something that we could use to good effect. For the contacts, we would need to find a way to separate out some of the entries as otherwise we would end up with massive longs lists making it harder for people to find what they need.

The Office365 product includes SharePoint Online; which is exactly what it sounds like. It seems to be based upon the SharePoint Foundation product, and offers the same kind of functionality. Although I had a few issues with the provisioning at first, an email to the Support Centre fixed that. I then found it really simple to set-up and use.

I’m actually a great believer in SharePoint; I think that it has a lot of functionality that would help fix a lot of business issues and provide a mechanism for resolving several key communication problems. The only downside is that it sometimes seems very difficult to get the users to understand that they can take control of many of their tasks; they seem to have a very fixed view that only IT staff can do these things.

Office365 also offers Lync which is the new instant messaging client; I thought it looked very slick and had a number of very useful additions compared to earlier products. Again this is something that I think we don’t make enough use of, and following a couple of tests, there are some key users that really like the product, but unfortunately there are many more that simply do not want to even try to use it.

Lync can also be used for audio or video conferencing; I did one very quick test and it worked well, but that was only between 2 users within our network. It would have been useful to test it against a couple more users for a slightly larger conference call; we may still do that another time as we still have over 140 days left on our 6 month beta licence.

The other main feature are the Web Apps for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote; very similar to the 2010 versions of the software and most people will pick them up very quickly. I’m not a great fan of the ribbon interface, but I suppose that I’ve become used to using it; and the Web Apps use the same feature, so it make sense to get used to it now.

There are a number of arguments about the use of cloud computing; that’s going to be a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that having tested Office 365, I really like it and most other users seem to find it very straight forward. We don’t know the price yet, but I have seen a couple of suggestions for the cost, and I think that it could be very affordable.

Office 365 is a really good product even though it is just the beta version so far; it’s one that I’ll be keeping an eye on over the next few months for sure.