A new version of Office is more complicated for business than it used to be. It includes much more than familiar software like Word and Excel, extending to Office servers (Exchange, Lync, SharePoint and services that run on the latter like Excel Services, Project Services and the Office Web Apps).
There are also hosted versions of these services, provided through third parties and Microsoft itself, as with Office 365. (From March you will also be able to buy Office 365 through Microsoft partners).
Office 365 now includes hosted online services for the Office servers (which also give you the Office Web Apps and Outlook Web App) and subscription licences to the Office desktop software. The consumer Office 365 Home Premium service launched earlier this month and the different business subscription plans become available this week, along with the 2013 versions of Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online.
Office 365 Small Business Premium includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access, Publisher and Lync, with a subscription licence for each user to run them on up to five PCs or Macs at once. You get regular updates and new features for the software and the Office on Demand option lets users download Office to any PC they’re using temporarily.
The Office services are similar to existing small business plans for Office 365: Lync Online for audio and HD video conferencing; SharePoint Online for document sharing, collaboration and hosting a public website; plus Exchange Online with a 25GB mailbox for each user and SkyDrive Plus storage (through SharePoint Online).
Office 365 ProPlus (short for Professional Plus), is aimed at small to midsized businesses (10-250 employees) and includes the Office ProPlus versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access, Publisher and Lync plus InfoPath (which provides features like PowerPivot and consistency checking in Excel, as well as automated deployment tools).
You get the same Exchange, SharePoint and SkyDrive Plus quotas as Small Business Premium, but it also has integration with on-premise Active Directory for the SharePoint, Lync and Exchange Online services and Exchange Online archiving.
For larger companies, Office 365 Enterprise has the full Office 2013 set of features in both the desktop software and SharePoint, Lync and Exchange Online services, like public folders, legal hold, data loss prevention and rights management to protect confidential information as well as archiving.
If you’re already using Office 365 on an enterprise plan (or the simpler kiosk plans for users who don’t create content), the differences between the E1 and E2 plans (and the K1 and K2 plans) go away, so users can edit documents in Office Web Apps in all plans.
Enterprise customers will get Yammer integration and be able to purchase the Project Online service when they’re available later in the year.
Storage and sharing
It can be easy to get confused about Office 365, as it covers the new consumer Office 2013 subscriptions that don’t include Exchange, SharePoint and Lync Online, the existing hosted services that don’t come with Office licences, and the new business plans that include both hosted services and Office software subscriptions. So it’s worth being clear about the difference between SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro, as well as the different ways Office 365 lets you share files.
SkyDrive is Microsoft’s cloud storage service, which gives users 7GB of free storage with the option to purchase more, plus Office Web Apps.
The latter comes with the three business Office 365 plans as well (plus the Outlook Web Access service from Exchange Online), as part of SharePoint Online, but the documents your users create with them are not stored in the free SkyDrive service. Instead they’re stored either in SharePoint document libraries or in the 7GB of personal storage Office 365 users get in SkyDrive Pro.
SharePoint Online includes 10GB of secure cloud storage with an extra 500MB per user, and you can buy up to 25TB of storage in total. You can choose how this tenant storage is allocated between users and control how they use it – like forcing them to encrypt confidential documents using rights management policies.
SkyDrive Pro storage is part of SharePoint and you can apply policies to it in the same way, but you can’t change the amount of storage allocated to each user; it’s always 7GB each and you can’t yet buy more for them.
SkyDrive Pro, which is confusingly labelled SkyDrive in the Office 365 portal to fit on the ribbon, lets users store their own working documents privately. If you’re familiar with SharePoint, you can think of it like the storage in a My Site – and documents can still have workflows or be checked in and out.
Users can also share documents with specific people – inside or outside the company – by clicking the three dots next to the file name to see the properties and preview pane for the file and choosing Share.
They can choose whether each person they invite can edit or just view the document and whether or not they need they need to sign in (you can choose whether to enforce sign in globally). It’s very clear if a document is shared and who with, and you can stop sharing a document at any point.
It’s easy to share documents and keep track of sharing in SkyDrive Pro
If you want to share a document in SkyDrive Pro with everyone (including those to whom you give the URL of your SkyDrive Pro), you can move it into the Shared with Everyone folder by default.
If you only want to make it available to a specific group of people, you can put a document into the library for a Team Site instead. It uses the SharePoint tenant storage and you can get those files onto a PC by opening them from SharePoint Online, opening the document library in Explorer (from the ribbon on the SharePoint site) or syncing the document library as a list in Outlook.
Office 2013 applications like Word and Excel understand SkyDrive Pro as a location and it appears on the list of Open and Save locations under the Office 365 section (which uses your company name), along with any Team Sites you have access to.
You can also sync your own SkyDrive Pro documents to your PC. Just click the Sync button in the corner of your SkyDrive Pro page on Office 365; this sets up the SkyDrive Pro sync tool and puts SkyDrive Pro into Explorer as a favourite location. It works in the same way as the free SkyDrive sync tool, and you can have both of them on your PC without conflicts.
Using the SkyDrive Pro sync tool has another advantage; it doesn’t have the 250Mb upload limit that’s in SharePoint Online. So if you have a large video or a big database for SkyDrive, you can sync files that are as large as 2GB through the sync tool.
Although the range of storage and sharing options in Office 365 sound confusing, in practice they make a lot of sense. Users get the option to stick to SharePoint shared document libraries or use something that looks like popular free cloud storage services – but that gives you control and security.
Sharing documents is simple and users can easily collaborate (they can even edit the same document at once, in the Office desktop applications or the Office Web Apps) but again, you have tools to control it.
Office 365 portal
Unlike the MMC snap-ins and System Center management packs you might use to administer Exchange on your own server, all the administration for Office 365 is done in the browser.
Exchange 2010 had its own web portal nested inside the admin portal for Office 365, which wasn’t always easy to navigate. Small business accounts used a simplified control panel that could only deal with a limited number of objects and covered Exchange, Lync and SharePoint Online, while enterprise accounts got the more complex Exchange 2010 web admin interface, which felt shoehorned in.
Now all accounts get the same simple interface for everything from managing Office 365 licences to enabling Lync federation to setting up Exchange mail routing flows. It’s all logically arranged and with the simple options presented first so they’re easy for administrators who are not experts.
If you know what you’re doing, you can click through to get all the extra properties and settings to work with, and can even use PowerShell to manage your Office 365 services. But a smaller company can set up everything they need without getting out of its depth.
The admin portal itself has a clean new look (matching the Office 2013 desktop interfaces) that’s far easier to navigate.
Instead of 15 identical orange or blue headings and links in three columns, the opening page is a dashboard with clearly organised links to the different tools and a colour-coded overview of all the Office 365 services (including problems and planned maintenance). There’s a list of admin shortcuts for the most common tasks at the side of the page, and usefully the top links are for resetting passwords and adding new users.
Click (or tap – the Office 365 portal works well on a touchscreen) on the Admin heading at the top of the page to open the separate portals for Exchange, Lync and SharePoint, which all have the same consistent interface style. You can open them from anywhere on the site, without having to go back to the main admin portal and find the right link again.
Getting started is fast; provisioning Exchange, Lync and SharePoint Online for a 25-user Enterprise account took less than five minutes (and we were able to work with the rest of the portal settings while that was going on).
You can set up users by connecting to your on-premise Active Directory, by importing details (from a .CSV file, for example) or by creating users one at a time (most suited to a small business); and when you create individual users you can assign licences as you go. If you want to pick and choose who gets which features, you can allocate Office 2013 software licences, Lync, Office Web Apps, SharePoint and Exchange licences to users individually.
Managing Exchange Online.
With Exchange 2013, Outlook Web Access (the webmail service) looks exactly the same as Outlook 2013 and even supports offline access to email (on Windows RT as well as Windows browsers). It’s also what the Exchange Online admin centre is built on, and you can just mark a user as an administrator. This removes the need for an Exchange mailbox to administer Exchange, so you don’t have to waste a mail licence and storage quota on a shared mail admin account.
This has the same clean, well organised interface as the rest of the new Office 365. Tools are grouped into the right categories and the most useful and important options are on the main page of the admin centre, so you can manage ActiveSync, Outlook Web Access and archiving quickly.
Similarly, important options like creating, editing and deleting users and objects are always visible on the toolbar. More advanced commands are also accessible but they’re on the More menu (indicated by the same three dots using in SkyDrive Pro and elsewhere in the interface) where novice administrators won’t click them by accident.
As with the previous version, you can also give different administrators limited permissions; if someone only needs to use the compliance or discovery tools, they won’t get access to mail flow and user settings.
There’s no longer a separate admin portal for managing the anti-spam and malware features (these are still substantially the same but you manage them through Exchange Online).
Other previously complex tasks, like setting up federation to make free/busy times in user calendars visible or setting up shared mailboxes for call centres, are far simpler and you are guided through important steps (like giving users the right permissions to access the shared mailbox.
Public folders return in Exchange 2013 by popular demand. Like everything else in the new Exchange Online, they’re simple to set up with helpful error messages that make clear what you’ve done wrong and how to fix it.
There’s also a helpful balance between enforcing policy and users getting work done. The data loss prevention tools in the enterprise version of Exchange Online let you set up rules to stop people emailing personal information like credit card numbers (with a smart check that uses the same algorithm used to issue credit card numbers, rather than just looking for any 16 numbers in a row).
But users can also override most of these policy warnings by filling in an explanation and confirming they know the message will be logged. The information can be encrypted to keep it safe until the manager approves.
The tips reminding users of the policy only show up in Outlook 2013 and Outlook Web Access. But if you send a message from your smartphone that breaks a policy, the rule can forward the message to your manager or mail you to confirm that you meant to break the policy.
Managing Lync Online.
The new Lync admin centre has the same new, consistent interface. This is considerably less chatty and cluttered than the old Lync Online control panel; the explanations are still there but as links to help pages (highlighted as Learn More on almost every screen).
Instead of buttons that open pop-up dialogues, there are checkboxes and dropdown lists, and the options have been organised rather more coherently.
There’s only one extra option in the control panel, to add your own boilerplate to meeting invitations. You can include your company logo, links to support, any legal terms and conditions that apply to meetings, or a few lines of text you want included in all invitations.
The major changes to the new version of Lync are in the new Lync clients, which are included in all the Office 365 plans. Features include tabbed conversations, a gallery view of everyone in a video conference, the ability to mute participants before they even dial in, and integrated OneNote notebooks.
We’re still waiting for closer Skype integration. Lync Online is an impressive HD videoconferencing system with excellent tools for online meetings, but it still falls short of a full unified communications system if you need PBX integration.
Managing SharePoint Online.
We’ve already looked at SharePoint Online 2013, that was based on the preview version that’s been available on Office 365. he main differences are bug fixes for upgrade and migration issues; the interface and features are the same.
With new social and search features and much friendlier storage and sharing tools plus a whole new way of building apps that work with SharePoint, this is the most accessible release of Microsoft’s document storage and collaboration system yet.
Cloud integration and subscription licensing make Office 2013 is a landmark release for Microsoft. Also, it’s the first upgrade to the servers behind the Office 365 services.
The new Office 365 plans are a simple and cost effective way to get access to new features in desktop Office 2013 and new versions of Office servers, without the work of running your own servers.
The new administration interface makes the service easier to work with, whatever your level of expertise, and SharePoint and Exchange Online have major new features.
Existing Office 365 users have to wait for Microsoft to schedule upgrades to their accounts (and some early migrations have caused issues with SharePoint online). Also, Microsoft still has to prove it can offer meaningful improvements on a regular basis, like taking advantage of Skype and Yammer inside Office 365
For smaller companies that will appreciate the new, simpler interface, Office 365 is a reliable service that integrates email, document sharing and conferencing almost seamlessly with the new desktop versions of the Office software. It also has powerful options for larger businesses.
The savings from putting commodity IT in the cloud and still being able to integrate with on-premise servers through Active Directory and hybrid Exchange deployments could make the combined subscriptions for server and desktop products very attractive.
By Mary Branscombe, TechRadar