It’s been a while since we started the whole back-end transition over to Office 365, so I figured it was about time I wrote up some thoughts on the experience.
To give you some background, our organization has about 1200 users, currently using FirstClass for email. Last year we set up Google Apps for Education. While a few users did experiment with GAFE tools, I believe that has mostly died out and it is mainly used for SSO purposes for our LMS – Haiku.
This year we took a hard look at where we wanted to go. We felt like a cloud based solution was preferable because it provides:
- Lower hardware overhead
- Less software maintenance
- More reliability with multiple levels of backup and redundancy
- Better continuity in a disaster
(Looking at the solutions, I saw that Google was EVERYWHERE, which is good, I guess. If you’re into the mainstream sort of thing. My inner hipster was repulsed.)
"Google Apps are so mainstream they make my head hurt."
So, who are the players and what do you get?
Google Apps for Education
- Free for education
- Cloud based
- Google apps
- All the Google stuff
- SSO with all Google services and the AD
Microsoft Office 365 (A2 Plan)
- Free for education
- Cloud based
- Outlook email
- Office apps
- AD integration
- SSO internally
- Sharepoint integrated (mostly)
Here's what you need to know about both offerings out of the gate. They're free – yup, they’re free. Sorry businesses, you get to pay. This is one of those times we get to revel in being in education. Also, summer.
Odds are good you have some knowledge of Google apps. If you don’t, welcome to 2013, please make yourself at home. If you need a primer on Google apps, take a look at this. Here’s the problem with Google Apps. They aren’t Office apps. Yeah, I can hear the sighs and see eye rolls, but here’s the deal –there are some novice users out there who are thrown by this. Office 365 uses Office Web Apps in your browser, in the same way Google uses Google Apps. The only difference is that they are like Word, Excel and Powerpoint “lite”. The interfaces are extremely familiar – just missing a few buttons. If you need those buttons, it’s really easy to pull the documents down to your Office applications on your computer, open them up and then save them back to the cloud. Doing this, users have anywhere access and begin to understand working in this way. So what apps do you get?
- Word – Yep, it’s Word. You’ll miss the drawing tools, advanced layout, mailing, references and review tabs in the ribbon.
- Excel – You might recognize this as… Excel. Still missing some of the functionality of the desktop application, but (and this is a big one) it does Excel formulas – right there in the browser.
- Powerpoint – Want to collaborate on a presentation? Now you can, without converting or any of that jazz.
- Lync - You may not be as familiar with this one. This is a collaboration application that let's you chat, video chat and share your desktop with other users in and out of the organization - neat!
What’s that you say? You need more functionality than the Web Apps? No problem, just click the “Open in Word” (or Powerpoint or Excel) button in the Web App ribbon and BOOM! The document is downloaded to your Office application. You make your changes and when you save it’s zapped back up to the cloud. So what's the downside? Well, they aren't as collaborative as Google Apps. One user at a time in Word documents online, Excel allows multiple users, but you can't see their edits - not great. My friendly Microsoft rep tells me that those features are coming "very soon", so I'm hopeful.
Ok, so being everywhere is actually good. More support, a community of users to turn to. So why didn’t we go Google? (Warning: technical content) Our entire infrastructure is built upon Microsoft Active Directory. Microsoft’s Office 365 environment integrates directly into the existing AD environment to leverage all the work we have already done to set up our network and transition that to the cloud. Propagate users, permissions, groups, everything to the cloud. No muss, no fuss. To be fair, Google has connectors that will tie-in to the Active Directory to accomplish the same thing, however, I believe the more moving parts a system has, the more likely it is to fail. In theory, Office 365 is a simpler system.
Next week, look for the the exciting tale of our Office 365 implementation.