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Is the Microsoft cloud first policy floating or failing?

Microsoft intends to implement a cloud first strategy in which new features debut in the cloud yet on-premises deployments remain important. Has it succeeded?

Microsoft's corporate aim is to balance its push toward the cloud while recognizing organizations with on-premises deployments. So how did they fare this past year?

It's been over a year since we heard that Microsoft's goal is going to be "cloud first, not cloud-only" and that Exchange on-premises is still important at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC 2014) in Austin, Texas. Is it working out, especially with the release of Exchange 2016 in October 2015?

Microsoft released the next flavor of Exchange -- Exchange 2016 -- along with new versions of Outlook and OWA. It isn't ignoring on-premises per se; however, Exchange 2016 is a bit of a letdown for on-premises admins if they were thinking it would be as monumental a release as they've come to expect.

While I may be fine with it, some admins with on-premises deployments might feel like they are being slowly abandoned, or quickly pushed to the cloud under the Microsoft cloud first strategy. This change is part of growth and evolution -- and apparently Microsoft's as well.

It's easy to say the "cloud first" policy is going well for Office 365, especially for Exchange Online users. Over the past year or so, there has been a release of many new features within Exchange Online that don't have an on-premises counterpart. Features like Clutter, which works off the new Office Graph -- Microsoft's machine learning tool -- to assist with gray mail, are available in the cloud but don't exist on-premises. And with the release of Exchange 2016, we see that feature is still not available since it relies on rapid feedback to fine-tune the machine learning. Granted, in a hybrid environment, those mailboxes in the cloud can still have Clutter, but all on-premises mailboxes remain cluttered (pun intended) with mail that's neither priority nor spam/junk.

This might seem a critique of the Microsoft cloud first policy. However, I see an evolution of the statement of cloud first, not cloud-only toward something more like "cloud first -- sometimes cloud only" and eventuating into "cloud only." When will the final version of Exchange on-premises ship? I cannot say with certainty, but I think the lack of mind-blowing features in Exchange 2016 is a good indication that the days of Exchange Server as an installable option may be numbered. I have referred to Exchange 2016 as feeling more like a service pack for Exchange 2013 than a new release.

But have no fear, IT admin. Exchange has had a good life of over 20 years. It's not really dead; it's just in the cloud now.

There are benefits to Office 365 that we cannot see on-premises. These additional pieces illustrate the value in cloud over on-premises. For example, Oslo -- released officially as Office Delve -- is a tool for proactive searches and surfacing that content within a personalized dashboard, with a Pinterest feel to it overall. It's out and it's being used, but it's just getting started. Its potential for businesses is yet to be realized.

On the plus side, when you think of how much better Exchange 2016 is under the hood as a result of being run as a cloud platform for millions of mailboxes, that's one of the key benefits to this new cloud first policy. Although it's a hardening of Exchange, it's not necessarily an opportunity for all of the online features coming down the pipe. And it makes sense for those features that do come down to be tested first in the cloud; Microsoft has the ability to release a new feature into an environment that it has absolute control and authority over -- unlike on-premises deployments -- and it also has the product, devs and engineer staff available to handle problems that come up. The Microsoft cloud first policy is a better policy going forward, in my opinion.

Nobody likes change, but the fact is we are on the cusp of a massive change. IT is about to become a utility through cloud tools like Azure and Office 365. It isn't happening all at once, but it is coming. I, for one, am eager to embrace it. Cloud first? Soon enough it will be cloud only.

Next Steps

What a cloud first strategy means for security

Benefits to a cloud first initiative

Take a peek into Exchange 2016

Dig Deeper on Outlook management