When Microsoft launches Office 365 on Tuesday, the countdown will officially begin for current BPOS customers to upgrade to the new suite.
BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) customers will have to migrate to Office 365 within the next 12 months, and IT administrators would do well to start familiarizing themselves with the process.
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For starters, BPOS works with some older versions of on-premise software products that Office 365 can't connect to, so BPOS administrators must be aware of potential upgrades they may need.
This is especially important for customers that implement hybrid deployments, so that the cloud software can interact and sync up with Microsoft desktop and server applications -- Microsoft's "software plus services" concept.
While Microsoft highlights this as an advantage for Office 365 compared with pure cloud rivals like Google Apps, it means that customers need to ensure they have certain versions of on-premise products to achieve a successful migration and implementation.
To Microsoft's credit, the company has plenty of information already available detailing the technical requirements for implementing Office 365, including necessary software, instructions for directory synchronization, troubleshooting tips, and blog postings. There is also a discussion forum and a special Web portal for Office 365 transitions.
The abundance of BPOS-to-Office 365 information could be indicative that the migration process may turn out complex, especially for smaller companies with few or no IT employees and little or no resources to hire outside help, said Rebecca Wettemann, a Nucleus Research analyst.
"If you need an entire website dedicated to explaining to people how you transition to Office 365, you've made things pretty complicated for the customer," she said.
Since Office 365 will provide a variety of critical functions, including e-mail, the stakes are high.
"The process doesn't seem straight-forward. Microsoft is relying on the customer to do some things that particularly small businesses may not be in a position to do successfully," she said. "This is e-mail. It's important. It's not something people can take casually, even if they're a small business."
In addition to the technical complexity, Wettemann is concerned about the cost of required software upgrades for Office 365, most notably the need to have Office 2007 SP2 or Office 2010 on users' desktops for hybrid deployments.
Office 365 doesn't work with Outlook 2003 either. "There's a pretty substantial base of Outlook 2003 users out there," industry analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research said.
Microsoft disputes the notion that implementing or transitioning to Office 365 will be complicated. "Office 365 is an easy-to-use cloud productivity service that new customers can set up with a few clicks," including small businesses, a Microsoft representative said via e-mail.
Also, the company points out that Office Web Apps -- the online version of Office that comes with most Office 365 versions -- doesn't require Office on the desktop to work. However, that scenario also means that end users can't move and synchronize files back and forth between their desktop Office client software and Office Web Apps on the cloud.
BPOS administrators don't have to worry about transferring account data. Microsoft will handle that in its data centers, the company said.
The key is advance planning, according to independent consultant Frank Romeo, who was hired by audio and video equipment vendor D&M Holdings to lead a project to migrate about 3,000 mailboxes from a variety of e-mail systems and consolidate them on a single BPOS domain.
"When you're going to do a migration like this, you have to do preparation work," he said, adding that a key element is setting up a well-structured Active Directory. D&M Holdings' plan is to upgrade from BPOS to Office 365 early next year.
Beyond the technical challenges of transitioning, customers shouldn't overlook the need to help end users get familiar with Office 365, which is billed as a BPOS upgrade but in reality features quite a few new components and functionality, Osterman said.
"Training issues need to be taken into consideration," he said. "Decision makers have to plan this carefully to help users adopt it."
With Office 365, customers face a variety of configuration options that range from a bare-bones, e-mail only version to a full-fledged edition that even comes with the on-premise version of Office Professional Plus 2010 delivered on a subscription model. In between are several other options, including one designed for small companies with 25 users or less.
Except for the e-mail only option, all others come with the online versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and Office, all of which contain a subset of the features of their on-premise 2010 versions, and include a financially-backed 99.9 percent uptime service level agreement.
By contrast, BPOS' applications are all based on the 2007 versions of Exchange and SharePoint. Instead of Lync Online, it has its predecessor, Office Communications Online, and it doesn't have Office productivity applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Regardless of which version of Office 365 is chosen, some basic desktop requirements include upgrading from Internet Explorer 6 browsers. In addition, Windows PCs should have at least Windows XP SP3, Windows Vista SP2 or Windows 7. For desktop interaction with the cloud-based Lync Online, Office 365 also requires the new Lync 2010 desktop client, the next version of Office Communicator 2007 R2. Lync provides instant messaging and online meetings, including audio and video conferencing.
Customers with a local Active Directory that they want to synchronize with their Office 365 directory also must make sure that they have the required versions of a variety of server-side software for products like Windows Server, .Net Framework and Windows Installer.
Then they must configure the end user log-in process. Administrators can set up a single sign-on system using Active Directory Federation Services 2.0, or else they can opt for what Microsoft calls "Managed Identity" in which users have separate credentials for the suite. However, the latter option forces end users to have separate log-in credentials for their online and on-premise accounts.
Administrators also should be aware that once Microsoft begins migrating their companies' accounts from BPOS to Office 365, the process likely takes 48 hours, during which time administrators are locked out of the management console and SharePoint Online items can be viewed but not edited.
In addition, BPOS settings for mailbox retention policies, Exchange ActiveSync and Outlook Web App all need to be re-configured in Office 365.
There are also specific software requirements for Linux and Mac OS computers, as well as for non-Microsoft browsers like Firefox, Chrome and Safari.
For now, interest in Office 365 isn't massive, so it will be interesting to see how much demand Office 365 generates in its first month on the market, Osterman said.
"I don't see a huge groundswell of interest. But I think it will be successful," he said.
BPOS customers who implement Office 365 successfully will get substantial improvements, Osterman said. "There are lots of advantages to it," he said.
Not only are the applications, like Exchange and SharePoint, based on the 2010 versions of the products, but with Lync, Office 365 is much more focused on unified communications than BPOS, according to Osterman.
D&M Holdings is looking forward in particular to using the 2010 version of SharePoint Online, and to the benefits of having the applications maintained on the back-end by Microsoft. "You no longer have to worry about what version people are on, nor about the updates," Romeo said.
What remains to be seen is how complicated -- or not -- BPOS customers will find the process of migrating to Office 365, a reality they will have to face at some point in the next 12 months.