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Office 365 and PowerShell – a marriage made in heaven?

Office 365 is Microsoft's SaaS office suite. Formally launched a year ago, it replaced the older BPOS offering. PowerShell is Microsoft's strategic automation platform for Windows. PowerShell version 2 is the current release, with a beta of PowerShell V3 a part of the Windows 8 and Server 2012 beta offerings. Together they make a powerful combination.

In this article, we recap the evolved Office 365 offering since its original launch and show how PowerShell and Office 365 work together. In future articles, I'll look specifically at how you can use PowerShell to administer your Office 365 subscription and how you can use PowerShell to administer the Exchange component of Office 365.

What's in Office 365 and what is an Office 365 plan?

Office 365 contains a number of components:

- Office web apps and Office 2010 Professional

- Lync 2010

- Exchange 2010

- SharePoint 2010

When you subscribe to Office 365, you can choose one of many plans - a plan is roughly equivalent to a SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) or version for on-premise software, e.g. Office Professional, Office Ultimate, etc. There are three broad sets of plans: one for email only, another for small businesses, and one for enterprises. There is also a pair of plans for Kiosk users - i.e. users without a personal desktop machine. The kiosk worker gets an Exchange mailbox and access to Office Web apps to use mail and Word/Excel/PowerPoint etc. The cost of Office 365 varies depending on which specific plan you subscribe to. Likewise the number of users you can equip with Office 365 varies with the plan.

The Email Plan offers just a cloud hosted version of Exchange 2010. The Small Business Plans are aimed at smaller businesses with up to 50 users that take the total cloud offering. The Enterprise plans enable larger companies to put some (or of course all) of their users in the cloud. The Enterprise plans support 50000+ users. And, an Enterprise plan subscribing company could have some users in the cloud, some on-premise - and use Microsoft's Active Directory Federation Services to sync between the on-premise and cloud directories in a pretty seamless fashion.

Cost of these plans ranges from £2.60/user/per month for the Email only plan and up to £14.50/per user/per month for the Enterprise E4 plan (all UK prices are ex-VAT). The Kiosk plans range from £2.60 to £5.25 per user, per month. Sadly, at present at least, you can't switch between different plan families (eg from the Small business plan to an enterprise plan) although you can switch between plans in each plan family. A fantastic feature of the Small Business plan is the Internet facing SharePoint based web site. Getting your Internet site bundled in is a nice touch.

As a Small Business plan subscriber, the costs of Office 365 are less than the costs of the server and the electricity needed to support it. For many small to medium business, the cost argument makes Office 365 a no-brainer but it is important for you to have a look at the Microsoft Office 365 detailed feature comparison to see which plan and cost will best suit your organisation.

Office 365 Setup and Scripting

In my ideal world, you'd be able to do all the signup and provisioning using scripts written in PowerShell, but sadly that's not quite how it works. The first step is to sign up for Office 365 - you can get your own evaluation copy by clicking on the button below this article. It's pretty quick and painless. And if you want to try before you buy, you can also do a 30-day trial.

After signing up, you can do most of the basic configuration via a fairly stratight forward Admin portal which appears when you log on to your Office 365 environment for the first time.

There are a set of PowerShell cmdlets you can use to perform most of the day to day admin tasks, including user management and domain management. You can also use PowerShell to manage the Exchange side of Office 365.

Summary

Office 365 is a great cloud based productivity package that can work out cheaper, MUCH cheaper, than running an on-premise solution. And you have none of the headaches of hardware (un) reliability, service packs, patches and other maintenance considerations. So far, I've not had a single blip with my subscription - mail gets through very quickly, Lync works well, and so far, my SharePoint public facing web site has a better uptime than when it was previously hosted by my last Internet supplier! The ability to manage at least part of the solution by PowerShell will be a boon to administrators who are managing the Office 365 environment.

But is it a marriage with PowerShell made in heaven? Well - it's more like a great first date. What I've seen so far is worth a second date, when some of the missing items may be present. And whatever the metaphors, for a lot of small and medium sizes businesses, Office 365 offers a whole lot of value! In the next two articles, I'll look at managing the Office 365 solution and managing Exchange Online with PowerShell.