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NETsec contactSync Review

Product: NETsec contactSync Online

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If you have had the misfortune of needing to perform any sort of contact synchronization then you’ll have shared the pain of many other system administrators and consultants. In general, syncing contact records within your company or with another company is something that can become both time consuming to set up, but also very complex to maintain.

contactSync online is not a product that will solve every problem when it comes to contact and identity synchronization, nor does it aim to. However, it fills an interesting gap that makes the lives of users much easier, and makes sharing contacts with selected partners very simple.

The aim of contactSync is to automatically synchronize mailbox, mail user and contact records within your Global Address List (GAL) to Office 365 mailboxes as contact folders. Not only can you synchronize records from the GAL to your internal users, but you can also share groups of contacts with external partners.

This presents a number of immediate benefits to the end user experience, because contacts within the mailbox are critical on mobile devices to enable people to find one another on their company mobiles and recognise who is calling, and of course select people from mobile devices with ease.

In this review, we’re mindful that NETsec already have products that cover additional scenarios, such as GAL sync between organizations and on-premises contact synchronization. We’ve reviewed NETsec products in the past and found their GALsync product to be class-leading. In this context we’re hoping to see a product that is Office 365 focused and provides rapid return on investment.

Getting started with contactSync Online

Firstly, contactSync Online is a cloud-based product, published via Microsoft Azure and integrated with Office 365. ContactSync online makes full use of available Azure AD services to ensure that you don’t have to set up tooling yourself to be able to synchronize contacts within your tenant and outside your tenant.

This means the actual set up process to be able to make use of contactSync Online is simple – scarily so. When you sign in to contactSync Online for the first time as a Global Administrator for your tenant, it will request the ability to perform all the actions it needs. In one press of the Accept button you will grant it access to access all user mailboxes and read all of your Azure Active Directory. You’ll see the dialogue box you’re shown, just below:

Naturally, this means you will immediately be placing a great deal of faith in the contactSync product as the application itself (controlled by NETsec) will have a great deal of control over your Office 365 environment. This is necessary, of course, for it to be able to create and manage contacts within user mailboxes – but it’s surprising to see how in a cloud-based world it’s this easy to set up permissions that traditionally took a lot of work (and PowerShell commands) to configure.

The first point of call for me was the FAQ and privacy policies on the NETsec contactSync Online website. The FAQ states:

“We save all of the Data we require in Microsoft Azure SQL Databases in Europe. We currently use the Azure Datacenters in Amsterdam and Ireland. In the Future we plan to be able to offer you a selection of Datacenters so you can choose if you would prefer a purely “German” cloud. We try to save as little personal data as possible.”

This links to the Privacy Policy which states in further detail how data is stored in databases, and what data is stored in log files and for how long. These cover the common questions I would expect customers to ask and appears to be as good as other cloud tools (such as migration software) that I’ve seen used with government entities, financial services and other companies with sensitive data. And in such circumstances, detailed questions can be asked of NETsec. As the maker of GALsync - well known in enterprise environments, and a company bound by strong legislation in Europe, we don’t have any major concerns about the ability of the organization to meet even stringent data protection requirements, and the privacy policy already appears to be GDPR compliant.

Upon login, you are shown the interface to contactSync Online, and presented with the main homepage.

This is split up into four tabs:

  • Home – providing statistics and reporting on previous sync jobs
  • Shares – definitions for contacts you have defined as being shared
  • Import – shares that are being imported into user mailboxes
  • Licences – where you can see available licences, used licenses and request additional licences.

Our example scenarios

We’ll test contactSync Online in several common scenarios that we expect it to be useful in. These are Team Contacts, a Full GAL sync to some user’s mailboxes and using a contactSync Online share from a partner company.

Team Contacts

A great use case for contactSync Online is the ability that everyone in a team could have their colleagues automatically added to their personal contacts and kept up to date. You can imagine the usefulness for a new starter to join the organization and find their team are already present in their contacts!

In this example we’ll need to specify the share name and description, which will be visible in the contactSync Online user interface. We’ll then specify the shared contacts. This can either be specific contacts or users, or it can use the members of either a group or a dynamic distribution group defined within Office 365.

In this example, we’ll pick a standard distribution group with all team members:

After choosing Save, we will have completed the definition of a new share. However, at this time it won’t be populated into any user’s mailboxes. We’ll cover that a little later.

Full Global Address List

Another scenario I’ve encountered in the past, typically at small to medium size companies is where it’s desirable for some users to have a copy of the full Global Address List as a contacts folder on their mobile device. The reasons for this tend to be so that people can see who is calling them and easily find people from their mobile device. Whilst some mobile devices did support GAL lookup, this never has supported inbound calls and relied on an online search. For many organizations using the Outlook App on a mobile device, it simply is no longer a possibility.

Creating a share that supports this scenario is very straightforward. This is achieved by creating a new share, and choosing the Select all users option, and if GAL contacts are also desired (perhaps to include partners and customers) choosing the Select Global Address List (GAL) Contact option; then choosing Save:

Importing shared contacts to user mailboxes

After we’ve created our two sets of shared contacts, we’ll test the ability to import these into user mailboxes. This is achieved by starting at the Shares page, which provides a list of all the shared contact lists we have created:

We’ll then select the share we want to import. This provides a link we can either share (for example, if we wanted to share the contacts list with a partner organization) or we can choose to Open link in a new window. We’ll perform the latter:

Next we are presented with the new Import page. We can specify our Import Name, which will match the shared contacts list we are importing. Next we can then select the criteria for defining which users to import the shared contacts to, and specify the folder name to use. This, like the Shares can be based on a list of individual users, or we can use a Group or Dynamic Distribution Group:

You’ll see that this makes it relatively straightforward to set up scenarios like our team contacts and make them self-managing – as the Team’s group membership changes both the contacts shared and the users who will have the contacts imported will automatically be kept up to date. Or, in our scenario for the GAL, we may just add users that request a copy of the GAL to be kept offline.

If we are provided with a shared contacts link from a partner organization, importing this follows the same process. We select the link sent to us via email (or other means) and we can choose to enable the import and select the same criteria as we use for our own internal shared contacts lists:

After completing the import of our shared contacts lists these show in the Imports tab within the user interface. The green tick denotes that it has been successfully imported into user mailboxes:

Following this through to Outlook, we can select the People tab to see all of our contact folders. We can quickly confirm that all three folders have been created and populated correctly.

Overall functionality

NETsec contactSync is a product that works exactly as it’s expected and because NETsec already have very complete and well-known products that cover global address synchronization have not felt the need to add functionality into this product that it doesn’t need. It makes it trivial – almost too easy to configure and set up contact sharing and import in Office 365. Every Office 365 admin I’ve worked with, from smaller businesses to enterprise customers would be able to make use of this product and wouldn’t struggle to understand the UI or get it set up, configured and working.

In very large organizations, I can potentially see some issues with creating and managing very large numbers of shared contacts – for example for hundreds of teams wanting pre-populated contacts, but NETsec’s installable version of contactSync, version 7.2, might be a better fit there.

Certainly, for the normal use cases, I encounter are from customers who would welcome the simplicity and functionality of this product with open arms.

Alternatives

There are few alternative solutions available, some of which also include shared calendar synchronization (which is no longer required, thanks to recent improvements to Office 365). It’s also possible to perform this using PowerShell and Exchange Web Services scripting. I’ve written about this before, and due to complex troubleshooting wouldn’t recommend this approach.

Final Thoughts

This functionality has long been asked for by end-users and is lacking in both Exchange and Exchange Online. contactSync Online makes it easy to share contacts both within and outside the organization and is easy to set up, and straightforward to configure. During the review we had no issues with the product, and as an organization NETsec is well known and trusted – critical when you are putting faith in a third-party service to manage synchronization of user data.

TechGenix.com Rating 5/5