Category Archives: UC&C

A few quick notes on Office 365 Groups

Today the Office 365 team announced the rollout of the first phase of the Groups feature. I hadn’t been playing close attention to the roadmap for this particular feature, so I decided to play around with it and report my findings. Rather than the kind of carefully reasoned analysis you might expect from Tony or Van Hybrid, this is sort of a stream-of-consciousness record of my initial exploration. However, it probably reflects how most customers will discover and use the feature. Remember that this is written within a few hours after the feature launched, so things that I call out as not working or missing may not be lit up in my tenant yet.

  • First, I looked around to figure out how to create a new group. The screenshot in the online help shows Groups appearing in the left-side folder nav bar. I didn’t see that in my tenant. When I switched to the People view, I noticed that the People search selector had a “Groups” item available, but since there were no groups that wasn’t super helpful. Clicking the “New” icon at the upper right of the People view gave me a modal pop-up asking me whether I wanted to create a new group or person. The interface for creating new groups is straightforward: give your group a name, add some people to it, and off you go. Here’s what it looks like:
Creating a new group is straightforward.

Creating a new group is straightforward.

Note that there’s no way to specify an email address for the group object. You can send mail to it from within OWA, or by clicking the envelope icon in the group information sheet, but there’s no visible external SMTP address to, send to. This seems like an oversight.

  • The group documentation says that newly created groups get their own OneDrive for Business folder and group mailbox, but I haven’t yet seen any signs of those objects in my tenant. However, the docs also say that group members will get a “welcome to your new group” email once those objects have been created, and because that hasn’t shown up yet, I’m guessing that there’s just a short provisioning delay.
  • I created a new group named “Managing Consultants”. I picked that name on purpose, because I already had a mail-enabled security group with the same name. The Groups interface happily let me create a duplicate. The existing USG doesn’t show up in the Groups interface in OWA, nor does the new Group show up in Outlook’s online GAL (which may just be an artifact of AD latency). The help topic for creating and navigating groups shows a number of settings that aren’t visible in my tenant. For example, you can supposedly change the URL used to access the group or set the group to either private or public– those options aren’t available to me yet.
  • I clicked on the mail icon to create a message and sent it off; it arrived immediately in the target mailboxes. Interestingly, though, the group name doesn’t show up in Outlook; instead, the individual group members’ names appear.
  • Even after creating two groups and sending a message to one of them, neither group appeared in the OWA left navigation bar. Surprisingly, they didn’t appear in the OneDrive nav bar either:
Where'd my groups go?

Where’d my groups go?

  • Bizarrely, clicking the “Browse groups” item opens a new OWA window, which opens in mail view, not the People view. The new OWA window’s left nav bar has a People section, but it’s empty– even though the original OWA window I kept open still correctly shows unread mail from people in my Inbox.
  • When I create a Group, it doesn’t appear as an available group in Yammer. I presume this is by design.
  • I didn’t test Group conversations because there are no visible Group objects in OWA where the docs say they should be.

From the bumpy state of feature display and behavior at this point, I infer that there’s a multi-step provisioning task that runs when a new Group is created, and that at least the ODB step hasn’t run yet. This might confuse users who wonder why they can use a group for one purpose (sending mail) but not another (ODB). I’ll wait a day or so for the provisioning and loop back to see which of these items are bugs and which are just caused by setup delays.

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Exchange Connections wrap-up wrap-up

Over at the Summit 7 blog, I have a post detailing some of my higher-level thoughts from this year’s Exchange Connections conference. I also had a few less-structured things to throw out there, thus this post.

First, I was really thankful to be able to see and spend time with so many of my good friends from the Exchange tribe. With the untimely demise of our friend Andrew Ehrensing fresh in my mind, I really appreciated getting to see Tony, Paul, Nathan, Wes, Michael, Jaap, Michel, Amy, Jay, Joel, Sigi, Andrew, Bhargav, Greg, the two Jeffs, Chris, Dave, Megan– and that’s just who I can remember off the top of my head (sorry if I’ve forgotten anyone). One of the biggest benefits of Exchange Connections and MEC is the close engagement it fosters within our community.

Second, sometimes session attendance offers surprising insights. I had 3 sessions: one on Managed Availability, one on Office 365 migration, and one on Lync/Exchange feature integration. I expected the migration session to draw the biggest crowd, but my Managed Availability session was jam-packed, and the Lync session was well-attended too– despite the fact that the integration items I talked about are well-documented and fairly common. I got some good attendee questions, which I’ll be using as blog fodder. It was a bit surprising to see how few attendees had deployed SharePoint, although that may have been because the real SharePoint devotees were in other sessions. Few of the attendees in my session had already deployed Office 365, although again those who had were probably in other sessions.

All three went well, though I felt a little flat in the second half of the first session. Thankfully none of my sessions were in the first time slot of the day, nor were any on the last day. My experience with Vegas conferences has been that being first up or on the last day means that attendees will be {tired, hung over, broke} and not at their most receptive.

Speaking of Vegas conferences: the Aria is a great property and I hope that future Exchange Connections conferences return there. I never did get to try their vaunted red velvet pancakes (Tony, here’s a recipe if you want to try them at home) but the conference food itself was decent and the meals I had (at Javier’s and the Aria Cafe) were quite good.

With Exchange Connections out of the way, my next planned event is the MVP Summit in Redmond in November. The Exchange MVPs have a long list of things we want to vigorously discuss with the product team, so I am looking forward to getting everyone in the same room again and having it out!

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New ADAL hopefully means Outlook MFA coming soon

Remember back in April when I wrote this post on multi-factor authentication (MFA) for Office 2013? (It’s OK if you don’t, because you can go read it now.) Good news: one of the things required to ship MFA in office is an updated version of the Active Directory Authentication Library, or ADAL. Well, guess what? A couple of days ago, Microsoft announced a major Azure AD update that includes a new release of ADAL. The release notes don’t specifically mention MFA support in ADAL, but they do say that ADAL 2.0 supports “new authentication flows” so I am hopeful that this is the release required to unlock Office 2013 MFA support. I guess we’ll see; it wouldn’t surprise me to see Microsoft announce its availability at TechEd Europe, since that’s the next major event on their schedule. Stay tuned…

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Moving to Summit 7 Systems

It must be the season or something. Like several of my peers (e.g. Paul, Phoummala, and Michael, to name 3), I’m moving on from my current position to a unique new challenge. In my case, I’m taking the role of Principal Architect at Summit 7 Systems.

Astute readers may remember that, just about a year ago, I joined Dell’s global services organization as a global principal consultant. I was fortunate to work with a large group of extremely smart and talented people, including several MCMs (Todd, Dave, Andrew, Ron, and Alessandro, y’all know who I’m talking about!) Working for a large company has both its benefits and challenges, but I was happy with the work I was doing and the people I was working with. However, then this happened.

Scott Edwards, cofounder of Summit 7 and a longtime friend from my prior time in Huntsville, told me that he wanted to grow Summit 7’s very successful business, previously focused on SharePoint and business process consulting, to expand into Office 365, Lync, and Exchange. Would I be interested in helping? Yes, yes, I would. Summit 7 is already really well known in the SharePoint world, with customers such as NASA, Coca-Cola, Nucor Steel, and the State of Minnesota. SharePoint consulting is a very different world in many ways from what I’m used to, so it will be interesting, challenging, and FUN to carry the Lync/Exchange/365 torch into a new environment.

In my new role, I’ll be building a practice essentially from scratch, but I’ll be able to take advantage of Summit 7’s deep bench of project management, business process consulting, marketing, and sales talent. I’m excited by the opportunity, which is essentially the next step forward from my prior work as a delivery specialist. I am not yet taking over the role of Summit 7’s corporate pilot, but that’s on my to-do list as well. (A couple of folks have already asked, and the answer is: yes, I will be flying myself occasionally to customer gigs, something that Dell explicitly forbade. Can’t wait!)

This is an exciting opportunity for me and I relish the chance to get in and start punching. Stay tuned! (Meanwhile, you can read the official Summit 7 press release here.)

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Microsoft replaces MEC, LyncConf, SPC with new “unified technology event”

So the news is out: Microsoft is rolling MEC, Lync Conference, and SharePoint Conference into a single “unified commercial technology conference” in Chicago next year. MVPs were notified that this change was in the works, and there was a lot of vigorous discussion. Now that the cat has been debagged, I wanted to share a few thoughts about this new conference. For perspective, I should say that I attended almost all of the original MEC conferences back in the day and hit both “next-gen” MECs and this year’s Lync Conference. I have also spoken at TechEd around a dozen times all told; I co-chaired Exchange Connections for a number of years and am a repeat speaker there as well, so I am thoroughly familiar with the landscape of Exchange and Lync-oriented conferences. (Since I haven’t been to SPC, any time I talk about MEC or LyC you can just mentally search-and-replace “SPC” in there if you like.)

Is this just TechEd 2.0?

The announcement, bylined with Julia White’s name, says that Microsoft is combining MEC, LyC, and SPC to provide a unified event that will give attendees “clearer visibility into Microsoft’s future technology vision and roadmap” and “unparalleled access to Microsoft senior leaders and the developers who write the code.” One of the most valuable aspects of the current set of product-specific conferences, of course, is the deep engagement with people from each specific product group. The enthusiasm and passion that the developers, testers, support engineers, PMs, and leaders of the Exchange and Lync product groups shines through: they are just as happy and excited to be there as the attendees are, and this creates a unique energy and sense of community that are consistently absent from TechEd.

Microsoft has been very successful at positioning TechEd as the generalists’ conference, with coverage of every part of their stack. Developers, architects, security engineers, and business decision makers all had content targeted at them, but it was often driven by Microsoft’s marketing agenda and not by customer demand. As the number of products in Microsoft’s portfolio has grown, TechEd hasn’t lengthened to accommodate more sessions; instead, the number of Exchange/Lync/Office 365 sessions has remained roughly constant even as those products have expanded. I think it’s fair to say that as a vehicle for deep technical information, TechEd’s glory days are far behind it. On the other hand, as a vehicle to showcase the Microsoft party line, TechEd thrived. It became clear several years ago that individual product communities would greatly benefit from having their own conferences to focus on their unique needs. Exchange Connections did a good job of filling this niche, of course, but first SPC, then LyC, then MEC proved that these product-specific conferences engendered a very high degree of attendee (and exhibitor) satisfaction and engagement, and they proved the high value of having a Microsoft-led and -organized conference with enthusiastic participation from the big wheels in each product group.

The announcement goes on to say “feedback from attendees across the past conferences asking for more content and product team engagement across Microsoft versus just within one product area.” In complete sincerity, I can say that none of the hundreds of MEC or LyC attendees, or MVPs, or Microsoft product group folks I have spoken to have said “gee, what we really need is a big conference that covers all of Microsoft’s UC&C products.” I do know that the product groups have aggressively sought and carefully considered feedback from attendees at these conferences, so it’s certainly possible that they’ve been hearing something very different than I have. It is true that people whose duties or interests span multiple products have to go to multiple conferences, and this is a valid complaint. Many consultants can’t spare multiple weeks of bench time to attend all of the relevant conferences, and many smaller companies that are using multiple products aren’t able to budget multiple conferences either. So from their standpoint, perhaps this unification is a win.

Tony points out that there are great logistical and cost-savings benefits to Microsoft in consolidating the conference, and that exhibitors may prefer to have a larger, more diverse audience. I agree with the former; on the latter, I’m not sure. Companies whose product lines span multiple parts of the UC&C ecosystem may benefit; for example, ENow makes both Exchange and Lync monitoring solutions, so having both Lync and Exchange admins in the crowd is great for them. I’m not sure the same is true for exhibitors such as Polycom, AvePoint, or Sherpa Software, whose products focus on one Microsoft server.

Julia goes on to promise that “this unified conference will be every bit as awesome, every bit as valuable and in fact, it will exceed on both these measures. That is our maniacal focus and commitment to you, so hold us to it!” While I am naturally skeptical of broad and unsupported promises such as this, the many, many people involved in the existing round of conferences— from Julia and her staff to the individual product group folks like Jamie Stark and Brian Shiers to the MVP and MCM speakers— all have a huge interest in making sure that the new event meets the high bar set by the existing conference. That helps temper my skepticism with a high degree of optimism. The announcement promises more details on the conference (perhaps including a name?) in September, and I’d expect to see more details at TechEd EMEA in October.

One last note for speculation: if you were Julia, and you were planning on introducing new versions of your flagship products, wouldn’t it be logical to do it with a big splash at a new event? May 2015 is, conveniently, in the first half of calendar year 2015, and at MEC 2014 Microsoft told us to expect a new on-prem version of Exchange in the second half of 2015.

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Does Azure Machine Learning open the door for on-premises Office Graph?

Microsoft continues to expand the reach of its Azure services by introducing new capabilities, seemingly on a daily basis. Today I was surprised to see an announcement for the new Azure Machine Learning service (more background in this NY Times article). The link for the service apparently isn’t live yet, though.

The availability of this service raises some interesting questions around Office Graph, the set of nifty social-ish features that Microsoft introduced at SPC and reiterated at MEC and TechEd. We recently learned that, at least for now, there are no plans to offer Office Graph, and its associated features, to on-premises customers in the next release of Exchange Server. Carefully parse that statement; it could mean anything from “there will never be Office Graph features in on-prem Exchange” to “we can change our plans and include them at any time.”

It’s fair to say that Office Graph is designed to leverage the high scale of Office 365, and that because it is a resource-intesive group of processes and services, that there’s likely to be a lot of infrastructure for management, monitoring, and tuning of its components— not necessarily something that could trivially be unleashed on the existing base of on-premises customers. I’d bet that these services have a lot of interconnections, too. However, if Microsoft is adopting the Amazon approach of  “everything is a service”, as they seem to be, you’d think that having some parts of Office Graph running on Azure ML is not only possible but probable. And the Azure folks are clearly comfortable with hybrid environments, as witness the fact that the Forza 5 and Titanfall video games on Xbox One both make extensive use of Azure-based resources.

So, if Office Graph is (or could be) consuming Azure ML as a service, it would seem to lower the barrier for getting Office Graph-related services into on-prem Exchange. I’ll be watching closely to see what Microsoft announces, and even more closely to see what they do, around this issue— it seems like the best possible world would be one where on-prem customers can harness the scale of Azure to get access to Office Graph features and where Microsoft doesn’t have to engineer a complete support system around on-prem variants of the Office Graph components. Stay tuned…

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Creating an Office 365 demo tenant

One of the big advantage of software as a service (SaaS) is supposed to be reduced overhead: there are no servers to install or configure, so provisioning services is supposed to be much easier. That might be true for customers, but it isn’t necessarily true for us as administrators and consultants. Learning about Office 365 really requires hands-on experience. You can only get so far from reading the (voluminous) documentation and watching the (many and excellent) training videos that Microsoft has produced. However, there’s a problem: Office 365 costs money.

There are a few routes to get free access to Office 365. If you’re an MVP, you can get a free subscription, limited (I think) to 25 users. If you’re an MSDN subscriber, you can get a tenant with a single user license, which is fine for playtime but not terribly useful if you need a bigger lab. Microsoft also has a 30-day trial program (for some plans: Small Business Premium, Midsize Business, and Enterprise) that allows you to set up a tenant and use it, but at the end of that 30-day period the tenant goes away if you don’t pay for it. That means you can potentially waste a lot of effort customizing a tenant, creating users, and so on only to have it vanish unless you whip out the credit card.

I was a little surprised to find out recently that there’s another alternative: Microsoft has a tool that will create a new demo tenant on demand for you. You can customize many aspects of the tenant behavior, and you can use the provided user accounts (which include contact photos and real-looking sample emails and documents) or create your own. There are even vertical-specific packs that customize the environment for particular customer types. And it’s all free; no payment information is required. However, you do have to have a Windows Live ID that is associated with a Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) account. If you don’t have one, you can join MPN fairly easily.
All this goodness is available from www.microsoftofficedemos.com. Here’s what you need to do to use it.
  1. Go to http://www.microsoftofficedemos.com/ and log in.
  2. Click the “Get Demo” link in the top nav bar, or the “Create Demo” link on the page, or just go to https://www.microsoftofficedemos.com/Provision_step1.aspx. That will display the page below. Note that you can download VHDs that provide an on-prem version of the demo environment if you want those instead.
    Tenant01
  3. Make sure you’ve selected “Office 365 tenant” from the pulldown, then click “Next”. That will display a new page with four choices, all of which are pretty much self-explanatory. If you want an empty tenant to play around with, choose the “Create an empty Office 365 tenant”. If you want one that has users, email, documents, and so on, choose “Create new demo environment” instead.
    tenant02
  4. On the next page, you can choose whether you want the standard demo content or a vertical-specific demo pack. This will be a really useful option once Microsoft adds more vertical packs, but for now the only semi-interesting one is retail, and the provided demo guides (IMHO) are more useful for the standard set, so that’s what I’d pick. After you choose a data set, click “Create Your Demo”.
  5. The next page is where you name the tenant, and where Microsoft asks you to prove you’re not a bot by entering a code that they send to your mobile phone. (Bonus points if you know why I picked this particular tenant name!) The optional “Personalize Your Environment” button lets you change the user names (both aliases and full names) and contact pictures, so if you’re doing a demo for a particular customer you can put in the names of the people who will attend the demo to add a little spice. The simple option is to customize a single user; there’s one main user for each of the demos (which I’ll get to in a minute), but you can customize any or all of the 25 default users.
    Tenant04
  6. Once you click “Create My Account”, the demo engine will start creating your tenant  and provisioning it. This takes a while; for example, yesterday it took about 12 hours from start to finish. Provisioning demos is just about last on Microsoft’s priority list, so if you need a tenant in a hurry use the “create a blank tenant” option I mentioned earlier. You’ll see a progress page like the one below, but you’ll also get a notification email to the address you provided in step 5 when everything’s finished, so there’s no need to sit and watch it.
    Tenant06
Once the tenant is provisioned, you can log into it using any of the test users, or the default “admin” user. How do you know which users are configured (presuming you didn’t customize them, that is)? Excellent question. The demo guides provide a complete step-by-step script both for setting up the demo environment and executing the demo itself. For example, the Office 365 Enterprise “hero demo” is an exhaustive set of steps that covers all the setup you need to do on the tenant and whatever client machines you’re planning on using.
Once the tenant is provisioned, it’s good for 90 days. You can’t renew it, but at any time during the 90 days you can refresh the demo content so that emails, document modification times, and so on are fresh. And on the 91st day, you can just recreate the tenant; there doesn’t seem to be any explicit limit to the number of tenants you can create or the number of times you can create a tenant with a given name.
While the demo data set is quite rich, and the provided demo scripts give you a great walkthrough to show off Office 365, you don’t have to use them. If you just want a play area that you can test with, this environment is pretty much ideal. It has full SMTP connectivity, although I haven’t tested to verify that every federation and sharing feature works properly (so, for example, you might not be able to set up free/busy sharing with your on-prem accounts). I also don’t know whether there are any admin functions that have been RBAC’d to be off limits. (If you see anything like that, please post a comment here.)
Enjoy!

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