Decision Maker

Caution: Read Beyond the Fine Print If You're Considering Office 365

Office 365 is working great in Don's shop, but there are issues you need to be aware of. He shares what he's found out (so far).

As more and more people switch to Microsoft Office 365 Software as a Service, any weaknesses in the offering will start to be exposed. For the record, my company (Concentrated Tech) uses Office 365, and we've been pretty happy with it.

We're aggressive fine-print readers. We knew about the now-defunct old max-outbound-recipients-per-day limit, and weren't surprised. Also clear to us was the high-traffic bandwidth throttling on incoming traffic, and that it can be suspended during migrations.

What we didn't know is what would happen if we accidentally borked a spreadsheet stored in our SharePoint Online document library.

Version control isn't enabled by default on document libraries and it's pretty easy to forget to turn it on. Versioning will eat up your storage quota, so use it judiciously -- but definitely use it. The backup and recovery situation with Office 365 isn't all you might think. And, sadly, it's not spelled out very well in the service's fine print -- we actually had a support engineer read through the service description document on the phone, and none of the little gotchas we learned about were detailed, even in the fine print.

First: Microsoft backs up SharePoint every 12 hours, but those backups live for only 14 days. So if you do mess something up, call immediately. But that mess-up had better be significant, because you can't restore individual items. You can only restore an entire site collection. A busy collection with continual changes, then, won't be a good restoration candidate just to bring back a single item. Use versioning for that, and pay the price in storage.

You also can't restore a site collection to another location, which is how you'd usually deal with a recovery problem in an on-premises failure. In other words, you can't drop the backup to another server, extract the one item you want and proceed -- it's all or nothing, and it's in the original location.

Our Plan E3 supports up to 300 site collections, which is pretty substantial. We get unlimited e-mail archiving and unlimited e-mail storage, but SharePoint storage isn't infinite, and it's pooled across all site collections that you set up, although you can put limits on each site collection. We get 10GB plus 500MB per user in storage -- and, frankly, that's pretty miserly. It doesn't take many complex Word documents to drain that down, and we work mainly with complex Word documents, PDFs and other items that can be pretty sizable. I mean ... my phone has more storage. So we've been a little reticent about turning on versioning. Should have done so -- it doesn't use that much space, and it would've saved the day.

I should point out that Microsoft supports up to 25GB of SharePoint Online storage, but you pretty much have to buy it 500MB at a time by adding up to 50,000 users. With our Plan E3, that's $20 a month, or $240/year per 500MB. Expensive, if all you wanted was the space.

Plan E3s do include site collection restoration, but it's whispered that non-enterprise plans (the P and K series) don't include recovery services. I couldn't find anything definitive in the service description documents (which are available here).

So does this change how we feel about Office 365? Not really. We still really do love the service. It'd be nice if these little details were a bit more spelled out in the service description, and maybe if the system prompted you to turn on versioning when creating a new document library or something, but now we know.

I would like it if Microsoft could offer some a la carte upgrades, like selling blocks of SharePoint storage. I suspect it'd still be costly, given SharePoint storage is really SQL Server storage, and that can definitely get expensive, both in terms of space and performance.

Forewarned is forearmed: If you're considering a move to any cloud service for anything, think about all of the day-to-day details you had to deal with when that service was in-house. How often do you do backups? How long do you keep them? How long does a recovery take? Then get answers to those same questions from your provider, before you sign up. So long as you're OK with the answers, then it's perfectly safe to proceed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Keep in mind that Microsoft continues to evolve Office 365's offerings, features, and fine-print...While Don's observations were accurate when he wrote the article a few months ago for the print magazine, by the time you read this things may have changed. That reinforces his point of 'reading the fine print' so that you know what you're getting right at that moment. -- The Eds.

About the Author

Don Jones is a 12-year industry veteran, author of more than 45 technology books and an in-demand speaker at industry events worldwide. His broad technological background, combined with his years of managerial-level business experience, make him a sought-after consultant by companies that want to better align their technology resources to their business direction. Jones is a contributor to TechNet Magazine and Redmond, and writes a blog at ConcentratedTech.com.

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