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Microsoft sends Exchange Online plans to the cloud

Exchange Online and compatible third-party options for Office 365 brought Exchange in the cloud closer to the forefront, especially with hybrid workloads.

At the beginning of the year, a fellow Microsoft MVP, Michael van Horenbeeck, predicted an increase in hybrid workloads, that Exchange Online plans will stay ahead of on-premises Exchange and that more third-party vendors will focus on Office 365 compatible products.

It was spot on. Now, we look to 2016.

To start with, 2015 was the year of the hybrid deployment to Office 365 and Exchange Online. I have seen many small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) making the leap with a cutover migration or through third-party assist tools to Exchange Online. Many larger organizations are setting up their hybrid environment and testing, partially migrating or moving completely to the cloud -- while retaining the hybrid. Most organizations still use Exchange 2010 or 2013. I imagine that will change going into 2016, and we'll see more Exchange 2016 hybrid configurations.

Exchange Online has certainly stayed ahead of on-premises. Microsoft continues to develop the cloud-based version. The release of Exchange 2016 made that divide clearer; rather than catching up, it showed where Microsoft's efforts are these days -- Exchange 2016 is more like an Exchange Service Pack than a full release.

The third-party vendors that typically design products to work with Microsoft's offerings must plan around Office 365. For now there is still a business in on-premises products -- and for a few more years that may hold true -- but the trend toward Office 365 is increasing. It won't be long before Microsoft's monopoly with on-premises mailboxes through Exchange will switch to Exchange Online. Vendors are trying aggressively to remain relevant and offer something to fit with Exchange Online plans.

So, that was the year 2015. What might be coming up in 2016? Frankly, more of the same.

We will continue to see SMBs adopt Exchange Online plans along with larger organizations. Organizations with distinctive needs will take the hybrid route and continue along that path for a period of time. The majority of future hybrids will likely go with Exchange 2016 due to improvements to the process and the hybrid configuration wizard.

Exchange Online will continue to outshine its on-premises predecessor, especially in areas like security and compliance. Microsoft is working hard to improve those areas of its online offering. For example, Microsoft released more security options such as advanced threat protection and better eDiscovery through Equivo. We'll see more of this going forward.

Third parties will continue to develop relevant bolt-on offerings. However, we'll see more siloed third parties merging products to provide all-in-one offerings. Backup and recovery, archive, security, availability and monitoring are all key pieces. An all-in-one set makes more sense with Exchange Online plans than selecting individual players like we typically do on-premises. I recommend Mimecast as an all-in-one that handles the current gaps in Exchange Online while also providing large file send, secure messaging, mobile apps and other extras. Most vendors will likely scramble to remain relevant as the Microsoft machine outpaces them with built-in options.

There are several reasons why you might remain in a hybrid configuration, even after mailboxes have been moved up to Exchange Online.

First, it's the easiest way to pull mailboxes back down to on premises should you decide to reverse course. I recently spoke with an admin who pushed 5,000 mailboxes up to Exchange Online, didn't like it and pulled them all back down on premises -- all thanks to remaining hybrid.

Other reasons for creating a hybrid environment is to maintain a specific mail flow, for example down and out through on-premises appliances perhaps, to allow for branch offices with Exchange Servers and mailboxes to avoid latency issues with Exchange Online, or to keep mail data in the country.

I'm also seeing a trend toward new methods of communication -- something with a social networking feel to it, like an in-house Twitter. Real-time instant messaging options like Slack have become popular. Some predict this will replace email, but I doubt it will make a dent. Call me a dinosaur, but I've tried all of these new IM tools and never felt like they will replace email for my communication and collaboration tool of choice. Nevertheless, I think we'll see additional IM "Slack-like" options spring up in the year ahead.

I also believe Office 365 competition, i.e., Google, will move from a murmur to a whisper. It's already moved from a roar to a shout to a murmur, so I see that trend continuing. Google had a chance to capture this market -- and Microsoft certainly gave them plenty of time to make it happen -- but they didn't measure up. The Office 365 (Exchange Online) train is barreling down the track. It will pick up speed in 2016, get stronger, gain more passengers and reach bullet train capabilities by 2017.

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