Bill Gates announced on Monday that Microsoft will offer online business services to companies of all sizes. At the moment, only organizations with more than 5,000 users are supported. With online business services he meant Exchange Online and Sharepoint Online. Obviously, this is a response to Google and the cloud computing hype. Since we are planning to introduce Sharepoint in our organization, I was curious to learn more about this new offer.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find more technical information about it. There is a lot of media coverage, but most of the articles I found are just repeating Gates’ announcement. Microsoft’s web site has a bit more information, but doesn’t answer all the questions that came into my mind.

So I tried to sign up for the beta trial, but I didn’t get very far. After I signed in with my Windows Live ID Microsoft wanted some more personal information. I don’t know how often I have given them my address already, but okay, I filled out the form again. That wasn’t enough, though. The registration wizard was insisting on getting my phone number, too. Since I am really curious about this trial I was willing to give them all they need. The only problem was there was no form field for the phone number. So I thought that maybe Firefox just didn’t display that field and started the whole thing again in IE. However, IE wasn’t even able to launch the registration wizard. All I got were a couple of run time errors.

Perhaps it was just too early in the morning for my Vista machine. Sometimes it takes as long as my first cup of coffee in the morning before it becomes fully operational. So I tried again with Firefox on an XP machine. Hard to believe, but I finally was allowed to deliver all my personal information. So I was looking forward to my first experience in cloud computing. However, all I got for my efforts was: “No services available for trial this time.” This was it then, my first cloud experience. It vaporized before I could even get a grip on it. If you had more luck, please let us know.

The question I was most curious about was how I could integrate Exchange and Sharepoint in our IT infrastructure. They both heavily rely on Active Directory, so that would certainly be the tricky part when it comes to moving those two backend apps to Microsoft’s cloud machinery. The info page about Microsoft Exchange Online tries to answer this question:

Exchange Online extends rich capabilities to your users with a single sign-on, including e-mail, shared calendaring, and contacts. And it works with Active Directory to ensure that information is synchronized between your local and online directories, allowing your IT department to support a mix of hosted services and on-premise software. Additionally, Exchange Online supports business continuity and disaster recovery with cloud-based antivirus and spam filtering and high data center security standards.

Cloud-based antivirus” sounds cool. I must admit I never heard the term “on-premise software”, but Wikipedia knows about it, so it seems like I missed something. It stands for old-style software, i.e. for programs that have to be installed in the building of your organization. Anyway, it seems to be possible to run Active Directory on your “old-style Windows servers” and synchronize user accounts with a “new-style Active Directory” that is located somewhere in the cloud.

We have some experiences in directory synchronization with third parties and they were not really positive. Many things can go wrong. It is doable, of course. But the main question is if the efforts necessary to get this running outweighs the savings. I don’t know about Sharepoint yet, but our Exchange server is quite an undemanding fellow. Usually, we only touch it when we upgrade to a new version. The rest of the time it doesn’t require much attention.

I think the integration of hosted services with on-premise software (I am practicing the usage of this new word) is the biggest problem when it comes to cloud computing. Let’s assume Microsoft also runs Active Directory for you and all other Microsoft apps you have. What about third party applications? Say an application that relies on Exchange? Can you host it in another cloud? And how can the apps in different clouds communicate?

Microsoft’s new cloud efforts are certainly driven by Google. They want to get their share of the big cloud. The strange thing about this cloudy hype is that is has been already there for quite some time, but the sky is still bright. So all those weather forecasts about overcasts didn’t come true, yet. Sometimes some little fleecy clouds show up for a day when Google comes out with a new announcement, but then, as Mr. Gates noticed correctly, they vanish pretty fast:

Most of these Google products, to be frank, the day they announce them is their best day and then after that ....

(By the way, good feature comparisons between Google apps and Office Live can be found here and here.)

So why is Microsoft so afraid of Google then? Don Reisinger from ITworld.com thinks it is simply jealousy. Microsoft is somehow obsessed with Google. I absolutely agree. I am sure you won’t disagree after you watched Ballmer’s new web developer’s dance:

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9 Comments
  1. Dave 14 years ago

    I signed up Monday right after hearing about it for the same reason you did…I’m thinking about deploying SharePoint and wanted to know more about the hosted service. Just like you, I was told right away that there were no beta slots available for me.
    Awesome.

  2. Michael Pietroforte 14 years ago

    I thought it might be related to the fact that I live in Germany. I also signed up for Office Live. Afterwards they told me that Office Live is not yet available in my “region”. So I thought it just takes some more time till the Office Live bits are “shipped” over the Atlantic. Maybe they were too heavy for air freight. But I guess you are located in the US. So this time the reason might be that Microsoft’s new cloud is still vaporwere.

  3. Christoph 14 years ago

    I was able to sign in to the office live Beta by I “cheating” on the region. I can live with the english GUI for testing purposes.
    Anyway, good read and it seems like Sharepoint is the new rage out there, keep us updatet on your expereinces! This also brings me to the question: if I do not have to rely on the Sharepoint services but rather want to have something similar in functionality – mostly the workgroup environment with the team functions and the documents revision features – are there any alternatives out there? Not necessarily Open Source, any kind/brand/commercial app will do.

  4. Lukas Beeler 14 years ago

    SaaS/ASP/Cloud, whatever it is called today. I still think it’s the right way to go for very small companies which can’t afford proper infrastructure (it’s better to pay xxx / month instead of running SBS 2000 on 8 year old hardware), i don’t see the benefits for bigger companies.

    Well, of course, there’s cost. Might even work out short-term and be a reason why execs will buy it. But as a technical superior solution? I don’t think so.

  5. Leonardo 14 years ago

    I’m on the fence about offsite hosting… I’ve had one bad experience with offsite exchange, I hope that customer’s business catches fire.
    But at least I’m not bitter.

  6. Michael Pietroforte 14 years ago

    Christoph, are you searching for an alternative to Microsoft’s new Online Services or just an alternative to Sharepoint? An alternative to the Online Services might be HyperOffice. However, I never tried it. You probably know that the “Windows Sharepoint services” (not the Online Services) are a free add-on to Windows Server.

    Lukas, I agree that all these SaaS offers are more interesting for smaller companies. However, it is not really because on-premise software or hardware would be more expensive for them. Those small companies have to outsource their IT management, anyway. So they might as well outsource the whole thing. But I doubt that it will be cheaper that way. The share of hardware and software costs is usually the much smaller part of the TCO. The costs for the IT pros is the expensive part and they won’t get cheaper just because they will be working somewhere on the cloud. Every time we outsourced parts of our IT it became more expensive which is only logical. Outsourcing means that you not only pay the external IT pros, but also their management, the secretaries, their rent, etc.

    Leonardo, I think your stance is most common among IT pros. Many had in one way or another experiences about similar offers before and so they are cautious. Only time will tell if cloud computing will ever get beyond the hype phase.

  7. Jeff 14 years ago

    They are not the only one in the space. Look at the release from groupSPARK http://www.emediawire.com/releases/exchange/online/prweb742904.htm. And see if you can integrate your MS Cloud with your BlackBerry!

  8. Casey (MSFT) 14 years ago

    Hi folks, unfortunately the Microsoft Online Services Beta is currently only available to companies located within the United States. This is why you are seeing this error message when attempting to activate your trial.

    You can track the availability of our service in other markets via our blog:
    http://blogs.technet.com/msonline/

    Or via our marketing site:
    http://www.microsoft.com/online

    Regards,
    Casey (MSFT)

  9. Michael Pietroforte 14 years ago

    Jeff, you’re right. Exchange hosting is an old topic. I remember that I was considering to rent an Exchange mailbox for my private mails three years ago. A German provider had a very cheap offer for small and mid-sized companies. Nobody was talking about clouds at this time.

    Casey, yeah I guessed that already. What sense does it make to restrict Internet-based offers to certain countries? The Internet has no borders.

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