I’ve been reading about, writing about and talking about cloud services in general and Office 365 in particular for a long time. I’ve taken Microsoft’s cloud-based productivity service for test drives with trial accounts. I’ve helped others get set up and supported them as they worked out the kinks. But until now, I always had my own on-premises Exchange server to fall back on here at home where my small business is based. A few months ago, my husband and I started toying with the idea of going “all in” and migrating our email to an Office 365 business plan. Then our Exchange server went down, motivating us to commit to the decision. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, we bit the bullet and made the switch. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of that experience.
It’s beautiful up in the cloud, but expect a fair amount of turbulence getting there. My small business’s production network has been operating for fifteen years with the same basic IT setup: a couple of Windows domain controllers, Exchange server, file server, web server, Proxy/ISA/TMG server. It went from separate physical servers to VMs quite a while back, reducing the physical machine requirements and simplifying the server room footprint. It’s a pretty basic network, and it worked pretty well – most of the time.
However, as anyone who has done it knows, running your own mail server is like being a police officer: days/weeks of boredom punctuated by hours of utter frustration and moments of sheer terror. Forget the pundits’ claims that email is dead; for many small organizations, it’s still the lifeblood that flows through your day, bringing correspondence from existing and potential clients, offers and invoices from vendors, banking information and much more.
Email matters – but so does real time communication, whether in the form of audio, video or chat. For decades, small business people weren’t able to easily afford sophisticated conferencing solutions like those in enterprise environments, yet those tight budgets also often preclude travel so it’s difficult to have in-person meetings on important matters. Since communications experts tell us that a significant percentage of the message that comes across is based on non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expression and voice tone (actual percentages are the subject of much debate), audio and/or video meetings can greatly enhance understanding in a business discussions.
At this point, Office 365 just makes sense. The cost of electricity and cooling for our servers probably, alone, equals the cost of the handful of Office 365 user accounts we need for our little business. But the real advantage is the difference in administrative overhead. No longer would we be responsible for hardware problems, repairs and upgrades. We no longer have to worry that when we go out of town that the server will go down (which it has a habit of doing – even when it’s been running without a hitch for months) and leave us scrambling to troubleshoot the problem over the Internet from hundreds of miles away.
In addition to taking away the email burden, another big selling point was that Office 365 gives us Skype for Business (formerly known as Lync), that allows for audio or HD quality video meetings with up to 250 people – a great feature for some of the groups and committees that I belong to – as well as a SharePoint site, a terabyte of storage on OneDrive for Business, and Sway.
Since we only have a few mailboxes, our migration was a “cutover,” which means we did the switchover all at once (rather than a “hybrid” migration as many large businesses do). The small number of users, most of whom are pretty tech savvy, also meant each of us could be responsible for backing up our own Exchange data to a .PST file in Outlook and then restoring it to the new Office 365 account. We got that done and got the new mailboxes set up in the cloud.
The nice thing for me was that it provided an opportunity to solve a problem I’ve had for a long time, since my husband created my Exchange account with a user name that was different from my primary email address user name. Because of this, I could never use autodiscover to set up my mail in email clients; I always had to manually enter the server and account information. With the new Office 365 account, I could finally make my email user name match my account user name.
On the evening of Thanksgiving, since we expected to have a few days when there would be very little important mail coming in (albeit an abundance of Black Friday sales messages), we made the changes to DNS records and restored the PSTs to the new accounts. I’d like to say everything went perfectly smoothly but of course big IT changes never do. After creating new Exchange accounts in Outlook, some of us were getting our mail there but two of us weren’t. However, deleting those newly created accounts and recreating them, then restoring the PSTs yet again, did the trick and mail started flowing.
It was, however, flowing very slowly at first. Messages would appear in the Office 365 OWA interface long before they got to desktop Outlook. In addition, OWA (in both IE and Chrome) would freeze up frequently and just stop responding. The good news is that this was apparently caused by the server being busy with all the uploading, since the last day the delay became significantly shorter and the freezing stopped altogether. Now, a week later, email is working in Outlook just as it did with our on-premises Exchange server, although of course sending to each other within our org is no longer at “wire speed” as it was when it was just going across the gigabit local network.
One dilemma that I encountered had to do with OneNote in Office 365. I love OneNote – with it, I can organize the world. I had extensive OneNote notebooks that I created and accessed with my desktop OneNote application and stored on my personal OneDrive account. Now I had a OneDrive for Business account where I wanted to move those notebooks, but how to do it wasn’t readily apparently. It should be a simple matter but web research showed many people frustrated in their attempts to do the same thing.
Finally I stumbled upon the solution. Here are the steps:
- In local OneNote, make a Package file of your Notebook (File | Export and choose OneNote Package file type).
- Double click to unpackage and save it in a location on your hard drive that’s easy to find.
- In Office 365 OneDrive, create a top level folder. Drag the files in the Package (not the folders) into it.
- Now, inside that top level folder, create folders with the same names as the folders inside the local package file.
- Manually drag the .one files from each folder on the hard drive into the corresponding folder on OneDrive.
- Open the Notebook on OneDrive by doubleclicking the Table of Contents (onetoc) file in the top level folder.
- Click “Open in OneNote” to open a copy of this same notebook on the local computer. It will start syncing. This can take a while depending on how big your notebook files are.
- Use this notebook (not the original that you made the package from) for all of your stuff. In the list of notebooks, it will probably be at the bottom of the list. Now when you make an edit in the OneDrive copy, it almost immediately shows up in the local copy and vice versa.
One thing to watch out for in regard to OneDrive for business: If you choose to sync its files with your local computer, by default it puts the copy in your C: drive. In these days of a small SSD drive for C: on which the OS is installed, you might fill it up fast if you start taking advantage of OneDrive’s terabyte storage allocation. The bad news is that you can’t change the location; you’ll have to stop syncing and then set it up all over again, and change the default during the new setup.
Despite the little glitches and quirks (for instance, the Office 365 OWA can’t, for me, substitute “big Outlook” – but that’s another article for another day), I’m pretty happy with Office 365 thus far. Even being the control freak that I am, I’m willing to let Microsoft take the reins on keeping my mail up and running. Check back with me this time next year for an update.