The growth of the now ubiquitous internet has caused many changes, as the widely reported woes of our traditional media and retail commerce have shown. For my company, it's changed the way we work, and reduced the need for both office space and on-site servers and their management.
My company produces e-learning, and has had offices for over 25 years. The current office used to be where work occurred, clients were met, and our staff and contractors gathered. We had around 12 workstations for developers, and various other workstations for office admin, as well as our in-house servers and our Microsoft Small Business Server.
When I added office rent, utilities, council rates, telephones, broadband, insurance, and the hours spent on server maintenance and management, I realised that I was paying more than AU$80,000 annually.
Our staff and contractors had begun to work offsite using their own computers, instant messaging, and our online servers. During the last few years, our clients, both old and new, had never visited our office and were, in fact, mainly interstate. We still required space for our servers and audio and video production, but a single room would suffice, rather than the 800 square metres that was being underutilised.
The availability of Office 365 for a monthly subscription provided the final impetus to close our existing office and move the remaining onsite business functions to a single-room office closer to home.
If you've used MS Small Business Server, Office 365 is very familiar. You have Exchange, Outlook, and a SharePoint team site. In addition, you have the Office web apps, Lync for messaging and conferencing, and a website. You receive a domain name in the form yourcompany.onmicrosoft.com, or you can move your current domain to Microsoft. I elected to keep my current website with my domain registrar, but transferred my name server records to Microsoft so my Exchange mail accounts were handled by Microsoft rather than my Small Business Server.
I initially signed up for a 10-user Office 365 Small Business licence with Telstra T-Suite (the Australian Office 365 provider) for AU$7.90 per user per month. The Office 365 Small Business Premium package (AU$13.50 per user per month) provided Office 2013 desktop applications for users, but since we still have Office 2010 licences installed, I thought I'd skip it for the moment. Unfortunately, when I later decided that I'd like to move to the next level, I was told I'd need to wait a few more weeks, as the plans were undergoing an upgrade that currently prevented me from simply upgrading. Hopefully, that'll be available soon. Telstra also offers Office 365 for Midsized Business at AU$16.50 per user per month for 11 to 250 users.
I also found that I could reduce my original 10 licences to the number of users I required, and when I could upgrade to the Premium package, I could also opt to only use these Premium licences for selected accounts.
Once you've arranged payment, you sign in to Office 365 as an admin to start setting up. I began the step-by-step process with creating user accounts. These will initially have a @companyname.onmicrosoft.com attached, but once you move your DNS records to Microsoft, you'll have your familiar email addresses.
If you can manage your own DNS and change your records and name servers, then I'm sure the process of setting up your email would be fairly painless. My current domain name manager is Telstra, and I expected the process to be fairly quick. How wrong I was. The department was apparently named WebCentral, but I have no idea whether it is outsourced or an internal Telstra department.
My first hint of trouble was proving I owned the domain. I accessed WebCentral's web console and placed a job in the support queue to add a TXT record, so that Office 365 could confirm that I owned the domain name.
When nothing happened for a day or so (the Office 365 set-up process will test if the record is there), I decided on a phone call. After a long wait, this ended up with the operator placing another job in the queue. I received notification that the job had been sent to a different DNS admin job queue (which I couldn't see).
For the next day or so, I fruitlessly tried the Office 365 set-up, and put some messages into the current support job, but with no reply. I finally placed a job with the Telstra T-Suite support, explaining that I couldn't proceed.
Happily, I was called in a few hours by a very helpful consultant who had confirmed my domain ownership, which allowed me to move to the next stage.
The next step was asking Telstra WebCentral to point my DNS name servers to Microsoft. Office 365 provides a handy letter to your domain registrar, explaining the need for the change and the required data. I copied and pasted this into the support job queue, and, knowing that DNS changes can take a bit of time to propagate, I thought I'd give it a day. A week later, though, I was getting desperate.
I needed to move out of my physical office, but I couldn't move my current Exchange server until I could switch it off. We'd finished the process of moving email accounts and documents across to Office 365, but they couldn't go live without the name server changes.
Repeated support job requests to WebCentral received no reply, and a phone call just seemed to create another job in the queue. I really couldn't believe this was happening, as Telstra was both my domain registrar and Office 365 provider.
In desperation, I returned to the helpful consultant at Telstra T-Suite, who promised to investigate the problem. In the end, he waited 2 hours on WebCentral's support line to find a solution. Apparently, WebCentral couldn't perform this action until I posted a statement that I would keep paying them on the job queue. This was the first I'd heard of this, as I'd had no replies to my many requests for information, but I immediately posted a statement and 15 minutes later, everything worked.
I'll cover the features of Office 365 and the details of our migration in a future column. During those two weeks, I received some of the best and worst customer support from the same company. I would recommend Telstra T-Suite support without hesitation, and I'm very happy with Office 365, but I think it may be time to change my domain manager.
Tony is the owner and managing director of Microcraft eLearning and is one of the creators of the AUTHOR eLearning Development System.