Migrating to Microsoft's Office 365 from an on-premises Office suite requires help, experts say, in order to navigate the vagaries of moving apps smoothly to the cloud, a task made more challenging if the transition is from alternatives such as GroupWise and Lotus SmartSuite.
Microsoft itself recommends in certain cases either hiring consultants or buying third-party tools to help the transition to Office 365, but some experts are more emphatic.
"Microsoft clients need service providers to help them take advantage of the cloud," says Forrester analyst T.J. Keitt in his report "Market Overview: Microsoft Office 365 Implementation Partner Ecosystem". "Partners are essential to Office 365..."
Like any migration, moving to Office 365 software as a service is complicated and full of considerations that may not be readily apparent. The issue is not that IT staff can't do the job alone, it's that help from someone who has done it before can be valuable, says Herb Hogue, senior vice president of professional services and engineering for En Pointe Technologies, which does Office 365 migration consulting. "A lot of customers tried to do it on their own unsuccessfully. They only do it one time, and we do it all the time," he says.
Issues include potential loss of functionality, redundancy, security, archiving, total costs, licensing and authentication, experts say. "You shouldn't move fully to Office 365," says Gartner analyst Guy Creese in a webinar.
"It isn't fully baked. However, parts of it are quite good," Creese says: Exchange Online is close to Exchange Server. SharePoint Online is fine for basic sites but not complex sites. Lync Online has a feature deficit vs. Lync Server. Yammer is cloud only, but is stronger than SharePoint social add-on.
Many if not most businesses choose Exchange Online as the first app in Office 365 they adopt, so many concerns about Office 365 migrations focus on the email platform. Hybrid deployments that involve a mix of on-premises Exchange servers and Office 365 are the most challenging, says Mack Ratcliffe, the SaaS practice lead at Softchoice.
Hybrid could be a temporary architecture as businesses move to the service, but it could also be a way to address business continuity, says Orlando Scott-Crowley, Mimecast director of technology marketing. If Office 365 suffers an outage as it did recently, business can carry on as close to normal as possible. This would likely rely on a deployment of on-premise Office Servers plus Office 365 in concert with on-site or third-party archiving, he says. Businesses need what he calls mailbox freedom to move from on premises to the cloud and back again as needed.
Doing that requires strict attention to Active Directory, which will need to be extended to the cloud and configured for a multi-domain architecture, says Hogue.
Identity can be a problem with Active Directory deployed behind the firewall, but Office 365 extends the Active Directory user store to the cloud via federation. Microsoft has federation tools, as do third parties that can set up a hybrid identity management environment, says Ratcliffe.
Active Directory can be coordinated with third-party tools to automate transitions. For example Bit Titan's Desktop Deployment tool along with Active Directory rules can reconfigure laptops automatically when they log on so they connect to Office 365 accounts. This can be done either through emails to end users or via Active Directory group policies. Users are prompted to click on a link and switch their profiles.
Microsoft has specific system requirements for Office 365 that will require many organizations to update desktop software and correct any Active Directory issues, Forrester notes.
Consultants can also offer strategic advice looking forward beyond an Office 365 migration, Ratcliffe says. Identity federation may be important especially if an organization adopts other SaaS applications later and wants to maintain a single sign-on for users. It may make sense to sign up with a cloud-based federated ID management service that has pre-built connectors to popular SaaS services, making federation easier over time, he says.
An important non-technical aspect on which consultants can help is licensing. Licensing moves from two licenses -- for clients and servers -- to one user subscription license for Office 365, the price of which may go up over time, Creese says. It may take months to negotiate the transfer of one kind of license to another and it's not easy.
Licensing requires a careful total cost of ownership analysis, Hogue says. Transitioning perpetual Windows and Exchange licenses to Office 365 service licenses for half a business's users, for example, can be complex. The costs and potential savings are not trivial. As a rule Office 365 winds up being less expensive by virtue of retiring assets, management costs and paying for data-center space.
Many consultants amass expertise in many areas that can affect Office 365 migrations, says Keitt, and businesses should research what each offers to find a good fit. With a larger scope of services, these consulting houses hope to become long-term partners with their customers, helping to formulate and implement strategic plans.
"Every Microsoft partner can perform basic migrations to its cloud," he says in his report. "So, where these firms drive differentiation is on proprietary tools and methodologies in the extended cloud migration process. This can include unique assessment techniques, strategic consulting services and application development expertise."
Overall, businesses are becoming more comfortable in hiring consultants to plan migration to SaaS such as Office 365. In 2012, Forrester found that 19% of IT executives and IT decision makers surveyed hired consultants, and 26% said they hired consultants to actually implement the deployment of those services. In 2013 those numbers had jumped dramatically, with 41% hiring consultants for planning and 40% for deployment.
There are many reasons for seeking help that include the complexity of the task but go beyond that to long-term planning, Keitt says.
"Organizations considering Office 365 are often also evaluating cloud applications for other workloads, like customer relationship management," according to Keitt's report. "A provider that can bill, manage and support multiple cloud environments alongside Office 365 can be invaluable."
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