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Experts advise on the best Exchange infrastructure for Office 365

Office 365
by Tamsin Oxford, 18 Jun 2012

When considering a move to a cloud solution such as Microsoft Office 365, you need to ask a few key questions - do you move exclusively to the cloud, maintain your Exchange in the office (on-premise) or go for a hybrid model? This straightforward guide asks the experts what variables you need to consider.

Over the past few years, innovation and development, alongside lower costs have led more and more businesses to look at cloud options. Although cloud solutions offer substantial cost benefits, due to their efficiency in management and scalability and their flexibility, some design and consideration about data in the cloud needs to be thought through.

"Cloud-based solutions such as Office 365 can simplify IT and remove the headaches associated with disaster recovery, storage and ensure high availability," says Darren Beggan, head of professional services at Excalibur Communications, "This, in turn, can enable the business to focus on core activities rather than on IT."

Once a business has committed to moving across to the cloud, there is inevitably a transition period that can span anything from three to six months as systems are tested, applications updated and documentation drawn up.

While planning how your business is to tackle the cloud and which services the business is going to take advantage of, you will soon ask the question - do we move our email into the cloud or not?

"Either or both," says Jeremy Neal, head of online services at IMGROUP, "The great thing about Office 365 and the broader Microsoft Online services proposition is that it offers you that choice."

So how should you deploy Microsoft Exchange? Do you use Exchange Server 2010 on premises, Exchange Online with Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud, or use both in either a temporary or hybrid scenario? The answer lies in fully understanding the benefits and limitations of each deployment so you can make the right decision for your organisation.

Email in the Cloud

The benefits of moving your email structure to the cloud are impressive. You get reduced IT costs, more flexibility to adapt to changing organisational needs, increased availability and reliability, and access to the latest technology without having to upgrade. However, for some businesses working completely in the cloud is not an efficient solution.

"Some businesses have concerns over relinquishing administrative control and putting their data into something that is intangible," says Beggan, "Cloud-based solutions can also limit a business' ability to meet regulatory compliances, such as data that must remain in the UK for legal reasons."

Many organisations are choosing to move exclusively to the cloud as it has clear savings and a positive return on investment relative to traditional on-premise systems.

"For most organisations - be they private or public sector - the opportunity to refocus capital expenditure on products and services by moving away from in-house provisioning of common IT systems is the same," says Neal, "Email, communication, collaboration and productivity solutions are things we all need, but rarely do they define what we do and our core value in market. We rely on national and international providers for power, postal and telecommunications networks and essential, but non-core, IT services are headed the same way."

In terms of storage and hardware costs, Exchange Server 2010 gives you a broad range of hardware to work from on premises. With Exchange Online, storage is managed by Microsoft and reduces the load on admins. In both cases, mailbox size can be adapted to suit organisational needs and deployment can be managed using a web-based console. What the former offers is greater levels of control over your IT infrastructure because you are deploying and managing the solution yourself whereas with online, customisation is more limited.

It is worth noting that a secure mobile connection using the Internet, laptops and mobile devices is a standard feature for Exchange Online, whereas with Exchange Server 2010, you would need to configure access and certificates accordingly. There are similarities between the features of both Exchange Online and Exchange Server 2010 with only a few disparities, but it's on these that a decision can pivot. For a full list of the components included in the Office 365 suite you can visit the Download Center.

"You can build and deploy solutions such as email according to your needs and business circumstances," says Neal, "Rich co-existence is possible both during the setup and migration process, and once the system is live. This ‘hybrid' or ‘connected cloud' approach offers real freedom of movement."

In his paper, Combining On-Premises and Cloud E-mail: Perfect Together?, Matthew W. Cain from Gartner Research states, "Organisations will increasingly use a hybrid model for email services, thereby taking advantage of the cloud model while mitigating some of the risk."

Exchange offers a variety of hybrid scenarios such as the one above. Businesses can choose to move their archive or their antivirus/antispy protection to the cloud while maintaining mailboxes on premises, or split the mail services between the two. Each of models can be created either as part of a bulk migration and for only a limited period of time or as a permanent solution to match business requirements.

According to the Microsoft whitepaper, How Should Your Organization Deploy Microsoft Exchange?, the most common use of hybrid deployments is during larger migrations with companies that have thousands of users as "hybrid deployments enable you to migrate users to the cloud at a pace that makes sense for your organization."

Making the decision as to which Exchange option suits your business is not cut and dried. The flexibility of the solutions - Exchange Server 2010, Exchange Online and Hybrid - means that the model you choose will be dictated by the business you run. For a larger organisation a hybrid deployment may well be a necessity at first, but whether or not you move entirely to the cloud will depend on internal infrastructure, cost analysis and legalities, such as compliance. For the smaller business a hybrid deployment may not be a necessity, but could offer the levels of control they need to feel secure in their move to the cloud.

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