Why switch from Exchange to Office 365?

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Use the Office 365 service to eliminate deployment and maintenance hassles

NOTE: Office 365 Exchange plans are detailed here.

I recently received a call from a California library with about 15 employees; they had a problem connecting to their on-premise Exchange environment. After a few questions, I determined it was a brand-new installation of Exchange, and there were connectivity problems through Outlook Web App involving certificates, as well as ActiveSync issues. What started as a simple pro bono assist turned into hours of troubleshooting to see where Exchange was improperly set up. It’s clear that these small-business IT guys don’t have the training to deploy a system as complex as Exchange.

At some point I asked the library head, “Why didn’t you go with a hosted solution, like Office 365?” He’d never heard of it. That didn’t surprise me, but I wondered if his IT admin had known of it or understood how it would’ve saved money on new hardware and software, along with the frustration that goes along with it. This incident marks the third time I’ve experienced such Exchange drama and Office 365 ignorance in just the past week.

Unfortunately, the Office 365 name itself is partially to blame for the confusion over what it can do and for the service’s obscurity in buyers’ minds. The only decision worse than calling Microsoft’s hosted Exchange email, SharePoint collaboration, and Lync unified communications servers “Office 365” was naming its predecessor “Business Productivity Online Suite” (BPOS). What’s in a name? Simply put, if you call it “Office whatever,” people get confused because they think it means the Office productivity suite. In fact, I’m constantly asked about the cool new version of Office and whether I like it. I have to explain there isn’t a new version beyond Office 2010, and Office 365 is a hosted service. I swear I think people still don’t believe me when they walk away.

It’s imperative for small businesses to understand the value and benefits of a hosted Exchange service. Yes, you give up administrative control to a great degree, depending on the service offering. But you also forgo a great deal of administrative headaches. Disaster recovery, storage, and ensuring high availability are no longer your concern. In the case of Office 365, you getExchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and Lync 2010 without having to worry about the server infrastructure for any of these offerings.

We all know that email is mission-critical for every business. But unless you want to make an on-premise IT department part of your core competency in your business (I strongly suspect most small businesses don’t), you need to look at a way to outsource the servers and administration of certain functions.

Granted, you may want to have an on-premise domain controller and file and print services; if so, that will lead you to Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2011, a product I heartily endorse. But using SBS for those purposes doesn’t mean you can’t use Office 365 — you can and probably should. The bottom line is that unless you absolutely need your Exchange server on-premise (for data security), there is no reason for a small business to deploy Exchange on-premise.

I recommend Office 365, although there are other hosted servces available as well, such as Google Apps. The point is to have someone else do the hardware admin and maintenance — I say that as a certified Exchange MVP. In fact, when my company ClipTraining.com needed to get email up and running, we deployed the hosted BPOS service (which we’re upgradiing to Office 365 this month) instead of deploying Exchange on-premise. With Office 365, I like that I can use the online administrative dashboard or, when I need more control, the familiar (to experienced admins, at least) Exchange Control Panel. For example, the standard dashboard Nlets you create a mailbox, set up quotas, and cover other basics, whereas the control panel lets me establish roles, configure rules, and much more.

Office 365 (or Google Apps) also makes sense if you’re a larger business or one that has and wants to keep on-premise Exchange. We see reports of many lage companies and government agencies deploying Google Apps, for example. Both Office 365 and the hosted Exchange services let you create hybrid environments where some servers are on-premise and some are hosted. In fact, Exchange 2010 SP2’s new Hybrid Configuration Wizard reduces the steps required to establish a hybrid deployment of Exchange.

Ultimately, I wish companies would call me before they deploy an on-premise Exchange environment so that I can try to talk them out of it, save them some money, and help me avoid the frustration of hunting down the cause of their deployment woes. For many companies, Office 365 is simply a much better option.

This article, “Why small businesses should switch from Exchange to Office 365,” was originally published at InfoWorld.com.¬†