More Than Just Office 365

With cloud monopolizing many IT discussions, a great many organizations are somewhere between dipping their toes in and having one foot fully in the cloud. Many get started with Office 365. As with any new technology, embracing it involves learning, planning, and yes, making a few mistakes, before making the plunge.

Organizations are moving toward the cloud slowly. For the sake of discussion, let’s discuss full cloud implementations, not including Software as a Service (SaaS): e.g., services such as Salesforce.com. This is because SaaS apps are fully hosted by their provider, and the subscribing organization does not concern itself with the infrastructure or back end.

Microsoft is a marketing machine when it comes to selling Office 365, which is frequently the tip of the nose toward a move to the cloud. Microsoft often approaches CIOs and COOs to sell them on Office 365 with little input, if any, from their infrastructure or server teams. Then, these teams, including the former Exchange administrators, are told that they must implement Office 365 successfully. However, that may not be as easy as expected or anticipated, especially where virtualized servers and desktops are deployed.

Office 365 + Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop

For the purposes of this discussion, Citrix is principally referenced, but the same basic premise applies to VMware View and other virtualization solutions as well.

A basic characteristic for a virtualized infrastructure should be that the back-end data must be physically and logically near the virtualized servers and desktops, so that communications can flow without delay. This is applicable whether the back-end data is a SQL Server database, an Exchange server, or any other data repository.

When Office 365 is moved to the cloud, the physical and logical proximity is no longer within the same data center. Even where a robust connection exists to Azure, network latency is a key factor that negatively impacts the user experience.

When a new user starts up Office 365 in a Citrix environment, for example, Outlook auto-configures in online mode. That means that every new email, every search, everything must be sent over the wire, and the user experience is horrible. Rather than waiting milliseconds for an Exchange server to respond to a request within the data center, the user waits seconds, and sometimes plenty of them, for the Office 365 communications to complete.

In this scenario, the front end of the user experience resides in one place, and the back end for Office 365 is located elsewhere. Thus, separating Outlook from its data violates one of the fundamental rules of providing a good user experience within a virtualized environment. The CIO/COO hadn’t planned for this (and no one from Microsoft warned them about it), so the IT team feverishly searches for a solution.

The easiest and most common solution is to implement cached mode, in which some data is made available locally within the user profile. Even if cached mode is set to the minimum period of time, one month, storage requirements increase accordingly.  Let’s say that one month’s cache for each user is 300K to 500K, and that needs to be multiplied by the total number of users. If the default cache of three months is enabled, this number would be multiplied by three. Ouch!

Another alternative is to keep an element of Exchange in the data center configured in hybrid mode.  This essentially means that local Exchange server(s) work in conjunction with cloud-based Office 365. Although the initial intention to adopt Office 365 probably targeted the elimination of Exchange servers in the data center, hybrid deployment warrants consideration during the transition to the cloud, as well as if the move to the cloud is slow or perhaps just never comes to fruition.

This last scenario is likely one that wasn’t planned but may become necessary. After all, if the cost and efficiency for Office 365 was justified based on removing Exchange servers, and then Exchange remains in place after all in hybrid mode, then the expected cost savings won’t be achieved.

While Office 365 solutions are available from FSLogix and Unidesk (recently acquired by Citrix), these alternatives require learning a new technology. While these are indeed viable options for this Office 365 issue, it nonetheless complicates what was expected to be a simple deployment of Office 365.

Of course, the goal for many organizations is to move the entire virtualized infrastructure to Azure, but very few are quite ready to make that leap. This would mean that all back-end data would be moved to the cloud, with no data in the corporate data center. Then, once again, all data would be near the Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop infrastructure, and the user experience would again be optimized.

The transition to Office 365 does indeed have many benefits. However, many people expect it be fast and easy, and it’s not uncommon to encounter some unexpected complications along the way.

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