Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by SharePoint Server MVP Razi bin Rais as part of the MVP Award Program Blog's "MVPs for SharePoint" series. Razi bin Rais is currently working as a Microsoft Architect for a Global IT firm based in Manhattan, New York where he lead a team of consultants to deliver projects on latest Microsoft products and technologies including SharePoint Server 2010, Office 365, Azure and Windows Phone 7. He is also a Microsoft SharePoint Server MVP and MCT. He has authored numerous articles and also worked with Microsoft MSL as a SME on several Microsoft courses. He is also an international speaker for INETA and GITCA, and had led many sessions in several conferences & events including the SharePoint Conference SEA 2010, Microsoft TechDays, Microsoft ISV innovation Days, NYC SharePoint UG’s and SharePoint Saturdays.  He Blogs at http://razirais.wordpress.com , tweets at @razibinrais and can be reached at razibinrais@live.com.

Microsoft Office 365 (currently in beta) is a next version of Microsoft BPOS (Business Productivity Online Standard Suite) which was launched couple of years back from Microsoft. Office 365 offers several key Microsoft server side products like SharePoint 2010, Exchange 2010 and Lynch 2010 as Software as a Service (SaaS). Microsoft Office Professional Plus is also a part of Office 365 and available both as thick client (for which you have to pay each month to keep it activated) and as Microsoft Office Web Apps which provides online version of some of the Office Professional products, although with notable limitations. This article takes a look into Office 365 from a broader prospective and gives an overview of how productivity can be enhanced by using SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, Office Professional Plus and Office Web Apps within an organization.

Productivity is often impacted by total amount of time taken by organizations and its users to adopt a technology and how much learning curve is involve before users can effectively make use of it. Microsoft understands this challenge and ensures that users who are already comfortable working with SharePoint 2010 or Exchange 2010 on premise should easily adopt online versions of both of these products without any hassle. However there will be areas which require some extra effort, for example migration of SharePoint 2010 from on-premise version to online version requires careful analysis and planning along with the thorough understanding of risks and challenges associated with the migration.

As organizations around the globe embrace cloud platforms we are going through a phase where hybrid environments are emerging and co-existence of on premise and online environments play a major role.  Coexistence has its challenges but it provide users with more options. A quick example of this is a Microsoft Office Professional 2010 which is a part of Office 365 offering. It gets installed locally on a user machine and provides user an ability to work with Professional editions of Microsoft Word 2010, Excel 2010, and PowerPoint 2010 etc. Actually the only difference is the licensing model which restricts each user to install Microsoft Office Professional on maximum of five different machines. If user needs to install it on the sixth machine they have to first disable the subscription on at least one of the active machine. This is actually much easier than it sounds as de activating just requires couple of clicks, unlike uninstalling which is a more involve process. Also user can always come back and re activate there subscription on the de activated machine in the future.

Microsoft Office 365 also includes Office Web Apps service which simply put provides an online version (albeit with limited features) of Microsoft Word 2010, Excel 2010, PowerPoint 2010 and OneNote 2010.  Office Web Apps enables users to work and share documents regardless of their location and as these services are available online the basic requirement is merely reasonable internet connectivity with supported browsers. Following figure shows supported browsers on various platforms at the time of this writing. Note that not all of the supported browsers provide equal fidelity for Office Web Apps, for example users will get better experience when they view PowerPoint presentations online in a browser which supports Silverlight as compare to browser which does not support Silverlight. Also there is a slight difference in the browser support for Office Web Apps based on an actual platform that is used to host the Office Web Apps. Organizations planning to leverage Office Web App in enterprises should perform user trainings which focus on usage and scope of Office Web Apps. This will help organizations in maintaining user expectations to the reasonable level and also give users better idea about certain limitations of Office Web Apps. 

From a technical prospective Office Web Apps is provided as an online service and it’s available through three different platforms. Windows Live, SharePoint Online (part of Office 365) and SharePoint 2010 on premise. If you opt for last option make sure to check with Microsoft regarding the Office Web App licensing as by default Microsoft Office 2010 volume licensing is required to host Office Web Apps on SharePoint 2010 on premise. The choice of platform will determine key characteristics like storage location, authentication and pricing etc. Following table shows some key differences that choice of platform will make on Office Web App.

Office 365 provides SharePoint Online as SaaS (Software as a Service) and this service is based on SharePoint Server 2010 managed by Microsoft at their datacenters. SharePoint Online (accept SharePoint Online Dedicated) is based on multitenant model where hardware and software is shared among multiple tenants, as resources are shared this approach allows cost effective solutions with very affordable subscription models. One of the key advantages of SharePoint Online is that Microsoft will be responsible for maintaining both the hardware and software up to date, this includes deploying security patches, and service packs etc. and performing hardware upgrades whenever required.

SharePoint online provides each tenant access to SharePoint Server 2010 features and functionality below the web application level, meaning full control of site collection(s) and sub sites underneath them (see the figure below). This ensures that security and privacy among the tenants is well respected all the times.

 

With SharePoint online management and deployment of custom solutions (code, scripts, images etc.) is much simpler as all the solution deployments are based on “Sandbox” solutions.  Sandbox solutions allow administrators to easily monitor the health and performance of solutions and take appropriate actions against those solutions which do not behave properly.  As sandbox solutions prohibit access to places like file system and system registry they provide better security in multitenant environment.  Although Farm level solutions are around since the release of SharePoint 2007/WSS 3.0, the sandbox solutions are newer concept which is introduced in SharePoint 2010. Developers are slowly but effectively adopting them, perhaps the real challenge for developers is to work with the stringent settings which are part of Sandbox solutions that developers are not use to while working with Farm solutions (e.g.  Not able to access objects beyond site collection, GAC deployment in not available, deploying files to “14” hive is prohibited etc.). However with proper training and guidance the overall productivity gains from sandbox solutions overweight the learning curve that exists to successfully develop sandbox solutions which are low in resource consumption and optimal in performance.

Microsoft provides 99.9 percent uptime as part of SLA, along with 12 hour RPO (Recovery Point Objective) and 24 hour RTO (Recovery Time Objective). This essentially means that in an event of disaster Microsoft protects the copy of SharePoint Online data for an organization which is not less than 12 hours old and the service will be resumed for organization within 24 hours.

SharePoint Online has great integration story with other Microsoft products, in fact from an end user prospective that are familiar with consuming SharePoint 2010 from client products the difference between online and on premise version of SharePoint is negligible. 

For example the users using Microsoft Word, Excel, and Workspace etc. will get same user experience from these products as they are already getting while using SharePoint 2010 on-premise.  Following figure shows some of the applications that SharePoint Online natively integrates with.

“Cloud” (use whatever postfix you want) is no panacea, it’s mainly an enabler for companies to be more productive and cost effective. However organizations with sensitive data (e.g. financial investment companies) should be aware of the risks when putting data into the cloud, even if it’s on the private cloud. The cost of data leakage can be anywhere form losing customers to facing lawsuits, simply put make sure that you have completely understand risks associate with could model in general. Always better to plan ahead to deal with potential security issues that may occur in the future.  Also it’s important to approach Microsoft and get a thorough understanding SLA from a legal standpoint including compensation in case of data leakage etc.  You may also want to investigate more about data center locations where your data will ultimately be residing, keep in mind that IP (Intellectual Property) laws vary from country to country and this factor alone can play significant role in devising risk mitigation strategy.

OK so let’s switch gear and take a look into a scenario where a company will utilize SharePoint Online Exchange Online along with Office Professional to raise its productivity.

“Contoso Insurance” is a small size issuance company with Office 365 subscription to full fill their collaboration, document management, task management and messaging needs. As they are limited in budget and resources they do not want investment in infrastructure and wants to keep their IT staff to minimal. Apart from the cost Contoso Insurance has two primary reasons for adopting Office 365. First is the flexibility of Office 365 to let Consto Insurance meet there key business requirements either by easily configuring out of box features of Office 365 or by allowing them to extend the existing functionality of Office 365 by deploying custom solutions on top of it. Secondly as most of the Contoso Insurance employees are already familiar with Microsoft Office products there is very little or no learning curve involve in adopting Office 365.    

Let’s take a look at how “Contoso Insurance” team will leverage Office 365 to improve their daily productivity by using features from SharePoint online, Exchange online, Outlook and Office Professional Plus.

 Meet Bob, Annie and Dave who work at Contoso Insurance, see their role description below.

The team work together to process the Claims Request, this includes submitting, reviewing and finalizing claims requests. Following diagram shows the high level process flow.

As Dave visits the client he launch “Contoso Insurance Claim Manager” application on his WP7 (Windows Phone 7), this is a WP7 application develop by Bob and his team to help insurance agents working onsite to submit new claims.  This application uses SharePoint Online Web Services to push and pull the data from “Claims List” located inside Consoto Insurance Portal, this lists store all the claims requested from the client.

Dave enters the claim details along with the snapshot of the damage claimed by the client. 

Once done he clicks “Submit” button to save the claim information into the Claims List. Dave gets the message telling him that Claim Request is submitted successfully.

See the following figure below which shows new claim request item created inside the Claims List.  Also as new claim is added to the list there is an automated email send to Annie, who needs to work on this Claim Request.

As Annie starts her day she found out that she needs to send couple of urgent emails right away to her colleagues in different department. Rather than wasting her time by opening and login separately to outlook client application she just browsed to her “MySite” hosted at SharePoint Online. Consoto Insurance designated “MySite” for each employee in their organization. She can access her Inbox, Calendar, Tasks etc. right from her MySite home page. See the figure below which captures part of Annie’s MySite page.

She notice that there is an email regarding a new Claims Request in her Inbox, she open it to check for details.

As she read the email, she clicks the link which is provided to her in the email. This link takes her directly to the page which shows detail about the claim. The claim details are located inside Claims Lists which is part of Consoto Insurance Portal, as Annie is already logged into her “MySite” she does not need to provide her credentials again.

There are couple of key productivity gains to notice here, earlier when Dave submits the new Claims Request he don’t have to  deal with anything other than a  simple application page from his WP7, this is important as mostly people who works from field does not have time to browse webpages from smartphone. Secondly as Dave submits the new Claim Request, there is an automated email send to Annie without any human intervention, this helps unloading the burden from employees and save them from doing unnecessary laborious work which can be automated.

As Annie begins work on Claim Request, she needs assistance from several external consultants which are not employee of Consoto Insurance. She needs to make sure that she can collaborate with these consultants online right from Contoso Insurance Portal. To get this done she drops an email to Bob with email id’s of these consultants. 

As Bob gets an email from Annie containing list of email id’s of external consultants, he browsed to the “SharePoint Online Administration Center” site as shown in figure below. If you are familiar with SharePoint 2010 this is similar to Central Administration but limited in scope and features as SharePoint Online does not allows access to objects beyond site collection level. 

In order to allow external users to join Contoso Insurance Portal Bob needs to send an email invite to these users, this email will contain a link which external users can use to join the Contoso Insurance Portal.  Note that the process of managing external users differs slightly between different Office 365 subscription plans.

As a first step Bob needs to enable the management of external users for the Contoso Insurance site collection, as mentioned earlier there is no access to SharePoint web application hence entry point to SharePoint Online is always at a site collection level. Administrators need to enable and configure external users for each site collection individually.

Bob selects the “Contoso Site Collection” and clicks “Manage Share by Email” button from ribbon. (Please note that in following figure name of site in the URL is masked because of IP reasons)

On the “External Users” dialog, Bob can decide whether to allow site collection administrators to invite people from outside the organization to access the site collection.  Bob selects “Allow” and clicks “Save”.

Next Bob browse to Contoso Insurance Portal, and navigates to its “Site Settings” page. He then locates and click “External user permissions” link present under “Users and Permissions” section as shown in figure below

On “Add External Users” page he uses the email id’s send by Annie to send email invite to the external users. He also give invitee “Contribute level” permissions on the Contoso Insurance Portal and finally put text for the Welcome E-mail, which will be send to the users along with the link to join the portal. This is shown in the figure below.

External users will receive an email invitation to join the Contoso Insurance portal as shown below (some details are masked because of IP reasons) 

Contoso Insurance adheres corporate policy to put litigation hold on all the corporate email accounts which directly exchange emails with external consultants. This ensures that deleted emails got preserved and can be discovered later in time whenever needed for legal purposes. Also as a part of policy employees must be notified whenever there account is put under litigation hold. 

Bob have to put Annie’s email account on legislation hold. In order to do so he navigates to “Office 365 Administration Home Page”, and clicks “Manage” link located under “Exchange Online” section as shown in figure below.

From “Users & Groups” à “Mailboxes” select the user (“Annie” in this case) 

Click on “Details” button from the tab, button will be enabled once user is selected. On the details page, locate and expand “Mailbox Features” section, by default litigation hold is disabled. To enable it select “Litigation Hold” and click “Enable” as shown in figure below. 

This will open up a pop up dialog (see the figure below) which allows sending of an email notification to an account which is about to be put under litigation hold. Bob put some explanatory notes for Annie to explain her reason why her account is put under litigation hold.  Litigation settings usually take thirty to sixty minutes to apply. 

As Annie starts working on the claim request she browse to Contoso Insurance Portal, navigates to “Claim Reviews” document library and creates a new Claim Review document (see the figure below).The new document is based on “Claims Review” content type which is attached to “Claims Review” document library. Also this content type has a custom Microsoft Word 2010 template associated with it which allows Contoso Insurance to manage consistence document formatting and template for all the claims review documents.

Notice that the newly created document is open online (see figure below) inside the Microsoft Office Web App for Microsoft Word, this is a default behavior. Online editing of Microsoft Office documents comes really handy for users who do not have client version of Microsoft Office installed on their workstation. 

Annie however wants to use the Microsoft Word 2010 which is part of Office 365 Microsoft Professional Plus that is already installed on her workstation. This allows her experiencing full fidelity while working with the documents, especially those with complex graphic objects like Smart Art etc. She clicks “Open in Word” button (as shown in figure above) to open the document in Microsoft Word 2010 (as shown in figure below)

Once done with the updates, she saves the document with name “CLAIM-001” back to the document library. However she wants to collaborate with Dave and take his feedback on the document. This requires not only the updates to the document but also tasks that need to be done before document considered ready for final review by Kevin.

To easily collaborate on the document Annie wants to create a “Document Workspace” for “CLAIM-001” document. She navigates to the “Claim Reviews” library and selects the “CLAIM-001”document. Next she right clicks it and select “Send To” à “Create Document Workspace” option. This will create a new Document Workspace for “CLAIM-001” document (see the figure below). 

Document Workspaces facilitates team members to work collectivity on a document. Features like Tasks, Links and Announcements etc. are readily available in the workspace. Also there is an option to synchronize original document (for which document workspace is created), with all the changes occur to it within the workspace. Notice that the workspace gets name of the document i-e “CLAIM-001”, which shows that whole workspace is centered around it. Also the home page comes with the web parts nicely arranged as shown in figure below.

Annie now adds Dave to the members group by clicking on “Add new user” (see figure below).One of the key points for getting high productivity is simplicity of tasks (like adding users to workspace) and they should be achievable with minimal of effort.

Dave gets an email notification notifying him that he is now member of “CLAIM-001” document workspace. He navigates to the workspace and starts working on the document, he also creates some tasks for Annie by clicking “Add new item” link underneath the “Tasks” list web part. Annie also creates some links (as shown in figure below) to help Dave seek the information related to insurance claims and policies that will help him analyzing the claim request.

One of the powerful features in SharePoint 2010 is Co-Authoring which is also available in SharePoint Online. This feature allows multiple users to work on a same document at the same time, this greatly enhance productivity as users does not have to wait for other users to finish working on the document. 

As Annie and Dave finish working on the the document, Annie decides to publish the document back to “Claim Reviews” document library. She selects the “CLAIM-001” document present inside “Shared Documents” library in the workspace and clicks “Send To” à “Publish to Source Location” option (as shown in figure below). 

Next Annie needs to send the document link to Kevin for final review and approval. She browse to “Contoso Insurance Portal” and navigates to the “Cliam Review” document library. From the library she selects “CLAIM-001” document and choose “Send To” à “E-mail the Link” (see figure below)

She customizes the email message and sends it to Kevin as shown in figure below.

Kevin uses Outlook 2010 for accessing his emails which is installed on this workstation. He already synchronized “Claim Reviews” document library with Outlook (see figure below), this allows him to quickly open the claims related documents and review them without even navigating to “Contoso Insurance Portal”.  For him this greatly improves his productivity as most part of his daily workload constitutes of emailing and reviewing documents.

As Kevin receives an email from Annie regarding the claim approval, he clicks on the document library and selects on “CLAIM-001” document (as shown in figure below) within the Outlook.

He then double clicks the document to open it in Word 2010. After reviewing the document he add his comments and finally approve the document by selecting “Approved” from the “Status” quick part (see the figure below)

Kevin finally save & close the document. Word 2010 will automatically push the changes back to the document in the “Claim Reviews” document library.  Notice that the “Status” drop down field that is available inside the document as a quick part is actually pulls its value from the choice column which is part of “Claim Reviews” document library.

As “CLAIM-001” is approved (see figure above), as a final step the “ItemUpdating” custom event receiver associated with “Claim Reviews” library will automatically execute. This event receiver is deployed by Bob as a Sandbox solution which contains custom business logic that will create or update a list item inside “Claims Outcome” custom list (as shown in figure below).

“Claims Outcome” list comprises of two columns, a “Claim” column which is essentially a lookup column to the “Claims” list and a “Status” column which is a custom column.  By using SharePoint lists intelligently but carefully various business requirements can be met easily. If “ClaimID-001” is clicked (as shown in figure above) it will open up a dialog displaying claim details (as shown in figure below)

As Annie, Bob, Dave and Kevin calls off their day, they enjoyed greater productivity by using various services of Office 365 which helps them perform their daily tasks in an easy and intuitive ways.

 

Resources    

If you want to get more information about Office 365 please visit the following links. I also keep updated links to Office 365 resources at this blog post.

Office 365 Plans (Pricing & Availability)