Office 365, SharePoint and SQL Server: Our Experts Weigh In

At the first Live! 360 conference, top experts will dive into an array of hot IT topics. Get a sneak preview here, as key presenters share their expertise with Redmond Channel Partner.

IT pros wear many hats these days, so they must be well-versed in the provisioning and management of today's core line-of-business (LOB) systems. While there are many components of the Microsoft enterprise portfolio, the key pieces are Windows Server to provide fundamental infrastructure, SQL Server for structured data and SharePoint Server as the platform for collaboration and content management.

In addition to supplying the core infrastructure and network services for the bulk of departmental and enterprise servers, Windows Server has evolved to power virtual environments and private clouds.

Meanwhile, as the flagship Microsoft database and collaboration platforms become more entrenched, provisioning and managing them have become more complex. The new capabilities and use cases of Windows Server -- combined with the new requirements of SQL Server and SharePoint -- require organizations to offer extensive new skill sets.

At the inaugural Live! 360 conference, to be held Dec. 10-14 in Orlando, Fla., a diverse group of technical experts will cover these issues at one event. Live! 360, presented by 1105 Media Inc., the parent company of Redmond Channel Partner, consists of four sub-conferences: SharePoint Live!, SQL Server Live!Cloud & Virtualization Live! and -- for the developers in your organization -- Visual Studio Live! More information on Visual Studio Live! is covered in the current issue of our sister publication, Visual Studio Magazine.

In advance of Live! 360, Doug Barney, editor in chief of RCP's sister publication Redmond, asked several of the experts presenting at the conference to discuss some of the issues they plan to address in their respective sessions.

Cloud & Virtualization
How to Avoid Disruption of Private Clouds
A growing number of shops are building private clouds on top of Windows Server. Yet like all datacenter platforms, IT pros must ensure uptime of private clouds. As a Master Consultant at Hewlett-Packard Co., Bruce Mackenzie-Low provides third-level support for applications running on Windows and specializes in clustering and crash-dump analysis. In his workshop, "Minimizing Cloud Service Disruption by Analyzing Application and OS," Mackenzie-Low will explain how to configure Windows servers to capture system and process memory dumps; how to force memory dumps when the OS or app is hanging; and how to set up the Windows debugger to analyze systems and process crash dumps to discover failing components or drivers.

Q: How do we keep our cloud running with as many nines of reliability as possible?
A: Use Windows failover clustering technology! Nothing provides better uptime than leveraging Windows failover clusters to keep your applications up and running.

Q: Do OS or app problems most often take down cloud apps?
A: Most OS problems that you may run into have already been encountered by someone else. So most likely there's a corresponding hotfix that will address your OS issue. Application outages, however, can be more challenging to troubleshoot due to the custom nature of most installations and the interoperability with third-party components.

Q: What are your three top tips for analyzing and preventing cloud crashes?
A: Use the new Windows Performance Toolkit to monitor and troubleshoot hangs and slowdowns. Proactively install recommended hotfixes from Microsoft.

The No. 1 cause of system outages is outdated drivers exploiting known issues with existing hotfixes. There are recommended hotfixes for many components of the OS such as Windows Server 2008 R2-based failover clusters and System Center Virtual Machine Manager, to name a few. Most crashes are caused by outdated antivirus software, so be sure to update yours anytime you update Windows.

What to Expect from an Office 365 Migration
Office 365 sounds simple. After all, it's just a set of apps that run in the cloud. But the reality is quite different, as there are setup and configuration chores on the customer side.

Don Jones, author of Redmond's Decision Maker column, went through an Office 365 migration with his company, Concentrated Technology LLC. He'll discuss his experience in his session, "Lessons Learned in a Small Business Office 365 Migration."

Q: How was the initial setup?
A: Mostly easy. We kind of screwed up and started a trial in the beta period, which we couldn't carry over to production, so have a weird account name now, but nobody sees that. We needed to learn a bit of Windows PowerShell to bulk-import our external address list, but it's a well-documented procedure -- and pretty neat once you've got it figured out.

Q: Were there any surprises?
A: The need to use Windows PowerShell for some stuff. While I'm obviously a fan, it's not what Office 365 is marketed as. I imagine the Web UI will pick up more of that functionality over time -- just go in with your eyes open, and know that for a few tasks you might need to dive into the command line. The Lync Online piece was also a little dicey in the beginning, but that seems to have smoothed out now. It's working pretty reliably across Windows, Mac and even smartphones for us.

Move SharePoint Servers to the Cloud
There are many options now for running SharePoint in the cloud, but the question is: Should you make the move? And if the answer is yes, then which alternative cloud offering should you choose? Office 365, Windows Azure or one of many third-party cloud providers?

Richard Harbridge, a senior SharePoint architect and evangelist at Allin Consulting, will address the pitfalls of moving SharePoint to the cloud and how to choose the right provider for your needs in his session, "SharePoint in the Cloud: Evaluating the Impact, Pros and Cons." Harbridge, who has developed and deployed more than 100 enterprise SharePoint implementations from single-server to 80,000-user installations, is an expert on running the collaboration platform in the cloud -- including costs, benefits and limitations.

Q: SharePoint seems ideal for the cloud because many installs are tactical, must come up fast and may not stay up long. Also, some of these apps are used by small numbers of people, so they don't justify a lot of fixed IT expense. Is this also your analysis?
A: The challenge is around evaluating and planning for the cost versus the benefit of the solution or app. From a pure development perspective, it's possible to deploy an application or workload to Windows Azure for a short period of time, and then to remove it so that you're only paying for it when you're using it. This model really does enable less effort and concern about evaluating the initial or expected benefit of an application or solution, and promotes a more agile response.

For SharePoint, though, this model doesn't quite follow the same path. SharePoint is more of an always-on service. The value it provides is something that people must rely upon and which requires -- both at a technical level and a practical level -- active access. In other words, I believe there's tremendous cloud value for certain workloads, pilots and for organizations evaluating how best to invest and use SharePoint. From a solution or application side I think it's entirely possible for organizations to realize benefit from separating workloads, usage and associated costs to the cloud at times. But, typically, unless there are other reasons for the cost benefit, these are pilot or initial phases to longer-term dedicated solutions. An exception to this would be when the organization has a cloud-first or all-in strategy and is using the cloud for their primary SharePoint implementation.

Q: If I'm looking at SharePoint in the cloud, when does Office 365 make sense versus a dedicated service?
A: It's a numbers game and it's actually a pretty easy game. If you have a user count that wouldn't utilize the dedicated environment in full, then the cost for Office 365 will be much better. This makes sense, as environments that have spare capacity still require you to pay for that spare capacity, but this isn't true for most shared and multi-tenant models. Some workloads just aren't as viable or available in Office 365 as they are in a dedicated model. As an example, if you want Project Server, business intelligence or specific types of integration, then Office 365 might not be a viable candidate for evaluation.

Q: Because SharePoint is so document-intensive, isn't performance a concern?
A: Often there's a sacrifice of control, so there are both pros and cons. A pro could be that administrators can't change the default file size values from 50MB as the file size limitation, which results in less potential large-file performance challenges. The con here is that the cloud solution can't support those large-file scenarios. If you're in a dedicated farm scenario where you have complete control, then performance is not a greater concern than it would be on-premises. If you're in a shared environment, there are control concerns and potential limitations that potentially ensure better performance.

SQL Server
Using Transparent Data Encryption in SQL Server 2012
Microsoft introduced transparent data encryption (TDE) when it released SQL Server 2008, adding full database encryption rather than the limited cell-based encryption that debuted in SQL Server 2005. While there are no major new TDE features in SQL Server 2012, Microsoft has upped the ante by enabling the database master keys to use the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) 256 encryption algorithm. The earlier versions used the Triple Data Encryption Standard (TDE).

Bradley Ball, a senior consultant at Pragmatic Works Software, has a deep understanding of how to use database encryption in SQL Server 2012. At Live! 360, Ball will explain these new security capabilities in his session, "Transparent Database Encryption Inside and Out in SQL Server 2012."

Q: What new features related to encryption are in SQL Server 2012?
A: In SQL 2012 you get the ability to encrypt full text catalogues. This is important because on disk all of our structures are in plain text. There's metadata surrounding it, but the data is still there in plain text. If an unscrupulous person gets a copy of the files, with enough time they can find the data you're storing.

Q: Are there new technologies or techniques that encrypt while retaining performance?
A: There has always been a slight CPU penalty to TDE. If your CPU usage averages 70 percent or higher daily, then you may not want to consider TDE without performing benchmark testing in a lower lifecycle.

TDE is so dependent on I/O that if you have an I/O bottleneck it could translate into higher CPU. If you know you have an I/O bottleneck, you'd want to perform benchmark testing in a lower lifecycle using TDE before placing it into production. However, on most systems I've worked on after implementing TDE and comparing before and after baselines, I typically don't notice a difference.

Q: Can you share any best practices or tips?
A: The big thing to remember is once you start using TDE, your certificate backups are just as important as your database backups! If you don't have a certificate on hand and need to restore a backup to a new server, your backup file is tied to that certificate. Until you restore a copy of your certificate, you can't restore a copy of your backup. This includes detach and attach operations as well.

At my blog, I have the slide deck from previous presentations, as well as scripts that will assist in managing TDE once implemented -- including scripts to automate the backups of your certificates.