Systems Engineer trapped on Earth...

To 365 Or Not To 365?

cloudy   Today the word “cloud” is everywhere, and is used to describe sites, services, and software that are typically provided over the internet. Although the term is new, the concept definitely isn’t. It’s a marketing gimmick and we’ve heard the same thing before, it’s just in a new package now.

Email, web sites, and services people use on the web every day are accessed in the cloud, and we’ve been doing it for more than a decade. Modern business infrastructure is really a private cloud and always has been, and there have been companies operating on a public cloud (ie; the internet) since the 1990s. In fact, most of the concepts that drive the cloud were originally used in the early days before the client/server model caused a technological shift.

So, the cloud isn’t anything new. It’s an abstract buzzword meant to be associated with all things internet. There are some advantages to using it, and some services have compelling functionality or niche focus. The problem is the cloud isn’t always what it’s been hyped to be, and this is more common for IT shops than most people think.

Using any cloud service or app is a mixed bag of pros and cons for IT. There are some services that make more sense in the cloud than others. For example, a ticketing system is a better candidate than a log aggregator or a password manager. It pays to think carefully about what should and shouldn’t be cloud based.

Microsoft touts the benefits of cloud based services with Office 365, including typical solutions like Lync, Exchange, SharePoint and the Office suite itself in a subscription based per-user model. It’s clear Microsoft’s strategy is a continual push for the cloud and mobile, changing the old ways that most IT pros have long been familiar with. As a result, from that perspective it’s hard to see Office 365 as being anything good, and here are the best reasons why.

It lacks accessibility to common administrative features that have been tools of the trade for decades. Things like being able to see info on inbound/outbound SMTP connections via Exchange protocol logs is invaluable, but you can’t do it in Office 365.

It’s not worth it if you have the in-house skills to run on-premise systems. There can be painful, sometimes crippling response times from support teams. Even the Premiere Support you have to pay extra for.  Something a skilled admin could fix in minutes on-premise can stretch out for days or weeks before resolution. Sometimes they’re minor problems that should never take long to fix.

You lose visibility into health and performance. The service dashboard is an excellent tool but if you don’t look at it, you don’t know there’s a problem. And for some mind boggling reason it doesn’t have the capability to email you what Microsoft posts there.

The systems aren’t dedicated. The platform is a shared environment, with all of the pitfalls that can come with.

Authentication in hybrid setups. With ADFS and/or DirSync users can authenticate to Office 365 resources with their domain accounts, but they have to login to Microsoft’s portal first, then ADFS. This adds an often confusing additional layer for users they don’t experience when accessing in-house applications.

Compatibility. Naturally there are parts of the 365 stack dependent on Microsoft’s own browser. Although IE 11 is a huge improvement over previous versions, the truth is not every user is doing it with Internet Explorer these days.

Licensing is now a recurring cost per user. Depending on your organization’s size, this could easily become a hefty fee. Conversely, many on-premise solutions are a one time cost.

Your data resides in remote facilities, and you have no control over the underlying systems. O365 is likely as secure as it can be, but your data is still somewhere out in the cloud. And anyone using Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint Online has lots of different data points residing on the platform.

Hybrid configs can be painful. For example, Lync hybrid support was only recently introduced. There were several things MS engineers hadn’t really tackled before when I implemented an on-premise Lync system earlier this year. There are also some troublesome bugs that are specific to a hybrid configuration, a sign of something that was probably rushed.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of one thing that really stands out either. When it works it works, but there are really no compelling bells and whistles. The short answer to the burning question of this literary rant is… Enterprise IT with the right skill sets should stick with the tried and true that will hum along, and don’t buy into the hype.