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Microsoft Issues Best Practices Guide for Office 365 ProPlus Deployments

Microsoft has published a "Preferred Practices for Office 365 ProPlus Deployment" guide for IT pros.

The guide, available as a OneNote file download, is currently dated Sept. 26, but the document gets updated periodically by Microsoft. The guide's availability was announced last month in this Office blog post. It can be downloaded from Microsoft's Office 365 FastTrack page here.

The download page for the guide states that all organizations "should follow this guidance throughout the lifecycle of Office 365 ProPlus deployments."

Office 365 ProPlus is essentially the Microsoft Office desktop productivity suite (consisting of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, Word and other applications) offered on a monthly subscription-based licensing basis. It's different from traditional perpetual-license versions of Microsoft Office in that software feature updates for Office 365 ProPlus are automatically streamed down to individual desktops via Microsoft's "click-to-run" update technology, so the software is frequently updated in a service-like manner. In contrast, software feature updates to Office Professional Plus 2016, Microsoft's productivity suite offering for volume licensing subscribers, typically get installed by IT pros via .MSI files.

Even though Microsoft handles the feature updates for users of Office 365 ProPlus subscriptions, IT pros are still tasked with assessing their infrastructures and planning for the initial migration to using the service. Additionally, they are tasked with deploying Office 365 ProPlus in their computing environments and managing it after it's been deployed.

Assessment
On the assessment side, the guide explained that organizations likely can anticipate possible application compatibility issues if they have been using "VBA [Visual Basic for Applications], Macros, third-party add-ins and complex documents." Microsoft's guide directs IT pros to initiate a discovery process involving select business users to test such "high-priority documents" for compatibility with Office 365 ProPlus.

IT pros can also use Microsoft's "Office telemetry" solution to gather information on application compatibility. Office telemetry is built into Office 2016 and will keep a log on events associated with Office document use, which is called the "Telemetry Log," a companion to the "Telemetry Dashboard," which is essentially an Excel workbook. Office telemetry was first introduced in Office 2013 and can be used with older versions of Office, although an agent has to be deployed first to collect the application compatibility information, according to this Microsoft TechNet article description. The Telemetry Dashboard article, though, explains that a registry edit is required to enable the telemetry agent for older Office versions, so Microsoft hasn't exactly provided a ready-built discovery tool for organizations that are considering migrations to Office 365 ProPlus.

Planning and Deployment
The planning phase of the guide has a focus on setting up user groups. The idea is to follow Microsoft's "channel membership" approach to getting Office 365 ProPlus updates. This scheme is associated with three Office ProPlus software releases, which are called "channels." There's a "current channel" monthly release, a "deferred channel" release every four months and an early test version called "first release for deferred channel." Here's how organizations should segregate Office 365 ProPlus users, per the guide:

  • 1% get Current Channel
  • 10% get First Release for Deferred Channel
  • 89% get Deferred Channel

If an organization gets its Office 365 ProPlus updates via Microsoft's Office content delivery network, then the update delivery will follow the channel model that has been set up for end users, delivering updates to desktops automatically via click-to-run streaming. However, if Office 365 ProPlus updates are distributed from an organization's server located on their infrastructure (that is, a local file share, or "premises"-based resource), then the click-to-run distribution service won't follow the channel model that's been set up.  

"An important note with Office 365 ProPlus is that once the builds are hosted on premises, the Office client is missing the proper channel management control as previously stated and the update engine will pick up the latest available build rather than the associated channel membership," the guide noted, under its "Manage" chapter.

Microsoft's concept is that the testing of Office 365 ProPlus updates should happen by a small group of end users. With its new "agile" approach to software delivery, Microsoft officials have been downplaying the traditional cautious patch testing model employed by IT pros in which they test updates first before deploying company wide. Getting Office click-to-run updates on a central server was one way to do that kind of testing before rolling patches out broadly, but Microsoft's guide is saying that organizations going that route will lose channel model distinctions for end users.

The guide also advises against switching channels once they are set up. It's an obscure point. A switch will result in "a 100% file delta install," the guide states, implying a larger bandwidth hit than usual will follow. It's possible to skip an Office 365 ProPlus build, too, but the next update also will be a "100 percent file download," affecting bandwidth.

Deployment of the Office 365 ProPlus productivity suite to client devices gets carried out via the Office content delivery network (which is called "off-premise distribution") or via an on-premises local file share. Organizations with internal software tools for software distribution management and a local file share should use them, the guide explained. Microsoft does provide its Office 2016 Deployment Tool, which lets IT pros "customize and manage Office 2016 Click-to-Run deployments." It provides customizable XML templates for configuration purposes. It's also possible to deploy and configure using Group Policy. Microsoft provides Office 2016 Administrative Template files for use with Group Policy configurations.

Helpful Resource
In a nutshell, Microsoft's "Preferred Practices for Office 365 ProPlus Deployment" guide is probably a pretty helpful resource. However, IT pros likely will still have to shuffle through the guide's external links to TechNet articles to get all of the information they'll need.

In the end, the click-to-run streaming updates and channel models associated with using Office 365 ProPlus might not mean less work for organizations, even though it may sound like it's an easier model to manage. Essentially, organizations will have to address the frequent software update model of Office 365 ProPlus by relying on feedback from internal "guinea pig" testers. Microsoft's model implies a change in IT's traditional gatekeeper practices as well.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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