Cloud Praxis #3 : Office 365, Email and the best value in tech

Email.

What’s the first thought that comes to your mind when you read that word?

Exchange_2013-logo
I seek #ExchangeGlory !! said no IT blogger ever

If you’re in IT in the Microsoft space, maybe you think of huge mailbox stores, Exchange, Outlook, legal discovery requirements, spam headaches and the pressure & demand that stack places on your infrastructure. Terabytes and terabytes of the stuff, going back years. All up in your stack, DAG on your spindles, CAS on your edge, all load balanced at Layer 4/7 behind a physical or virtual device & wrapped up in a nice legitimate, widely-recognized CA-issued SSL cert. The stuff is everywhere.

I almost forgot. You have to back all that stuff up too. To tape in my case.

Oh, and perhaps you also recall the cold chills & instant sense of dread & fear you’ve felt just about every time an end user has asked (sometimes via email no less) “Is our email down?” I know the feeling.

Like a lot of Microsoft IT pros, I have my share of email war stories. I think email is one of those things in technology that lends itself to a sort of dualism, a sort of Devil on this shoulder, Angel on that shoulder . You can’t say something positive about email without adding a “but….” at the end, and that’s ok. Cognitive dissonance is allowed here; you can believe contrary ideas about email at the same time.

I know I do:

[table]

I love Email because, I hate email because

SMTP is last great agnostic open communication protocol, SMTP is too open and prone to abuse

Email is democratic and foundational to the internet, Email is fundamentally broken

Email will be around in some form forever, There’s no Tread Left on this Tire

Email is your online identity, Messaging applications are all the rage and so much richer

It’s how businesses communicate and thrive, One man’s business communication is another man’s spam

It’s always there, It goes down sometimes

Spam fighters and blacklists, Spam fighters and blacklists

It justifies Infrastructure Spend, It uses so much of my stack

Exchange is awesome and flexible, I broke Exchange once and fear it

[/table]

Whatever your thoughts on email are, one thing is clear: for Microsoft Infrastructure guys pondering the Microsoft cloud, the path to #InfrastructureGlory clearly travels through Exchange Country. In fact, it’s like the first step we’re supposed to take via Office 365.

daisettalabs large logoI don’t know about you, but I worry about the bandits in Exchange Country. Bandits that may break mail flow, or allow the tidal wave of spam in, prompt my users excessively for passwords, engage in various SSL hijinks, or otherwise change any of the finely-tuned ingredients in the delicate recipe that is my Exchange 2010 stack.

And yet, I bet if you polled Microsoft IT guys like me, you would find that of all the things they want to stick up in the Microsoft Cloud, Exchange & the email stack is probably at the top of the list. Just take it off our plate Microsoft as Exchange and email are in a sort of weird place in IT; it’s mission-critical and extremely important to have a durable Exchange infrastructure, yet raise your hand if you think Exchange Administration/Engineering are good career paths to take in 2014.

Didn’t think so.

So how do we get there?

I don’t have all the answers yet, but I at least have a good picture of the project, some hands-on experience, and some optimism, all of which means I’m one step closer to #InfrastructureGlory in the cloud.

Hard to build a realistic Exchange Lab 

First of all, recognize this. While it’s easy to build out a lab infrastructure (Cloud Praxis #2) for Active Directory, it’s quite another thing to build out an Exchange lab as I found out. You can’t do SMTP from home anymore (the spammers ruined that) which means you need resources at work, which might or might not be available. They aren’t in my case, so I struggled for awhile.

Maybe you have some resources at work (a few extra public IPs, a walled-off virtual network, some storage) with which you can build out an Exchange lab. If so, evaluate whether that’s going to benefit you and your organization. It might be a black hole of wasted time; it might pay off in a huge way as you wargame your way from on-prem to hybrid then to cloud and finally #InfrastructureGlory

Office 365 Praxis with the E1 Plan

For me and Daisetta Labs.net, I decided I couldn’t adequately simulate my workplace Exchange. So I did the next best thing.

I bought an Office 365 Enterprise E1 subscription.

That’s right baby. Daisetta Labs.net is on the O365 Enteprise E1 plan. It’s an Enteprrise of 1 (me!) but an Enterprise-scaled O365 account nonetheless.

And it’s fantastically cheap & easy to do, less than $100 a year for all this:

o365e1

For that measly amount, you can be an Enterprise of one in O365 and get all this:

  • A real Office 365 Enterprise account with Exchange 2013 and all of its incredibly rich features & options, including Powershell remoting, which you’ll need in your real O365 migration
  • That’s private email too...no ad bots gathering data against your profile. Up to you, but I moved my personal stack to O365 (more on that later)
  • Lync 2013. Forget Skype and all the other messengers. You get Lync service! Which interfaces with Skype and many others and makes you look like a real pro. Also useful if you have on-prem Lync, though I’m sad to report to you that, as of this month, Lync 2013 in O365 can’t kill your PBX off…yet.
  • Sharepoint & OneDrive for Business : I’ll admit it, I’ve done my fair share of Sharepoint hating but IT Infrastructurists need to realize Sharepoint is the gateway drug to many things businesses are interested in, like Business Intelligence & SQL, data visualizations and more. Besides, Sharepoint 2013 is not your daddy’s Sharepoint; it can do some neat stuff (not that I can show you, yet).
  • OneDrive for Business, again: If you’re in a Microsoft shop that’s still mostly on-prem, you probably experience Dropbox creep, where your users share documents via dropbox or other personal online storage solutions. With E1, you can get familiar with OneDrive for Business,within the context of Sharepoint & O365 management, dirsync, and all the rest.
  • One Terabyte of OneDrive for Business Storage. Outstanding. This was a recent announcement. It tickles me to think that my data is being deduped by a Windows storage spaces VM somewhere, just like I do on my storage at work.
  • Office Online : full on WAC server baby, with Excel in your Chrome or IE browser. Better, and better looking, than Google Docs.
  • With this plan, you can really test out Office for the iPad. You’ll get read and write to your O365 documents via an iPad, which can help you at work with that one C-level who loves his iPad as much as he loves Excel.
  • DirSync: The very directory synchronization tool you have stressed over at work is available to you with this simple, cheap E1 subscription. And it’s working. I’ve done it. Daisetta Labs.net is dirsynced to O365 from my home lab and I have SSO between my on-prem AD & Office 365. I deliberately kept my passwords separate between the two, but now they are in sync.

Anyway you cut it O365 E1 is an amazingly affordable and a very effective way to confront your cloud angst and get comfortable with Office 365. Even if you can’t fully simulate your workplace Exchange stack, you should consider doing this; you will use these same tools (particularly Powershell Remoting, the wizards in O365 & dirsync) at some point; best to get familiar with them now.

I could have hosted my Daisetta Labs.net domain anywhere; but I have zero regrets putting it in O365 on the E1 plan and committing for 12 months. If you’re an IT pro like me trying to get your infrastructure to the Microsoft cloud, you’d be well-served by doing the same thing I did. You may even want to ditch your personal email account and just go full Office 365…to eat the same dog food we’re going to serve to our users soon.

More to come on this tomorrow, suffice it to say, DaisettaLabs.net is dirsyncing as I write this. I’ll have screenshots, wizard processes and more to show.

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