This article is covering my thoughts on the usability of Outlook using MSOL’s Exchange Hosted, I will cover the administration in a later post. If I was going to throw a rating out there it’d be a solid 8/10, with a perfect 10 being a local connection to a healthy Exchange server. Keep in mind as I review this service, I’m looking at it from the point of view of a user in a small business who is migrating from an Exchange server.
- Your data can’t get any safer. It’s locked away in a Microsoft data center, not on some tapes that you’re supposed to bring home, but in reality you just leave them on the table by the server. OK, you take them home and stick them on the table by the door so you won’t forget them. Either way, Microsoft is being safer with your data than you likely are. Or at least I hope so.
- Universal accessibility. Your Exchange server is now outside your company’s little walled domain. No VPN required, users get the same email experience at home as they have at work, and it all stays in sync. This means calendars, free/busy time, email, public folders that are hosted by MSOL, OWA and ActiveSync connectivity for mobile devices, everyone gets easy full access to it. This is huge, and outweighs many cons for us.
- Easy to set up. You install the Microsoft Online Sign In tool, give it your login and password, then press two simple buttons to set up the machine. A user who is not technically adept can be sent a link to the download with simple instructions, and they will not have a problem getting it up and running. Well, on second thought, no guarantee on the prior statement.
- It can feel slower. You’re no longer pulling the data from a local source, and you can notice it now and then. Cached Exchange mode works well enough, but new messages are sometimes not available quite as quickly as you expect, and mailboxes or Free/Busy time can take time to populate. I wouldn’t call it a hindrance, but you will likely notice it as you work.
- Bugs. There’s a lot of quirks to this service. None are showstoppers, but it’s worth noting that this service is not a seamless Exchange hosting machine. I am making heavy use of their ticketing system to work out all the wrinkles.
- Read/Unread status can be inconsistent. Messages read at one location (e.g. Home computer) might not always be marked read on another workstation (e.g. Office computer) I haven’t nailed down the circumstances that cause this yet. Not a big deal, but it can be annoying.
- Outlook 2003 is not 100% supported. Outlook 2003 has a bug with viewing another user’s Free/Busy time that necessitates installing a ‘connector’ piece of software. Normal calendar sharing works fine. This only affects the Free/Busy view you get in situations like when using the Scheduling Assistant. I imagine there are probably other issues that we just have not seen because we don’t use the feature(s).
- Outlook Web Access (OWA) has terrible support for sharing calendars. This isn’t so much MSOL as it is OWA, but it’s worth noting that it is in no way improved with this service. This may change when they move from Exchange 2007 to 2010.
- Irritatingly simple bugs in the Sign In tool. After installing the Sign In tool and configuring Outlook, you close Outlook. Next time you reopen Outlook, it asks you which profile you want to load. (regardless of whether more than one is available) You tell it, and check the “Always use this Profile” box. It will ignore you and prompt you every time until you manually go to Control Panel –> Mail –> Show Profiles, set your profile and tell it to “Always remember this profile. Perhaps this has nothing to do with MSOL and it’s an Outlook bug, but I only see this issue when configuring MSOL accounts.
- Connectivity. You are no longer connected to Exchange over a rock solid LAN. You are throwing your information out into the Information Superhighway onto the back of a speeding truck, and sometimes there are accidents ahead on the road. You will get messages about your connection being lost now and then, and it usually doesn’t matter. The break in connection might only last seconds. (we have had one outage that was a problem on their end, and lasted a few hours) Luckily, Cached exchange mode, and a well oiled Outbox that retries for you means that 99.99% of the time it’s not an issue. Notice I didn’t use five 9’s there though.
Overall, I’m very glad we made the move, and our users seem to agree; especially the mobile/remote users. The added productivity and functionality for them alone was worth the price of admission to Hosted Exchange. I realize the list of Cons is long, but the bugs this new service has are usually small, and not too hard to workaround with either sysadmin superpowers, or Microsoft’s excellent tech support. That being said, there are a lot more of them than I ever expected.
Even though the road is bumpy, the destination is worthwhile.