Office 365 explained: Microsoft Office in the cloud

30th Jul 2012 | 08:00

Office 365 explained: Microsoft Office in the cloud

All the power of Office without any of the hassle and worry

Office is a lot more than just Word and Excel, and when you buy Office as a subscription from Microsoft (or Microsoft partners), you can get the options you want with Office 365, from just the desktop applications to the server tools (Exchange, SharePoint Lync and SkyDrive Pro cloud storage) or a combination of both.

What all the Office 365 offerings have in common is that you pay a monthly fee (currently from £3.30/$5 to £16.50/$22 per user per month) to use them on multiple devices, and that you get regular updates and improvements.

If you just want the Office desktop applications, Office 365 ProPlus includes the business versions of Word and Excel (including business intelligence tools like Power Pivot and Power View), PowerPoint, Outlook, Project, OneNote, Publisher and Access, the Lync client and Office Mobile for iPad or Android that you can run on up to five devices (PC, Mac, iPad or Android depending on the app you choose). You install the Office software from the web and it's ready to use more quickly than a traditional copy of Office – in just a couple of minutes - but it runs on your PC (or Mac) as usual.

When you tell Office 365 to install the desktop Office apps, the software streams from the Office 365 servers, giving you the most important files first. The introduction that you can watch is actually running in PowerPoint, for example, and if you start Word right away it might only have the most common commands installed. Choose another tool from the ribbon and it might stream the code to run it from Office 365 (but all the code will be on your PC within ten or 15 minutes on a reasonably fast network).

You can also stream the desktop applications to any Windows 7 or 8 PC that you're using temporarily. And if someone leaves the company you can deactivate the Office subscription on their PC remotely and use it for another employee.

More versions, more choices

There is are also a consumer Office 365 version of the Office 2013 applications, Office 365 Home Premium, which costs £79.99 a year. This doesn't include all the business desktop applications (you don't get Project or Lync), and while it can run on five different devices it's designed to be used by different people in the family rather than the same person using multiple PCs and tablets.

Most importantly, the licence doesn't cover using Office applications for anything that makes you money (like sending business email or writing work documents). If you have users bringing their own PCs in to work, if they're using Office 365 Home Premium you'll need to pay for a business Office licence for them to use it for work.

If you just want the Office server products, so that you don't have to run your own Exchange server, there are Office 365 Small Business and Enterprise plans that give you Exchange for email with Outlook Web Access for webmail, device management, spam blocking and anti-malware protection, SharePoint for document sharing and web publishing, Lync web conferencing and instant messaging (with Skype audio calls rather than the full IP voice tools of Lync Server online)the Yammer enterprise social network tool.

You get both shared storage space in SharePoint and 25GB of space per user in SkyDrive Pro, where they can sync files to the cloud and share them with people outside the company like any cloud storage service, plus versions of the Office Web Apps that store documents on your Office 365 storage rather than in the free SkyDrive service.

These are the services that have been available from Office 365 for the longest, but they're now based on the Office 2013 versions of the Office servers. Upgrades from the original Office 365 services took some time (months in some cases) but the new versions are designed to upgrade far more quickly and new features have been rolling out steadily. For example, Microsoft added Yammer to the Enterprise plans last year, with an option to turn off the SharePoint social network features.

Single subscription

If you want both the Office client and server applications as a cloud service, you can get them as a single subscription with Office 365 Small Business Premium, Office 365 Midsize Business or Office 365 Enterprise (depending how many users you have and whether you need more powerful features for ediscovery, rights management, voice mail, business intelligence and Yammer, which are all available in the enterprise plans). There's even an option to run Lync Server 2013 on premise to replace a PBX as part of your monthly subscription.

Plus you get the same set of Office desktop tools (with the addition of InfoPath in the midsize and enterprise plans) that install quickly, run on up to five devices and can be streamed on demand if you borrow a PC to get some work done.

Working with Office 365

If you're used to running Exchange, SharePoint and Lync in your business, you'll notice some differences between the 2013 servers and the Office 365 versions. You administer them all from the Office 365 Web portal, where you can also create users (or import existing user accounts, from a spreadsheet or your Active Directory), assign licences and nominate specific people as administrators. You can also see the health of the service, including any planned maintenance, manage your Office 365 subscription, request support (by email or phone), see which users haven't signed in recently, and set Office 365 to use your own domain for email and your company website (you'll also need to change some settings with your domain registrar).

When you create users in Office 365, they get Active Directory accounts. If you already have an Active Directory, or you're running Office servers on your own network as well as using Office 365, you can synchronise accounts so the passwords are the same. For a small business that's just using Office 365, you can treat these as just accounts that give users access to Office 365 but if you add services like Windows Intune for managing PCs or Azure for running virtual machines and cloud services, you can use the same Active Directory accounts for those too. If you're moving to Office 365 from older versions of Exchange and SharePoint on your own servers, or from another email server, you can import your email archives to Office 365. Microsoft provides some tools for doing this, but if you have a more complex setup there are plenty of third-party tools to help you.

The admin dashboard shows you a few handy stats, like how much incoming email is being blocked as spam, but you can get detailed reports on everything from mailbox usage and detected malware to how many team sites you have on SharePoint and how many people have been sharing their screens in Lync meetings.

You access the Yammer admin tools from here, but they still open in their own separate website, at least for now.

Portal of power

Users get their own Office 365 portal, which they can also find as part of the Outlook Web App interface, where they can download software and change their password. That's different from the profile page they get on SharePoint, where they can add a biography and profile picture.

If you have a Small Business plans, you get simplified admin interfaces for the servers; with the midsize and enterprise plans you see the full admin interface for Exchange and SharePoint (except that SharePoint doesn't allow you to install custom code and only the enterprise plan for Office 365 gives you the full ediscovery and rights management tools for Exchange). If you need to run your own custom SharePoint applications, you can run the code on Windows Azure (where badly written code won't slow down anyone but your users) and connect to it from Office 365.

The new model for adding features to SharePoint, and to the desktop applications like Outlook, Word and Excel, is to install what Microsoft calls 'apps for Office 2013'. These are built using HTML5 and JavaScript so they work inside the Office web apps as well as in the desktop programs, and for Outlook they actually run inside Exchange. You can find free and pay-for apps on the Office.com site, and a few apps come as part of the Office 2013 programs like the Suggested Meetings feature in Outlook 2013.

Lync between worlds

The Lync admin interface is much simpler than the Lync Server admin console, because it has fewer features and fewer options. You can control presence information, manage access to external Lync domains and public IM services, add your logo and disclaimer to Lync meeting invitations and choose whether users get push notifications for IMs, voicemail and missed calls on Windows Phone and Apple devices. But if you want to do anything else with Lync, you need to sign up with partner services, for example to let people dial in to a meeting from a landline or mobile phone without the Lync client.

You can also use PowerShell to manage your Office 365 servers the same way you would Office servers running on your own network, but you don't have all the same commands because you can only control product features, not the server setup.

Office 365 has multiple plans because you can choose how you want to use it; it can be a simple solution for a small business or a full-powered workflow system for a large company – so make sure you get the version you need.

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