Review: Office 365 turns up the heat

Latest blend of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync servers in the cloud combines an excellent feature set with easier setup and management

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Companies also get SharePoint Online, which includes custom design for basic Web presence and team sites along with new social features courtesy of the Yammer acquisition. Then there's Exchange Online, covering 25GB per user, Active Directory sync, and a surprising number of security and compliance features, including data loss prevention filters and vastly improved e-discovery capabilities. Finally, Lync Online provides presence management, voice and HD videoconferencing, live document sharing, and the ability to sync Lync with certain VoIP phones. Basically, the online servers deliver all the features you're most likely using from your on-premises servers, but in a simpler format at the cost of $12.50 or $15 per user per month.

For companies that would prefer to step into the cloud rather than leap, Office 365 does a good job of bridging the gap between on-premises and cloud deployments. IT admins can run any app or server either in the cloud or on-premises with users none the wiser (probably). If your users are critically dependent on only Word or Excel, for example, you could install those locally while sharing files with SharePoint Online, running Exchange locally or in a hybrid deployment (with one console to manage both), and using Outlook on the Web -- whatever works for the company.

Second, you don't have to upgrade to Office 2013 from Office 2010 in one fell swoop. You can run those apps side by side and upgrade for good when users are ready. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. When we tried running Office 2010 and Office 2013 on the same system, PowerPoint 2010 refused to open files after PowerPoint 2013 was installed. The rest of the apps worked fine, but we've heard of similar problems plaguing other Office applications. Microsoft has fix-it documentation for this, but the workaround didn't work for us.

Office 365 admin center
IT admins logging into Office 365 will first see the admin center. This is the IT management hub where you can access all your day-to-day tools, health monitoring, and reporting.

Easy administration (for real admins)
For the most part, Office 365 admins will live in a single administration portal, which combines all the management tools you need for the Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync servers, as well as all the basic user-oriented tools. You configure users, mailboxes, site settings, downloads, and more from a single, Web-based GUI. Plus, you can monitor service health and maintenance activities with an easy-to-read dashboard and customizable reports.

Log in to the admin portal and you get a navigation bar across the top that carries links to every management service available and a side column with other IT resources. Setup is where IT folks may get extra Warcraft time, especially if you follow the basic setup option, which is what most small businesses will use. (There's a custom installation process for midsize companies with more sophisticated arrangements.) For the more basic needs, Microsoft has done a good job of simplifying all the steps -- everything from setting up a domain, mailboxes with DNS, and user access to files and apps -- to take you from home-based to cloud-based. The plentiful online help includes a community tab with a search feature that takes you directly to TechNet articles or community comments addressing your issue.

We won't walk through every setup step in this review, but one example is transferring or creating your domain. First you name it, either a new one or your existing domain; this includes a one-step process for domain registry services to transfer your domain records to Office 365 if your service is on the list. If it's not, there's a step-by-step guide for other services.

Office 365 basic setup wizard
Although a custom setup procedure is available, most businesses will default to the basic setup option (above). This is an easy, step-by-step guide to configuring Office 365 and syncing it back to your current network. Basic setup will even walk you through domain registration or migration (below).
Office 365 Active Directory synchronization
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