Microsoft touts Office 365 wins, but customers want more

There are now more than 1 million government staffers using the Microsoft cloud email and collaboration suite

By , IDG News Service |  Enterprise Software, Microsoft Office, Office 365

Microsoft is trumpeting Office 365 customer successes at its U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit on Wednesday, but some of those otherwise happy clients have a wish list of features and enhancements they'd like to see in the vendor's cloud email and collaboration suite.

Microsoft announced eight Office 365 government and education customers, including the governments of Kansas City and Seattle, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and King County, Washington.

The company also said that more than 1 million workers are now using Office 365 in federal, state and local government agencies.

A couple of the customers announced on Wednesday touted a variety of benefits and efficiencies derived from the use of Office 365, including lower IT maintenance and equipment costs from turning off on-premise servers, as well as improved employee collaboration and communication.

However, they're also looking forward to continued Office 365 enhancements in areas like compliance with security regulations, usage analytics, software upgrade procedures, system administrator tools and service outage information.

The King County government has licensed Office 365 for about 10,000 employees, and is primarily using SharePoint Online for collaboration and Lync Online for IM, presence and videoconferencing.

The organization has more than 1,000 SharePoint sites for team collaboration, document sharing and project coordination, and Lync is being used widely to do live virtual meetings and record training videos, according to King County CIO Bill Kehoe.

King County plans to take its on-premise intranet to the cloud using SharePoint and will adopt the suite's Exchange Online component for email next year in order to turn off its on-premise Exchange 2010 system.

King County began using Microsoft hosted software with Office 365's predecessor, BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) in early 2011. It moved to Office 365 in February of last year.

"One efficiency has been that we don't have to build out an on-premise server environment for SharePoint and Lync," Kehoe said. "We rely on Microsoft's infrastructure, and they do the software upgrades and take care of the system maintenance."

"When we get our intranet fully into the cloud and move email to the cloud, over time those efficiencies will grow even more," he added.

Going forward, Kehoe wants Microsoft to make sure that Office 365 is as fully compliant as possible with U.S. government security regulations, such as the new Criminal Justice Information Service requirements.

"If we have to have a hybrid environment, where we have to build out on-premise servers for certain departments and agencies, that cuts down on our return-on-investment," he said. "The more we can put into the cloud, the more efficiencies and savings we're going to get."

Kehoe also wants Microsoft to beef up the usage analytics on SharePoint Online, which is essential for business managers to determine how effective their collaboration sites are.

A more robust, native enterprise search capability in Office 365 would also be welcome by King County, especially once it rolls out its cloud-based intranet, he said.

Kehoe also thinks Microsoft could improve its process for updating Office 365 on its back end by giving customers more advance notice that these upgrades are happening and what changes they'll introduce, so IT departments are ready.

"Microsoft has been unable to pinpoint for us when a specific upgrade will occur given the cloud environment of Office 365," he said. This makes it difficult for his department to alert the agencies it serves about possible impacts to SharePoint services stemming from the upgrade. Luckily the upgrades themselves have gone smoothly so far, he added.

His team is also working with Microsoft to make sure King County's network connectivity is designed optimally to work with Office 365, to avoid performance issues, which affect the satisfaction and efficiency of end users. In the past, King County had video conferencing quality problems because its network wasn't configured properly to work with BPOS.

Unlike King County, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is using Office 365 mostly for email and calendaring. This has allowed it to free up IT department staffers from doing routine administration and management tasks on its now shut down on-premise Exchange servers, and instead focus on more valuable, airport-specific IT work.

"There's a lot of time and effort involved in the care and feeding of on-premise servers, including applying patches, updating the OS, doing security upgrades, and so on," said Howard Kourik, IT director at the Airport Authority.

Kourik would like Microsoft to be more proactive and detailed whenever it has an Office 365 outage or performance glitch, because he finds that the system status website doesn't provide enough clarity and information in these instances.

Other improvements Kourik would like to see are better functionality for system administrators to search email inboxes and archives in response to public information or legal requests, as well as better features for recovering files that end users delete by mistake.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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