If you’ve not already started learning about the public cloud, then it’s time to act now.
While the days of installing servers and upgrading systems to newer versions are certainly far from numbered, these days many companies take a cloud-first approach, looking to see if providers can supply what their organizations need for either a cheaper price or with added benefits.
What is the public cloud?
First of all – let’s be clear about what we are talking about. We’re not talking about on-premises virtual infrastructure, like Hyper-V or VMware – we’re talking about public cloud solutions running at an almost unimaginable scale from companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, providing services that complement or even replace on-premises technologies. These are billed based on consumption, licensing, or usage, and might be the platform, infrastructure, or the software itself.
Secondly, it’s worth dispelling a few myths. Unhelpfully, some managed hosting companies call their offering a cloud service and this is very different from the types of offerings from larger public cloud providers. In most cases, these companies run your existing services (or a subset of them) in their datacentre and provide basic maintenance and remove your control.
The public cloud is quite different, as ultimately you remain in control of important aspects of the service and how it is configured.
With Office 365, a Software as a Service offering, you don’t manage the servers themselves; Microsoft manages when it is patched and upgraded and is also responsible for making it remain available. All the configuration – almost everything you do on a day to day basis when administering Exchange, for example -- is left to the organization. You need to configure Transport Rules, you need to manage Shared Mailboxes, you need to configure policies – effectively everything outside of server management remains your responsibility.
With the wider Microsoft Azure product, you have a number of offerings – for example, Virtual Machines provided in an Infrastructure as a Service model. This means that the actual physical hosts in the datacentres remain managed by Microsoft who is responsible for upgrading them and ensuring they are available, along with network connectivity to the edge of their network. Your organization remains responsible for designing the abstract layout of virtual machines, whether that is creating virtual networks, linking those networks back to the organization, ensuring that virtual machines are highly available across Microsoft’s datacentres, or of course, managing the virtual machines themselves.
Why does the public cloud matter?
So, you know what we’re talking about when we say public cloud, but why should that matter to you? Well, before we look at the technical aspects, there is something a bit more fundamental to understand first.
If the company you work for has already started to move to the cloud, then you might find some of that process a little unsettling. Microsoft might help you for Office 365 deployments using FastTrack Center mandating you do things a certain way, or you might find your employer is hiring consultants to make some of the key decisions. Now, some of that is normal with any project – getting someone experienced in to do the one-time stuff makes a lot of sense. It’s important for you to see it and to be involved, but sometimes it is just logical to get an expert who has been there and done it to go through some of the riskier stuff. But after they are gone, all of this is going to be for you to manage, and it’s also going to provide a bunch of additional opportunities.
What you really need to do now is figure out what it is that you are passionate about – what really lights your fire – and learn about it. Yes – you’ll need to understand the day-to-day stuff, but in reality, managing Exchange in the cloud isn’t too tough. It’s the good side of Exchange without the nightmare of having to rebuild a database availability group at 2AM on a Sunday morning. There are so many additional services available though that you now have the opportunity to look at what’s out there and to learn about something that really interests you.
In the old days, if you did think that a particular technology was really interesting, learning about it was tough. If you were lucky, you’d have access to a TechNet subscription and have a powerful desktop to build out some virtual machines to test out Exchange. Learning about Hyper-V, VMware, or building and testing features in Exchange like DAGs, Unified Messaging, or playing around with Skype for Business, have always been tougher, and generally require investment in a lab server or two.
Getting your own piece of the cloud
With Office 365, you can start learning about it in minutes with a trial without needing any additional hardware. You can play with all the features available without needing to spend any money; and at the end of the trial, you can either get a new trial, or add a single license to keep access to the full feature set in your lab. For all the Office 365 articles I write, I use trial tenants to build out my environment.
If you are looking to see what Azure can offer you, it’s very much the same. Azure offers a free trial with $200 of credit to use during the trial period. Because you only get charged for services in Azure when they are used – for example, during the time a virtual machine is actually switched on -- $200 of credit goes a long way. Individual virtual machines cost from around $13 when running continuously for a whole month. If you are running a virtual machine for a few hours at a time, then that drops to less than 2 cents per hour for a basic virtual machine. If you wanted to run a large complex lab with 4 x 8 core 14GB virtual machines for 6 hours, this will cost you less than $10 of credit. As you can see, the $200 of free credit goes quite a long way. If you choose to keep the Azure environment after the trial, those virtual machines (or other services) will only cost you while they are switched on. It’s possibly the most effective way to run a lab environment.
What technologies make sense for Exchange admins to explore?
If you are a diehard Exchange administrator, then you’ll naturally be drawn to Office 365 rather than Azure. Don’t ignore Azure though, as just like Windows Server and Active Directory, skills are a prerequisite for Exchange, Azure Active Directory is an essential skill for Office 365, and certain services – like Active Directory Federation Services -- can be run from Azure virtual machines if needed.
The natural evolution for many Exchange administrators though is to expand into the Unified Communications space, due to the close relationship between Exchange and Skype for Business. This relationship is solidified with Office 365, and you can use this as an opportunity to learn about some of the new Office 365 functionality. Take Cloud PBX, which allows you to move your legacy PBX system into the cloud. It’s an area that even experienced voice professionals are only just learning about, so if you’ve already got Office 365 experience through Exchange Online, then you are a step ahead.
If you are looking to remain within the Exchange-centric sphere, then take a look at Office 365 Groups. These are more than just traditional security or distribution groups – as well as holding the list of members, the group also has services attached. Right now, Groups is integrated into Exchange Online, OneDrive for Business, OneNote, Planner and PowerBI. Over time it will become intertwined into all Office 365 services – and its primary place of management is within Exchange Online.
If your organization uses mobile devices and you’ve some experience managing ActiveSync devices, then you might want to consider learning more about InTune. Part of Microsoft’s Enterprise Mobility Suite, InTune is the mobile device management service. It uses the same identity foundation as Azure and Office 365 and deeply integrates with Office 365 services. Just like Azure and Office 365, you can attach an InTune trial alongside your Office 365 or Azure trials and get to know it better.
Is that enough though?
Learning about cloud technologies on their own isn’t enough. Understanding these new technologies, getting hands on experience, reading guides on TechGenix sites, or maybe even watching the free Microsoft Virtual Academy courses will help you master the technology; but today’s IT pro needs to rise above simply knowing the right configuration settings to apply.
In the world of the public cloud, where services are charged by the user rather than as one-off investments, ensuring that the technology is widely adopted is key. These means that you need to not only keep abreast of developments in the cloud services by closely following roadmaps and keeping an eye on your organization’s tenant, but you’ve also got to interpret what’s coming and looking to see how it should be implemented. You need to learn how to become an evangelist within your own employer. That doesn’t mean just letting people know that you’ve got these services, but after understanding what is important to the business, helping promote the right new features as they come along. To give a fairly simple example, you might implement Office 365 for Exchange Online and the new version of Office Pro Plus. Soon after adoption, though, you might see that Skype for Business will help reduce costs associated with scheduling and traveling to meetings, or replace a third-party web meeting service. It’s an ideal opportunity to learn more about what the business really needs out of Skype for Business and help put together a solution, focused primarily on the user experience.
If you’ve so far struggled to make that kind of change internally, then a good starting point could be to attend user groups where you can meet, share experiences with, and learn from like-minded professionals. As you learn from doing it for your organization, sharing your experiences at user groups helps improve your presentation skills as well, so it’s a win-win.
Being an IT pro in 2016 certainly isn’t easy, but then again it never was, and never should be. If it is, you are not being challenged. The good news is, with the cloud, the barrier to learning about new technologies has never been lower. Go and find your passion.