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Microsoft, Google sweeten online service SLAs

As Microsoft readies Office 365, the company tweaked its Online Services lifecycle policy. Google also improved its service-level agreements to cut planned downtime.

Both Microsoft and Google improved their service agreements for online offerings last month, giving IT pros more incentive to move their email and documents to the cloud.

Web-based services, such as Google Apps and Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), appeal to cost-sensitive businesses that want to ease the burden of installing and supporting Exchange Server, SharePoint Server, Office and other products.

Jason McAninch, head of the small IT services firm J-TEK in Kansas, has used Google Docs for years and tested an early version of Microsoft’s Office 365 last year. He said both services are great for businesses that want current versions of software without “having to spend $300-plus for a legal copy of Microsoft Office” per desktop.

Online versions of Microsoft products reduce IT management tasks. But they also might ultimately cost more annually than equivalent on-premises software licenses when you add the cost of subscriptions. Subscriptions must be maintained for a company to continue receiving the services, according to a report on Microsoft’s Online Services by Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm in Kirkland, Wash.

“Most people use BPOS or Google Docs to save money on IT administration costs, but they weren’t getting the same support that they would with on-premises software,” said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

To address the discrepancy, last month Microsoft released its Online Services Support Lifecycle promise that offers customers the same type of lifecycle support they get with on-premises versions of software.

Microsoft Online Services lifecycle policy
Microsoft describes the new lifecycle policy for Windows Azure and the upcoming Office 365 services as “groundbreaking,” but most IT managers will probably find the policy guidelines obligatory, as they meet the minimal expectations of most customers. For instance, Microsoft promises to “provide support throughout the duration of a customer’s agreement with Microsoft for the Online Service,” which customers would expect.

The company also promises a 12-month prior notification before ending a commercial Online Service and a minimum of 12 months’ prior notification for events that are considered “disruptive changes” -- those that require significant actions including administrator intervention, client software updates, data migration or significant user experience changes. Of course, security updates don’t require 12 months’ notice.

The new policy probably isn’t enough to inspire cartwheels. But, formalizing the lifecycle support policy could make customers more comfortable making a move to Windows Azure and BPOS, which will be replaced by Office 365 when it becomes available sometime this year, analysts said.

Many customers will be building mixed environments, said Frank Bennett, co-author of the upcoming book, “Thinking of ... Using Microsoft Office 365?” So it makes sense that Microsoft has a uniform lifecycle support policy for on-premises and cloud-based software, because Office 365 licenses will cover both online and on-premises use of Microsoft Online Services.

“Some customers may interpret this support policy as building confidence for a decision to deploy Microsoft Online Services,” Bennett said. “Will it put one over on Google Apps or Zoho? We will have to wait and see.”

Google cuts clause that allows for downtime
In response to Microsoft’s lifecycle policy, Google Inc. said that 12 months’ notice for disruptive changes shouldn’t satisfy customers. “It’s extremely disruptive, not to mention costly, for business email and productivity tools to be down, even with advanced notice,” according to the company.

But Google has the luxury of being 100% Web in that it has no software to manage, install, upgrade or patch. A browser refresh delivers the latest innovation. Google also updated its own service-level agreement last month, removing a clause that allowed for scheduled downtime. The company claims to be the first major service provider to eliminate planned downtime for maintenance.

Online services and tech support
It’s unclear if the new SLA will convince enterprises to make the jump to online services. For one thing, IT pros remain concerned about the type of technical support they’ll receive after handing software management responsibilities over to a vendor.

McAninch said he’s never sought help for Google Apps issues but has heard mixed reviews from customers about Google’s tech support; some say its “decent,” some say it’s “horrible.”

And he hears the same about Microsoft. One IT pro said he’s had great experience with BPOS support, while another sweats over the memory of being at the mercy of Microsoft’s call center when his IT director wanted an issue fixed, pronto.

Whether its on-premises or online software, tech support is bound to fall short.

“Most product tech support is horrible anyways, mostly due to a limitation of technical knowledge the ‘technician’ has on the phone providing support to the consumer,” McAninch said. “I’ve found ‘Googling’ my question more successful than waiting on the phone for a ‘tech’ from the product’s support team to help me with an issue.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter

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