Posey's Tips & Tricks

Dumping the Home Network for Office 365

Brien discusses what brought him to the switch and how things are going with Microsoft's hosted suite.

When I first started writing on a freelance basis back in the '90s, I knew that I was going to need to have a an infrastructure in place that would make it possible for me to write about all manner of Microsoft products. At the time, I decided that the best approach would be for me to fill my basement with computers (this was long before virtualization became practical). I built a small production network that handled things like e-mail and file storage, and I built a much larger lab network that I could use to test all of the concepts that I write about.

Roughly 15 years have passed since then and a lot has changed. One thing that hadn't changed until recently, however, was that I still had two separate networks in my home.  Unfortunately, this had to change. Even though I have always taken pride in hosting my own servers, doing so has become impractical lately.

Over the last few months I have been spending a lot of time on the road as the headliner for the Next-Gen Backup School. In case you aren't familiar with Next-Gen Backup School, it is a 25-city event in which attendees can learn about various backup and recovery techniques.

As you can imagine, I have basically been living out of a suitcase for the last couple of months. Before I started this tour, being able to access my e-mail through my Windows phone was important, but now that I am spending so much time away from home it has become absolutely critical for me to be able to access my e-mail and other data. Herein lies the problem:

Back in March I was doing a show in London. While I was gone, the power went out at my home. My servers are all on backup batteries, but the power outage lasted longer than my batteries. When the power came back on, my mail server did not automatically power back up, so I was stuck without access to my mail.

The first show that I did in America was in Cleveland. While I was in Cleveland I suddenly lost the ability to access my home network. Upon returning home I discovered that a construction crew had cut my Internet connection. Since that time I have had several other power and Internet outages. These outages have become so disruptive that I decided to completely abandon a network infrastructure that has been in place for 15 years and outsource my production network to Office 365.

I took a rather unconventional approach to the migration process. When Office 365 was in beta testing, I worked through a trial migration and found the process to be extremely tedious. Even though Exchange 2010 SP2 contains a wizard that is designed to make the process easier, migrating still involves a lot of work.  Because I only had two users on my production network, I decided to start from scratch with Office 365 rather than going through the hassle of a migration.

I have only been using Office 365 for about two weeks now, but overall I am pleased with the experience. The only thing on my production network that I wasn't able to outsource was my file server. In the interest of keeping things simple, I am going to replace my file server with a dedicated NAS appliance.

Even though Office 365 has worked out well so far, there have been a few surprises. One surprise was that all of a sudden I started getting a lot more spam. When I hosted my mailbox locally I received about 1200 spam messages each day. I had been using GFI MailEssentials to weed out most of the spam. When I switched over to Office 365, all of that spam suddenly began flooding my Inbox. Microsoft gives you ForeFront Online Protection for Exchange as a part of the Office 365 subscription, but it took quite a bit of effort to fine tune it to the point that it took care of most of my spam without getting rid of any legitimate mail.

Another surprise was what happened to my e-mail address. When you first setup Office 365, you are assigned an e-mail domain that ends in .onmicrosoft.com. Once you assign your own domain to the account you can receive messages using your regular e-mail address. However, any messages that you send have a reply address within the .onmicrosoft.com domain. Supposedly there is a way to fix this through PowerShell, but I haven't had time to look up the commands yet.

One of the things that I have really liked about Office 365 so far (besides the reliability) is that  it uses familiar tools and products. For example, Exchange Server makes use of the Exchange Control Panel, just as an on-premise Exchange 2010 deployment would.

Another bonus is that Office 365 (or at least the subscription that I chose) includes Microsoft Lync. Although I have worked with Lync in a lab environment, I did not use it on my production network. I plan to use Lync so that I can have video chats with my wife while I am on the road. I have already configured Lync and should get the chance to test it out tomorrow when I travel to New York.

Even though it was painful to have to give up my on-premise production network, Office 365 seems promising. If nothing else, using Office 365 should decrease the amount of time and money that I have to spend maintaining my network.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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