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In-Depth

Third-Party Tools for Office 365 Migration and Management

Setting up and managing Office 365 for customers doesn't have to be a manual, poorly documented job for partners. As the market for the SaaS product booms, so does the ecosystem of powerful tools from third parties.

As Office 365 picks up steam in the market, an ecosystem of channel-friendly vendors is emerging with powerful tools to help with customer migrations and management.

In Microsoft's most recent quarterly financial report, Office 365 was a highlight. New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called out Office 365 for special praise when talking about cloud services momentum.

"Our commercial cloud business more than doubled year over year with Office 365 and Azure both performing extremely well," Nadella said on the April 24 call about the January-to-March quarter. Looking at the big picture of cloud generally, Nadella declared, "This is gold-rush time in some sense of being able to capitalize on the opportunity."

Drilling into the details, Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood put a high-dollar figure on Office 365, the Microsoft flagship Software as a Service (SaaS) product. "Office 365 is now on an annual revenue run rate of $2.5 billion," Hood said.

Hood also offered the Microsoft view on why the Office 365 business might be expanding so quickly right now, and the answer is partly partners. "I do think it takes some time both for the customer to understand the value proposition, as well as the retailers and partners to really hone their motion, to pivot, to selling a new subscription model. I think you are starting to see some of the acceleration, as well as increasing awareness of the product."

"This is gold-rush time."

Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

Microsoft Creates a Partner Tool
During the same quarter covered by the financials, Microsoft released a tool for partners managing the Office 365 service on behalf of customers. Microsoft unveiled the Office 365 Partner admin center at the end of January and conducted a staged rollout worldwide throughout the quarter.

The partner-focused tool was a tacit acknowledgement by Microsoft that the existing tools didn't meet the specialized needs of partners, who are one of Microsoft's main routes to market for Office 365.

This tool supersedes an Office 365 admin center that didn't consolidate all of a partner's customers and was more focused on selling new or additional services. "Previously, with Partner tools in the Office 365 admin center, you could perform delegated administration tasks on behalf of customers and create trial invitations, purchase offers and offers for delegated administration," wrote Adam Jung, a senior product manager on the Office 365 team, in a blog entry announcing the tool.

The new partner admin center has four main functions. The highest profile function is a Microsoft service-outage notification service designed to keep partners a step ahead of angry calls from customers.

In addition to being able to view a customer's Office 365 service health status and details, the partner admin center allows the partner to get a single view of all the customers for which it has delegated admin privileges; to create, edit and view service requests on behalf of customers; and to perform administrative tasks on behalf of customers.

A client management tab shows all of a partner's customers along with any alerts next to each customer's name about their service health. Drilling into the service health tab for each customer shows a granular list of the services a customer uses.

Each service has a green checkmark for the day if all is well, or one of a number of symbols if all isn't well. Trouble signals include service interruption, service degradation, restoring service, extended recovery, investigating, service restored or additional information.

"Office 365 is now on an annual revenue run rate of $2.5 billion."

Amy Hood, CFO, Microsoft

Exoprise: A Crowd-Powered Approach to Outage Info
In theory, the new Office 365 Partner admin center would provide accurate and timely service outage updates from Microsoft that could greatly help partners provide the kind of visible value to customers that will help them retain their Partner of Record status with those customers and keep their Microsoft maintenance fees rolling in year after year.

One of at least four vendor companies that offer Office 365-focused tools especially for partners doesn't believe the Microsoft in-house tool's outage notifications go far enough.

Patrick Carey, vice president of products and marketing at Exoprise Systems Inc. based in Waltham, Mass., says the cloud creates new problems. "Managing performance of service levels is fundamentally different when those applications run in the cloud. You can't touch the servers. You can't look at SNMP traps," he says.

The Exoprise CloudReady Monitor keeps track of Office 365 service levels in two ways that go beyond the Microsoft monitoring tool.

First, it provides what Exoprise calls "Active Point of Access Monitoring." The tool provides end-to-end transaction times from customer access locations to the cloud and back, then analyzes real-time and historical performance data for logon, e-mail transfer, Active Directory Federation Services and other functions.

More to Carey's point is the other monitoring method called "Crowd Data Analytics." To do that, the tool aggregates performance data across the Exoprise customer network to find whether a problem is on the customer's network, at the ISP level, geographically based or with Microsoft online services.

"We call it crowd-powered," says Carey. "We view it as a Big Data and analytics problem now. You can't attach to all the ISP routers and infrastructure. But by connecting data across a widely deployed set of sensors -- our customer base -- we start to see patterns."

Carey says the approach helps customers get beyond monitoring just what they own, and what Microsoft can report about its own datacenters. "Going to a service health dashboard, that may be all green checks saying everything's fine," he says. "I'd say a good 20 percent to 25 percent of the issues get identified as being ISP-connectivity related. I'd say fewer than 10 percent of the issues that get identified turn out to be a core Microsoft tenant issue. For a number of our customers, what's interesting to them is what they find out the problem isn't."

Kaseya Looks To Normalize Office 365 Management
Isolating the source of downtime with Office 365 is an important value-add. Another is being able to help clients manage their Office 365-related administrative and maintenance tasks.

One established tool for administration is 365 Command, which is a hosted service that allows partners to manage multiple client environments from an HTML5 Web interface rather that requiring Windows PowerShell scripts for many administrative functions.

While the Office 365 Command product has been around for several years, and was previously known as MessageOps, Champion Solutions Group sold the product to IT management and managed services provider (MSP) vendor Kaseya a year ago. Even as Kaseya has maintained the product and continues to sell it as a standalone, the company clearly had designs from the start on integrating the Office 365 management functionality into its larger suite -- effectively normalizing cloud management into regular IT management processes.

Kaseya CEO Yogesh Gupta says Microsoft's in-house tool was a step in the right direction, but leaves plenty for third parties -- such as Kaseya -- to do. The capabilities of 365 Command go far beyond what the Microsoft tool offers, he says.

"From our customers' perspective, they're looking for one solution -- one place to solve their problems. Even an IT person in a midsize company, that person doesn't want to learn multiple different things and jump from tool to tool," says Gupta.

It's not just about bringing Office 365 account management into Kaseya's flagship Virtual System Administrator RMM product. Having recently re-branded itself as the IT Management Cloud Company, Kaseya's CEO views 365 Command functionality as just a first step in managing cloud from one remote monitoring and management system.

"From our customers' perspective, they're looking for one solution -- one place to solve their problems."

Yogesh Gupta, CEO, Kaseya

"The fact that we can provide one place for them to manage is really significant value to us and to our customers," Gupta says. "The philosophy behind going forward as the IT Management Cloud Company is that what needs to be managed itself has a huge cloud component, whether it's hybrid cloud, infrastructure service like Azure environments, managing Amazon Web Services environments or managing Office 365."

SkyKick Automates Migration
To manage customers on Office 365, partners often need to get customers into the cloud first, and several tools can help with the process. One offering, launched by former Microsoft employees Evan Richman and Todd Schwartz, is the SkyKick Application Suite. SkyKick, based in Seattle, launched the suite in April 2013 after a two-year beta process and landed a Microsoft Partner of the Year award a few months later.

The toolset is intended for Microsoft partners and automates five stages of Office 365 migrations -- from selling/planning and provisioning to migrating, managing and setting up. Richman and Schwartz characterize the suite as migration project automation. They say their product whittles down hundreds of tasks involving 40 hours of effort for a 25-user project down to a few hours of partner effort. They've pitched SkyKick primarily to the channel so far and bill it as a way for partners new to the cloud to get in business faster and a way for more experienced cloud partners to increase their sales velocity and scale.

The co-founders continue to add functionality to their suite. A November update brought the much-requested ability to migrate Microsoft Exchange Public Folders to Office 365 and made the partner dashboard more robust.

BitTitan Turns to the Desktop
Another company focused on onboarding customers to Office 365 via partners was also founded by a former Microsoft employee. Geeman Yip started Kirkland, Wash.-based BitTitan in 2007 and was migrating customers to the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS, the precursor to Office 365) right from the start.

With more than 1.5 million mailboxes migrated, BitTitan's original product, MigrationWiz, is an automated, cloud-based solution. Yip says BitTitan's early days saw a lot of migrations from Windows Small Business Server to BPOS. MigrationWiz evolved to move data between Microsoft Exchange, Office 365, Novell GroupWise, Google Apps/Gmail, VMware Zimbra, IBM Lotus Notes, OneDrive for Business, Google Drive, IMAP or POP systems.

Along with the change in technologies customers want to migrate to and from has come a change in the size of organizations looking to go to the Microsoft SaaS productivity suite. "The sweet spot in 2009 was on average a 10-person company," Yip says. "The new sweet spot of 2014 is the mid- to upper-hundreds."

BitTitan continued to evolve, first adding UserActivation to its product line. That tool automatically generates Office 365 accounts, creates users, assigns licenses, manages all DNS changes, migrates mailbox data and configures desktop applications to connect to the cloud.

Then, in February, BitTitan added DesktopDeployment, a product to automate the configuration of existing Outlook clients to connect to Office 365 accounts. Because remoting into every desktop is costly, Yip notes, DesktopDeployment allows partners to deploy by sending customized e-mails or through Group Policy to prompt each end user to click on a link and step through the profile-switching process. Partners can track the progress of all users through the UserActivation portal. BitTitan originally released DesktopDeployment in February as part of UserActivation. A standalone version of DesktopDeployment is currently available as a pilot with general availability planned for July.

Exoprise, Kaseya, SkyKick and BitTitan each have near-term plans for more features and functionality in their Office 365 products and suites over the next few months. The vendors are experiencing the momentum Nadella and Hood referenced in the earnings call and are looking to capitalize on it.

"I think demand is huge," Yip says of the Office 365 market, and points to his company's recent progress to support his bullishness. "Today we have 55 employees worldwide in our organization. Last year we had approximately 12 employees. Our growth is not because someone has infused funding into the company. In the last two years, our revenue has grown over 700 percent."

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