Microsoft offers IT pros clarity for Office 365 updates

Microsoft will tweak its Office 365 update process to provide a bit of clarity for IT admins frustrated with its previous lack of communication.

IT pros wondering how they'll keep up with faster Office 365 updates may find answers in Microsoft's new programs and communication tools.

Microsoft's adherence to a more aggressive update schedule for Office 365 and other products, such as Windows 8.1 and Windows Server, has been a point of contention for many IT pros who wonder how to keep up. The faster update cadence has not been fail proof, as a bug caused a delay to a recent Windows 8.1 update.  

Cloud-based subscription services like Office 365 offer advantages such as automatically sending updates and patches. However, major updates can create a burden for IT administrators. Potential issues surrounding application and data compatibility, especially for those with custom line of business software applications worry administrators.

Office 365 updates address IT concerns

Microsoft provided IT pros at TechEd 2014 this month a glimpse into the Office 365 roadmap and updates that could decrease their concerns. 

Microsoft will develop a Preview website dedicated to Office 365 roadmaps that give IT pros and partners a 30 to 90-day preview for the new changes.  In some cases, Microsoft will unveil new products such as Oslo as early as six months to a year in advance. Timing for when the website will go live is still unclear.

The new program should give IT pros some relief when it becomes available.

"This was really the challenge with the Office 365 documentation that would get published often after the features were released, or sometimes on the day of," said Chris Hertz, CEO and founder of New Signature, a system integrator based in Washington, D.C. "It put a lot of pressure on administrators to react to announcements, rather than having time to plan." 

The company disclosed plans to tweak its pending opt-in First Release program and communication tools with several features. The tweaks ensure channel partners and IT pros have more time to plan for future updates that could impact their environments. The First Release program only covers the Office 365 suite, Sharepoint Online and Exchange Online.

First Release provides Office 365 updates first to an entire company, rather by specific user or groups of users. IT administrators who do not want to deploy new updates as soon as they are available can be part of a standard release group. 

"Some customers and partners have a secondary tenant to play with the [new] stuff and they use that," said Jake Zborowski, group product manager for the Office 365 team, during the session that was posted online recently. "The main tenant and production environment is within the standard release group," he said during his talk. Zborowski acknowledged the program cannot be set at a user level yet, he said.

While Microsoft's efforts seem to fall in line with its new strategy for being a more open company, IT pros have their concerns.

"Making [new features] available to everyone makes sense," said Imran Shaikh, program director for IT at San Francisco-based Vista Equity Partners. However, Shaikh cautioned that if the updates start rolling out and tenants have deployed different versions of the service, it could become a management nightmare.

If customers had a sandbox option, Shaikh said, they could develop and test to make sure the updates are bug free and that they work with an organization's applications before rolling it out into production.

"The biggest challenge sometimes is that new features are often enabled by default, and if administrators aren't provided advanced notification this can cause challenges," Hertz said. "The new approach that Microsoft is trying is definitely the right way to go and I think will solve some of the minor challenges that IT pros were facing in the current process."

"We send people to a lot of different places [to find the information they need]" Zborowski said. Now Microsoft is making it clear where to look for support online in different pages including in the system requirements, support lifecycle, Office 365 technical blog, Office 365 Message Center, and public roadmap sites.

Microsoft also will improve its Office 365 Message Center site for IT administrators. Not only will IT pros see more information flowing to the Message Center, the company plans to create a syndication experience within Message Center, Zborowski said. It is unclear, however, when this feature will be added.

Additionally, Microsoft will provide IT pros more access to tenant-wide administrative features even if the administrator only has Exchange admin rights.

In the next few weeks, Microsoft will ship the System Center Management Pack, which includes API access to enable IT pros to use System Center Configuration Manager console and view the data, Zborowski said.

Microsoft also is working to update the Office 365 mobile administration app with support for Message Center communication. The app now supports Windows, iOS and Android devices. There are no plans to support BlackBerry devices.

Administrators in the session voiced concern about the feature parity between Office for Macintosh and Office for Windows.

Microsoft will deliver in the next year or so a new version of Office for Mac that will bring it more in line with Office for Windows, Zborowski said. It will include new features such as co-authoring and e-mail capabilities, similar to what is being offered for Office on PCs, he said.

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