The Good, The Bad and the Cloud: Notes from an On-Premises Engineer

As a long time IT consultant/engineer, my primary work experience over the past 20 years has been with on-premises Exchange, Active Directory, Windows and Lync/OCS. However, with Microsoft and other hosted providers pushing more companies to go ‘cloud’ I thought I would give my perspective as a long time on-premises engineer. What I find fascinating the term cloud. We’ve basically turned a hosting provider into a ‘as-a-service’ provider. So if you need email, collaboration, file storage, identity management, we can now go to a ‘cloud’ provider. These cloud providers in turn provide a useful service as a relatively reasonable price and try to ease the complexities of an on-premises environment.

The Good

For the engineer, Office 365 brings a new set of challenges with which they can apply their on-premises skills to. Just because a service is hosted does not mean that it will be hands off or require a reduced skill set. Personal growth can occur in learning identity management (ADFS/DirSync), compliance *(IRM and DLP), more PowerShell (Exchange, SharePoint, Encryption, etc.) as well as new applications like Delve and PowerBI.

I see the following as a good reason to move to Office 365:

  • No Upgrading – a bane of the on-site engineer is updating servers, software, hardware firmware, etc. Moving services to the cloud eliminates that problem. Updating is now in the hands of the provider and they are solely responsible for it. New updates are provided as part of the per user cost. The end user, the consumer of the hosted services, perceives greater value from the additional features and less downtime due to the removal of system updates.
  • Increased collaboration – With Office 365, the integration of Exchange Online, IRM, SharePoint, One-Drive, Power BI, etc., allow for opportunities to leverage multiple technologies to provide a better end user experience. This is itself a goal of the internal IT department – provide a better end-user experience and allow the business to be more productive. Even the IT staff could potentially be more efficient with less servers the build and manage.
  • Features, Features, Features – At least with Office 365 the software is in a constant state of change, there is a chance a new, useful feature will be provided sooner rather than waiting for a Service Pack to be released, tested by the company and then released to employees. With cloud providers the features could be opened up to the end user at a faster pace. Which is a double edged sword (see ‘The Bad’ below).

    Also see the Office 365 Roadmap

  • Reduced Complexity – Removing servers and receiving the same services via Office 365 is one of the main selling points of the hosted service. By removing physical and even virtual servers we have less to manage, less to monitor and less to pay for. Reduction in hardware and software maintenance go along with this removal. This is certainly a selling point to take into consideration for the move to the cloud.

The Bad

Along with the good features that Office 365 can provide, there are also bad things that can occur. Perceptually cloud providers suffer from similar issues:

  • Connectivity issues – This could be a circuit down in the office from which your users are connecting from to general instability at your providers office. A down circuit to the Internet could produce issues for accessing email, corporate SharePoint sites and One Drive collaborations. To mitigate, understand where the weak points are and if you have multiple Internet links, make sure these will work in a DR scenario.
  • Service downtime – for office 365, review your Dashboard everyday and you will service issues that are occurring now. The issues that are displayed may or may not be affecting you. From time to time there are Exchange issues, SharePoint Issues, general portal issues, etc.

  • Technical Support – like any other support organization, you don’t put your A+ talent on the phones or the engineers who wrote the product. You invariably end up with an engineer with a year or two experience, or at least one that has to use the internal troubleshooting guides. It may take some time to resolve an issue, especially if it is out of the ordinary. I don’t have the patience any more for this and tend not to open cases with any hosting provider unless I am absolutely stuck, in a rush or just need the client to know we have begun all avenues if the problem is serious enough.
  • Change – From a support perspective, the ‘Internet Age’ of constant change tends to lead to support nightmares. From desktop support to third level support to the end user, the more rapidly things change, the harder it is to make things work smoothly. While I applaud providers from adding endless features for the end user, these changes should be paced better – quarterly? semi-annually? We can certainly see the impact that rapid change has – Office 365 Groups is one that gets picked on – as the end user gets what is perceived as a great feature, but the IT department may not have been notified that this was coming or how to stop it. What also is missed is reporting capabilities, compliance missteps, etc. The rapid release of features can have more of a negative impact than is desired by the cloud provider.
  • User Interface – in addition to the change bullet point, I find that changes to the administrative interface for a product to be annoying rather than productive. I can concede that without changes, no new features would be revealed or used, my issue is with re-arrangement and changes such as the tool bar for the top of the Admin page of Office 365. Consider this more of a personal preference, but having this change just makes management that much hard during transition for on-premises engineers.
  • Complexity – ironically while some complexity is removed, some complexity is added. While you can use Office 365 without any additional servers, most organizations will want some sort of additional functionality that DirSync and ADFS provide. With DirSync, we are limited to one server. With ADFS, however, a large organization can design and implement a very complex infrastructure. From one ADFS server to pools of ADFS / ADFS Proxy servers and possibly sets of load balancers. Add a DR site, and now we have more complexity added.

Thoughts on the Cloud

The above list is in no way comprehensive. However, what is an on-premises engineer supposed to do with technologies such as Office 365? Ignore the cloud and let it go and hope it dies? Adapt and go hybrid or jump in full boat? I will say it is folly to ignore the cloud completely. There are distinct advantages to a hosted provider. In the end it will come down to the organization, its leadership and the IT departments desire to provide needed services to the end user/organization.

Personally I see it as something new to learn and integrate into my own knowledge. Exchange Online is in reality only a bit different than Exchange Server on-premises. A hybrid messaging environment brings its own unique technical challenges and support. Going Hybrid allows you to recycle a lot of your ‘old’ skills and utilize them in the new Office 365 world. Messaging is messaging and the same can be said for PowerShell, AD, SharePoint, etc. While some features are muted due to the nature of a hosted environment, others are easier to turn on and utilize more fully.

For most on-premises environments, message encryption and IRM are complicated options to configure and integrate with existing architecture. However, with Office 365, these are easier to enable and actually use for the company. Items like DLP and transport rules care over along with message hygiene.

So don’t be afraid to adapt if your company is moving to the cloud. Learn to adapt your skill set to the new hybrid environment that is coming because I can tell you that the Office 365 cloud and any competing ‘clouds’ are not going away anytime soon.



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