The hidden power of the Office 365 admin center

Don't let the initially simple interface fool you: Office 365's admin capabilities equal those of on-premises Exchange, SharePoint, and more

The hidden power of the Office 365 admin center

The Office 365 admin center is easy to use for both IT admins and non-IT portal administrators. Microsoft has made a point of putting all the high-end aspects of Office 365 administration (such as the billing, support, and basic user creation) front and center, while burying the in-the-trenches IT capability.

Oh, and Microsoft has transformed the ugly duckling that was the version 1.0 admin center into the more-polished swan that is the current version. Figure 1 shows the old admin center; Figure 2 shows the new one.

office 365 admin center fig 1

Figure 1: Office 365 admin center's first version clearly needed some sprucing up.

office 365 admin center fig 2

Figure 2: The current version of the Office 365 admin center is more attractive.

In the Office 365 admin center, you can do all your basic administration, and there are the links to help a non-IT user. For example, you can reset a password, check the health of your portals and features, and see how active your users are.

To a newbie, those features may seem to be all you can do. But as Figure 3 shows, you can click the Admin Centers link on the left side of the screen (all the way to the bottom) to get to the main Office 365 admin components, such as Exchange, Skype for Business, SharePoint, Yammer, Compliance, and (if you have a subscription) Azure Active Directory.

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Figure 3: The deeper administrative aspects of Office 365's admin center.

Having this level of access is one aspect of Office 365 that I really love, especially for Exchange. In all other online hosted Exchange environments, you have to use a limited front end to manage your mailboxes, and what you can do depends on whatever the hosting company exposes of its environment for you to manage.

But in Exchange Online, you use the same Exchange admin center that you use for on-premises Exchange 2013/2016. With the exception of disk and server management (which Exchange Online's admin center doesn't expose), all the configuration options you have on-premises are available online. You simply have to know those tools exist so that you can use them.

That's not to say every feature is exposed to the same degree. Microsoft is evolving the features' visibility, so you should recheck the Office 365 admin center from time to time to see what controls are visible where for Skype for Business, SharePoint, and so on.

But I guarantee, if you are an IT admin working with Office 365, you'll want to investigate each tool's admin center. For example, if you tap the Compliance option in the shown in Figure 3, you get the Security & Compliance admin center (shown in Figure 4).

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Figure 4: The Security & Compliance admin center.

The admin centers can tap into other admin centers. For example, if you click the Permissions option in the Security & Compliance admin center, you see a subset of role-based access control permission settings from the Exchange admin center. Likewise, clicking Security Policies lets you tap into some Exchange-related security settings (like antispam and antimalware settings) and settings for device security through Intune and MDM settings for Office 365.

The SharePoint admin center (see Figure 5) lets admins manage SharePoint the way I like to manage Exchange. Although it's not quite to the same degree as for a server farm, the SharePoint admin center provides site-collection controls. It will be familiar because it's the same UI as in an on-premises SharePoint environment.

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Figure 5: The SharePoint admin center.

Within the Skype for Business admin center, there are only basic configuration settings provided, but there is a Tools link provided toward troubleshooting tools like the Microsoft Remote Connectivity Analyzer and the Skype for Business Connectivity Analyzer to help root out problems that might hinder users from working with Skype on their desktop or mobile.

Beyond the direct access through the Office 365 admin center, you can use remote PowerShell to administer Office 365. That's important -- in some cases it's the only way to perform a task. One simple example is to increase the deleted-item retention time from 14 days to 30 days.

Another, more complex example is to attach a decrypted version of a rights-protected message to your journal report. Even with an on-premises version of Exchange you would use PowerShell to make that happen. In Exchange Online, you make the remote PowerShell connection and run the commands to ensure a clear-text copy of journaled messages (including any attachments protected by Active Directory Rights Management System) are journaled.

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