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Microsoft Takes Some Office 365 Deployments In-House

A new program offering free Office 365 migrations performed remotely by Microsoft employees for customers with more than 150 seats went live this week. Partner reaction so far has ranged generally from extreme concern to wary acceptance.

Microsoft formally announced two new programs to customers in a blog post on Wednesday -- the Office 365 FastTrack Onboarding Center and the Office 365 Adoption Offer. Both programs officially launched Sept. 1.

Office 365 FastTrack Onboarding Center is a free benefit to new Office 365 customers buying 150 seats or more. It supports provisioning and configuration of Office 365 workloads, including Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Office 365 Pro Plus and Yammer. According to the blog, one key feature involves "direct remote assistance provided by an Office 365 onboarding expert who will assist with critical onboarding activities working with customers and partners."

The Office 365 Adoption Offer also applies to customers with at least 150 seats but has a limited run, ending March 31, 2015. The offer is primarily a partner subsidy that the customer can pay to an Office 365 Cloud Deployment Partner or a Cloud Productivity Competency Partner, a category that doesn't launch until Sept. 29. The subsidy is for adoption-related work that goes beyond the relatively simple onboarding work offered by FastTrack.

In a blog post to partners Aug. 21, Gavriella Schuster, Microsoft's general manager of Worldwide Partner Programs, said the subsidy is $15 per seat up to 1,000 seats and $5 per seat above 1,000 seats to a $60,000 limit.

A key element of the adoption offer is an e-mail migration offer, billed as "delivered remotely by Microsoft." The migration of relatively straightforward e-mail configurations from supported platforms (Exchange Server 2003 or above, Lotus Domino 7.0.3 or above, Google Gmail or IMAP accessible environments) is provided by Microsoft. Reportedly, Microsoft is hiring between 400 and 800 people worldwide to staff the onboarding center. The migration offer gives customers with relatively simple environments a way to avoid partner engagement altogether.

In her post, Schuster appeared to reiterate a commitment made earlier in the summer about partner commitment, but her phrasing, although underlined in the blog post, was actually less strong. In a Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference keynote in July, John Case, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Office Division, said, "Our intent is for every single new customer that comes into Office 365, for example, or Dynamics or Azure, to make sure that there is a partner attached to every single one of those new customers. And we'll help provide that."

Schuster's post read, "Every customer onboarding via FastTrack interested in working with a partner will be connected to a qualified Microsoft partner as part of the process."

She also laid out three reasons why the combined FastTrack and the Office 365 Adoption Offer was a big opportunity for partners:

1. FastTrack will help get our mutual customers onboarded to Office 365 more quickly which will increase sales velocity, customer satisfaction and open the door for partners to provide more high-value services.

2. Any customer onboarded via FastTrack not already working with a partner will be offered the opportunity to be connected to a qualified partner to assist with onboarding and adoption of Office 365. When a partner is already present in the account, the Onboarding Assistance team will work with that partner.

3. The Office 365 Adoption Offer provides an option for customers to receive funding to be used with qualified partners to help offset the cost of onboarding, migration and adoption.

Partners responding on Schuster's blog seemed to disagree strongly with the opportunity argument.

"We have deployments we have been working on for 6 to 12 months and for larger customers. It looks like all the investments made will get flushed with this program. Why should we spend that kind of time talking with customers and watch MS pull the most profitable part away from us? Bad decision to proceed with this program, Microsoft," wrote a commenter identifying himself as JDB.

"This has been abysmally messaged and handled," said the commenter MSPartner. "There is far more to a migration than Microsoft appreciates and customers need to understand exactly what's required to have a smooth transition to the cloud, not have Microsoft both oversimplify and undervalue the process, as well as make obscure promises to perform a half-*** migration."

Ric Opal, a longtime Microsoft partner with the Chicago area company Peters & Associates, said he understands that Microsoft is eager to do something to ensure that customers who buy Office 365 licenses actually deploy them.

"I get it. I respect it. To me, the jury is out. I want to see it operationally moving," he said in a telephone interview.

Opal's concerns include what Microsoft will do when the pipeline of e-mail migrations backs up beyond what its operational funnel can handle, how effectively Microsoft will connect customers to partners and numerous other details.

Nonetheless, he's not sitting back and waiting to see what happens. "That's the gap opportunity. Everybody should get in early and exploit the opportunities in the program," Opal said.

Pete Zarras, president of Cloud Strategies, a born-in-the-cloud partner based in New Jersey, was initially concerned about the changes when he first heard the vague outlines of the programs at WPC, but has grown more comfortable, especially as details of related incentives through Microsoft's new Partner Investment Engine (PIE) have emerged.

"We struggled through some of the communication challenges, but we do see there is opportunity for our clients, and we feel in the short- to-medium term it is very good for us," he said in an interview. "We believe that we will be able to evolve as Microsoft evolves."

Another born-in-the-cloud partner, Interlink Cloud Advisors in Cincinnati, is also sprinting to help customers take advantage of the simultaneous PIE incentives. But Interlink President Matt Scherocman said the pace of change in the Microsoft Partner Network is a challenge to keep up with. For example, the first round of PIE incentives were just announced and expire at the end of the year.

"I'm very excited about the deployment offer because it helps Microsoft recognize more workloads than just e-mail, and it helps Microsoft recognize the partner's role in the sales cycle. But I think it needs to have a longer time horizon than ending at the end of the year," he said.

For more, check out the feature story in the September issue of Redmond Channel Partner, which puts the new  programs in the larger context of Microsoft's partner plans around cloud.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 04, 2014