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How Office 365 eases storage woes while keeping admins busy

Not only does a move to Office 365 lessen storage annoyances; it also gives admins more time to focus on more pressing business issues.

Storage management is the bane of many an Exchange administrator’s existence. Too often, admins waste time responding to users who have reached mailbox quotas, and they put inordinate amounts of effort into maintaining reliable archives while trying not to break the bank. And while Microsoft Office 365 can alleviate some of these storage headaches, many admins worry that a move to a hosted service will put them out of a job.

Hosted services such as Office 365 change how IT functions are delivered to businesses. End users won’t notice any difference in service delivery -- their email, calendars and contacts are still exactly where they need them -- but systems and application administrators must deal with major changes in the level of detail they must attend to.

For example, a typical Exchange admin may think about I/O operations per second, storage growth rates, antivirus and antispam controls, data-retention policies, governance and much more. Compare that with an administrator using a hosted Exchange service like Office 365. He doesn’t need to wrestle with disk sizing and I/O performance at a technical level; he can instead turn his attention to things like defining performance characteristics for service level agreements (SLAs).

Many of the day-to-day implementation issues that consume most Exchange administrators’ time are addressed by the Office 365 service. Consider a couple of typical responsibilities:

  • When you use Exchange Server on-premises, you must decide on your storage architecture, whether it be storage area network (SAN), iSCSI or Fibre Channel. Chances are high that other enterprise applications are vying for their share of these storage resources.
  • Not only must you ensure that you have adequate capacity for all mailboxes, logs and archives, but you also have to lobby to ensure that other apps don't share physical disks with other I/O-intensive applications. Exchange can become dependent on services that must share the needs of other enterprise applications as well.
  • If you’re using Exchange on-premises, you must also determine the best method to protect the integrity of messaging data. For example, you may choose to keep database and log files on different volumes that are backed up to different disks. You must also control log size, so you may consider implementing a method for truncating logs.
  • If you choose circular logging, you avoid the potential problem of growing beyond your storage allocation. However, you also run the risk of truncating log data before it is backed up. Circular logging also works well if you enable suitable backup procedures. This example demonstrates how quickly a storage issue turns into an exercise in identifying dependencies and tradeoffs.

So, how exactly does a move Office 365 help with storage design and maintenance for Exchange Server? Whether you choose to go with just Exchange Online or an E plan, your users get 25 GB of storage, as well as archiving and anti-malware and antispam protection. That said, you’ll still need anti-malware on your client devices, so make sure to include it when calculating the potential return on investment.

The E plan versions of Office 365 also include advanced archiving and compliance support, as well as unlimited personal archive storage. There are other costs, but they are similar to those incurred with Exchange on-premises.

Some responsibilities are still left to Exchange admins
Administrators still need to define policies and procedures for data retention, backup and security because they’re all still the responsibility of the business. They're also responsible for defining access-control lists (ACLs) and managing user identities. In addition, admins must ensure that Office 365 meets service-level agreements (SLAs).

The standard Microsoft SLA includes 99.9% uptime, so a company should not experience more than 9 hours of downtime over the course of a year. The SLA also defines service levels for email delivery and describes antivirus and antispam services. See the SLA for Microsoft Online Services website for more details.

As you can see, a move to Office 365 alleviates several low-level implementation details and architecture design questions, but it still leaves admins with several management and security responsibilities. You still need to create retention policies and implement and monitor them to ensure that they’re working as planned. IT is still ultimately responsible for compliance and security concerns.

A hosted service provides the means to comply with regulatory requirements -- like those for message retention -- but it’s still up to you to ensure that you can demonstrate that you’re in compliance.

Dan Sullivan is a technology writer and analyst with Concentrated Technology, LLC.

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