Posey's Tips & Tricks

The Office 365 and Azure Interface Makeover

Microsoft takes a right step in the direction of consistency with the redesign of its two major cloud offerings.

In recent years, Microsoft's approach in creating user interfaces has been a little bit confusing, to say the least. We're all familiar with the Windows 8 debacle in which users had to flip back and forth between two different interfaces just to use the OS. However, Windows 8 is really only just one example of inconsistencies within Microsoft user interfaces. Microsoft's cloud products suffer from similar issues.

As I'm sure you know, Microsoft offers two different public cloud environments. First, there is the Azure cloud. The Azure cloud could be described in many different ways, but I tend to think of it as an IaaS cloud. Azure provides the framework that allows administrators to build and host virtual machines, databases, and other infrastructure components.

Microsoft's other public cloud solution is Office 365. Like Azure, there are many different ways of thinking of Office 365, but I like to think of Office 365 as a SaaS cloud.

The reason why I started out with a comparison to Windows 8 is that although Microsoft has two main cloud solutions, they have three interfaces. First, there is the Azure interface, which you can see in Figure 1. It's a nice interface, but admittedly, it can take a bit of getting used to.

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 1. This is Microsoft's new Azure interface.

Microsoft's second cloud interface is the Office 365 interface, which you can see in Figure 2. This interface gets the job done, but it is completely different from the Azure interface. I always assumed that Microsoft loosely modeled this interface after the Exchange Admin Center, which you can see in Figure 3.

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 2. This is the Office 365 interface.

 

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 3. The Office 365 interface reminds me of the Exchange Admin Center.

So what about the third interface? Well, the third interface is also an Office 365 interface. Figure 2 shows the admin side of the Office 365 interface, but there is also a user side as well.  The user portion of the Office 365 portal somewhat resembles Windows, with its collection of brightly colored tiles. These tiles provide access to the various Office 365 applications that a user is likely to need access to. You can see what this interface looks like in Figure 4.

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 4. Office 365 includes a user portal.

My point is that there isn't much consistency among Microsoft's cloud environments. As you have seen, Office 365 and Azure, which are often used together, have completely different administrative interfaces. Furthermore, there has historically been a lot of inconsistency even within the Office 365 admin centers. The Exchange Admin Center and the SharePoint Admin center for example, were once totally different from one another.

Although I'm not a big fan of administrative interface inconsistency, I do understand the reason why these inconsistencies exist. Many of the Office 365 applications started life as standalone applications that were designed to be used on premises. When Microsoft ported these applications to the cloud, it needed to create interfaces that were somewhat similar to what administrators were already using in order to help the transition to the cloud to seem less jarring.

Thankfully, Microsoft does seem to be moving toward providing its customers with a more consistent experience. The SharePoint Admin Center is beginning to look more like the Exchange Admin Center and the Office 365 Admin Center, although elements from previous SharePoint versions (such as the toolbar) still exist, as shown in Figure 5.

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 5. This is the SharePoint Admin Center within Office 365.

Microsoft also seems to be making an effort to provide a more consistent management experience across Office 365 and Azure. Both cloud environments are getting new interfaces. Keep in mind that these interfaces are not identical to one another and, quite frankly, I'm not sure that Microsoft could get away with using identical interfaces for Azure and Office 365 right now. The interfaces were so different from one another that if Microsoft decided to outfit Office 365 with an Azure interface (or vice versa) it would upset many of its customers.

Rather than trying to make the new interfaces identical to one another, Microsoft has made the two environments more similar to each other, while still retaining elements from the previous interface. You can see the new Azure interface in Figure 6 (the old interface was shown in Figure 1). The new Office 365 interface is shown in Figure 7 (the old interface was shown in Figure 2). It is worth noting that this interface is not yet complete. This is a preview release.

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 6. This is the new Azure interface.

 

[Click on image for larger view.]  Figure 7. This is a preview release of the new Office 365 interface.

I think it's great that Microsoft is starting to make the Office 365 and Azure interfaces more similar to one another. I suspect that in time, Microsoft will eventually make the interfaces completely consistent. Of course those who want complete consistency today can have that consistency by managing the environments through PowerShell rather than relying on the GUI.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-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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