Category Archives: UC&C

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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Mailbox-level backups in Office 365

Executive summary: there aren’t any, so plan accordingly.

Recently I was working with a customer (let’s call him Joe, as in “Joe Customer”) who was considering moving to Office 365. They went to our executive briefing center in Austin, where some Dell sales hotshots met and briefed them, then I joined in via Lync (with video!) for a demo. The demo went really well, and I was feeling good about our odds of winning the deal… until the Q&A period.

“How does Office 365 provide mailbox-level backups?” Joe asked.

“Well, it doesn’t,” I said. “Microsoft doesn’t give you direct access to the mailbox databases. Instead, they give you deleted item retention, plus you can use single-item retention and various types of holds.” Then I sent him this link.

“Let me tell you why I’m asking,” Joe retorted after skimming the link. “A couple of times we’ve lost our CIO’s calendar. He uses an Outlook add-in that prints out his calendar every day, and sometimes it corrupts calendar items. We need to be able to do mailbox-level backups so that we can restore any damaged items.”

At that point I had to admit to being stumped. Sure enough, there is no Office 365 feature or capability that protects against this kind of logical corruption. You can’t use New-MailboxExportRequest or the EAC to export the contents of Office 365 mailboxes to PST files. You obviously can’t run backup tools that run on the Exchange server against your Office 365 mailbox databases; there may exist tools that use EWS to directly access a mailbox and make a backup copy, but I don’t know of any that are built for that purpose.

I ran Joe’s query past a few folks I know on the 365 team. Apart from the (partially helpful) suggestion not to run Outlook add-ins that are known to corrupt data, none of them had good answers either.

While it’s tempting to view the inability to do mailbox-level backups as a limitation, it’s perfectly understandable. Microsoft spent years trying to get people not to run brick-level backups using MAPI. The number of use cases for this feature is getting smaller each year as both the data-integrity and retention features of Exchange get better. In fact, one of the major reasons that we now have single-item recovery in its current form is because customers kept asking for expanded tools to recover deleted items, either after an accidental deletion or a purge. Exchange also incorporates all sorts of infrastructure to protect against data loss, both for stored data and data in transit, but nothing really helps in this case: the corrupt data comes from the client, and Exchange is faithfully storing and replicating what it gets from the client. In fairness, we have seen business logic added to Exchange in the past to protect against problems caused by malformed calendar entries created by old versions of Outlook, but clearly Microsoft can’t do that for every random add-in that might stomp on a user’s calendar.

A few days after the original presentation, I sent Joe an email summarizing what I’d found out and telling him that, if mailbox-level backup was an absolute requirement, he probably shouldn’t move those mailboxes to Office 365.

The moral of this story, to an extent that there is one, is that Microsoft is engineering Office 365 for the majority of their users and their needs. Just as Word (for instance) is supplemented by specialized plugins for reference and footnote tracking, mathematical typesetting, and chemistry diagrams, Exchange has a whole ecosystem of products that connect to it in various ways, and Office 365 doesn’t support every single one of those. The breadth and diversity of the Exchange ecosystem is one of the major reasons that I expect on-premises Exchange to be with us for years to come. Until it finally disappears, don’t forget to do some kind of backups.

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US lawyers and Office 365

Every field has its own unique constraints; the things the owner of a small manufacturing business worries about will have some overlap, but many differences, compared to what the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar energy company is concerned with. The legal industry is no exception; one major area of concern for lawyers is ethics. No, I don’t mean that they’re concerned about not having any. (I will try to refrain from adding any further lawyer jokes in this post unless, you know, they’re funny).

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Seriously.

The entire US legal system is based on a number of core principles, including that of precedent, or what laymen might call “tradition”. For that reason, as well as the stiff professional penalties that may result from a finding of malpractice or incompetence, many in the legal profession have been slower to embrace technology than their peers in other industries. When there is no settled precedent to answer a question, someone has to generate precedent, often by taking a case to court. Various professional standards bodies can generate opinions that are considered to be more or less binding on their members, too. To cite one example of what I mean, here’s what the Lawyers’ Professional Responsibility Board of the state of Minnesota has to say about one small aspect of legal ethics, the safeguarding and use of metadata:

…a lawyer is ethically required to act competently to avoid improper disclosure of confidential and privileged information in metadata in electronic documents.

That seems pretty straightforward; the body responsible for “the operation of the professional responsibility system in Minnesota” issued an opinion calling for attorneys in that state to safeguard metadata and refrain from using it in ways that conflict with their other ethical obligations. With that opinion now extant, lawyers in Minnesota can, presumably, be disciplined for failing to meet that standard.

With that as background, let me share this fascinating link: a list of ethics opinions related to the use of cloud services by lawyers and law firms. (I found the list at Sharon Nelson’s excellent “Ride the Lightning” blog, which I commend to your attention.)

Let that sink in for a minute: some of the organizations responsible for setting ethical standards for lawyers in various states are weighing in on the ethics of legal use of cloud services.

This strikes me as remarkable for several reasons. Consider, for example, that there don’t seem to be similar guidelines for e-mail admins, or professional engineers, or cosmetologists, or any other profession that I can think of. In pretty much every other market, if you want to use cloud services, feel free! Oh, sure, you may want to consider the ramifications of putting sensitive or protected data into the cloud, especially if you have specific requirements around compliance or governance. By and large, though, no one is going to punish you for using cloud services in your business if that choice turns out to be inappropriate. On the other hand, if you’re a lawyer, you can be professionally liable for failing to protect your clients’ confidentiality, as might happen in case of a data breach at your cloud provider.

The existence of these opinions, then, means that in at least 14 states, there are now defined standards that practitioners are expected to follow when choosing and using cloud services. For example, the Alabama standard (which I picked because it is simple, because I live in Alabama, and because it was first in the alphabetical list) says:

…a lawyer may use “cloud computing” or third-party providers to store client data provided that the attorney exercises reasonable care in doing so… The duty of reasonable care requires the lawyer to become knowledgeable about how the provider will handle the storage and security of the data being stored and to reasonably ensure that the provider will abide by a confidentiality agreement in handling the data. Additionally, because technology is constantly evolving, the lawyer will have a continuing duty to stay abreast of appropriate security safeguards that should be employed by the lawyer and the third-party provider. If there is a breach of confidentiality, the focus of any inquiry will be whether the lawyer acted reasonably in selecting the method of storage and/or the third party provider.

The other state opinions are generally similar in that they require an attorney to act with “reasonable care” in choosing a cloud service provider. That makes Microsoft’s recent relaunch of the expanded Office 365 Trust Center a great move: it succinctly addresses “appropriate security safeguards” that are applied throughout the Office 365 stack. Reading it will give you a solid grounding in the physical. technical, and operational safeguards that Microsoft has in place.

Compared to its major SaaS competitors, Microsoft’s site has more breadth and depth about security in Office 365, and it’s written in an approachable style that is appropriate for non-technical people… including attorneys. In particular, the top-10 lists provide easily digestible bites that help to reassure customers that there data, and metadata, are safe within Microsoft’s cloud. By comparison, the Google Apps security page is limited in both breadth and depth; the Dropbox page is laughable, and the Box.net page is basically a quick list of bullets without much depth to back them up.

The Office 365 Trust Center certainly provides the information necessary for an attorney to “become knowledgeable about how the provider will handle the storage and security of the data being stored”, and it is equally useful for the rest of us because we can do the same thing. If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth a few minutes of your time to go check it out; you’ll probably come away with a better idea of the number and type of security measures that Microsoft applies to Office 365 operations, which will help you if a) you go to law school and/or b) you are considering moving to Office 365.

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Exchange Server and Azure: “not now” vs “never”

Wow, look what I found in my drafts folder: an old post.

Lots of Exchange admins have been wondering whether Windows Azure can be used to host Exchange. This is to be expected for two reasons. First, Microsoft has been steadily raising the volume of Azure-related announcements, demos, and other collateral material. TechEd 2014 was a great example: there were several Azure-related announcements, including the availability of ExpressRoute for private connections to the Azure cloud and several major new storage improvements. These changes build on their aggressive evangelism, which has been attempting, and succeeding, to convince iOS and Android developers to use Azure as the back-end service for their apps. The other reason, sadly, is why I’m writing: there’s a lot of misinformation about Exchange on Azure (e.g. this article from SearchExchange titled “Points to consider before running Exchange on Azure”, which is wrong, wrong, and wrong), and you need to be prepared to defuse its wrongness with customers who may misunderstand what they’re potentially getting into.

On its face, Azure’s infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offering seems pretty compelling: you can build Windows Server VMs and host them in the Azure cloud. That seems like it would be a natural fit for Exchange, which is increasingly viewed as an infrastructure service by customers who depend on it. However, there are at least three serious problems with this approach.

First: it’s not supported by Microsoft, something that the “points to consider” article doesn’t even mention. The Exchange team doesn’t support Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2013 on Azure or Amazon EC2 or anyone else’s cloud service at present. It is possible that this will change in the future, but for now any customer who runs Exchange on Azure will be in an unsupported state. It’s fun to imagine scenarios where the Azure team takes over first-line support responsibility for customers running Exchange and other Microsoft server applications; this sounds a little crazy but the precedent exists, as EMC and other storage companies did exactly this for users of their replication solutions back in Exchange 5.5/2000 times. Having said that, don’t hold your breath. The Azure team has plenty of other more pressing work to do first, so I think that any change in this support model will require the Exchange team to buy in to it. The Azure team has been able to get that buy-in from SharePoint, Dynamics, and other major product groups within Microsoft, so this is by no means impossible.

Second: it’s more work. In some ways Azure gives you the worst of the hosted Exchange model: you have to do just as much work as you would if Exchange were hosted on-premises, but you’re also subject to service outages, inconsistent network latency, and all the other transient or chronic irritations that come, at no extra cost, with cloud services. Part of the reason that the Exchange team doesn’t support Azure is because there’s no way to guarantee that any IaaS provider is offering enough IOPS, low-enough latency, and so on, so troubleshooting performance or behavior problems with a service such as Azure can quickly turn into a nightmare. If Azure is able to provide guaranteed service levels for disk I/O throughput and latency, that would help quite a bit, but this would probably require significant engineering effort. Although I don’t recommend that you do it at the moment, you might be interested in this writeup on how to deploy Exchange on Azure; it gives a good look at some of the operational challenges you might face in setting up Exchange+Azure for test or demo use.

Third: it’s going to cost more. Remember that IaaS networks typically charge for resource consumption. Exchange 2013 (and Exchange 2010, too) is designed to be “always on”. The workload management features in Exchange 2013 provide throttling, sure, but they don’t eliminate all of the background maintenance that Exchange is more-or-less continuously performing. These tasks, including GAL grammar generation for Exchange UM, the managed folder assistant, calendar repair, and various database-related tasks, have to be run, and so IaaS-based Exchange servers are continually going to be racking up storage, CPU, and network charges. In fairness, I haven’t estimated what these charges might be for a typical test-lab environment; it’s possible that they’d be cheap enough to be tolerable, but I’m not betting on it, and no doubt a real deployment would be significantly more expensive.

Of course, all three of these problems are soluble: the Exchange team could at any time change their support policy for Exchange on Azure, and/or the Azure team could adjust the cost model to make the cost for doing so competitive with Office 365 or other hosted solutions. Interestingly, though, two different groups would have to make those decisions, and their interests don’t necessarily align, so it’s not clear to me if or when we might see this happen. Remember, the Office 365 team at Microsoft uses physical hardware exclusively for their operations.

Does that mean that Azure has no value for Exchange? On the contrary. At TechEd New Orleans in June 2013, Microsoft’s Scott Schnoll said they were studying the possibility of using an Azure VM as the witness server for DAGs in Exchange 2013 CU2 and later. This would be a super feature because it would allow customers with two or more physically separate data centers to build large DAGs that weren’t dependent on site interconnects (at the risk, of course, of requiring always-on connectivity to Azure). The cost and workload penalty for running an FSW on Azure would be low, too. In August 2013, the word came down: Azure in its present implementation isn’t suitable for use as an FSW. However, the Exchange team has requested some Azure functionality changes that would make it possible to run this configuration in the future, so we have that to look forward to.

Then we have the wide world of IaaS capabilities opened up by Windows Azure Active Directory (WAAD), Azure Rights Management Services, Azure Multi-Factor Authentication, and the large-volume disk ingestion program (now known as the Azure Import/Export Service). As time passes, Microsoft keeps delivering more, and better, Azure services that complement on-premises Exchange, which has been really interesting to watch. I expect that trend to continue, and there are other, less expensive ways to use IaaS for Exchange if you only want it for test labs and the like. More on that in a future post….

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Getting ready for TechEd 2014

Wow, this snuck up on me! TechEd 2014 starts in 10 days, and I am nowhere near ready.

A few years ago, I started a new policy: I only attend TechEd to speak, not as a general attendee or press member; the level of technical content for the products I work with has declined steadily over the years. This is to be expected; in a four-day event, there’s a finite number of sessions that Microsoft can present, and as they add new products, every fiefdom must have its due. There are typically around 30 sessions that involve unified communications in some way; that number has remained fairly constant since 2005 or so. Over the last several years, the mix of sessions has changed to accommodate new versions of Exchange, Lync, and Office 365, but the limited number of sessions means that TechEd can’t offer the depth of MEC, Exchange Connections, or Lync Conference. This year there are 28 Exchange-related sessions, including several that are really about Office 365— so about 25% the content of MEC.

I can’t keep track of how many previous TechEd events I’ve been to; if you look at the list, you’ll see that they tend to be concentrated in a small number of cities and so they all kind of blend together. (Interestingly, this 2007 list of the types of attendees you see at TechEd is still current.) The most memorable events for me have been the ones in Europe (especially last year’s event in Madrid, where I’d never been before).

This year I was asked to pinch-hit and present OFC-B318, “What’s New in Lync Mobile.” That’s right— so far this year, I have presented on Lync at Lync Conference and MEC, plus this session, plus another Lync session at Exchange Connections! If I am not careful I’ll get a reputation. Anyway, I am about ready to dive into shining up my demos, which will feature Lync Mobile on a variety of devices— plus some special guests will be joining me on stage, including my favorite Canadian, an accomplished motorcycle rider, and a CrossFitter. You’ll have to attend the session to find out who these people are though: 3pm, Monday the 12th— see you there! I’ll also be working in the Microsoft booth area at some point, but I don’t know when yet; stay tuned for updates.

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Speaking at Exchange Connections 2014

I’m excited to say that I’ll be presenting at Exchange Connections 2014, coming up this fall at the Aria in Las Vegas.

Tony posted the complete list of speakers and session titles a couple of days ago. I’m doing three sessions:

  • “Who Wears the Pants In Your Datacenter: Taming Managed Availability”: an all-new session in which the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” will feature prominently. You might want to prepare by reading my Windows IT Pro article on MA, sort of to set the table.
  • “Just Like Lemmings: Mass Migration to Office 365”: an all-new session that discusses the hows and whys of moving large volumes of mailbox and PST data into the service, using both Microsoft and third-party tools. (On the sometimes-contentious topic of public folder migration, I plead ignorance; see Sigi Jagott’s session if you want to know more). There is a big gap between theory and practice here and I plan to shine some light into it.
  • “Deep Dive: Exchange 2013 and Lync 2013 Integration” covers the nuts and bolts of how to tie Lync and Exchange 2013 together. Frankly, if you saw me present on this topic at DellWorld, MEC, or Lync Conference, you don’t need to attend this iteration. However, every time I’ve presented it, the room has been packed to capacity, so there’s clearly still demand for the material!

Exchange Connections always has a more relaxed, intimate feeling about it than the bigger Microsoft-themed conferences. This is in part because it’s not a Microsoft event and in part because it is considerably smaller. As a speaker, I really enjoy the chance to engage more deeply with the attendees than is possible at mega-events. If you’re planning to be there, great— and, if not, you should change your plans!

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MEC 2014 wrap-up by the numbers

The MEC 2014 conference team sent out a statistical summary of the conference to speakers, and it makes for fascinating reading. I wanted to share a few of the highlights of the report because I think it makes some really interesting points about the state of the Exchange market and community.

First: the 101 sessions were attended by a total of 13,079 people. The average attendance across all sessions was 129, which is impressive (though skewed a bit by the size of some of the mega-sessions; Microsoft had to make a bet that lots of people would attend these sessions, which they did!). In terms of attendance, the top 10 sessions were mostly focused on architecture and deployment:

  • Exchange Server 2013 Architecture
  • Ready, set, deploy: Exchange Server 2013
  • Experts Unplugged: Exchange Top Issues – What are they and does anyone care or listen?
  • Exchange Server 2013 Tips & Tricks
  • The latest on High Availability & Site Resilience
  • Exchange hybrid: architecture and deployment
  • Experts Unplugged: Exchange Deployment
  • Exchange Server 2013 Transport Architecture
  • Exchange Server 2013 Virtualization Best Practices
  • Exchange Design Concepts and Best Practices
RS IV, not life size To put this in perspective, the top session on this list had just over 600 attendees and the bottom had just under 300. Overall attendance to sessions on the architecture track was about double that of the next contender, the deployment and migration track. That tells me that there is still a large audience for discussions of fundamental architecture topics, in addition to the day-in, day-out operational material that we’d normally see emerging as the mainstay of content at this point in the product lifecycle.Next takeaway: Tim McMichael is a rock star. He captured the #1 and #2 slots in the session ratings, which is no surprise to anyone who’s ever heard him speak. I am very hopeful that I’ll get to hear him speak at Exchange Connections this year. The overall quality of speakers was superb, in my biased opinion. I’d like to see my ratings improve (more demos!) but there’s no shame in being outranked by heavy hitters such as Tony, Michael, Jeff Mealiffe, Ross Smith IV (pictured at left; not actual size), or the ebullient Kamal Janardhan. MEC provides an excellent venue for the speakers to mingle with attendees, too, both at structured events like MAPI Hour and in unstructured post-session or hallway conversations. To me, that direct interaction is one of the most valuable parts of attending a conference, both as a speaker and because I can ask other speakers questions about their particular areas of expertise.

Third, the Unplugged sessions were very popular, as measured both by attendance numbers and session ratings. I loved both the format and content of the ones I attended, but they depend on having a good moderator— someone who is both knowledgeable about the topic at hand and experienced at steering a group of opinionated folks back on topic when needed. While I am naturally bad at that, the moderators overall did an excellent job and I hope to see more Unplugged sessions at future events. When attendees added sessions to their calendar, the event staff used that as a means of gauging interest and assigning rooms based on the likely number of attendees. However, looking at the data shows that people flocked to sessions based on word-of-mouth and didn’t necessarily update their calendars; I calculated the attendance split by dividing the number of people who attended an actual session by the number who said they would attend. If 100 calendared the session but 50 attended, that would be a 50% split. The average split across all sessions (except one) was 53.8%— not bad considering how dynamic the attendance was. The one session I left out was “Experts Unplugged: Architecture – HA and Storage”, which had a split of 1167%! Of the top 10 splits (i.e. sessions where the largest percentage of people stood by their original plans), 4 were Unplugged sessions.

Of course, MEC was much more than the numbers, but this kind of data helps Microsoft understand what people want from future events, measured not just by asking them but by observing their actual preferences and actions. I can’t wait to see what the next event, whenever it may be, will look like!

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