Running a Business in the Cloud – 3 Years In

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “Why I love Office 365”. It centered on the reasons that a SharePoint infrastructure consultant might want to outsource their SharePoint operations. After running our business in the cloud with it and a few other services for a few years now, I thought that I would revisit the topic and share a few observations and impressions.

In 2010 When UnlimitedViz became UnlimitedViz again (it’s a long story), we made a conscious decision to not invest in traditional “brick and mortar” infrastructure. Everyone working with us would work from their homes, hotel rooms, or wherever they happen to be. If fact, as I write this, I am sitting on a beach just outside of Playa Del Carmen in Mexico (it’s tough, I know). In order to do that, we would either need to set up our own IT infrastructure at a hosting center, or to rely on cloud services. We opted for the latter. At the time, it really was a leap of faith.

In the early days, we used BPOS – the original cloud offering from Microsoft that provided SharePoint, Exchange and Live Meeting. At the time, the SharePoint offering was extremely limited, so we primarily used Exchange for email, and that was about it. Because we’re a SharePoint shop, we also relied on local virtual machines for development and demonstration farms. We used to carry around a huge machine that was configured with several VMs to recreate a real world multi server infrastructure. To complete the picture, we chose Freshbooks for our time and expense entry service – it has served us well.

Eventually, we moved to Cloudshare for our demonstration environment to support our infrastructure, workflow and BI demonstrations. No more lugging around big hardware. The big concern there is what happens if there is no connectivity, or there is a problem with the platform? These continue to be concerns, although connection availability has become even better over time. Since hardware failure is also a risk, I consider that and the platform risk to be a wash.

When BPOS became Office 365, it became our core cloud platform. From our vantage point, Exchange continued to work well, we gained Lync, which we now use every day for instant messaging and conferencing, but the big bonus was that SharePoint Online became a viable option for us. The more recent update to the SharePoint 2013 feature set brought even more value.

In that spirit, I thought that I would list a few of the Office 365 features that we use on a regular basis, and how we use them.

Exchange Online – This is the service that we’ve used the longest. Secure, reliable email service with server side spam filtering that you can control. It never seems to go down. Email is probably the most sensitive feature to outages, and in the three years that we’ve been using it, we’ve noticed outages twice – only once during business hours, and in both cases, it was remedied quickly. It’s a track record that I don’t think that many on premises installations could match.

Lync Online – As mentioned above – we are a small, but highly distributed organization. Lync allows everyone to stay in touch, and to understand what each other is up to. Lync to Lync communication is great, and we are constantly using it to ask for assistance, or to demonstrate concepts quickly. Our cloud only implementation prevents us from taking advantage of call to landline capability, and video and voice quality isn’t quite as good as I’ve found with Skype (which I use instead of a landline). Hopefully these things will be addressed with future Skype integration.

We’ve federated Lync with Microsoft, which means that we can communicate just as easily with Microsoft employees, as well as with any other organizations that have federated their Lync environment. Of course, the Skype and MSN users are federated too, so Lync can be used to communicate with them as well.

Document Management – All of our corporate documentation goes into SharePoint. However, even though we always preach good document management practices, when it came to our own documents we weren’t always as disciplined as we should have been, and too many documents were sent via email, or stored locally. There are good reasons for this, as it wasn’t always simple to get the documents uploaded  into SharePoint. SkyDrive Pro has removed these barriers, making the process as simple as working with the file system. In fact, when your library is synchronized, you are working with the file system, and any third party tools can work with it seamlessly, whether on or offline.

Team One Notes – We have a wide variety of customers, with a wide variety of information to keep track of. this information isn’t well structured, so it’s a perfect problem for OneNote to solve. We have a single library with a single Notebook for each customer that is available to all of our consultants. OneNote replicates, so it isn’t necessary to be online, and it’s a great place to store things like VPN client installations, credential information etc. OneNote is a fantastic place to put down quick thoughts, meeting notes etc. so that they don’t get lost. It allows for one consultant to pick up from where the other left off just by opening the OneNote. It really is a handy tool and something my team uses every day.

InfoPath Forms – Although we use Office 365 for our SharePoint needs, not all of our customers do. The bulk of them are still on premises, and we help them with their infrastructure. When working with a SharePoint farm, there is a lot of information to keep track of – server names, IP addresses, service accounts, running services, etc. To keep all of this organized, we use InfoPath forms. This provides a consistent set of information about our customers’ SharePoint environments that can be used by anyone within the company. In fact, it’s  been used more that once to provide information back to our customers when it was lost.

Demonstration Environment – I mentioned before that we use a mock company infrastructure in Cloudshare for our demonstration environment. As more and more features are enabled in Office 365, we can increasingly move to it for our demonstrations. This is certainly true of information architecture demos, but with the recent release of Nintex Forms for Office 365, our workflow demos are moving there too. At the moment, there are many Business Intelligence features in SharePoint that we can’t use in Office 365, but with the pending release of Power BI, even that gap is narrowing.

Customer Collaboration – Office 365 allows external users to be invited to a SharePoint site at no extra cost. All that they need is a Microsoft (Live) or Organizational (Office 365) account. Whenever we need to collaborate with a customer on a project, we can spin up a team site, or an entire site collection, invite all of the team members, whether internal or external and get going. All of the content is in SharePoint and is therefore searchable (if desired) throughout the Office 365 tenant. We don’t always use this capability, but it comes in very handy when it’s needed.

There are many more features that we use quite regularly, but these are a few of them. Quite frankly, Office 365 allows us to run our business with our lean, highly disconnected model. Right out of the box it provides the bulk of our business requirements. In Canada, the “all-in” version of Office 365 (Enterprise E4) which includes Office Professional Plus costs $25.50 per user per month. My cell phone bill regularly comes in at over $200 per month, and when I compare the value offered by the two, it isn’t even close. In my opinion, Office 365 is far and away the best value of any of our infrastructure investments.

So yes – 3 years in, I still love Office 365.

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2 thoughts on “Running a Business in the Cloud – 3 Years In”

  1. Nice summary of your journey; always good when an educated ‘leap of faith’ turns into the correct assessment. We are just implementing O365 for many of the reasons you have listed so very re-assuring to read this.

    thx

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