Air turbulence when piloting Office 365 to the cloud

My ears always tingle when I hear stories from someone down in the mucky trenches of IT who has been piloting a new solution they’re hoping to eventually roll out across their organization. Migrations are never simple, and migrations from conventional or traditional on-premises environments to the cloud can be challenging, especially for large organizations that have thousands of users, hundreds of line-of-business applications, and dozens of different data repositories. Recently a colleague in Germany shared with me some of the struggles his own organization has been going through in adding Office 365 and SharePoint Online into the mix of their existing Office 2013 infrastructure. Martin Urwaleck has been working for a German retail company in different IT positions for 14 years and is a prime example of a technician who has gone into management. Let’s hold our ear against the door and listen as Martin shares some of the problems his team experienced as they implemented their pilot of migrating Office 365 to the cloud and how they resolved these issues.

Office 365 to the cloud — through the back door

Office 365 to the cloudLet’s face it: Microsoft Office for most users consists of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Only a few recognize the collaboration features within, and even fewer use them. Office 365 can change that.

Office 2013 is set as a standard software in many companies, licensing is computer-based without a support contract, so there are basically no recurring costs. From a license perspective, it’s impossible to justify the costs for an Office 365 to the cloud migration — even with the argument of user-based licensing and better planning due to the nature of subscriptions. Office 2013 is running perfectly well for many companies and Office 2016 offers no features to them worth the change (many consider it just more eye candy).

Your view might change. Consider the current trend to borderless networks (Cisco is using that term for years) — a lot of corporate services are already available when connected to the Internet regardless of the device. Use your personal computer, your company computer, your mobile phone for accessing Outlook, Skype For Business, the Web (via Web Proxy on your corporate computer). The only thing a VPN tunnel is necessary for is access to the internal data and internal services. Let’s focus on internal data. SharePoint Online could be the platform of the future as it’s accessible internally and externally as well. Introduction of it is another story — keep in mind that for such projects you only have one shot. Evaluation, testing, and piloting are a must. Think about the support of an external consultant — you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The idea of a test and pilot is to see how users adopt innovative ways to communicate and collaborate with tools like Microsoft Teams and to look for added values that might justify switching to O365.

Office 365 to the cloud

Migrating Office 365 to the cloud needs some preliminary steps before starting a pilot. The internal Active Directory (AD) has to be connected to the Azure Directory. If you are not EU-based it’s rather easy. However, for European countries, be aware of data protection laws (and they are getting even tougher in May). I see two topics to clarify for testing: user data protection and location of data (this is company-dependent; some require that their data has to stay inside the EU). The former is relatively easy to handle — your data protection officer has to step in and define the dos and don’ts (possibly together with your consultants). However, data protection is not as easy as it sounds: Even an email address in the form [email protected] can be considered as personal data and therefore protected — so make sure you have all approvals from your data protection officer before you start your AD replication. The latter is the harder point: If you stage your pilot with evaluation licenses from Microsoft, you don’t have a formal contract between Microsoft and your company. That means Microsoft doesn’t guarantee the location of your data. If your data has to stay inside the EU this might be a problem (but you could try to get an informal agreement with Microsoft for the testing period on that).

Another challenge

Distribution of the software can be another challenge. If you are using SCCM for desktop management and package everything for the pilot, be ready for a surprise. Microsoft Teams is missing. And that doesn’t matter. Microsoft Teams is installed in the user context — so everyone can install a running version of Teams without IT. You can include Teams into your SCCM distribution, but the application needs constant updating — just like an app on your mobile. Lesson learned: We are approaching a new kind of application that will run on your company equipment without the consent of the IT department. You cannot avoid it so you have to find a way to manage it — currently, I have no idea. Finally, it’s the users’ revenge on the system administrators.

An essential part of introducing O365 is the use of Microsoft OneDrive for Business, a concept of storing and sharing information very different from the drive mappings users are used to. And experience tells they do a lot of mapping. Users can handle that change pretty easily. Real trouble can come from users who had used Microsoft OneDrive before. Now they have two accounts to connect to different OneDrives — and normally start using both. That doesn’t work well. Especially heavy OneNote users can run into trouble when they lose track on what notebook is on what OneDrive.

As I’m writing this using O365, the current paragraph is written with Word Online, sitting at home at my private PC. As long as the document is available in OneDrive for Business I can access it on nearly any device. But that’s also the catch. Imagine the conventional way of storing data — data is sitting on drives with drive letters in rather complex directory structures. All this is gone. Shared data resides on SharePoint, private data on OneDrive for Business. This has some consequences. It’s impossible to move existing data to SharePoint in large organizations, and it doesn’t make sense on a lot of existing data tombs. The idea of SharePoint storage has to get through. The organization of data is not necessarily bound to an org chart.

More than Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

The list of Microsoft services when using SharePoint Online consists of 27 entries — a lot more than Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint you are used to. Some of them are only useful if your work is team-oriented, which is a fundamental change for most users. Many of them are working in different contexts in parallel, they are members of different teams. Lots of data has to be duplicated (especially in Outlook) before to keep everyone in the (data) loop. It’s much easier in the new environment to have all relevant data for one team in one place. The challenge during the Office 365 to the cloud pilot is that you always have to migrate a whole team, otherwise you can’t fully realize the benefits of the new services.

It’s necessary to constantly review and readjust the pilot before migrating Office 365 to the cloud. Not all features work with all companies. You have to find the right ones and keep improving them. When you move to the new paradigm with tools like Microsoft Teams you are building a corporatewide communication platform. If the rumor of Skype for Business-integration into Microsoft Teams is true, then you have one central application you can run your collaboration and communication on, including data.

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