Strike! Missed again…

I’ve never really understood how people pick “their” sports teams… I can understand picking your “hometown” team based on some emotional or sentimental values, just like rooting for the “underdog”… but really, as a technical person, I would tend to be like Mr. Spock, and just pick the team whose players are most likely to win based on their skills and abilities. I guess it’s kind of the same when it comes to “fanboys”- people who seemingly blindly cheer for a particular company’s products or services regardless of pros and cons weighed against another company’s pros and cons.

So it goes with computer/IT products and services– and although Small Office Systems is in partnerships with various vendors and manufacturers, I prefer to recommend products and services that actually fit a particular customers needs appropriately. And when it comes to outfitting a new small business, I find that providing “hosted” or “managed” (essentially what years ago we called “mainframe”, then “client/server”, then “software as a service”, and now, “cloud”) services are often the best fit- i.e. instead of having a client buy, rack, and maintain in-house Microsoft Exchange email servers and/or a phone system (PBX), I recommend services like hosted Exchange and hosted VoIP. There are, of course, pros and cons to either way of doing things (in-house vs. hosted).

I’ve been providing both hosted email and hosted phone services for a number of years. I’ve tried and examined various providers as well. The only way to know what service is best for a particular situation is to of course try that service. Sometimes the most promising service turned out to be not-so-good in implementation– poor menus, poor service, poor customer support, etc. Or maybe the fear that some new “unknown” hosted service provider might suddenly just go under one day, and take your email or phone system away is enough to keep me from recommending someone. So I tend to work more with the “big boys”- the companies who have proven track records.

Now we’d like to think Microsoft is amongst the biggest of the big boys. When Microsoft comes along and says “we provide hosted services”, which include email and web-based Office applications, the MS fanboys get excited. Of course all of us who are Microsoft certified and/or partners get a little excited when Microsoft announces something new– we want it to be good, and we want to check it out. And Microsoft has actually come up with some good stuff over the years (especially in the hardware field), but unfortunately seems to have a weird disconnect between their developers and their marketing people…some of their better products have never made much of a splash, and may have even disappeared quietly in the night…

One of Microsofts biggest problems, from a technical point of view, is what appears to us service providers as a complete disconnect between development teams on the same product (!)… for example, it often seems that the team developing the latest version of Microsoft Exchange never bothered to work with the team that developed the previous version… I don’t know, it might actually be the same people, but it seems like too often they completely ignore what was for what will be… this has the misfortune of manifesting in the unmitigated PITA’s (and occasional disasters) of what MS would like us to call “upgrades”. Although MS has foisted the simplicity of “point and click” on us for about 30 years, when it comes time to install and configure the “back end” or “behind-the-scenes” stuff like server operating systems or software applications, they forgot to bother with silly stuff like “KISS”– which in turn often has the result of making IT people look like black holes for time and money… too often when it comes to upgrading some MS product, we IT people see the freight train about to jump the tracks, but have no ability whatsoever to prevent that crash- so we head to the impending scene with all of our rescue and cleanup tools.

So it goes with my experience with Microsoft Exchange Online. In an almost surreal experience of just trying this thing out, I felt at times that maybe Microsoft doesn’t really want to sell this thing… it was that frustrating. Now I’m not talking about the relatively simplistic business of setting up a brand new client with a brand new never-had-email-before hosted email service. That indeed, for the most part, is click-click-click-here-you-go. If you are setting up a new business and need email for, say, 10 employees, we could have that up and running in minutes.

No, what I’m on about now is the process of migrating an existing in-house email setup to a hosted (“online/cloud”) email. For some companies, the economies of such a move are worthwhile- they just don’t want to have to think about maintaining mail servers and worrying about spam filters and anti-virus and all that. So you think a company like Microsoft would want to move as many companies as possible to their cloud services, which are like subscriptions (i.e. a continuous revenue stream). But they sure as heck don’t make it easy. Here’s my experience with trying to get a demo evaluation going for a client:

1) As a Microsoft partner, I started the process of trying to find out how I could indeed provide a demo setup for a client. They actually have the ability to provide a demo- but it is a canned scenario provided by Microsoft– with no detail of how a client’s actual situation would work. So I tried to find out about some real, live trial of online Exchange… turns out, they don’t offer such a thing- EXCEPT if you agree to a trial of Office365 Enterprise E3 (which is the only Office365 product which allows for a “hybrid” Exchange setup- allowing on-site Exchange servers to continue running while migrating a few test mailboxes to “the cloud”). This is a $20/month/user offering– and my client is of course interested in the $4/month/user Exchange only. OK, so if this is the only way to show Exchange Online, no problem- I’ll sign up for an Office365 trial.

2) Sign up for the trial– no big deal…at first…

3) Now comes the fun– start trying to figure out how to setup a trial of the “hybrid” mode.  I start trying to follow initial installation and setup guides on-screen (in the latest version of Internet Explorer, just-in-case)… clicking on a step brings me away from the instructions (i.e. instead of opening in a new browser tab, opens in the same tab).  So?  Ok, what happens is i can’t go back now and try to re-do…or even pick the same item again even if I didn’t complete that step… and I see messages telling me I will get emails when things are “ready” for me to continue… I never get any emails telling me that things are “ready” for me to proceed.  I get emails about logging in to my “new” Office365 trial and domain etc… which don’t help, because these are long confusing strings of text combining my  name with a Microsoft domain… and apparently, I have several different login’s now, both these new  ones, and the info I used when I first signed up for the trial.

4) I get contacted (repeatedly) by someone from Microsoft asking about the trial.  I tell them I am having difficulty, and their response is “I don’t work with hybrid scenarios… you’ll have to contact someone else”.  But wait- I say… YOU contacted ME!  Can you at least provide some phone number/email/web link?  Nope.  Sorry.

5) I get to the point where I am asked to install software for integrating my Active Directory with the online 365 system for the hybrid.  But no instructions, notes, tips, etc. whatsoever about where exactly I should install this software.  The web page telling me to install this wants me to install it on the PC I am currently using… really?  I should install critical active directory sync software on my office desktop PC, instead of on a company domain controller or server???  So I try to find info on this software– good luck.  And the system also wants me to redirect my DNS records for my domain.  Without telling me what affect that will have on other services, like my current in-house mail server.  It never asks for my current DNS info… so again, I need a lot more detailed technical info on how this is going to work and what possible effect it will have on my current systems- and I get nothing, in terms of this info or a manual or document…

Anyway, to cut the long disaster short, I’m certain this is one of those things, where when I successfully complete it once, I will have no problem doing it again in the future.  But really, why couldn’t some MS engineers as well as a decent manual writer sit down together, go through all the steps for migrating users, and create a comprehensive, step-by-step set of instructions for the rest of us?  And maybe along the way they could have identified steps that could be automated better on the MS side too…you know, like, with computers?

So what’s the end result?  If you want to move your in-house Exchange email to a hosted server, it’s not a problem…as an “all-at-once” solution.  If you want to try a “hybrid”mix  of in-house and hosted mailboxes… well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.  It can be done, and I will certainly be digging into the various documents and web pages I find discussing how to do this.  Just giving you a glimpse into the life of the IT guy… it’s not always like this:

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