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An Office 365 pilot can make or break a rollout

Before moving from on-premises Exchange to Office 365, admins can set up a pilot to see if bandwidth, connectivity or incompatibilities will hinder success.

Exchange administrators were once preoccupied with time-consuming tasks that involved managing a complex messaging environment. But when Office 365 entered the picture, many of those same admins can use a single web portal to manage and configure systems.

This shift into the cloud also offers new opportunities and frees administrators for other tasks, but the success of the implementation depends on how prepared they are for the change. An Office 365 pilot is the best way to determine if a full implementation will succeed or fail.

Ideally, an Office 365 pilot should roll out to about 5% of end users. This ensures IT spends adequate time to plan and evaluate the new platform within the environment and with a set number of users. It also provides the opportunity to test-drive the platform and determine any potential configuration requirements, issues and implementation caveats that admins need to address prior to a full migration.

During the pilot stage, an organization can either purchase licenses for a number of end users under an existing Microsoft agreement or sign up for a trial version. This enables admins to implement the pilot project and perform most of the required tasks to get end users on the Office 365 service. During the Office 365 pilot phase, IT should use the following points to evaluate and prepare:

Keep an eye on bandwidth

The biggest factors that affect Office 365 performance are connectivity and internal networking configurations. Regardless of the speed of the Office 365 service in Microsoft's data centers, if the organization's network bandwidth cannot meet Microsoft's requirements then end users won't have a good experience. An Office 365 pilot forces IT to evaluate and identify the specifications required to use the cloud platform. Admins can download several tools for these tasks from Microsoft's site, such as the calculator that estimates how much bandwidth an organization needs based on the number of end users.

Admins who skip the pilot phase could encounter additional costs later if the organization's bandwidth is not adequate. And slow network speed for Office 365 could result in slow email delivery and poor tools performance. End users lose confidence and the implementation likely will fail.

More hands-on work in the portal builds confidence

The biggest factors that affect Office 365 performance are connectivity and internal networking configurations.

Exchange Online includes greater functionality and capabilities than its on-premises counterpart, including additional features like Exchange Online Protection, advanced threat protections, data loss prevention, archiving, e-discovery, user mailbox administration and reporting. The portal offers a centralized and consolidated management console that differs significantly from what is available with on-premises Exchange Server.

IT is less likely to be overwhelmed during the full implementation if admins perform due diligence during the Office 365 pilot phase. Review and map out the organization's policies and familiarize yourself with administrative options.

Address compatibility with email clients and mail-enabled devices

Connectivity and compatibility with legacy applications and devices, such as mobile devices, mail-enabled scanners and printers, often go unaddressed before a move to Office 365. And they can become bigger problems after a migration.

Many of these systems interact with Exchange to communicate and transmit data to end users. But not all these systems have native support for Office 365 and its security requirements. This can lead to a lack of email support unless IT admins perform alternate configurations and setups. An Office 365 pilot helps identify gaps and allows IT to build and test alternate setups to prevent interruptions when the system goes live.

Be aware of customization or custom code in Office

An Office upgrade can be an IT pain point. Several companies in various industries still run Microsoft Office 2010 or even 2007. To use Office 365, these organizations need to upgrade to a new Office environment that requires internet connectivity at least once every 30 days. To keep an Office 365 plan active, someone must sign in at least once every 30 days.

A common challenge with the new Office 365 ProPlus, which allows end users to access Office apps on all devices, is the lack of support for some of the component object model components or legacy add-ons. For example, Sage 100 ERP required clients delay an Office 365 ProPlus while it sorted through some legacy issues. The Office 365 pilot project would help uncover potential incompatibilities and enable IT to take the appropriate steps to upgrade or to rewrite some custom code.

Office 365 analytics could help -- or hinder -- O365 adoption

Analytics is one of the engines powering this portfolio of services, promising to make companies more efficient and intelligent by providing real-time data on employees' work habits.

Delve, the search tool within the Microsoft Office 365 business productivity suite, and Office Graph, which powers Delve, gather data about how employees work and help gain insight into making that work more productive.

"That very level of access into a worker's performance and a worker's life can be … intrusive," Scott Robinson, a SharePoint and BI expert, said while discussing Office 365 analytics in this podcast.

Embrace O365 service, support

Once IT moves to Office 365, its fate is in Microsoft's hands with regards to guarantees on end-user uptime, including the time it takes to fix any service interruptions. Because the current Office 365 platform has built a reputation for reliability by consistently meeting its guarantee of 99.9% uptime, this is no longer a concern. This doesn't mean that issues won't pop up from time to time but, in the pilot stage, IT must learn how to work through the support portal and understand the different service health and monitoring indicators available online. This helps IT teams better prepare for issues or interruption.

The primary focus of an Office 365 pilot project is to test how well the platform will work within the organization. The larger the organization, the more critical the pilot phase is to the success of the project. If admins skip this phase, they risk unwanted surprises for everyone involved -- and that could lead to negative consequences and a lack of confidence in the platform.

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