Microsoft Cloud News Round Up

We Told You So: Microsoft Cloud Leads in Gartner Magic Quadrant, Yet Again 

Gartner Magic Quadrant ranks Microsoft as a “Leader” in the BI and Analytics section for 2017. Gartner highlighted multiple key benefits of using Microsoft’s OneDrive for Business for companies who already use productivity and collaboration tools offered by Microsoft (i.e. Office365, SharePoint).  

Our founder and CEO, Thomas Carpe, remarks “Finally business advisors officially recognize what Liquid Mercury Solutions has known for years – that Microsoft’s cloud services are quickly becoming the standard by which all others will be compared. Where Office 365 once provided an advantage to businesses willing to take a chance on the cloud, soon enough it’ll become ubiquitous in business.” 

Microsoft’s optimism and determination seems to promise a growing trend of advancements in this area. Kamal Hathi, Microsoft Power BI general manager, wrote “We’re humbled by this recognition for the innovation we’ve delivered with Microsoft Power BI in the past year … But more importantly, we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve made as a community in executing against the ambitious goal set when Power BI was made generally available only a short time ago in July 2015: Provide BI to more people than ever before, across all roles and disciplines within organizations.” 

Alara Rogers responds, “Microsoft has actually been an industry leader in BI for many years. Excel is the world’s most widely used BI tool by a large margin. Where Microsoft struggles is in communicating to customers about the power and abilities of their platform, especially when we see lots of changes like we have with the shift from traditional tools like PowerPivot and SQL Reporting Services to a cloud platform Power BI. There’s room for improvement, but things are headed in the right direction.” 

Whatever your opinion, it’s safe to expect even bigger and better collaborative innovations in the years to come. 

Read More: 

https://blogs.microsoft.com/firehose/2017/02/16/microsoft-named-a-leader-in-gartner-magic-quadrant-for-business-intelligence-and-analytics-platforms/ 

https://mspoweruser.com/microsoft-named-leader-2017-gartner-magic-quadrant-content-collaboration-platforms/ 

  

Office 365 Takes the Lead Over Traditional Office for the First Time 

This week marks the first time that Office 365 users exceed the number of users for traditional versions of Office, making it the clear favorite both among users and at Microsoft. That trend will only continue as Microsoft plans to officially end support for Office 2007 later this fall. 

But what’s made Office 365 such a success? Let’s look at a few benefits. 

  • For starters, no one needs to suffer with the frustration of losing files that weren’t backed up because someone was too lazy to keep the laptop charged, thanks to OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online. 
  • All the relevant applications people use for themselves can be synced across devices. That means next time your computer has a spontaneous meltdown, you can just switch to another one, easy as pie. 
  • Files can be shared with anyone, both inside the company and with vendors, partners, and customers. No need to clutter folks’ email with bulky and potentially risky attachments. 
  • Multiple people can edit a Word document or Excel spreadsheet simultaneously and it updates in real time. It’s so much easier than passing it around the office for review and revision. 
  • Thanks for applications like Delve, everything you need can be found in one place so say goodbye to having 27 windows open at once. 
  • Best of all, your information is kept safe using the latest encryption, and you can protect your account with more than just a password by using multi-factor authentication such as your phone. 

Office 365 has all the perks you wished Office XP had back in 2002. No wonder the trend of moving everything to the cloud is here to stay, because it works beautifully. 

 

Microsoft Welcomes Our Robot Overlords 

There has been buzz of Microsoft creating an AI supercomputer and people in the industry have strong opinions on how this will impact the future. Will it be chaos like The Terminator come to life? Or will we all fall in love like Joaquin Phoenix did with Her? 

OpenAI, a non-profit AI research organization, has teamed up with Microsoft to implement accessibility of AI to the masses. Azure is the crucial component that will take this idea and cultivate it into a reality. 

Microsoft already has tools within this platform that can will assist in this development (i.e. Azure Batch, Azure N-Series Virtual Machines, and Azure Machine Learning) but they are in the process of creating further technology to aid in AI research. 

Some of these advancements have already come to light, including the upcoming Hardware Microservices via Azure. Microsoft aims to have FPGA (field-programmable gate arrays) processing power be accessible to developers sometime next year to have a cloud that is 100% configurable. There are major perks to having this type of access including increased speed and functionality. 

What the heck is an FPGA? Thomas Carpe explains “Simply put, FPGA are hardware, like your graphics card for example. Unlike special purpose hardware, they can be programmed and reconfigured as needed using software, potentially including AI. Thus, they’re super-fast, and can facilitate machine learning.” 

This all sounds wonderful, but some think converting and relying on AI technology is going too far. World renowned icons in the tech and science communities have conflicting ideas on what this means for the future of civilization. 

Elon Musk has spoken out against AI, referring to it as “our greatest existential threat” almost three years ago. He’s taken a precautionary role as a member of OpenAI. 

Stephen Hawking made a point to compare the speed of biological evolution versus advancements in AI to show that AI would eventually outgrow us. 

Mark Zuckerberg seems to favor the idea of a world more heavily dependent on AI. He believes it could create vast improvements in every day scenarios like healthcare and transportation. 

Where do you stand on the subject? Will you embrace AI? How would you like to maximize the cloud with the new capabilities of Hardware Microservices via Azure? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Learn More: 

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/microsoft-partners-with-openai-to-advance-ai-research-with-azure/ 

http://www.zdnet.com/article/how-microsoft-plans-to-turn-azure-into-an-ai-cloud/ 

http://observer.com/2015/08/stephen-hawking-elon-musk-and-bill-gates-warn-about-artificial-intelligence/ 

http://fortune.com/2017/07/26/mark-zuckerberg-argues-against-elon-musks-view-of-artificial-intelligence-again/ 

https://channel9.msdn.com/Blogs/Azure/Why-OpenAI-chose-Azure+video 

https://fossbytes.com/satya-nadella-microsoft-is-turning-azure-into-the-first-ai-supercomputer/ 

 

Stay Ahead of Emerging Cloud Security Threats  

Recently, a massive cybersecurity attack on Office 365 targeted several Fortune 500 companies. How?! 

Skyhigh Networks explained the attackers consistently tried variations in a skillfully discreet manner to get into the accounts of “…high value targets, including more than 100,000 failed Office 365 logins from 67 IP addresses and 12 networks. The attempts in all targeted 48 different organizations.” 

Evidence shows the attackers might have already known some employee names and passwords through phishing and tried different combinations of usernames and passwords based on that. 

Your business can be vulnerable too! Do you reuse the same easy password for everything? Do you interact with spam emails? Do you have a basic username-password authentication system? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to up your security game. 

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. But that’s exactly how and why something like this could happen to your business soon. Embrace the modern world and get educated on how you can protect your data. 

There has been a huge shift of bringing sensitive information to the cloud amongst enterprise corporations as well as SMBs in recent years. Almost 60% of all sensitive corporate data in the cloud is based in Office 365. Additionally, it works on a myriad of devices which makes it even more appealing to users. 

The downside to this is that it’s also the hackers’ bull’s eye. It is often said “[w]ith great power comes great responsibility” …to protect your data. 

Slawomir Ligier, senior vice president of engineering at Skyhigh elaborates on this. “While companies traditionally have invested extensively in perimeter security, those without a dedicated cloud security solution will lack visibility and control for a growing category of attacks. Enterprise cloud providers secure their infrastructure, but the ultimate responsibility to control access to sensitive data lies with the customer.” 

Thomas Carpe goes on to say, “Many existing security experts as well as their tools and standards are seriously behind the times when it comes to including the cloud into their security plans. Where our customers have sensitive data, we must consider not just things like their firewalls or patching Windows, but also whether they’re subscribing to the right mix of cloud services to fully protect themselves.” 

Let that sink in for a moment. 

Protect your business! Now, wanna upgrade your security? Contact Liquid Mercury Solutions today to set yourself up with high quality cloud security and data protection to fit your business needs. 

Read More About It: 

https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/news/widespread-bruteforce-office-365/ 

 

Microsoft Renaming Kiosk Plans to Frontline Worker Plans 

For years, we’ve struggled to explain to our clients what a Kiosk plan is, often calling it the “deskless worker” plan instead in favor of Microsoft’s preferred naming. Now Microsoft seems to be catching on to the longstanding communication gap. This week, they’ve announced a naming change to the K1 plan, which will henceforth be known as… wait for it… the F1 plan! 

What’s the F for? Well, all joking aside (and, yes, we’ve had some good-natured fun at Microsoft’s expense), the F is for Frontline Worker – but it could easily mean Field, Fleet, Factory, First-line, or one of those other words that starts with the same letter. 

Whatever way you spell it or decide that it stands for, the F1 plan is still the cheapest way to get your non-IT, non-administrative employees into Office 365. The price is still the same at $4 a month, and while the plan doesn’t include a copy of Office it does have email, Skype, and access to OneDrive and SharePoint – which is fine since a key requirement to the F1 plan is that the user doesn’t have their own PC. The F1 plan is perfect for users who’ll access Office 365 primarily via their smartphone or tablet, and may use a shared computer (kiosk) on occasion. 

So, if just the name is changing, what do Office 365 subscribers need to know? Not a heck of a lot, just keep it in mind when you get your next billing statement. Nothing’s really changed at all, so you’re not getting “F”ed. ;-) 

Office 365 Security and You - Access Control

YouTuber JackSkepticEye plays Papers, Please. What does this have to do with Office 365 security, read on and find out! This is the second part of a series on cloud security topics. In the first part, I discussed the threat that has Ransomware over people and companies. I started this series to book-end around my appearance as part of the SharePoint security panel at this week's Federal IT Security Conference. Since that conversation unfolded, I think we'll do a Part 3 next week to cover the topics discussed at the panel, which were very different that I imagined they would be.

PART 2: 12 Ways to Control When and Where People Access Office 365

Recently, many of our customers who are interested in migrating to Office 365 have been asking us questions about whether it's possible to control when, how, and where their employees can access their data.

While there are some technical approaches that may work, the unfortunate news is that there's no "silver bullet", at least as far as we've been able to find - yet. Many possible solution feel like kludgy work-arounds, temporary half-measures, partial solutions, or something created only for larger organizations.

I thought I'd take the opportunity to put together a list of possible ways to tackle this challenge. Even though no option is a complete answer, it's possible that some of these may be a good fit for your specific circumstances. I'll do my best to go over the pros and cons of each option.

Is this necessary? Depending on who you are and what you do, maybe not. Overkill? A bit heavy handed? Perhaps. Thus the graphic above, which (for those of you who may not be gamers) parodies an Arstotzkan border guard from the dystopian job simulator game classic "Papers, Please". Understand though that in some cases it may be reasonable, since many industries are subject to regulatory compliance requirements that might not always be perfectly aligned with a cloud based IT strategy.

Fair warning, this is a pretty complex topic. Hopefully everyone has gotten over their election night hangover and is ready to dig in. So, without any more fanfare, let's check out some methods to implement extreme vetting in Office 365.

Access Control - The Basics

When we think about granting access, we're basically describing the five W's that need to be addressed in order to make a decision about letting a person have access to information. A perfect access and identity system would answer all the questions below before letting someone in to the system - and may even use some of the answers to put a limit on what they can access at any given moment.

Who

  • Is the user logging in actually who they say that they are?
  • How confident are we in that?
  • Have they been educated and informed about security and privacy policies?
  • Is their ability to act responsibly expected?

What

  • What is being accessed; is it email, documents, some other data?
  • Is accessed content subject to regulation such as HIPAA, SOX, or GLBA?

Where

  • What network are they connected from?
  • Do we have any geo-location data?

When

  • Is it the normal workday or after-hours?
  • How does "now" jive with past or expected work patterns?

How

  • Is it a known PC, mobile device, or something new/different?
  • Are they using a browser (that can run JavaScript or CAPTCHA test), or could this be a bot?

Why

  • What's the business purpose behind needing the information?
  • Is it reasonable to expect responsible behavior?
  • If the behavior is unusual, is it known in advance or has it been vetted?

Okay, so now that we've been over what sorts of things go into granting access, let's get specific. The answers to "who" and "what" are already largely covered by conventional authentication and authorization systems. The topic in question - the one we're hearing about from our customers - specifically addresses the "when", "where", and maybe "how" above.

So, without further ado, here's my list of 12 things that can be done to control access to Office 365 and other resources in the cloud. Some are cheap. Some are definitely not. None are perfect for everyone. That's just life, I guess. If you'd like help finding a solution that will work for you, please talk to us about it, because that's what we do at Liquid Mercury Solutions.

Option 1: Just don't share the password with the user

It sounds stupidly easy, but if you don't want somebody to login from home, don't give them their own password. You can handle this in a couple of different ways. Either set up the Office 365 account on their work PC and save the credentials to it without telling them the password, or go ahead and give them their own account but have another account that is only used for access to important or sensitive information, and then keep that one under lock and key.

Plus side:

  • 100% effective once stored on the local PC.
  • Cheapest option available.
  • Can work even with Cloud Only users. No AD domain controller required.

Down side:

  • Creates a feeling of oppression and lack of ownership.
  • Ties access to a single person; people can't get access when people who know the password aren't there.
  • Tendency to use the same password on multiple logins is a bad idea.
  • Tendency to use the same login for multiple people is a worse idea.
  • These factors together mean that this approach may be abused in ways that are worse than the problem that its trying to prevent.

Option 2: Trust but verify

You know, I really think we spend too much time thinking about all the ways that people are going to steal from us. When you consider it, it's amazing how rarely someone actually does.

Today, our reporting tools are much better than our access controls, so it's much easier for us to build a solution that will help create accountability than it is to enforce compliance by making it impossible to violate policy. Instead of spending lots of money on IT, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole by making cloud services act like old-school computers, why not focus that same energy on making sure employees know their responsibilities to protect data.

If employees know that they are not supposed to access HIPAA sensitive documents from home - and that you can tell when they have done so and will fire them for it - chances are very good that nobody will ever cross that line. The hard part is making sure there is a system in place that makes you aware if there is a problem, and that your employees know they're accountable too.

Plus side:

  • Simply modifying employee policy to allow remote access can be cheaper than any technical solution.
  • Having HR policies in place should probably be done anyway to make sure users understand their responsibilities.
  • While not the cheapest option, no or very little IT cost required compared to other options.
  • Provides maximum flexibility in unusual or unplanned situations.

Down side:

  • There are a few options for decent reporting, but not as many as we'd like.
  • Taking the time to audit usage can be just as taxing as blocking it.
  • By itself, this does nothing to prevent an account from being used improperly.

Option 3: Use ADFS

If you absolutely need to make sure that nobody can login to Office 365 from home, there's one absolutely foolproof way to go about it and that's to federate with an ADFS server located in your office. Then, all you need to do is not expose the ADFS server to the internet and your users will never be able to get to anything in Office 365 - period.

This is actually a "broken" version of a typical ADFS configuration, since usually most folks want to be able to allow access from home. We know it works, because when the power or internet goes down at the main office where ADFS is running, people working from home can't login.

Of course, if you absolutely need remote access, or some users need cloud access, you can configure a second DNS domain for them and not enable it for SSO. Without ADFS, this second domain and its users would use the regular login process for Office 365, and thus be able to get in from anywhere.

Unless you are such a small company that you can't afford to maintain a domain controller in your office, this may very well be the best solution for you. I'd be hesitant to recommend it to companies of less than 25 employees unless they have a very compelling reason, like HIPAA for example. It does take an experienced IT person to get it set up and correctly configured.

Plus side:

  • Well established solution; well documented.
  • ADFS comes free with Windows Server.
  • Absolutely effective as preventing outside access; if you don't want users outside your network, simply don't expose ADFS to the internet.
  • Flexible enough to work in a variety of scenarios.

Down side:

  • ADFS has a high technical debt.
  • Requires a Windows AD domain controller; many small companies would rather eliminate on-premises servers.
  • Adds to technical complexity, especially if you also have some cases where access to Office 365 from outside the network is allowed.
  • Doesn't readily distinguish between access to e-mail and documents, so you may need multiple accounts if you want to access some systems remotely but not others.

Option 4: Lock account based on login times using a script

It's possible to enable and disable logins using PowerShell. It's also possible to run PowerShell as a scheduled task in Windows. Both of these can be done from a workstation computer and do not need a server or other fancy hardware. Using PowerShell, you could "open the cloud store" in the morning and close it in the evening. In this case, nobody but you would be able to sign in unless you logged into the web site and overrode the settings.

This is a sort of weird scenario, really. I don't know very many people willing to go to these lengths to keep people out of Office 365 when they aren't at work. Also, then they wouldn't be able to check email either. It might have an application against a special-access account that only gets used during the day, like the one I talk about above in Option 1.

I probably should mention that if you go with Option 3 and use ADFS, it will automatically follow login times configured in Active Directory, making this totally unnecessary. So, unless your company is very small, I'd probably recommend doing that instead.

Plus side:

  • This can be run from any Windows machine, even a workstation
  • Can work even with Cloud Only users. No AD domain controller required.
  • Easy to automate based on a schedule.

Down side:

  • Prone to problems if the script fails to fully "open or close the store".
  • Not a good fit for people who need around the clock access, but only from certain locations - or other scenarios that are not strictly time based.
  • Will take extra time and effort to manage and support.
  • Doesn't distinguish at all between access to e-mail and documents.

Option 5: Tie Office 365 Multi-Factor Authentication to a device that's only available in the office.

This is a lot like not sharing the password for an account, except that really what you'd be doing is withholding the second layer of authentication. Since the second factor authentication may not come up all the time, this would be more transparent and thus less destructive to employee autonomy than not giving them their own password.

Here's how it works: create an account in Office 365 and configure a password to use while you set it up. Then, configure multi-factor authentication and enroll the user against a device that's only in the office, like a desk phone or their supervisor's cell phone. Once they are enrolled, reset their password to a temporary one and share that with the user so they can pick one of their own. Now, you've effectively prevented them from logging in at home, since it will be an unfamiliar device and network, which would trigger the MFA.

Before you count on this method, you might want to test it for yourself. There are different flavors of MFA in Office 365, and some of them only come with E3 / E5 / EMS plans. The enforcement options, triggers, behavior, and configurability may all be different if you're using the vanilla MFA that comes with a Business Premium plan, for example.

Plus side:

  • Allows people to know their own password.
  • Adapts well to contingencies such as having to arrive early / work late.
  • MFA settings can be configured per user and overridden as needed.

Down side:

  • Requires a cell phone or voice phone to be present in the office; Most people have a voice line though.
  • You can't let users self-enroll in this scenario.
  • Takes about 1 to 2 minutes longer to login to the system each time.
  • May require multiple accounts/licenses per user if some information needs to be controlled but other information does not. For example, if you need MFA for access to HIPAA sensitive documents, but not to e-mail.

Option 6: Customize SharePoint to Increase Security

Most folks who want to protect documents from their own employees are not actually interested in preventing them from accessing emails. But, most security solutions for Office 365 are applied against all the Office 365 services. If the documents you need to protect are in SharePoint, there may be better ways to go about this that wouldn’t impact other aspects of your service.

Of course, the ultimate solution would be to deploy CipherPoint Eclipse. You can think of that as the very best form of SharePoint customization there is, because it will let you encrypt documents and then use a variety of different policies to determine whether they can be decrypted. It's an expensive option, comparatively, but also a good one that offers true security (rather than security through obscurity). And now that I'm done plugging for our partner, I'll tell you about a slightly cheaper one.

Microsoft won't actually let us run server side code in SharePoint Online as they once did. So, our options are limited from being able to control the users access and experience on the site. Even so, it's not too difficult to do some rudimentary access control using JavaScript in the browser. For example, you can hide the page contents and display apocalyptic warnings instead. In some cases, you can also end a user's login session.

However, it is important to understand that code that works this way can be circumvented by those with a moderate amount of computer savvy. If you're going to rely on sleight of hand tricks to protect your information, you'd better also back it up with a clear employee policy, firm contractual agreement, audit logs, and regular reviews for bad behavior.

Plus side:

  • Significantly easier (and cheaper) than implementing security at the login prompt
  • Relatively easy to track both IP address and login time when using SharePoint.
  • Transparent to non-SharePoint Office 365 services, so if you're just trying to protect HIPAA documents, but still allow email access, this may be the way to go.

Down side:

  • To be fully effective, use of OneDrive sync and the SharePoint API will need to be blocked in sites that have sensitive documents, and this can limit how you customize SharePoint.
  • Requires documents to be stored in SharePoint. Other Office 365 services can't be protected this way.
  • Can be defeated by a determined intruder; many would say this does not offer true security but is more "security theatre".

Option 7: Encrypt It!

Most people don't need to protect literally everything they store in Office 365. Further, not everyone needs to protect what they store in SharePoint lists too, or implement complex policies to determine which employees should have access to what documents. Thus, solutions like CipherPoint that I mention above would probably be a bit heavy handed for most small businesses. (If you fit the above description, we'd still love to hear from you, because there's a lot more we can do in these cases.)

If your need to protect sensitive information is moderate and limited to a particular site, document library, or classification of content, then Microsoft's solution that comes with the E3 plan is probably good enough for you. I'm talking about Azure Rights Management, and while it won't keep an employee from viewing a document on their home computer, it can keep them from downloading it to their phone, printing it, or copying its contents to an email. Also, should the unfortunate need arise to fire their ass, it can also let you take access to that information away after the fact - no matter how many times or places they've copied that file.

While I wasn’t a huge fan or early versions of ARM, it has matured a lot. It's easier to set up now than it used it be, which is good if you don't have a huge budget for IT. Since it can be purchased a la carte, you can let Business Premium users access ARM protected documents when necessary, without having to upgrade them to the E3. (Unless you want to. I'm totally cool with upgrading if you want to. Have you met the E5?)

Plus Side:

  • Encrypted documents are useless, even if copied off the network
  • Even your IT admin (or Office 365 support partner, like us) can't read the encrypted document.
  • Easily restrict who can read or edit a document - as well as some other things they can do with it (e.g. print, copy/paste)
  • Access can be revoked after-the fact.
  • A good solution if you only have a sub-set of documents you need to protect.

Down Side:

  • While you can control a lot of access, that does not necessarily include when or where users are allowed to read or edit a document.
  • Doesn't protect SharePoint data stored in lists or web pages, OneNote Notebooks etc.
  • Azure Rights Management is only included in E3 plan and above.
  • Third party solutions such as CipherPoint can be costly.

Azure AD Premium

Before I go on, here's a few notes about Options 8, 9, and 10 below regarding leveraging Enterprise Mobility + Security, Azure AD Premium, and Azure Advanced Security. These were things I think apply in general to the entire suite that go beyond the specific applications I mention in my list.

  • There will be additional monthly costs for service, and you may need on-premises hardware too.
  • Some solutions are simple while others can be quite technically complex.
  • While there may be features we're not aware of yet, there really doesn't seem to be the kind of access control our customers have been looking for, particularly for end-users. (See Identity Protection and Privileged Account Management below.)
  • Many scenarios, especially AD Premium, don't have a large user base yet outside a few big orgs and aren't well proven especially for in smaller companies.

Option 8: Registered Devices and Workplace Join

This is Microsoft's solution for adding PCs and mobile devices into Azure AD. And it's not a bad fit if you're interested in Windows as a Service, Intune, and the like. Joining devices to Azure AD basically makes it possible to login to your "domain" even when you're out of the office. It can also, conversely be used to require users to login only from approved hardware.

Plus side:

  • Prevents users from working on unapproved hardware, such as personal computers.
  • Controls access by physical device; if you want to control access by location, don't let the physical device leave the desired location (e.g. use desktop computers not tablets)

Down sides:

  • This is a fairly complex deployment, possibly requiring help from experienced experts, and may not be suitable for small businesses.
  • Requires modern PCs (the Windows 8.1/10 scenario is better than Windows 7/8)
  • Requires a modern (2012 R2) Windows Active Directory domain controller
  • Requires configuration of ADFS server, which need to be accessible form the internet
  • Requires a license to Azure AD Premium
  • Relies on AD Connect / Sync so it can take quite a while for hardware info to be fully synchronized.
  • This solution can't really distinguish between user access to e-mail and user access to documents, so if you need mobile access to mail but not sensitive documents, this isn't your best option.

Option 9: Azure AD Premium w/ Identity Protection

I actually like this option a lot, because of its simplicity. It's not easy to take something as complex as access security and make it as easy to set up and manage as Identity Protection is - especially if you're Microsoft who seems to thrive on complexity and options. It's a really good system, and they've done a good job of providing a solution to help users deal with the identity theft threats that are becoming increasing common nowadays.

But - and I'll cook my hat and eat it if I ever say these words again - Microsoft may have gone a bit too far into easy-to-configure territory, because there are a lot of options missing from Identity Protection that I would've thought would be obvious.

For example, where's my option to say "my employees only work in the United States, and for that matter they're only in Maryland for the most part." Or, how about, "We really don't work later than 8pm EST, so could any midnight logins please be labelled 'high risk'?" Why not let the admin get a notification in addition to blocking access or triggering MFA? All these things were missing, and I was really surprised by that.

Otherwise, it's pretty good and you should totally buy it. Maybe they'll improve it later. If not, please see Option 11.

Learn More about Identity Protection from Microsoft's Blog

Side note: We had a case recently where a client has an employee who was being targeted by a cybercriminal who had taken their credit card data and was trying very hard to target their email account in Office 365 too. Fortunately, Microsoft was diligent in locking the account after many successive failed attempts. However, it is important to understand that information which may have helped to lead to an arrest in this case was not being captured until we activated Azure AD Premium and Identity Protection for the customer. If you're locked out of your Office 365 account and you have good reason to think it was because of a hacking attempt, I strongly suggest that you do not wait, but go ahead and start the free trial for AD Premium and turn on all Identity Protection's logging features. From there, if you simply want to protect yourself, you can set up MFA - or consider setting up a honey pot if you want to try and catch the would-be thief.

Plus side:

  • No local server required.
  • Can work even with Cloud Only users. No AD domain controller required.
  • Microsoft Add-on for Windows Azure AD Tenants
  • Remediate risk by requiring multi-factor authentication, force password updates, and/or blocking access entirely
  • Uses threat analytics which includes data from other Azure users, not just your own company
  • Protects from: sign in from infected devices, new/unfamiliar locations, impossible travel distances, anonymous IP addresses
  • Tracks leaked credentials
  • Doesn't seem to add much burden in the way of administrative overhead or management
  • Most of the MFA enrollment is intuitive (at least for an IT person) and can be self-service.

Down side:

  • We thought that MFA enrollment left too many steps and choices to the end users and should be something admins could lock down or simplify.
  • Conditional access risks are managed by Microsoft and divided into low/medium/high; there does not seem to be a way to define things such as normal working hours or normal location.
  • Has a tendency to throw false alarms in some networks; for example whenever we visit the Microsoft office in Washington DC, it tells us we're trying to login from Redmond, WA.
  • Although you can resolve an event or mark it as a false alarm, there didn't appear to be anyplace for an admin to leave notes explaining why the login occurred, like the situation we describe above.
  • Despite some marketing materials that seemed to indicate this would be available in EMS E3 plan, it still required applicable users to have Azure Active Directory Premium Plan 2, which is part of the EMS E5 plan.
  • None of these Azure security and logging features are enabled until you activate this service.
  • We had to actually sign up for Azure AD Premium trial offer in order to get the system to recognize our existing AD Premium licenses from Office 365.

Option 10: Azure AD Premium w/ Privileged Identity Management

Okay, I'm going to sum this up nicely. If you're a Microsoft Partner, like us, supporting Office 365 customers, or if you have more than 2 Global Administrators on your Office 365 account - for whatever reason - this solution is for you. Everybody else will probably find this to be either too expensive or much too cumbersome to justify. It really only protects your admin accounts, so in most cases you'd probably do just as well to just configure MFA on them and be done with it.

Learn More about Privileged Identity Management from Microsoft's Web Site

Plus side:

  • No local server required.
  • Can work even with Cloud Only users. No AD domain controller required.
  • Microsoft Add-on for Windows Azure AD Tenants
  • Allows Just-in-Time Access to high level (e.g. global admin) accounts
  • Monitor how privileged access is being used
  • Notify other system admins in real-time when privileged accounts are used
  • Uses threat analytics which includes data from other Azure users, not just your own company.
  • Seems to have some really cool reporting capabilities, but they take time to populate.
  • Really the only way that I am aware you can give someone global admin access to Azure or Office 365 and still keep an eye on and require them to justify their use.

Down side:

  • Adds extra login steps and technical debt for admins.
  • There is significant complexity involved for those who will need to manage and support PIM.
  • Doesn't seem to provide an option for who should receive alerts about usage.
  • Does not provide JIT access or monitoring for regular user accounts.
  • The ticket number formats are a bit restrictive.
  • Required applicable users to have Azure Active Directory Premium Plan 2, which is part of the EMS E5 plan.
  • We had to actually sign up for Azure AD Premium trial offer in order to get the system to recognize our existing AD Premium licenses from Office 365

Option 11: Beowulf Identity Server

I’ve talked plenty elsewhere about how awesome Beowulf is, how it shuts the front door on SharePoint, and how it protects your public facing web sites and applications from unwanted access. You don't need to hear even more of that from me here, so I'll stick to what we haven't said before. (Aw, c'mon. You didn't think I was going to spend all this time and energy writing a two part blog about security without promoting my own product, did you?)

We’re working on a version of Beowulf that works with SharePoint Online and the rest of Office 365, which shouldn't be terribly difficult since we already fully integrate with ADFS which is what Microsoft is using for access control in the cloud.

Since others seems to have dropped the ball on some of the options and features we've talked about here, we're doing our best to include them in the new version targeted for release in early 2017. Well, that's the big problem isn't it. Unless you want to be part of our early adopter program - and get a big discount for helping us test these new features - you're out of luck.

Lean More about Beowulf Identity Server on Liquid Mercury Solutions' Web Site

Plus side:

  • Low cost cloud based solution
  • Transparent access layer between users and Office 365
  • Can work even with Cloud Only users. No AD domain controller is required.
  • Can block access or alert you (but not block access) when a user logs in from unexpected locations or at unusual times.
  • Configurable in a lot of ways that Microsoft's solution is not.
  • Has many of the same MFA capabilities as Azure AD Premium.
  • Integrates well with Azure AD, ADFS, and other MS solutions.

Down side:

  • There is an additional cost outside of the Office 365 subscription
  • Like many advanced security products, set up is relatively complex.
  • Though many of these features are available today, our full feature set for the next release will not be available until early 2017.

Option 12: Application Layer Security Enabled Next Gen Web Proxy/Firewall

You all knew I'd bring it up eventually. Why don't you just go out and buy an F-5 Big IP with the Access Policy Manager module on it? Then you can come back to us and hire us to configure it for you, and we can totally freak out because people hardly ever want to do that. Even so, this is a nice way to go if you have a lot of money lying around, and burning it would be inconvenient.

For large enterprises with hybrid cloud/on-premises deployments, I do recommend products from vendors like F-5, Kemp, or Cisco. This goes triply so if you run a large corporation with name recognition, store a lot of confidential customer data that hackers may want to steal, or your everyday business is something that might lead people wearing Guy Fawkes masks to try to ruin your holiday weekend. They offer security features that Microsoft doesn't even come close to having in Azure yet, but you can absolutely deploy them as Azure VMs in your environment or on-premises as real metal or VM.

But then, if you're going to go that far, why not also make sure you do all the other things I talked about too?

Plus side:

  • Really, really, configurable and powerful; can probably do anything you'd want in terms of limiting and responding to access requests and use.
  • Deployable in traditional on-premises and cloud-based scenarios.

Down side:

  • Really, really, complex to configure and expensive to implement.
  • Even cloud based subscription versions are going to cost a pretty penny.
  • It will require dedicated staff and constant upkeep, so probably only suited to large enterprises.

As you can see, Microsoft offers many choices - but none of them is the perfect solution for everyone. Better solutions I think will emerge in the coming months. I hope I've done a little here to shed some light on what is sadly a very complex answer to what seems like it should be a simple question. The most important thing to consider I think is that there are some low-cost things that you can do if you want to control how people use cloud services, starting with making sure that your employees know the rules.

Technology is always changing, and it often forces us to consider scenarios that previously were just impossible. If you're considering Office 365 as a solution, you may have concerns about people having access from home (or anywhere in the world really).

Office 365 provides a lot of security advantages compared to storing sensitive data on your laptop computer, a portable hard drive, or that server in the closet. Keep in mind that this is just one potential risk in a sea of others that we've all faced for a long time; the benefits should outweigh the risks if you approach the transition to cloud services with a little bit of thought and planning. We're here to make sure you don't have to go it alone.

Did I leave something out of my list that you'd like to add? Leave a message in the comments and I’ll reply.

Thomas is an acknowledged expert on information security, the creator of Beowulf Identity Server, and spoke on the SharePoint Security panel November 8th at the First Annual FITSI.org Federal IT Security Conference. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn - but if you really want to connect, your best bet is probably to call us at 410-633-5959.

Office 365 Security and You - Ransomware

Minecraft creeper: 'That's a very nice file share you've got there - be a shame if something happened to it'

Since I'll be on a SharePoint security panel speaking at next week's Federal IT Security Conference, I wanted to do a couple blog posts this week about cloud security.

I'm going to leave discussion of Windows zero-days, Strontium / Fancy Bear / Apartment 2B etc. for another time. There's already plenty of FUD going around about that topic. If you're not sure whether you're protected, you can update to Windows 10 Anniversary Edition and you'll be covered. The easiest way I know to do that is to buy a Win 10 Enterprise E3 subscription from us for $6.50 a month; throw in Enterprise Mobility Suite and Symantec Endpoint Protection Cloud and you'd still be spending only $19 a month. That's about all there is to that, so let's move on.

Instead I want take some time this week to talk about recent (albeit non-federal) security challenges that we see our Office 365, and particularly SharePoint Online, customers facing. Specifically, two questions I'm being asked a lot lately are "Can Office 365 protect me from ransomware?" and "Can we control when and where people can connect to Office 365?".

Today, I'll be talking about ransomware. When I come back for Part 2 we'll talk about controlling access to Office 365. Part 3 will talk specifically about securing SharePoint in the cloud.

Part 1: All About Ransomware and Office 365

Q: "I've heard of this new thing called 'ransomware'. What is it?"

Firstly, for those of you who don't know, I'll explain what ransomware is all about, and then I'll tell you what you can do about it.

Maybe I should've done this post for Halloween, because ransomware is scary stuff. Ransomware is like other virus or malware, but with a twist. It does something much more insidious than just infecting your computer, turning it into a zombie, or deleting random files.

Ransomware uses our own security defenses against us, by applying encryption on us against our will and then attempting to extort money from us to undo the damage.

So how does that work? Well, what if somebody put a lock on your door and then demanded $100 from you to remove the lock so you can get inside your home? It's sort of the same thing. Once the ransomware infects your system, it will open whatever documents that it can get access to, scramble the contents with a secret key only known to it, and save them. It then sends the key to organized cyber-criminals, and alerts you to contact them and make payment arrangements to unlock your files.

Q: "Am I in danger from ransomware?"

Yes. Yes you are.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

But seriously, Dusty, Seth, and I saw our first case of a client affected by ransomware back in 2014 - and it wasn't pretty. This was in the spring, around the time Microsoft ended support for Windows XP. We had a client who - despite our advice - was dragging their feet about buying new Windows 7 PCs because of the cost involved. As a result, ransomware got into one PC, spread to their other workstations and servers, and then proceeded to extort and threaten their employees. That's when we got the call for help.

For the three of us, it was two hellish days working double shifts to purge the virus (from slow outdated machines), restore backup files, and clean up the mess that totaled over 100 hours and ten thousand dollars in labor charges - services for which we were never fully paid. I would never wish this fate on any client, and I hope to never receive such an emergency call again in my lifetime.

Fast forward to two years later, we're seeing an increasing number of customers telling us that they have contracted ransomware. Everybody's reaction is a bit different. Some folks are willing and able to simply walk away from their lost files, while other businesses faced a real and existential threat to their continued operations.

Any way you look at it, ransomware is a very similar problem as having your hard drive crash.

But hard drives are pretty reliable; they tend to fail from heavy use, if they are dropped, or when they get very old.

Unlike hardware failure, ransomware *wants* to be a problem for you, and there are organized teams of cyber-criminals all over the world who are actively working every day to try and find new ways to infect you with it.

If you are not working to stay ahead of this threat, it will eventually get the better of you.

Q: "What kind of information is at risk from ransomware?"

Ransomware is smart enough to go after files that you use, like Word, Excel, or PDFs while leaving program files like EXEs and DLLs alone. It can also distinguish between files you access often and files that you haven't opened in years and aren't likely to ever notice.

Ransomware can detect attached portable USB drives and find network shared folders that you have access to, so if you're infected then any folder you have access to is at risk even if it isn't necessarily on your computer. I have personally witnessed ransomware that attacked a network file server at one company and scrambled their case files for literally hundreds of customers.

Q: "Should I pay the ransom?"

Generally speaking, I want to say that you should never negotiate with terrorists - or criminals. That's a nice sentiment, and it sounds good in the movies. But in reality I think maybe that's a bit naïve.

Your best bet of course is to have a backup strategy in place and simply recover a working copy of your files from the backup. Only do this after you have thoroughly scanned, found, and cleaned the ransomware from all of your computers. Otherwise, you're putting your backup copies at risk by accessing them, which may let the ransomware know where they are too.

If you don't have a backup of your files, then paying the ransom might be your only option.

In such a case, definitely do not give a criminal your credit card info when they ask you for it. That'd be dumb. Certainly if they run your card for the ransom, you can expect the info will also circulate into databases of cards that should be used for fraud later. If you must pay the ransom, purchase a pre-paid Visa gift card to do it. Some credit card companies will provide a temporary card number you can use for a one-time online purchase. If you have that option, it’s a good idea.

Q: "I already own a firewall. Doesn't that mean I'm protected?"

Having a firewall alone is not enough unless you also have anti-virus software on all your PCs and devices. More commonly these days it is called "endpoint protection", because the threat landscape has grown to include not only viruses but also malware, ransomware, zombies, and more.

Think of it this way. Your firewall is like building a wall around a city. It doesn't make sense to have a wall to protect yourself if you don't also have soldiers inside the wall who can react to intruders. In this case, the story of the Trojan Horse is very appropriate; you must have a layer of defense inside your walled city to protect yourself in case a threat does get a foothold inside the gates.

Having anti-virus software installed is like posting guards at important bases like your armory, grain store, or government center - or having a soldier boarding in each person's house. Anyone who has ever looked at how much CPU is used by their anti-virus software understands that it may be necessary, but it's also another mouth to feed.

We also need to account for the way that mobility has affected computer security. Today, we have laptops, tablets, and smart phones that come and go freely from within our fire-walled city and out into the wide, wide world. To extend our city metaphor, it is now a bustling metropolis with merchants and travelers coming and going at all times; and the freedom to travel has become a key aspect to life that we all benefit from. We connect to Wi-Fi networks at our friends' homes or the local coffee shop, as well as cellular data networks. Then we return to our own network, usually without much fuss. Unfortunately, we also potentially bring whatever plague we've exposed ourselves to from outside back with us when we return.

Protecting the desktop doesn't need to be an expensive proposition either. It costs only $4/month per user to purchase Symantec Endpoint Protection cloud, and Microsoft's advanced security tools that are part of Enterprise Mobility Suite and/or the Office 365 E5 plan each add only $8.70 and $15 (compared to E3 plan) respectively. This is something we can help you purchase and deploy, so please do reach out to us if you want to get this set up for your organization.

Modern IT security now also includes the concept of active network defense, which takes the fight from the PCs to the network itself. These are next generation Ethernet or Wi-Fi switches than can detect and block communications known to come from viruses, malware, etc. This is a lot like making the roads in your city unfriendly to invaders by having police guards on patrol. These new technologies haven't really filtered down to the consumer and small business market yet, but I expect that will happen fairly soon.

I hope that I've been able to explain why having a network firewall alone isn't enough to protect you from security threats out there today. While endpoint protection does add a cost and can sometimes limit PC performance, it's still very much a necessary evil. Meanwhile, new products are being developed that can do even more, so it may be time soon to start looking at replacing your old equipment.

Q: "Can ransomware affect files in Office 365?"

I get this question a lot, both from existing customers and from those considering Office 365 as a possible solution for protecting themselves from ransomware.

The answer is complicated, because really "it depends". I'm sorry if that sounds like consulting-speak, so let me explain what I mean.

Firstly, let me start by saying that we haven't observed yet any instance of ransomware in the wild that directly targets Office 365. But this alone doesn't mean these files are completely safe.

Let's say for example that you are using OneDrive for Business. You have a copy of your files in Office 365 and synced copy is also on your local C: drive. If the ransomware encrypts the file on your local drive, OneDrive for Business would simply see this change as being similar to if you had opened the file yourself in Word and then saved some changes. It would then sync the [bad] changes to the cloud and overwrite the file there.

Furthermore, if ransomware infects the Microsoft Office desktop software like Outlook, Word, or Excel, then it could theoretically corrupt the process by which files are saved, regardless of where you're saving them. In fact, Microsoft Office has its own layer of file encryption called Azure Rights Management. It's not difficult to imagine a possible exploit that might somehow subvert that mechanism - or replace it with one where you don't have the keys.

So in both cases, I would say that while we don't know of any ransomware - yet - that can log in to your Office 365 account and use that access to reach your emails or documents stored in SharePoint, it is still technically possible that your files stored in the cloud are not completely out of reach.

Q: "I was thinking of buying Office 365 and moving my files to the cloud to protect them. Does what you say mean that it won't work and I shouldn't do that?"

Not at all. Moving your files to Office 365 is a good first step, and it has lots of other benefits besides security.

For starters you'd be taking advantage of Microsoft's advanced Data Protection strategy. Microsoft also has a 15 day backup window on some types of data. As a first line of defense, these are going to be a lot more secure and reliable than saving files on a USB drive in your office - even if you just look at it from a hardware perspective.

To really cover yourself, you should always have a backup strategy in place.

If your needs are minimal and the cost is a big concern, that might just involve occasionally copying important emails or files to a local drive and then unplugging it from the network at sticking it in a drawer or safety deposit box. Of course, doing things this way takes time and work. There are better options.

Third-party backup solutions for Office 365 have been around for a while. These aren't expensive - most will back up both email and SharePoint/OneDrive for Business files for just $5/month/user. Compared to other cloud backup platforms, these can be cost effective alternatives. They also add the benefit that your data isn't entirely with Microsoft, so you can feel more secure knowing that you are not keeping all your eggs in one basket.

So, if you are looking for a way to escape the threat of ransomware, Office 365 may still be a good option for you - as long as you're prepared to purchase a bit more than just the basic Office 365 plan itself.

About the Author

Thomas is an acknowledged expert on information security, the creator of Beowulf Identity Server, and will be speaking on a panel about SharePoint Security November 8th at FITSI.org's First Annual Federal IT Security Conference. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn - but if you really want to connect, you're best bet is probably to call us at 410-633-5959.

Pros and Cons of Using Distribution Lists vs. Shared Mailboxes in Office 365

Over the years, we've seen a number of clients who make good use of Shared Mailboxes in Exchange Online. But you may find that Microsoft's implementation leaves some room for improvement, and there may be some edge cases where this is not the right choice for your situation. This article hopes to demystify the Shared Mailbox and help you decide if it is the right solution for you.

My assumption in writing this is that you the reader are either the business owner or manager of IT, and that in either case the specific how-to accomplish the proper set up of the Shared Mailbox, Outlook, Mail Flow, or e-Discovery settings in Exchange Online is not as important to you as being able to weigh the pros and cons of different options. My company is like many other Microsoft cloud service providers; we provide the technical services to get things configured correctly once a decision is made, and that's something I am hoping you might reach out to us about it you're looking at or currently using Office 365. (If that isn't the case, these things aren't trade secrets; you can find instructions pretty easily using your favorite search engine.)

Firstly, what's a Shared Mailbox?

If you have an email address that you want several people to receive or reply to, you have a few choices about how to do this.

  • Distribution List / Distribution Group / Mail Enabled Security Group
  • Site Mailbox in SharePoint Online
  • Exchange Online Shared Mailbox
  • New: Office 365 Groups

Maybe in a future article, we'll look at some of the other options. Wouldn't that make a great e-book? For today, let's focus on the Shared Mailbox and how it compares to its closest cousin, the distribution list.

Most folks who've been using email a while are familiar with the distribution list, sometimes referred to as listserv by certain Internet dinosaurs. In simple terms, a distribution list is an email address like info@mycompany.com that will actually send the email to the inbox of multiple people. When you hit Reply All on such a message, everyone on the distribution list will get your message. Multiple copies of the message are sent to each individual, so if I delete my copy, you may still have yours.

Think of a distribution list like a copy machine sitting by the internal office mail sorter. Someone comes along and makes 12 copies, then puts a copy into each person's mail slot.

A Shared Mailbox is similar in that it can still have its own email address like the info@mycompany.com example above, but the mail goes to the shared mailbox. Individuals are given access, but they have to connect to the mailbox to see what's inside. Reply All will go to the sender and the Shared Mailbox. There's only a single copy of the message in that account; if Alara and I have access, if I delete a message from the inbox, it will be gone when Alara signs into the mailbox too.

In this case, no copy machine, but the mailbox itself is a slot in the mail sorter and the mail gets put directly there.

Why would you choose a Shared Mailbox over a distribution list?

A Shared Mailbox can send mail, so that replies come from billing@mycompany.com instead of person1@mycompany.com or person2@mycompany.com. If the goal is to get people to stop sending emails to a single person that need to be accessible to everyone in a department, a Shared Mailbox is one way to help accomplish that. That's because the mail will go to the Shared Mailbox when the recipient hits Reply. Another reason is to reduce clutter.

A third reason would be to conceal the identity of the sender. There are lots of business reasons you might need to do this. However, Office 365 can make this a challenge. There are some specific technical steps that need to performed in order to make sure that billing emails in the above example come from billing@mycompany.com and not companyowner@mycompany.com.

More importantly, by default the mail sent using the Shared Mailbox will still be in the individual's Sent Mail folder. That can make it significantly harder to track down a message, unless you know who actually sent it. There's another technical trick needed to change this behavior. However, doing so makes it harder to tell what user actually sent a message as the shared role. For most companies, this is a reasonable trade off.

If accountability is important, than there are ways to ensure it and still get the benefits of having a Shared Mailbox along with centralized communication. You can combine a Shared Mailbox and a distribution list for a best of both worlds configuration. You can configure mail flow in Exchange to modify the From or Reply To address. You can use e-discovery features available in the Office 365 E3 plan.

So, how to determine which option is right for you? Here's a handy PMI analysis you can use for easy reference. Feel free to apply your own weighting system to determine which choice works best for you based on your own priorities and goals.

  User Mailbox Distribution List Shared Mailbox
Increased Office 365 License Cost  Yes No No
 Can be converted later to User/Shared Mailbox? Yes No Yes
 Can be combined with Distribution List? Yes  N/A Yes
 More clutter in primary mailbox? N/A Yes No
Additional action needed from user to check for new mail? No No Yes (unless combined with distribution list or using separate logins on mobile devices) 
Can you login separately from primary account? N/A  No Yes, but not easily; caveats apply 
Impact on mailbox storage limits  N/A Negatively affects storage for all accounts on list  Comes with its own mailbox storage limit, separate from other accounts
Experience in Outlook It just works No additional configuration required  Shared account appears in list below primary account without additional configuration; additional configuration is needed to keep messages in Shared account Sent Mail folder.
Experience in Outlook Web Access It just works No additional configuration required Can easily switch to Shared account or display as a Shared Folder in your main mailbox; sent mail stays in Shared account's Sent mail folder if connected as such, but may need additional steps to do so when sending from the Shared Folder.
Experience in OWA Mobile App Authentication is not connected to the OS, but appears to persist for some time; notifications do appear in Android; Contacts and Calendar do not appear to sync with OS / other mobile apps. No additional configuration required Shared folders have to be set up in OWA on a PC to show up in OWA on mobile; special steps are required to send mail as the Shared Mailbox.
 Experience in Outlook Mobile App It just works No additional configuration required Ability to connect is not clearly proven or defined
 Experience in Native Apps
(Android / iOS)
Connect via ActiveSync/IMAP/POP  No additional configuration required Complex configuration needed, but possible; sent items stay in Shared account's Sent Mail folder.

I hope you found this analysis useful. If you did, leave us a comment. Perhaps later I will extend this to include other options for Office 365 mailbox that I mentioned above.

Microsoft Anounces Windows 10 Enterprise E3 OS as a Subscrption

Windows 10 EnterpriseWhen Microsoft said back in 2000 that someday your operating system would be something you'd rent, like cable, I had a hard time taking it seriously.

My goodness, how times have changed!

Monday, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 Enterprise E3 will be available on a monthly per user subscription basis for just $7 a month or $84 per year. Given that people have been paying $200-300 for Windows OS without upgrades, this is actually sounding like a pretty smart idea and one that will benefit both Microsoft and their customers.

Microsoft has struggled for many years now to get customers to accept their upgrade program called Software Assurance. We've tried to sell it, but people simply weren't buying it. Seems that most customers would rather take their chances than shell out 150% more over a 3 year period for the right to upgrade their software for free... eventually... someday. In fact, over the past five years, we've also seen many customers who simply "forgot" to renew their SA agreements after year 1, thus sacrificing their right to the upgrade. So, perhaps this position is somewhat justified.

A couple years ago, Microsoft offered free upgrades as part of Windows Intune at a cost of about $6 / month / user. This was a pretty good deal. But, Intune didn't really take off and the higher priced subscription at $11/mo fell flat, possibly due to the unpopular Windows 8. Seems Microsoft was peddling upgrades while everyone was asking about downgrade rights. The $5 component of Intune was bundled into Enterprise Mobility Suite and the software assurance component was officially scrapped about a year ago.

I actually liked the idea of SA as a subscription when it was part of Intune. To me, it makes sense that if you're depending on the publisher of your OS to constantly provide updates for security and to fix issues while staying on top of the latest technology, you would probably want to be paying them a recurring fee so they will have an incentive to keep working on improving the product. Plus, spending a small amount of money on a monthly basis makes a whole lot more sense to small businesses than shelling out thousands of dollars up front for Windows licenses.

The new subscription will be available through CSP, so if you're buying Office 365 from a Microsoft Partner like us, you can call on them (or us!) to also sell you Windows. If you're buying Office 365 directly through Microsoft, we want to know why haven't you looked into a Cloud Solutions Partner yet? There are lots of great deals available on Office 365 that can improve your support experience or give you other value-added features.

Microsoft has very little to say about the new plan other than its cost. They wouldn't say if the plan will be available as part of the August 2nd roll-out called anniversary edition. They had even less to reveal about the accompanying Windows 10 Enterprise E5 plan, which would include security features not found in the E3 - think ForeFront on steroids. There are also supposed to be bundles coming out that would roll together Office 365 and Windows subscriptions, as well as personal editions for home use, but we haven't got any details yet on any of these. We do expect that once those details emerge, we'll be able to sell them to you just the same as the E3.

Even though Microsoft has been largely mum about the details, we still feel like celebrating.

So, today we have a special announcement.

Liquid Mercury Solutions is a Microsoft CSP provider, gold competency partner, and among the top 10% of Microsoft cloud providers in the US for small to mid-sized business. So, to put our best foot forward with this new program, we're offering a special incentive to customers who want to take advantage of this new and potentially revolutionary way to license their Windows desktop fleet.

Starting today, we're offering 10% off Windows 10 Enterprise E3 subscription for the first year when you purchase an Office 365 E3 plan *or* our Full Monty bundle that includes Admin OnDemand 365, Compliance 365, and our managed Help Desk service.

So, that's Windows 10 Enterprise E3 for just $6.30/user/month or $75.60/user/year.

You can also earn this discount for blocks of users when you purchase qualifying professional services from us. For example, a one week engagement like SharePoint Online Jump Start earns the discount for 10 Windows users. That could amount to equivalent savings as one user getting a free year of Windows 10 Enterprise E3. The discount varies by service offering, so ask us for details.

Even though this Windows subscription plan isn't available today, you don't have to wait to take advantage of this promotion. All customers who purchase from us starting today will be eligible for the discount for all Windows licenses added to their cloud subscription for the entire year. We'll apply the discount for a full year after Microsoft makes the subscription available.

So stay tuned, and subscribe to our blog. The market's about to get all shook up! We'll update you as soon as we hear more information about these new plans.

An Army of One Asks "SharePoint, What Is It Good For?" - Using SharePoint in One Person Companies

It's dangerous to go alone. Take SharePoint. Recently, we've been getting a lot of new customers who are the sole proprietor of their businesses. This isn't too unusual; many businesses are one-person shops who don't have any employees. For example, while it isn't unusual to eventually take on assistants, many tax preparation specialists, accountants, architects, lawyers, IT folks, marketing gurus, or business consultants start out as just an individual person going into business for themselves. I personally went this route; rather than take on a full-time job, I operated as an independent contractor for nearly 15 years.

Liquid Mercury has always been a company based on helping our customers get the best value out of SharePoint. This used to mean mostly Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. Then, Office 365 came along and has greatly increased the audience for whom SharePoint is accessible. Now, even a single person business can buy an Office 365 Business Premium plan for $12.50 a month and get access to SharePoint.

There's a lot of interest in the platform, and one question that people in business for themselves ask us more than any other is "What's the point to SharePoint when you haven't got anybody to share with?"

At first, the answer wasn't entirely obvious, even to me, so I thought it might be worth sharing a few tips on how sole proprietors can get the most out of the SharePoint component of their Office 365 service.

Author's Note: This article got to be much more involved than I expected. So I've decided to break it up into two parts. In this, part 1, I'll go over the first three tips, which are primarily about benefits you can achieve for yourself. In the next part, I'll go into depth about ideas that can help you when working with your customers.

Tip #1: Develop a Filing System

When I think about how to use SharePoint in a one-person office, the first thing that comes to mind for me is to simply get better organized with all the documents needed to operate the business every day.

Any business will have these. There will be invoices and communications from vendors that need to be scanned, filed, and paid out. Possibly, there will be invoices sent to customers. You may have to write your own contracts and then keep track of variations as you negotiate with your customers. Perhaps you'll need to write quotes or formal proposals in order to win the business. There might be status reports and time sheets.

You can certainly organize all these documents into folders. That's how people have been doing it for years. I will give you one good example why this might not be the best option in the long run.

Suppose you decide that your filing system will be organized by customer. One folder per customer, no problem. To keep clutter from piling up, under each customer folder you create a folder for time sheets, work logs, and invoices; a folder for documents the customer shares with you (so you can honor that NDA you signed); and one for the original proposal and agreement (so you can remember what you promised to do for them). You did remember to scan the signed copy of your contract and put it there, right?

Anyway, suppose you hire some help for a large customer. You need to share documents for that customer with your hired help. But there are certain details you'd prefer to keep in house, such as how much the customer is paying you, those confidential/proprietary documents, etc.

Now you also want to hire a bookkeeper to help you convert work activity into invoices. This person needs access to all the customer's documents, but only needs the financial stuff not the contracts or project documents.

You start to think that maybe it would've been better to organize the top level folders first by the type of document, and then have sub-folders for each customer. Over time you change the way your organizing your files, coming up with newer/better categorizations - but you don't really have time to go back and change the historical documents. What you need now is called a "matrix". What you actually have is probably better classified as a "mess".

But what does SharePoint do to resolve this problem?

SharePoint lets you attach any number of properties to a document. These are called Fields and they work exactly like you'd expect fields in a database or columns in a spreadsheet to work. You can have a Field for which customer a document relates to, and a different field for the purpose of the document. Say that later you decide to add a follow-up date to keep track of work on certain documents. With SharePoint, you can add that easily at point down the road.

Of course, we wouldn't just enter extra data about files for the fun of it. Learning to file things in a way that is completely different than what we've been taught to do for the past 25 years takes a certain amount of discipline. New skills will have to be learned and new work habits developed. For this effort, there must be a proportionate reward.

As it turns out there is such a benefit. Fields are useful because you can then create something called a View. Views let you show only the documents that meet certain criteria. For example, "Show me only the proposals that I won the business." or "Show me only the invoices where the customer hasn't paid me yet." Things can also be set up so that your bookkeeper wouldn't need to be confused by all those non-invoice documents that you have to track, because from their point of view (no pun intended) these can be completely hidden. So, you can start to see how Views would be very useful indeed and worth the effort of putting data into Fields on almost all your documents.

Tip #2: Find Things Faster, Easier

One thing that SharePoint has always done pretty well is search. (Hey, you SharePoint experts, don't laugh; I am serious.) Since the first version back in 2001, I have been very impressed that SharePoint was able to crawl all the documents on my entire network, including file shares, and bring back results that often times I'd completely forgotten even existed.

This was no small accomplishment, and SharePoint's ability to uncover hidden gems has only gotten better with time.

Quick Benefits Right Out of the Box

Today, in Office 365 we have something called Delve, which will show you not only what documents you've been working on, but timeline of your work with thumbnail representations of what these documents actually look like. Most one person shops are not running an traditional server with an enterprise version of SharePoint, so I feel pretty safe saying that for the purpose of this article, most interested readers will have access to Delve.

Here's a screen from Delve showing my recent documents.

Also, many people do not realize that OneDrive for Business is essentially SharePoint with another face. Yes, OneDrive lets you sync files to your local hard drive. However, when you browse the web site to look at the copies of your documents that are stored in the cloud, that web site is a SharePoint web site and those documents are stored in SharePoint Libraries. As a result, they are also searchable in SharePoint and will show up in Delve.

So, you can get a tremendous benefit without any extra effort at all on your part simply by choosing to save your documents into SharePoint or OneDrive for Business.

Taking Search to the Next Level

Combined with the proper use of the Fields we talked about in Develop a Filing System, SharePoint search can be used to not only search for documents based on their content, but also on how they were categorized using the data in those Fields. For example, just like you can create a View to show you certain types of documents within a Library, you can also use Search to surface documents stored on any SharePoint site.

This feature has many practical applications, especially for larger businesses, but the most compelling for a sole proprietor will likely be digging through lots of documents to find the one you need - as quickly as possible. Imagine for example that search results can be filtered by a specific customer, by a set of products that they relate to, or let's say... maybe by whether you remembered to scan and upload the final signed version.

Tip #3: Create Standard Operating Procedures

Almost every one person shop starts out with the idea that if you build a better mouse trap, people will beat a path to your door. Yet, in the course of business, we often fall into a trap ourselves. We discover that we're spending more time being a bookkeeper, bill collector, contract writer, office clerk, tech support, etc. rather than the thing we went into business to do.

Eventually, if you are going to stay focused on your mission, your one person business is going to take on hired help. That could mean employees or it could mean contracting with other specialty firms.

Either way, how you go about getting your work done is something that will need to be documented and shared. Without proper documentation of your processes, it becomes much more difficult to identify those parts of your work that can be effectively retooled, delegated, or outsourced to make your operation as efficient and competitive as it can be.

If you get to the point where you're successful enough that you are forced to grow, then you'll have no choice but to try and explain to other people what you want them to do and how you want it done.

Take it from me, it will be better for you if you start writing these things down before that day comes.

I learned the hard way that rapid business growth can be every bit as dangerous as a period of decline. In fact growth can trigger missteps, leading to long term problems and the ultimate downfall of a small business. Growth can turn many strategies that help the tiny business survive into bad habits that hold it back. Growth puts such a strain on the leadership of a business, that it might make one reconsider why they went into business for themselves in the first place.

By documenting your business processes before you're busting at the seams, you can go a long way towards making sure that once you're simply too busy to train new employees, there'll be a guidebook they can follow to help you get the most out of hiring them.

So enough about why you need to be writing SOPs before you actually think you need to have them. How does exactly SharePoint fit in with helping you define your business process?

Unstructured Notes

The first step is having a ready-to-share platform for writing things down as you think of them. At this stage, your ideas may not even be fully formed, so getting things on record quickly without interrupting your other work is essential.

For the unstructured piles of stuff I tend to generate at this stage, I use OneNote. OneNote is great because I never have to remember to hit Save, and it makes it relatively easy to record the web site where I found whatever helpful bit of information I might be working with. It has lots of features in that are helpful in taking down information quickly.

Okay, but you don't actually need SharePoint to use OneNote. It's part of Office and you could simply save your Notebook files to your laptop, or if you're really cloud savvy you can put them into OneDrive.

SharePoint sites include something called a Site Notebook. Site Notebooks are simply OneNote Notebooks that are already saved to a SharePoint library, set up for sharing with team members, and web accessible. If you start with a Site Notebook rather than creating a new Notebook some other way, then no extra steps are needed to start sharing the notes you take there.

Say that all you do when you start your business is create one SharePoint Team Site for each hat you have to wear - accounting, marketing, sales, management, and operations. Then, open the Site Notebook for each site in OneNote so you have a central place to start taking notes. When the time comes that you're ready to bring on some outside help, just share access to the appropriate Team Site, and they'll have your notes too.

By the way, there's a nice thing about sharing Notebooks this way. Two people can edit the notes at the same time and see one another's changes in real time.

Structured Documentation

Suppose you get to the point where you want to formalize your notes a bit further into something your assistant can use to help you perform some business tasks that come up fairly often. There are a couple things you can do in SharePoint that might be a better choice than using OneNote.

The first option is to create a Wiki Library. Wikis are web sites where you can quickly post and edit information directly on the web page. For example, this can be useful for creating and updating a company FAQ, employee policy handbook, etc. It's a bit easier to lock down a Wiki so that only certain people can make changes but everyone can read it. Wikis have the advantage that you have more control over how you structure the pages and navigation between them, and that users will not need any special knowledge beyond how to get to the web page using a browser. Wiki pages also show up as individual entries in search results (see Finding Things Faster) rather then one search result for an entire Notebook.

The other option for structured information is to copy your notes into Word documents. For example, if you wanted to create an Employee Handbook this might be the way to go. Personally, I find that if a process has a lot of diagrams, pictures, or screen shots, then creating the Word document is a lot easier than the work involved with uploading all those images to a Picture Library in SharePoint so they can be used on a Wiki. It's also easier to create a PDF from a Word document than a Wiki or Notebook, so if your process is something you'll have to share with people who don't have either Office or access to your SharePoint site, you might want that option. Word documents also show up in search as one result per document.

Defining a Process

When I talk about defining a business process, a lot of people will immediately jump to thinking about workflows. Workflows in SharePoint provide a way to marshal a process through several steps, with notifications for people when their step comes up.

Let me just get this out front; developing a workflow is not necessarily a great idea. There are several reasons. Firstly, workflows add overhead to a process. In addition to completing the task, you often have to report to the workflow that the task has been completed. Second, workflows define a process rather rigidly. This becomes a problem if your process changes fairly often - or worse yet maybe you don't even have the process fully defined. These issues are most obvious when you're a single person operation and need to track your own work.

SharePoint does provide some ways to improve your processes without forcing yourself into taking on a cumbersome system to track every step of what you do.

For example, Task Lists are a great way to plan a project and keep tabs on the steps involved so that you don't lose track of your progress. Over the years we've built a number of SharePoint add-ons to Tasks that let you do things like copy a set of template tasks to a new Task List, manage multiple projects within a single Task List, and more.

Microsoft recently released a tool called Planner that comes with some Office 365 subscriptions. We really like Planner! It shows a lot of potential, and in many ways it is easier to use than the SharePoint Task List. We wonder what Microsoft's plan for SharePoint Tasks will be in the long term, now that there are two different ways to accomplish essentially the same thing. Even so, Planner is a new product with several caveats and limitations that make it less amazing than we'd like it to be. For the moment, there are still times when choosing SharePoint Tasks instead is a valid option.

Screenshot of Microsoft Planner in Office 365

Beyond Task Lists, there are other ways to use SharePoint to structure your processes. Many people do not know that you can create a custom List in SharePoint very easily. These Lists can hold any kind of information you can imagine. For example, you could record a list of product prices, or a series of trade show events that are important to your business. You can even build a customer relationship management database using SharePoint.

Next Time in Part II

I'll post again soon about the next three tips, which are primarily about how you present your tiny rowboat of a company when you're working with all the tugs, oil tankers, and cruise liners of the world.

  • Tip #4: Look Bigger Than You Are
  • Tip #5: Share Documents, Securely
  • Tip #6: Structure Customer Service and Interactions

I hope you'll join us. Please consider subscribing to the blog to get notification for the next part and other content that might be of interest to you.

As always, if you use SharePoint or you're considering Office 365 for your one-person operation or army of employees, please don't hesitate to contact me, or visit us at http://www.liquid-hg.com/cloud to learn more about what we offer and how we can help you.

Limited Time Offer: Save 5% on Office 365

Okay, we have a whole series about Office 365 coming to the blog soon, but this news just couldn't wait! Eligible Office 365 Subscription Advisor customers will get 5% off your subscription for 3 months when you switch subscription plans to Liquid Mercury Solutions.

Plus that's not all! All our new Office 365 / Azure customers receive a complimentary Subscription Review ($600 value). Plus, customers with at least 50 seats qualify for free regularly scheduled Office 365 and SharePoint Strategy Sessions, worth up to $3,600 annually in valuable consulting and advice that helps you get the most out of your investment in Microsoft products. (The length and frequency of sessions varies based on number of users and plans, so ask us for details.)

Best of all, the price of Office 365 won't change at all. That's "money for nothing"!

Okay, what's an "eligible customer"? A Subscription Advisor (SA) license is one when you have Office 365 and pay Microsoft for it on a monthly basis; that means you didn't pre-purchase annually through Microsoft Open. To be eligable, you must be have SA licenses for Business or Enterprise plans. Sorry but Personal, Government, Education, and Charity plans don't qualify for this discount. This promotion is for new customers only, so if LMS is currently your Partner of Record we have other goodies we can tell you about instead.

If you are renewing your existing annual subscription in December that's great. This will be really easy. If you don't renew this month, that's OK. We'll help you submit the necessary request to Office 365 billing support to cancel the annual SA subscription. Microsoft says this is OK by them and that they've provided an option in the ticket request for swtiching to the new pricing model. (Don't cancel your current plan if you pre-paid for the entire year, because this isn't refundable. However, we can still grandfather you in at the end of your contract year.)

Sound complicated? Not really. Most Office 365 customers fit this description.

We'll even make it easy and help you figure this out. Click here to add us as a delegated admin to your Office 365 account and we'll check things out and let you know if you qualify for these discounts and incentives. If you aren't sure, you can contact us email sales@liquidmercurysolutions.com or call 410-633-5959 and we'll help you find out what we can do for you.

Seasons greetings from all your friends at Liquid Mercury!

Outrageous Claims: Where Office 365 Leads, SharePoint Will Follow

Principal Architect Thomas Carpe shares his thoughts and opinions on the state of the art in SharePoint security, including predictions about things to come. This blog post is part of a continuing series leading up to and following the official launch of Liquid Mercury Solutions' new product Beowulf Identity Server.

 

 

Well, okay maybe that's not such an outrageous claim, since that's been Microsoft's strategy all along, right? What I mean here is that most improvements to SharePoint security have been coming out of changes driven by Office 365.  

So, for example, in 2013 we now have application and server based trust through OAuth type authentication. These are new; in 2010 land we could federate two farms through the mutual exchange of certificates, but there wasn't a really good story to tell around authorizing an individual application.

For folks who run on-premises environments, this means that there will be systems that have to be stood up and maintained alongside SharePoint that didn't exist before. For instance, admins now have to consider will they configure the app host services along with the rest of the basic SharePoint feature set. Or, will you do traditional Windows authentication or use a trusted login provider instead?

Living in a cloud first world also means that security measures we sometimes take for granted in Office 365 - like multi-factor authentication - aren't readily available to us in an on-premises farm. Yes, you could circumvent this by making your sites authenticate against ADFS 3.0 or WAAD/Azure ACS, but doing so is a complex exercise. If you're going to go that far, you'll have some very important decisions you'll want to make about what software package to use and how much you want to rely on either cloud-based or on-prem technology to manage something so important. Always keep in mind that if the authentication provider isn't available for any reason, nobody will be using SharePoint.

What we see happening in the industry now is that more and more products are switching from traditional Windows based authentication to claims based authentication. This change is no doubt fueled by the need to integrate in some respect with cloud platforms like Office 365. However, in the rush to support any possible type of authentication scenario, those same products are making trade-offs against single-sign-on.

Take SharePoint Online for example, where providing a windows-based SSO experience to the user requires running an IIS site specifically to redirect the user from a vanity URL to an Office 365 / ADFS sign-on page where the user's domain is already known. This trick lets us just ask for the user's Windows account and make the trip back to SharePoint without a login form, but this is something of a hack.

Another example comes from a third party product that supports many types of claims authentication including Windows, WAAD, and Office 365. Though the product is quite flexible, customers see issues with having to provide a forms based login when browsing between SharePoint sites and the product's web pages. Configuring things so that they are seamless from an authentication perspective takes significant work.

What we hope to see in the near future are improvements to the way these systems work together, both online and behind the company firewall, so that there's a better sign-on experience overall for the user. Seems like just a few years ago people were saying that federated authentication would mean not having to remember so many credentials, but there seem to be more systems today than there were at that time. Certainly, this one of the reasons why we built Beowulf, and we hope that Microsoft and other vendors will continue to open up new possibilities in this area too.

Take Care When Deleting Users in Office 365

Today's blog post will be a quick one. Over the past few months, we've had several help requests from Office 365 customers, and I want to make sure that we get this information out there to the public. I am sure these issues are probably happening for folks all over the place.

Microsoft does not make it plainly obvious what will happen when a user's account is decommissioned. There are several ways to do this, so before you delete a user, please consider the following alternatives.

Changing the user's password and/or denying their ability to log in is certainly the easiest way to make sure that they can no longer access their account. Certainly, Active Directory admins will tell you this is standard practice in on-premises Windows networks.

Why? Because you just never really know what that user has access to that might be needed after they are gone.

Also, suppose the user is laid off today and re-hired in a few months; AD accounts have weird behavior when it comes to re-creating an account later on that has the same user name but a different SID. This can also be true in Office 365, which uses Windows Azure AD in the background to authenticate users.

So, the best policy for your sanity is don't delete users.

But, what about the license that user is consuming? Wouldn't it be best to unassign it so that you can stop paying for that extra E3 plan you no longer need?

Stop right there. Think about what you are doing for a moment. Firstly, you're commited to have that license for a full year term, so there is certainly no rush. When you take away the user's license, it means their e-mail box is going to be de-provisioned exactly as if they had been deleted.

Our experience is that the user's email is the most likely thing that other people in the company are going to want/need access to after they are gone, so consider carefully if it can be safely deleted. A good alternative is to lock the user out, then delegate the mailbox to someone else and have them move the user's mail into a subfolder of their own mailbox. Don't forget to grab send mail as well as received mail.

If you don't like the idea of filling up your mailbox, you can move the mail into a new Shared Mailbox which doesn't consume a license, or download it to a PST instead. Once you have all the mail backed up and go ahead and delete the user's account permanently, don't forget to put an alias on some other mailbox so that incoming mail for the user will be redirected to their supervisor or whatever you want to do with it.

Fortunately, Microsoft will hold the e-mail account in limbo for 30 days. So, if you have accidentally taken away the Exchange license you can add it back again. There is a risk that the mailbox might get permanently deleted during this limbo period, so if you're reading this now and are in this situation, stop reading our blog and go re-license the user immediately!

Okay, so that covers what happens when you remove the Exchange Online subscription from the user. If you deleted the user, things are a bit different. The user goes to the users and groups recycle bin and lives there for 30 days. You can safely undelete the user and everything will come back, but again there is a risk that the e-mail account would be permanently deleted at some point and Microsoft hasn't been 100% clear on what conditions increase that risk.

While your user is in the Deleted Users bin, it's kind of like that one episode of classic Star Trek where the villain turns the crew of the enterprise into styrofoam dodecahedrons. (I suppose you ST-TNG fans might be more familliar with Q's "penalty box", but either metaphor works well if you ignore the fact that in Office 365 you can put everyone in the penalty box all at once.) Anyway, someone might come along and crush your users into powder using PowerShell, and if that happens you will never be able to rehydrate them again. No backup to restore from, nada, zilch, zippers, nuthin.

So, be careful how and when you delete, unlicense, or deprovision users. Hopefully you can avoid getting fired by someone who will come along and disable your Office 365 login. ;-)

AgilePoint Anounces Office 365 and Forms Capabilities at SPC14

Well, it's that time of year again where all the SharePoint product companies trot out to Las Vegas to strut their stuff.

Today, we have a big anouncement from the SPC 2014 Keynote Sponsor, AgilePoint.

AgilePoint - SharePoint Conference New Product Highlights

In this release, there are two things I noticed right away that we've been eagerly awaiting for a long time. 1) AgilePoint support for Office 365 not just as something that can be manipulated by workflow, but in a fully integrated fashion similar to Nintex workflow. 2) An alternative to InfoPath forms that emphasizes responsive web design.

As readers of our blog will know, we're quite fond of AgilePoint's product. One of the difficulties we face in working with it, however is that it didn't really play well with customers working in Office 365. We're happy to see now that is a possibility, and we'll be putting together some demonstrations in the next few weeks, as we definitely want to be able to take this out for a test drive and see what's possible.

CloudPrep 2014 Development Update

I wanted to take a few minutes today to talk about what we've been doing since late January in regards to CloupPrep and the PowerShell commands for file migration and management of SharePoint Online.

First thing I can say is that one of our most difficult choices was in choosing an e-commerce platform and licensing API to use for our product. Even though we plan to keep our licensing fairly simply, we wanted to have options for future products and well as many of the items we also sell through our partners.

This turned out to be more challenging than I imagined, but we have settled down on using Fast Spring and LogicNP Crypto License. Perhaps in some future post I will talk about those more from a software developer's perspective. What I can say today is that it will be at least a couple weeks before we can get a working prototype of the licensing server and the store online, and so we have had to push back release closer to the end of March or early April, mostly for that reason.

Meanwhile, we have been developing features for the different editions of CloudPrep 2014. Progress on that front continues at a rapid pace and I am pretty satisfied with the way our tools are maturing.

When we decided to produce this software, we planned to release the lite and standard editions first and follow up with premium and professional features later this spring. I was a bit surprised to see that where we are putting our development efforts, probably all four editions of CloudPrep will be available at one time.

Now for the geeky stuff. Here's some of what's been happening as we've been building.

Features we've essentially completed:

  • Upload an entire folder or specific set files to document library
    We've tested that these commands will work against network drives and UNC paths. Take that, OneDrive!
  • Preserve metadata about the local file system that the document was uploaded from
  • Create and Modified dates on files are preserved, though we did find that with larger files there are limits to what we can accomplish here
  • You can specify the content type for uploaded files, root folders, and sub-folders - including Document Set and its child content types
  • A bunch of other random stuff including commands for manipulating SharePoint lists and reports to make sure that file uploads won't exceed SharePoint limits


We noticed that Office 365 throws us a lot of connectivity errors that we don't normally see in on-premises SharePoint environments. If you've been trying to copy files using their standard UI or using OneDrive, some of these errors might be hidden from you. However, they're readily apparent if you're using Web Folders (WebDAV) or Client Side Object Model to connect. We see unexpected dropped connections quite often, and certain upload methods will time out on files that are too big and required some fun workarounds. There are different methods needed for files under 2MB, under 35MB, and larger.

Our path was also complicated by the fact that on certain Office 365 sites, our rights come from delegated admin privileges. This is the preferred way that consultants get their rights to help clients manage SharePoint Online, so we figure a lot of folks who are interested in CloudPrep are seeing this phenomenon as well. When you log in with delegated admin to a client's Office 365 site using the credentials from your own Office 365 account, you sometimes see the access denied page; login again a few seconds later, everything is fine. Our code had to expect and handle this contingency.

Another thing that we did not expect is that we're seeing some reasonable evidence that Office 365 uploads are being throttled. Most of the time, file transfers seem to be limited to about 300KB/sec; there are days when the transfer speed is even slower than that, sometimes by half. As such, it is difficult for us to estimate file upload times, and we're having to improve our algorithms to take these fluctuations and sea changes into account.

As for the cause, we can't say if this is something Microsoft is doing, or if it comes from the erosion of net neutrality. We do wonder if Comcast or other providers may be limiting traffic to Office 365 in order to give their own offerings a competitive advantage or just to control their own costs. I expect we'll be doing some tests in the near future, and we've been kicking around some ways to circumvent these bandwidth caps - at least partially. One test we did in January showed that if we took half our files to a different physical location, we were able to upload them to SharePoint Online in about half the time it would have taken if we'd uploaded them all from one server.

One thing that became clear during early development was that the disconnected nature of cloud storage was going to introduce multiple random problems along the way. As a result, in any large set of documents to be moved to the cloud, there would be some which for one reason or another may not be successfully copied. We started by trying to get this failure rate as low as possible, down to less that 0.25% of files in most cases. We did a lot of work in early February to improve the code and reach this threshold.

Even so, we needed to be able to easily run multiple passes on any file copy operation and track the results. Our first prototypes had to crawl the Document Library in SharePoint one folder and file at a time. This proved to be incredibly slow, and it quickly became apparent that we needed to be able to gather status information for thousands of files at a time if we wanted to hone in on only those which required an update from the local copy. This is something we added to the code base about a week ago, and we're now in the process of replacing some of our early code to use the new file comparison analytics logic.

As a side note, a bevy of SharePoint management features found their way into our PowerShell library simply because we had customers who needed them in short order. For example, we now have the ability to take a View from any SharePoint List and make a copy of it in the same List or a different one even on another SharePoint Site. Of course, one must be very careful with this kind of power, since creating Views with field references that don't exist in the List will certainly break the View if not the entire List itself. When we've added sufficient safety checks, we'll open the capability up as part of the CloudPrep product.

This week, we introduced the concept of using a hash algorithm to test whether files in SharePoint match those on our local drive. Use of a hash in addition to checking the file size and date stamps of a document ensures that the document has been uploaded into SharePoint and that it has not been corrupted in the process. We developed this ability in order to add credibility to Office 365 migrations where we may be moving hundreds of thousands or even millions of files, and we need to establish that the migration process has been completed satisfactorily. This capability can also be used to perform duplicate file detection, and we may develop a follow on product or feature to do just that later on.

Next week, we're planning to work on some important features that we feel are a must for getting this product to where we want it to be.

The first is the make sure that we can translate between Active Directory permissions on the local file system and users in SharePoint. The primary purpose here is to preserve meaningful data for Created By and Modified By fields in SharePoint; this is something we can't do yet. As part of this process, we'll be introducing PowerShell commands to add new users into SharePoint sites and manage groups. For most customers, this is probably of limited use. However, those with several hundred users or groups to manage will find it much easier to deal with these via PowerShell instead of using the SharePoint admin web pages. For consultants, it will make migrations faster by speeding up the time it takes to implement the security configuration. Our goal here is to lower the cost of our migration services.

The next things we do after that will be:

  • Download documents from SharePoint to the local drive
  • Assign metadata from CSV file as you upload documents
  • Flatten a folder structure as you upload it.


These are harder to do than you might think. I'll post more on this in coming weeks, including our challenges and progress updates.

Anouncing CloudPrep 2014 Migration Toolkit for SharePoint Online

We do a lot of Office 365 migrations. Most of these are for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. This should surprise nobody except maybe Microsoft, who seemed to be slow to realize that their cloud platform would have the most appeal to companies with limited budgets – or that most jobs in the US are provided by small businesses. Go figure.

Over the years, I’ve written several times about the challenges of moving from a conventional file store to Office 365. Fact is, it’s just not simple to do. It really makes sense to have an experienced IT professional help you make the move. I like helping customers make the switch, but doing so has presented interesting challenges for my business that I’m sure other SharePoint consultants share too.

Firstly, there are great third party tools out there for migrating files. We often use ShareGate and Content Matrix from MetaLogix. MetaVis is another great company that has great tools with lots of features. Fact is that even though these tools are great, they are also quite expensive. They’re feature rich, so really knowing the tool is a skillset of its own – and it makes good IT people hard to find when I need them to do a job. We also run up against serious limitations when trying to use these tools; sometimes we cannot find a way to use the tools to migrate the files in exactly the way we want to.

Second, some of my client already have a part-time IT person or managed services company that helps them service their PCs and on premises servers. Traditionally, we’re a SharePoint consultancy and we never set out to try and replace other IT folks; they need work too. They have the relationship with my customer, and the local presence needed for that on-site work. Over the years, I’ve seen that customers prefer to have their own local IT provider for most small requests. We needed to find a way to coexist with these other businesses in a way that would benefit us both.

Back in 2012, at the behest of a marketing consultant (who gave me lots of advice that was either bad or I couldn’t follow it at the time) I created a small tool called CloudPrep. This tool wasn’t much; I never had much confidence in it and so I never really promoted it. But, it did the work of renaming files that SharePoint didn’t like, and combined with WebDAV it was enough to make getting 20 to 50 GB of customer files into the cloud in a few days’ time. I released it into the wild, and CloudPrep has been getting downloaded a few times a week – mostly by other Office 365 consultants to my chagrin. Lesson learned and another checkmark for finding a way to compete with other IT providers; there are more of you than there are of me!

One problem I’ve noticed is that Office 365 migration budgets are small – I mean really tiny! That’s weird when you consider that for a 25 person company the ROI could be hundreds of thousands of bucks. But, we have been in an economic slump for something like 5 years now. I guess that takes its toll; even if you knew it would make you a thousand dollars next month, you can’t spend $100 today unless you have it to spare. Some companies are reluctant to spend even a few thousand to plan and execute.

There are a few tools that are in the “beer money” range. I tried FilesToGo once – and only once. It lacked some features that seems obvious to me, but made my client extremely angry. It didn’t have a lot of options either, one size fits all. I won’t discourage anyone from using it if it meets your needs, but I’m not going to risk my relationship with my clients on it. I am honestly surprised that after all this time, there’s nothing else in its price range.

I guess you could say that I’ve gotten fed up with this situation. Yet another migration we had to do where the current tools on the market couldn’t meet our needs for the client’s budget. That story gets old.

So, the boys in the lab and I finally built our own!

Announcing CloudPrep 2014! Forget everything you ever knew about that crappy tool we made back in 2012, because this is completely something at a whole new level.

CloudPrep 2014 is not one of those big expensive tools with a fancy GUI. It’s a set of PowerShell command-lets that work with SharePoint Online and your local file system. These commands and the sample scripts provided with them are designed to empower IT people and make migrating files to and from SharePoint Online a piece of cake.

These tools don’t replace an IT person or their experience. You’ll still need an experienced consultant to tell you how to organize your files, use metadata, overcome or avoid SharePoint Online limitations, and of course actually use the tools. You needed all that before anyway. The difference is that now much of this can be provided by your own experienced IT staff; or if you’re an IT consultant yourself, you can use our tool and make your small-business and small-budget migrations a breeze instead of a quagmire.

Our commands fall into basic categories: planning, preparation, file migration, and SharePoint management. We’re still putting the finishing touches on the product now. We’re hoping to have the Lite and Standard editions released to market sometime in February, with the Premium and Professional versions available as soon as March or April.

In the meantime, please take a look at our feature matrix and proposed pricing structure. There’s still time to collect some feedback. So, if you have a feature you’d like to see that isn’t here, then leave us a comment and let us know. Even if you don’t add a feature by the launch date, we’re planning to add even more features later. We’ll entertain any reasonable suggestion – except charging more for the product.

Like what you see and can’t wait to try it out? Contact us and I’ll give you a 15% discount if you purchase during the early access period.

Edition->Feature        Lite   standard Premium Professional
Release Date   Feb  Feb  March  April
Proposed Price Free $285 $576

$1,092

+$300 Per Tenant>2

Number of Office 365 Tenants Unlimited Unlimited unlimited Unlimited
Numbre of Site collections Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Requires powershell 2.0 or higher Yes Yes Yes Yes
Requires Sharepoint client connectivity Yes Yes Yes

Yes

1 year support and Updates

(renewable Annually)

  Yes Yes Yes
Supported OS: Windows server 2008 or 2008 R2 N/A Yes Yes

Yes

Supported OS: Windows XP N/A   ?? ??
Supported OS: Windows Server 2003 N/A   ?? ??
Planning and Reporting        
Sizes and Numbers of items by folder, extention, ect. Yes Yes Yes

Yes

 

Check for Potentially Illegal file types   Yes Yes

 Yes

Folder and File Path Length Checking   Yes Yes

Yes

Permissions Checking for Local Files     Yes

Yes

Target URL Length Check Report     Yes

Yes

Upload Time Estimates      

Yes

File Preparation        
File Renaming for Illegal charaters Yes Yes Yes Yes

File Renaming for Illegal Paths

(_files,_forms)

Yes Yes Yes

Yes

Preserve Author and Editor for uploaded Files

  Yes Yes

Yes

Check for and Automatically ZIP files with illegal extentions (EXEs, Ect.)

    Yes

Yes

Check for and Automatically ZIP "_files" Folders

  Yes Yes

Yes

Migrate and Manage Files

       

Supports Network Mapped Drives

yes yes yes yes

Supports Network UNC Paths

yes yes yes

yes

 

Upload Entire Folder to Document Library

Yes Yes Yes

Yes

Upload Specific File to Document library

  yes Yes

Yes

Download Document Library to Folder

  Yes Yes

Yes

Download Specific File

  Yes Yes

Yes

Warns if Source Exceeds 5,000 items

  yes Yes

Yes

Warns if Target URL length Too Long

  yes Yes

Yes

Specify Content Type for Uploaded Documents

  Yes Yes

Yes

Specify Content Type for Top Level Folder

    Yes

Yes

Specify Content Type for Sub-Folders

    yes

Yes

Support for Documents Sets

     

Yes

Flatten Folder Structure with duplicate filename handing

    Yes

Yes

Flatten Folder Structure at 1 or more levels deep

     

Yes

Convert Folder Names to Metadata Fields

    Yes

Yes

Create Source URL Field for Uploaded Files

    Yes

Yes

Create MD5 Hash Field for Uploaded Files

     

Yes

Export Metadata to CSV File when Downloading Files

     

Yes

Synchronize of Local and Cloud files using File Modified Time

    Yes

Yes

Synchronize of Local and Cloud Files using File Modified Time+ MD5 Hash

     

Yes

Automation Features

       

Powershell command-lets

Yes Yes Yes Yes

Unattended Execution

  Yes Yes Yes

Sharepoint Management &

Development      

Create and Edit SharePoint Users

  Yes Yes Yes

Set Common Properties for Lists and Document Librarys

  Yes Yes Yes

Create and Edit Columns in Lists and Document Libraries

  Yes Yes Yes

Create and Edit Views Lists and Document Libraries

    Yes Yes

Copy a view to same or Different Document Library or list and site

    Yes Yes

Import and Export Site Columns

    Yes Yes

Import and Export Content Types

    Yes Yes

Import and export views

    Yes Yes

Add, Remove users and Groups, Permission Sets

    Yes Yes

 

CloudPrep Lite
This edition is a good fit for small file migration needs and try-before-you-buy. You can use it to do basic reporting on the structure of your files, rename files that are known to cause problems during migration, and upload folder structures to your SharePoint Online document libraries. In most cases it has a 99.7% or better success rate, and it produces a handy report so that your remaining files can be uploaded manually.

CloudPrep Standard
This edition includes a standard set of features designed to help you move files into Office 365 with a minimum amount of difficulty. You can upload and download large file collections without having to stand by the computer, perform multiple upload/download passes, and specify a default content type for files. Run it from anywhere, including various versions of Windows Server. We also include some additional pre-migration reporting tools that help to identify problems before you migrate your files.

CloudPrep Premium
For the seasoned SharePoint admin or IT professional, this edition includes features that will help you get the most out of Office 365 in the cloud. We include even more reports to give you a 360 degree view into any potential file migration issues. The file upload tool includes a variety of features for setting metadata and flattening folder structures.

CloudPrep Professional
This edition enables the true Office 365 IT professional to handle migrations for multiple clients. All the features of the Premium Edition plus advanced content type features including support for Document Sets. It also includes the ability to create MD5 Hash file uploaded files, which helps in detecting duplicate files and in determining that if two files are not the same even when their date stamps match.

Lessons from the Field for Migrating to Office 365

Recently, I’ve talked a bit about how companies can save money in lots of places by moving to the cloud with Office 365, and I’ve also described some of the complexities involved in moving large file shares to SharePoint. Today, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about some of the lessons learned on some of our Office 365 migration projects over the past several months.

Getting Good Information Up Front is A Challenge
As SharePoint developers, we’re used to working with the IT departments of larger organizations (say 500 to 5000 employees) as we develop solutions. However, with Office 365 customers, many times we’re not working directly with IT folks. The customer may have a managed service provider for desktop support, a part-time IT contractor, and some clients do not even have their own IT staff at all.

Needless to say, planning a move to Office 365 requires us to take stock of a great many technical details. It’s not surprising that folks outside of IT might miss the importance of the myriad trivial details involved.

But getting these facts wrong during the early stages can lead to incorrect estimates and costly mistakes down the road. It’s important to get the discovery right.
Here are some things customers should pay careful attention to when gathering information in the pre-project planning phase.

Basic Planning
Make a User Inventory
Know how many users you plan to have. We’re going to need their contact information, including phone and e-mail, because more than likely this information isn’t up to date in Active Directory. From there we can talk about what plans are best for your users.

Make a Workstation and Mobile Inventory
Know how many desktop PCs, laptops, and mobile devices you’ll be configuring. It’s also important to know what kind of mobile devices will be used and how many of each type.

Make a Server Inventory
Know exactly what servers you have, what operating system and version they run on, and exactly what purposes they serve (file shares, print server, domain controller, e-mail, etc.) If you do not know these things, you should consider paying for a 1 to 3 day evaluation to document all of your systems.

What Will You Turn Off After Migration?
Part of calculating the cost is understanding the benefits you get in return for it. If you’re not sure that a system can be fully disabled after moving to the cloud, that’s something we can help you figure out.

Will You Need Any Servers You Don’t Have?

For example, if you are synching Active Directory users to Office 365, you need a server to run this on - though it needn’t be very powerful. If you have applications running on servers that you otherwise want to decommission, you may need a server in the cloud to replace them. Likewise, if your security needs are high, you’ll want to have a CipherPoint Eclipse or F-5 Big IP running in the cloud in front of Office 365.

Domain Registration
You should verify that all your domain names are still current and that you have access to the DNS registration. We’ve occasionally had customers who have some older DNS names that were being used for e-mail aliases, and they weren’t able to migrate them fully because they’d lost the ability to manage the domain name. Check on these beforehand and avoid unpleasant surprises.

Remote Access
Some companies have VPN; this is ideal. Some do not and have to rely on clunky terminal servers or third-party services such as TeamViewer or LogMeIn. If you’re in the later circumstance or haven’t set anything up at all, we should talk about what is likely to cause issues for the folks doing the migration work, because not all of these services are created equal.

What’s Your Actual Available Bandwidth
Knowing if you have a T-1, cable modem, or DSL is helpful; it’s not the end of the story. We’ll want to perform some bandwidth tests at different times of the day in order to account for the connectivity that your company is already using. In general, migrations that have to be pushed to the evening or weekends will take longer.

Test for Equipment Bottlenecks
It’s also worth pointing out that some older equipment can actually be slower than the Internet connection can handle. Early on, we can do a trial run with a few files or a single mailbox in order to determine if there are going to be unexpected problems due to slow hard drives and outdated or overloaded servers.

E-mail Migration Planning
Know Your E-mail Server
Whether you’re using Exchange, Lotus, or some other server it helps to know what we’re dealing with. We’ll need to know how many users you have, how big are their mailboxes, and what distribution lists you’re using. It’s not unusual to find a few people in a company with mailboxes approaching 20GB (or bigger!). Anything at this size is going to take a lot longer to move than usual and that needs to be taken into account.

Great Firewall of Spam
For the mail server, the above is a good start, but not enough. You need to identify if you have an anti-spam appliance (e.g. Barracuda) or service (e.g. Postini) in front of your mail server. You probably won’t need it after moving to Office 365, but if you want us to make it a part of the move we need to know ahead of time.

E-mail Archives
Most people do not think about this, but Outlook Archives (*.PST) files do not move automatically to the cloud. One of the best approaches we’ve found is to copy their contents up into Exchange Online so that you’ll have access to them everywhere you go. If you’re using archives, it’s important to know this so we can take them into account when looking at mailbox sizes, migration plans, etc.

File Migration Planning
Make a File Inventory
Know where your files are, how big they are, what you will move, and what you might leave behind. Professionals have tools that can help to analyze your files and better determine the cost to migrate. However, these tools are only helpful if we have the opportunity to run them against all the files that will be moved.

Public Folders
If you use Exchange Public Folders, you will need to have those files copied down into a regular file share so they can be moved into SharePoint. Exchange Online does not support public folders, which have been phased out in recent versions of Exchange. When we determine the size of the file stores you’ll be moving, these files need to be included.

How Will the Migration Team Access Files?
Depending on the remote access method and the speed of your Internet connection, in some cases it may actually be faster to copy your files to a portable drive and FedEx them to us rather than have us try to copy them from your office. This also provides the fringe benefit of being able to split the migration up across multiple sites, which can make everything go faster.

Dealing with the Unexpected
Obvious, there’s no such thing as a crystal ball, and that’s even more true for IT. Aside from the things I talk about above that, little things can go awry during the project. It’s important to remember that migrating to Office 365 is a big change from the way companies used to work back in the 90s. Be ready to expect and deal with the unexpected.
Here are some things we’ve seen happen in the middle of a project that can really get things out of whack.

Slippage
Sometimes it just takes longer to move files or e-mail than it seems like it should. It really helps to know exactly what we’re moving in the first place, but if your estimate and schedule were written sight unseen before we had access to the servers, then probably there are baked in assumptions that may prove to be wrong.

Even if we did a 1 day triage visit at the start of the project, sometimes the technology can make fools of us all. I had one customer where most mail moved over fine, but then one user’s mail dragged on and on weeks on end simply because their outdated server would not provide it any faster.

Needless to say, schedule creep can be very disruptive. As a result, we’ve learned to base our schedules on being 95% complete – anything more can be managed as ongoing support and needn’t cause everything else to back up waiting for it.

Limits of File Migration Tools
To move files into SharePoint is not a drag and drop operation. Fortunately, there are many good products on the market, and the state of the art is constantly changing. But, these products are not what I’d call mature - partly because Microsoft keeps changing the Office 365 platform itself. Over the years, we’ve seen file migration tools for SharePoint Online that don’t copy the date stamps on your documents, tools with poor or quirky support for Document Sets, and tools with draconian restrictions on the size of files that can be copied.

If we are copying a large volume of files, it is not uncommon that we may need to do a test run and then start over. We try to account for this in our estimates, but it’s not a perfect science. Tools are great, but if a tool or product does not get the results we want, we may have to switch tactics. This is not a sign of the coming apocalypse. Be prepared for this to be a part of the process.

Limits of E-mail Migration Tools
If you are migrating from Exchange 2007 or better, Microsoft has some great built in tools to make this possible. There are good third-party solutions for other platforms. Each of these has its own limitations. For example, Microsoft tools may not do well on extremely large mailboxes. Third party tools may be more robust, but they will take almost twice as long because they have to copy from the source and then copy to Office 365, whereas Microsoft has the benefit of running their tool in the same local network.

Limits of SharePoint
SharePoint is like any complex software product; it has boundaries. There are limits on the amount of storage you can have in a Site Collection, and limits on the number of items you can effectively put in a List or Library. Our job as consultants is to come up with plans and designs that avoid as many of these as possible. Still, it’s important to understand that Microsoft is constantly changing Office 365 – usually for the better. There have been times that we tried out a particular approach for organizing content and then had to change tactics because one of our assumptions proved to be incorrect.

Here are some examples of fiddly details that have sometimes pushed us around:

  • Flat views don’t work in large libraries (> 5000 items) even though you’d think they should be limited to the current folder.
  • In large libraries, indexes must be created before items > 5000.
  • Document Sets can only have one view inside the Document Set itself.
  • Nesting folders within Documents Sets is quirky.
    You cannot easily change the look and feel of the “my-sites” part of SharePoint.
  • And many more…


Shifting Requirements
Migrating to Office 365 is a big change. Training and discovery are a part of the process, and so you might learn something about the platform that you did not know at the beginning.

Likewise, we may learn something about your business that was not clear at the start and this could cause us to change our recommendations. Stay nimble and flexible; these moments can be opportunities to improve rather than a cause of stress.

Save Money for Your Small or Midsize Business by Moving to the Cloud

There are many small companies out there with a rack of servers in a closet. Years ago, this was the expected way that companies supported their internal operations. My company has one too. Many companies depend heavily on this equipment to perform vital functions for the business operation. E-mail and files typically live here - lots of files!

In recent years, there's been a shift to a new IT strategy called "the cloud". For small companies that may not have a lot of cash to make big changes, a move to the cloud can seem to involve a lot of risks and requires spending precious resources.

Today, I want to take a few minutes to explain some of the most compelling reasons that you might want to find a will and a way to turn that closet full of equipment off - because losing that ball and chain could help to set your business free.

Cloud Savings from Electrical Utility Costs
For starters, all that stuff running in your closet uses a lot of electricity. It's hard to tell how much exactly, because that depends on how old the equipment is and things like how many CPUs, drives, extra power supply it might have installed. Air conditioning costs energy too, and many people fail to take cooling costs into account when they try to estimate how much energy their computers use.

You can make some educated guesses based on the size of the circuit breaker on your equipment rack. For example, if you run everything on a single 20 amp circuit and it isn't blowing out like a Christmas tree in a hundred-year-old house circa 1974, then you are probably consistently pulling less than 18 amps and it's probably more like 15. Converted to watts, that's 1800 to a max. of 2400 watts. That's more than enough to run 5 servers with 500 watt power supplies - assuming you don't power them all up at one time. If you have fewer servers than that running, you either have older equipment that consumes more power or you aren't really using the circuit to its capacity.

1200 w at 120 v = 10A

500 w / 120 v = 4.15A

Another rule of thumb would be to assume about 550 watts per server, unless there's something fancy going on like it has a redundant power supply.

So let's use my own equipment as an example and I'll see if I can guess how much it costs me every month.

Here's my inventory:

  • Firewall
  • Domain Controller
  • 2 Virtual Servers
  • Database Server
  • Other Small Load Equipment: Wi-Fi Router, Network Switches, Battery Back UPS 


5 x 550 w = 2,750 w

2,750 w / 120 v = 22.9167 A

Maybe it's a little more than that if you include all the low end equipment.

This runs on a 20 amp circuit, so if I were really pushing 22A or more then I'd be blowing the circuit all the time, but I do know that if we add anything like a mini-fridge to the mix then we will trip the breaker, so I'm probably not far off. I could use this figure and call the overhead the cost of air conditioning.

Fortunately, I have another way to tell. I have these two APC 1500 VA back-up batteries and each is nice enough to tell me their load. Right now each is sitting at about 50% load. So, that's about the same as saying that we're running is 15 amps. This figure makes more sense, because you have to figure that the servers need a little extra capacity for starting up and such.

I could've come to the same conclusion by guessing that my equipment uses about 70% of its max. capacity. All these methods brings me to about the same figure.

My system uses 15A * 120v = 1,800 watts. I'll round it up to 2,000 watts to make the math easier and account for cooling costs and spikes in use that occur once in a while.

So, how much is that in money? The power company charges me per kilo-watt-hour. That's a fancy term for saying that if I use 1,000 watts for 1 hour, that's one unit on my electrical meter - for which they charge me $0.12.

24 hours in a day times an average 30.4 days in a given month equals 729.6 hours per month. Remember that this equipment runs 24 x 7 x 365, in case some employee wants to VPN in at an odd hour and get a little extra work done. So we have 2 kilo-watts times 729.6 hours times 12 cents. That's about $175.10 a month or $2,101.25 per year. Over time that really adds up.

What if I could cut that power consumption in half, by removing some of that equipment? If I had a thousand bucks, I could do a lot of things with that money instead. Here are some examples: 

  • Office 365 E3 plans for 4 employees
  • A small virtual server in the cloud with a VPN connection to my local network
  • Business-grade broadband internet service
  • A fancy office lunch for all the employees once per quarter
  • An extra grand for me to take home as a bonus

In fact, over five years this alone could pay for about 25 to 50% of the budget for moving to the cloud.

We do some really fancy stuff with our servers, but most companies are doing pretty ordinary things with their equipment. Here's some examples: 

  • Domain Controller
  • File server
  • Backup server
  • E-mail server
  • Anti-spam appliance
  • Company Intranet site
  • Remote Login / VPN / Terminal Server
  • Accounting Software
  • Other Customer Application Servers


If you replace that old equipment with cloud services and virtual servers in the cloud, you can eliminate a lot of these. In fact, only the domain controller and those last two items are particularly challenging to phase out completely. Depending on how your systems are configured, that could be as many as 3 servers (maybe more) that are just sitting there chewing up power that you could save.

Cloud Savings by Avoiding Upgrades to Hardware and Software


All of that hardware may be aging; the recession hit a lot of businesses that haven't had spare funds to update their servers since before 2008. That was 5 years ago, when Windows Server 2003 was still considered reasonably current. A lot of it isn't upgradable, because it's 32 bit architecture and won't support the newer operating systems, which means you have to figure hardware into your upgrade costs as well.

Even if your hardware is state of the art with the latest operating system, chances are good that you'll probably want to upgrade it sometime in the next 3 to 5 years. Depending on what the hardware does and what software runs on it will say a lot about how much you could save by freeing yourself from that burden.

Likewise, at some point you're probably going to want to upgrade Microsoft Office. Many companies say they're perfectly happy using Office XP or 2007; often, they just don't know about certain features that could be of really high value to them. Because they can't afford to upgrade, they never get the chance to discover the benefits on their own. Office 365 solves that problem because your Office desktop client software is included with the service.

For example, modern versions of Office have improved abilities to collaborate on documents when they're saved on a SharePoint server. Two people can edit the same Word document or Excel spreadsheet at the same time from two different computers. Most folks also don't realize that Excel has some very promising business intelligence features now that can let you crunch your business data in ways that could give your company the competitive edge.

One customer told us that because they were switching to a cloud architecture, they would be able to stop buying the more expensive laptops they'd been providing to their employees, in favor of units that we about half the price. If you have less than 10 employees that may not seem like a big deal, but if you're buying computers for a larger team, the multiplying effect can lead to formidable savings.

Here are some examples of some hardware and software costs you can save by switching to the cloud:

  • Typical mid-grade business server: $3,000 to $6,000 per server
  • Cheaper desktops or laptops: $250 to $1000 per user
  • Windows Server operating system: $1,000 per server
  • Exchange Server software: $1,000 + $120 per user
  • Microsoft Office client software: $400 to $700 per user depending on edition 


There are other miscellaneous software expenses too, like Remote Desktop Server (terminal server) clients, VPN devices, anti-spam appliances like the Barracuda, or backup solutions like Veritas. Having some of these in your company typically comes with annual support contracts that must be renewed - that's kind of like paying for cloud services without getting the cloud. You may not be able to discontinue all of these services, but especially for those which charge per user, scaling back the number of seats can save you a lot.

Cloud Savings by Reallocating IT Service Costs
Of course, computers don't take care of themselves. Some companies have an IT staff of their own, others hire managed services companies or freelance IT tradespeople to help maintain their computer systems.

These services come at a cost. A full-time IT person can cost $80,000 a year to keep on staff. Part time workers will usually charge consulting rates of around $50-100 an hour or more. Such a consultant might cost you $25,000 a year even if you bargain shop and only give him 10 hours a week. 

Such services are necessary. Backups need to be run. Users need help with malfunctioning software or broken equipment. Server drives will get full, fail, or both. Learning all those systems and which levers to pull in order to keep them running is a distraction from your business operation. Most business consultants agree that smaller companies should outsource their IT needs.

It might be tempting to think that you'll be able to cut the budget for IT support if you move to the cloud; after all your IT staff or MSP will have less equipment to maintain. The truth is that this will probably be a wash, because it's common to see both IT departments and managed service providers starved to the bone for resources. Likely, some of your resources will shift to supporting the new cloud solutions instead of the old infrastructure. Also, there are probably projects that have needed attention for a long time where you could redirect those funds or hours instead of cutting back.

So, look for changes in where you get your IT support, how it is delivered, and what platforms it will support - but don't expect to unearth a gold mine of savings by cutting back on IT work when you switch to the cloud. Fortunately, there are so many other places to find savings that it probably won't matter.

Cloud Savings from Stupid Accounting Tricks
Another thing to consider is that in some cases there are significant differences between CAPEX and OPEX, meaning that capital expenditures - those which result in obtaining assets - require different accounting treatment then ongoing expenses like your phone bill. Because cloud services are operating expenses, you may be saving money on stuff like business property taxes and depreciation if you go into the cloud.

Another thing to point out is that cloud services do not have to be paid all at once. For example, buying Office 2013 for 25 employees could mean coming up with over 17 grand up front, tapping into a line of credit, or having to phase the purchase in slowly. Getting that kind of money for big expenditures can also involve jumping through flaming hoops. Such obstacles might delay purchases you need to make, and they'll certainly drain your productivity.

Cloud services also scale much better than conventional server infrastructure. For example, you might provision an Exchange server that is reasonable for 15 employees. Over time, as employees are added to the company and old e-mail accumulates that server would be overburdened, thus accelerating the pace at which you'd have to spend more to upgrade it. Or, alternatively, you could plan ahead and buy a server that could support up to 30 employees, but then all that added expense is an opportunity cost and wasted resource for every year that you don't use the server to its full capacity.

Cloud services typically come with an annual agreement, just like your cell phone plan, which means there are some limits on how fast you could scale back if you have to, but you can increase capacity at any time. So, there's no excess supply except in cases where you shrink the company a bit - and your maximum liability is something you can plan for. With the traditional server all you could do is wait for users to drop to zero and then turn it off - just before hitting the light switch on your way out of the office.

Cloud Savings from Productivity Gains
This is the fun part that I always like to talk about, because people really overlook it when they're trying to find ways to save money - and this is where the real money is.

Suppose your small company grows, and you need to hire another office employee to handle the work. That probably costs you anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 per year - maybe more depending on their qualifications, experience, and the value they bring to your company.

Suppose your company does less well than you'd like and you want to cut your staff. Everyone else would feel the pinch as their work is transferred to the rest of the team. The added workload affects morale, and productivity could drop - increasing the chances that you'll continue to slide downhill.

My point here is that whether your company is struggling or growing, both of these come with a cost. What if you could mitigate that cost by cutting out wasteful activities that aren't really productive but have just sort of become habits because you've always worked that way before?

If your business is like a lot of other companies, you probably have some pretty typical work patterns in your office. Here are some examples:

  • You have a network file share that you've been using for years; maybe you have everything going back to the early days of the company; there's an elaborate folder structure to keep everything organized, which has changed over time; finding things involves digging around in different folders until it turns up or asking the office admin if they know where it is.
  • Once in a while, somebody deletes a file off the network file share; either you don't ever find out about it, or when you need it you have to go to a backup since there's no recycle bin for the file share.
  • Since there's no official document retention policy - or way to automate it - old documents just pile up and lay around making everything else harder to find.
  • You have tons of documents living in e-mail; when you need a document you have to search Outlook to find it; sometimes you're not sure if it's the latest version or not.
  • You archive your old emails to gigantic PST files which you can only access on your work computer, because the file has to live on the network share in order to get backed up.
  • When you're on the road or working from home, you have to remote into a terminal server so that you can get access to all of your files at the office; you can't use your tablet or smartphone to do it; it's extremely slow compared to working on your home computer.
  • Your version of Office at home is different than the one you have at work, and so some of the stuff that you can do in the office can't be taken home with you
  • If there's an internet connection or electrical issue at the office, you can't really work from home, because VPN is down; business just shuts down for the day until the crisis is past.
  • If you do most of these things, chances are you could gain a lot of productivity by moving to the cloud. And, if you do any of these, chances are pretty good that everyone else in your office has the same bad habits and coping skills.

Logging into VPN, working with slow connections, foraging for documents, lugging portable drives back and forth, trying to find the correct version among duplicates, waiting for e-mail and file searches to finish running, being at specific computers to in order to complete certain tasks, and having to ask other people where to find that important file are all wasteful unproductive activities. Up to a certain point in time, they were considered necessary, just like people still consider driving to and from the office to be necessary - at least some of the time.

According to one McKinsey study, workers spend about 30% of their time reading and answering emails, 20% of the day looking for things, and 15% communicating and collaborating with their fellow workers. That's a whole workday every week spent looking for information, much of which may already exist inside your own company.

And yet, if each employee in a 25 person company could save just 2 hours a week by cutting down on how long it takes to find things, that'd add up to 50 hours a week in reclaimed productivity. In other words, you can add an entire virtual employee to the rolls without paying a penny - whether you simply avoid hiring another warm body or have to make due with less staff, either way you're looking at an effective savings of $50-80k.

The reality is that you can probably save a lot more than just 2 hours per week; that's just 24 minutes a day. If you think of it more like a worst case scenario, it's a pretty darn compelling argument to go ahead and make the change even if it costs you a little in the short run.

Think your company could benefit from a move to cloud architecture including Office 365? Reach out to us and we'll develop a custom migration plan, cost breakdown, and ROI.

15 Things: a Day in the Life of a SharePoint Life Coach

Recently, we launched a new service called SharePoint Life Coach. This service was designed to be of value of customers who need help with SharePoint but have a limited budget they can work with to get the support they need. To help folks understand this service better, I'd like to describe what sets this service apart and some of the questions we answer in a typical session.

With traditional consulting, you the customer tell us what to do and then we tell you how long it will take.  We then run off and accomplish these things for you, and sometimes we work with you along the way. Some consulting is about making recommendations, some is about troubleshooting. In general, the focus is to bring you a finished product, whether that deliverable is a document, a working system, or a piece of code. Of course, all of this is billed by the hour, and having a consultant working full-time is beyond reach for many companies.

SharePoint Life Coach service differs from traditional consulting in a couple of important ways.

  • The customer sets the pace for sessions, based on their time and budget.
  • Sessions follow a semi-structured format, so that desired material can be fit within the allocated time.
  • Focus on consistency and results will emerge - the idea is to have regular sessions over an extended period that help ensure better results.
  • The deliverable is you - our approach is "teach a person to fish and they'll eat for a year".


As we bring new folks into the Life Coach system, one of the first things we do is to set up topics for that all-important first session. Sometimes the hardest thing is knowing where to begin. Many times, our customers come to us after just getting started with Office 365 and SharePoint Online. They quickly realize that SharePoint is a very complicated product, and that there is more to managing it than just pulling some levers on the Office 365 management portal web site.

Over time, we've found that folks are asking some of the same questions over and over again. On some topics, we start to feel a bit like a broken record. Though we've answered those question many times, the answer varies from customer to customer based on their specific story - for example the size of their company, tech savvy of staff, etc.  As a result, while there are common themes, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for these things. Thus, being able to tailor these recommendations to your needs is what having a SharePoint Life Coach is all about.

Here are some of the popular topics that people have asked for:

  1. What are some of the pitfalls that I should avoid while working in SharePoint?
  2. What training do my end-users need to work effectively in SharePoint?
  3. How do I keep SharePoint from becoming a mess?
  4. What is the right way to structure my SharePoint web site and sub-sites?
  5. When should I use a sub-site, a list, a library, a document set, or folders?
  6. I know folders are bad, but my users love them; how do we cope?
  7. Everyone misses the network shared drive. How can people work with files quickly in SharePoint?
  8. I want to use SharePoint as an Intranet for my company; what kinds of content and things should I put on it?
  9. What's the best way to structure users, groups, and permissions?
  10. I've heard of SharePoint governance. It turns out it was a 500 page document. Is there anything for small businesses that is like governance-lite?
  11. Should I buy a file migration tool, move my files by hand, or just hire someone to do it for me?
  12. Should I use an Outlook Shared Calendar or a SharePoint Calendar?
  13. Can I organize our list of customers in SharePoint?
  14. How long does it take for stuff to show up in Search? Why aren’t my PDF files showing up?

Who Really Has the Best SharePoint Workflow Product?

I came across this blog article today, asking the question "Who has the best SharePoint Workflow Product?" This seems to have gotten a lot of attention, and so far I see that over 4,500 people have voted. That's some serious interest!

I sometimes get this question from our customers, and this is particularly challenging for me because often the correct answer is "it depends". Sure it sounds like a copout, but it's really not a very simple question.

It gets even a bit more complex for us, because we partnered with Nintex and AgilePoint, and needless to say Thanksgiving dinner can get a little bit awkward if I were to try and declare a unilateral favorite. But, read on and you'll see there's a reason that things played out that way.

I'm going to do my best to approach this question as impartially as I can. I will be very candid. From my point of view, the three workflow products mentioned in the article, AgilePoint, Nintex, and K2 are certainly the best of breed for all SharePoint workflow products. There's also Bamboo, Datapolis Workbox, HarePoint, MetaStorm, and Global360 to name just a few; but I really feel like most of these have missed their chance to take a leadership position in this space, in one way or another.

So here it goes: the good the bad, and the ugly of SharePoint workflow and third-party products.

Why Not OOTB SharePoint Workflow?


You can't have a serious discussion of third-party workflow products in SharePoint without asking the obvious question, "Why not use SharePoint workflow in the first place?" Personally, I am not a fan of SharePoint so-called out-of-the-box workflow for a lot of reasons.

OK - deep breath, inhale…

The first thing that jumps out at me is the way that Microsoft has absolutely bungled SharePoint workflow when you look at what they've done over the past ten years. In SharePoint 2001, they had workflow, but in SharePoint Portal Server 2003 they took it away completely. In 2007 they brought workflow back, using something like Outlook rules to help end users develop simple workflows, or Workflow Foundation in Visual Studio for the really complex stuff. These had serious limitations and neither could be effectively created by analysts alone, so in SharePoint 2010 they introduced some Visio capabilities - but then totally dropped the ball by taking away any ability to do simple workflows with loops or anything like "go back to step 2". I was sure they'd get it right in SharePoint 2013, so I was horrified to learn that they have completely revamped the workflow system so that now 2010 workflows and 2013 workflows are completely different and incompatible - and that in the 2013 version there are a significant number of actions you can no longer do that worked in the 2010 version. To me, this is not a stable and mature part of the platform; to leverage it will be like building on shifting sand and you should be prepared to rebuild everything in a couple of years if you go this way.

More so, SharePoint's native workflow cannot handle complex, recursive, or long-running flow patterns. Some processes are just too complex, long-running, or rapidly changing to be supported by SharePoint's native workflows without either a great deal of custom code - unless you use a third-party workflow product or in some cases a full-blown Business Process Management (BPM) suite.

As for Visual Studio workflow, custom code is expensive and time-consuming both to create and to maintain on an ongoing basis, so the best practice in almost any situation where the problem can be solved by either custom code or an existing product on the market is to use the existing product.

Finally, even in SharePoint designer there's a valid point that if you have developers available to do SharePoint workflow in Visual Studio or SharePoint designer, there is a very, very, very good chance that there's something (anything!) else that they could be doing instead which would give you a better return on their development time. Thus, we strongly recommend that you pick at least one third-party workflow product.

That being said, let's move on and take a look at some products!

Nintex Workflow


Nintex is an excellent choice if you have workflows that are more complex than can be easily done out-of-the-box with SharePoint. It's comparatively easy to set it up and use it when you contrast it with anything K2 has to offer. As a result, Nintex is commonly used to supplement SharePoint Workflow within the vast majority of SharePoint farms.

 

I haven't recently looked for any market data, but I'm pretty sure that Nintex is by far the most successful SharePoint product in terms of pure sales, and as a partner we love the Nintex web site for their ability to give us the resources we need to market and demonstrate their product. You will have no absolutely difficulty finding a reseller in your area to help you with professional services - although I hope that you'll just call on us instead. We'd be happy to give you a demo. Personally. ;-)

Nintex has pretty good integration with systems outside of SharePoint. Off the top of my head I know that we can use it to do most basic tasks within SharePoint, plus we can call web services from outside systems or manipulate databases. These features are pretty easy to use, but I would not say that your average SharePoint user or site owner will necessarily know how to leverage them. That said, most business users will be able to get by doing things purely inside of SharePoint.

Nintex has EXCELLENT support for the cloud. They have a version of their product that runs on Amazon Web Services and integrates with Office 365 SharePoint Online. At this writing, I'm not aware of any other workflow product for SharePoint that can claim this.

As far as downsides go, I'd say that Nintex architecture suffers from the same issues that SharePoint workflow does, so on SP 2010 or older your workflows are going to run on the web front end and will consume resources there. As a result, you may need to add more WFE to your farm the more you use it. This is mighty convenient for Nintex, since they license the product per WFE in your farm.

One other thing to note is that Nintex can't really handle the high complexity in some of the processes that we develop for our clients. We're talking about long-running processes that could take months or over a year to complete, and they have hundreds of steps. You see things like this in government agencies a lot. I've done really mind bogglingly complex ones for NIH, FAA, and most recently USDA. Personally, I wouldn't want to try to use Nintex to solve these sorts of problems.

AgilePoint (particularly Genesis Edition)


Considering all the workflow products for SharePoint, probably the main thing to point out about AgilePoint is that it is so much more than just a workflow engine. There just aren't that many players out there in SharePoint workflow who can honestly claim they are a fully functional business process management system, or BPMS.

 

As a result, AgilePoint workflows can be changed while running. A long-running flow will not be "orphaned" by changes to the process that occur while it is in progress. This is perhaps the very best feature. As a rule, if you process has 25 or more steps and is completed over the span of a month or more, you should strongly consider AgilePoint.

And yet, in contrast to many other BPMS systems, AgilePoint is designed exclusively for the Microsoft .NET framework, and relies heavily on the MS product suite for its creation and implementation, rather than using a proprietary tools. AgilePoint uses Microsoft Visio to design workflows and InfoPath to create forms, so any office with full Microsoft Office licensing already has all the tools AgilePoint requires. It integrates natively into SharePoint workflow; AgilePoint workflows can be deployed to SharePoint at least as easily as SharePoint's own native workflows can be deployed from SharePoint Designer.

AgilePoint Genesis installs natively alongside (and co-exists with) other SharePoint workflows. It supports every known pattern of dynamic and ad-hoc workflow identified by the BPM industry and provides 36 different functions for interacting with SharePoint. More are available with the Enterprise edition, and the possibilities with custom AgileParts are virtually limitless. This functionality leads us to conclude that AgilePoint sports A+ level “tight integration” with SharePoint. Users will never know their process has left the SharePoint server, yet AgilePoint will not negatively impact SharePoint performance in any way.

As a company, AgilePoint's primary focus is in workflow, and it’s designed to make creation and modification of workflows easily accessible to business users, rather than requiring high levels of programming skill. A business analyst with strong knowledge of Visio can be trained to create a fairly complex workflow within half a day. Workflow activities can be based on InfoPath forms created by anyone with technical savvy to create forms in Microsoft Access. Most process revision consists of moving objects on a diagram and doesn’t require a developer at all.

Call me a total geek, but one cannot discuss the strengths of AgilePoint without at least mentioning some of the obscure but important technical aspects that make it a truly impressive product. For one, AgilePoint’s model is declarative, meaning that there's almost entirely no code generated to drive the workflow process, only XML; this is in sharp contrast to many BPMS as ell as the MS Workflow Foundation Engine (SharePoint, K2, Nintex) which all use a high amount of dynamically generated source code to drive the workflow logic. In fact, AgilePoint actually uses the Visio document format itself to drive its workflow engine, so the process is literally running the exact same flow-charts drawn by the business analysts and developers! Another advantage is that AgilePoint is one of only a very few pure-play .NET BPMS out there in the market. Also, the product is built entirely on .NET; there is no part of the product which inherits from COM as many older and more well-established players in the market still do (over 10 years after .NET’s debut).

That’s not to say you can’t program against it if you want to; developers can write full featured extension in .NET, and they often know tricks to make InfoPath and SharePoint do things that go well beyond out-of-the-box capabilities. We've found that many additional things can be done if you're willing to add custom web services to the mix (also true for Nintex, to be completely fair). For example, we built a set of web services for one of our clients that allows them to move and copy Documents Sets around in SharePoint using AgilePoint, and it also implements structured creation of new team sites which is an important aspect to SharePoint governance.

Finally, the very low cost of AgilePoint's Genesis product is a significant advantage, putting it within reach of smaller companies and even single-project level budgets. AgilePoint's Enterprise Edition is traditionally a product costing five-figures; however they recently reduced their pricing quite substantially to be competitive in the SharePoint market. For 100 users, a typical annual fee for Genesis with AgileReports and InfoPath support would be less than $5k, and governments and non-profits get even better pricing. They've also proven to be flexible about selling additional components a-la-carte from the higher edition of the product if you only need a few. It's worth pointing out that even at the Enterprise price, it holds its own nicely against many six and even seven figure alternatives.

For up to date AgilePoint pricing or other product information, please fill out our short request form. You'll be taken to their product information and download page afterwards If you decide to download the free version, please let them know we sent you.
By now you probably realize that I truly love working with this product. So, I will mention a couple of disadvantages, just to prove I am being completely honest.

Firstly, I have to say that while AgilePoint comes closer to the promise of developer free workflow than just about anyone else does, their system is still quite complex and you will need the help of an experienced consultant to really make it sing. (I swear I am not saying that just so that you'll hire us.) For simple workflows, you will be fine following the basic patterns for which there are many demos, and I think most business users could probably make minor adjustments to processes. This is where a ley AgilePoint strength can become a bit of a weakness, because it really lets you build these amazingly complicated workflows. Once something gets that complex, of course it is going to require a specialist.

Also, AgilePoint does have a runs-in-the-cloud option, but it lags behind Nintex in terms of support for Office 365. Last we heard, you can't initiate a workflow instance from inside a SharePoint Online list or document library. However, their support for Office 365 sites as part of a workflow that starts in some other way is pretty good. If you're running a hybrid farm scenario with one foot on-premises and one foot in the cloud, you might be able to work around this. Also, their technical team is pretty savvy, and I live in hope that they might catch up pretty soon.

Another drawback is that AgilePoint Genesis is reliant on InfoPath. That could be a strength, depending on how you look at it. Microsoft has promised that InfoPath will be a part of SharePoint until at least 2020, but they've pretty effectively bumbled the message to customers and partners alike about what we should use instead of InfoPath. AgilePoint does have their own forms engine that is part of their enterprise product, and we're hoping to see some flavor of that included into Genesis edition so we can offer an option for folks trying to actively avoid InfoPath in their solutions.

One final note is that we've learned that very, very large forms could cripple the ability to do parallel process. This is because each step in the AgilePoint process is a view in the same InfoPath document; two people can't edit the document at the same time. However, it's possible to work around this issue, by designing you processes with this limitation in mind.

All in all, we find that AgilePoint pros far outweigh the cons. If you want a six-figure BPMS at a four-figure price and would like to avoid spending millions of dollars to support a system that might see fewer actual workflows implemented on it than I have fingers on one hand, skip the big boys and build it in AgilePoint.

K2


K2 BlackPearl and BlackPoint, its lightweight SharePoint version, are great products built on .NET technology and well suited to strong integration with SharePoint. K2 has been around a long time, and as a result their product has a great feature set. They were the dominant player in SharePoint workflow until Nintex came along and ate their lunch as people made the switch from 2007 to 2010.

K2 has good integration with products that are not SharePoint. In fact, I'd describe their flagship product is a standalone workflow product that just happens to play really well with SharePoint. As such you won't have any serious issues using it to connect to Oracle or other non-Microsoft systems - though it is built on Microsoft so it's going to be stronger in that scenario.

In some ways, I feel a little bit guilty - as if my review of K2 should be a little bit longer. However, simply put, they're far too expensive for my taste. It costs a lot to buy, there aren't that many people who know if really well, and development isn't lightweight enough to give to the business users, so there will always be a development cost for using it.

My recommendation is that if you already leverage K2 in your enterprise, then using it in SharePoint is a no brainer; if you haven't already got it In house, you should weigh it against the other options available.

(More of my thoughts on this are now in the comments; thanks to the community for challenging my thinking on this.)

MetaStorm


As a BPMS platform, MetaStorm has considerable strengths. Its primary focuses are on forms creation and business process modeling (i.e., analyzing and optimizing a flow that is not well understood in order to improve it). Its proprietary forms creation mechanisms are fairly robust, and they are fully integrated with its process flows. In addition, it can be integrated with Microsoft Office - a toolbar at the top allows work in MS Office applications to be integrated into MetaStorm processes, once the MetaStorm client has been installed. MetaStorm's design philosophy was to create a "One-stop shop" where flows, forms, reports and dashboards can all be created and managed within the same interface. For those who are adept with that interface, this can be an enormous advantage.

However, MetaStorm's weaknesses make it less than ideal for managing the workflow within SharePoint.

To begin with, while both products make the claim that they are integrated with SharePoint, it is very important to point out that MetaStorm is only “loosely” integrated with SharePoint. It offers web parts that are "windows" into the MetaStorm engine, allowing access to forms and dashboards, but these web parts can't be used to create MetaStorm elements, they merely interact with them. The actual forms and processes are housed entirely within the MetaStorm server, and users of the web parts are frequently directed to external web pages within that server. Sometimes web users are forced to accept functionality that is much more limited than that provided by the MS Office add-on.

The connections to SharePoint processes are not native and need considerable configuration and technical expertise. While MetaStorm processes and forms used solely within that product can indeed be developed by mid-level Information Workers, the ability to wire MetaStorm flows to SharePoint at various connection points requires strong developer-level skills; it is our opinion that it's a tool best suited for large organizations where an entire IT department exists to create and modify workflow, where that department can be trained on the use of a specialized, proprietary tool. There would be a substantial technical cost for most organizations to acquire these additional skills on top of skills in SharePoint development.

On a recently completed project, we had approached the company to show us how we might do manipulation of SharePoint sites, documents, and other assets from within MetaStorm. What we found was that this always came down to custom code. OpenText does have some impressive libraries of scripts that can be used for this purpose and they seem willing enough to share; but I keep coming back to this - it is more code and it will need to be maintained.

Finally, we could find no example of anyone leveraging InfoPath as the form repository with MetaStorm as the BPMS nor could OpenText point us to one, although this issue may pale compared to the complete confusion regarding Microsoft's plan vis-a-vis the future of InfoPath.

MetaStorm has been around for a while under different names and companies. It has both a Java version and a .NET version. Parts of the .NET version of their process engine pre-date .NET and require higher-level developer knowledge to program or troubleshoot. What will happen to MetaStorm in the future is really unclear to us, since OpenText also owns a couple other workflow products including the formerly known Global360.

For these reasons, we don't generally recommend trying to implement SharePoint workflow in MetaStorm. It's not necessarily a bad product, but it just doesn't seem like the right product for the job 99% of the time.

Other BPMS Products


The vast majority of BPMS products come from the IBM technology space, are written in Java, and they typically do not integrate with SharePoint at all. This makes the set of developer skills required to build and maintain flows in those products far different from the set needed for managing SharePoint. Many are also cost prohibitive. In an environment where SharePoint already exists this would certainly drive up costs beyond what is reasonable. In general, I don't think it's such a great idea to use these systems combined with SharePoint - YMMV.

SharePoint Workflow? Why Not Zoidberg?


If I had to pick a favorite from the list above, I would have a very hard time choosing between AgilePoint and Nintex. So, here's where I have to ask the question that I do not hear people asking very often. If these different products have such different strengths and weaknesses, why not simple use more than one?

I happen to think that's a great idea. Use Nintex for your quick-and-dirty, self service, six-guns blazing, SharePoint workflows that will work really well with the lazier faire approach to SharePoint collaboration - particularly in Office 365. Use AgilePoint to develop complex or long-running processes that will improve the maturity level of your organization and require continual adaptation and improvement. Especially when you look at prices for both AgilePoint Genesis and Nintex for Office 365, you'll see that you can probably fit both of them into your budget easily.

Did you like this article or find it helpful in making a decision? Do you work for one of these companies and feel like I didn't give your product a fair shake or left something out? Perhaps you've used one of these products in your organization and have an experience or opinion you'd like to share. Leave me something in the comments, subscribe to my blog (see upper right of this page), tell your friends about us, or give us a 5.0 on PinPoint - it's cheaper than buying me a beer and won't get lost in the mail.

----------------Comments from the old blog---------------------

Massimo
12/12/2013, 7:17:50 AM
Great write up and very useful for anyone wanting to make a decision on choosing the right workflow/BPM tool for their SharePoint. 
 
Thanks and keep them coming!


Jey
12/12/2013, 11:25:46 AM
K2 is a fantastic product. It provides simple and easy approach to bringing data, forms and workflow capabilities together into applications that are configured. Reuse is at the core and configuration is everywhere. This is where I see the product lending itself for people to learn it quickly and leverage it massively.


Dayv
12/12/2013, 11:46:04 AM
Your experience with K2 must be very outdated, as web based designers allow everyone to build processes. K2 also integerates with any .Net service application such CMS, SalesForce, SAS, etc., so there really are no limits.  
 
As to the price, well it is true that you get what you pay for. 
 
Too many of the SharePoint integrated BPMS products, especially those built on SharePoint Declarative Workflows (ah... extensions of SharePoint Designer), are too dependent on Microsoft not making any changes, and tend to break when SP Service Packs are rolled out.


Thomas Carpe
12/12/2013, 12:01:30 PM
Dayv and Jay, 
 
I agree with you that K2 is an excellent product. They've been around for several versions of SharePoint and so their feature set it robust and mature. 
 
I do not agree that it is a problem of you get what you pay for, as all these products are excellent for what they were designed to do. From my point of view, the main challenge with getting customers to adopt K2 has always been price, and that goes for any large scale product (take AvePoint's DocAve as one example). Especially since 2009, there's been a lot of downward pressure in the marketplace and with the appetization of the SharePoint market it is a challenge to get any but the largest enterprise to adopt a five or six figure solution no matter what bells, whistles, and unicorns are included in the box.  
 
Workflow (and the need for BPM) often starts at the project level and not in the enterprise - at least that's my experience where I have seen it succeed, and therefore the means are going to be on a much smaller scale in general. In particular, Office 365 customers have especially small budgets. 
 
I wouldn't say that my experience with K2 is limited, but I do admit that it is a bit out of date. The last time I used the product in a solution was on the SP2007 platform and at that time the engine was reliant on Workflow Foundation and thus had all the same fundamental flaws that Dayv describes regarding patching regimens and such. 
 
One thing I do feel like I need to rebut about your comments on declarative workflows: what you say about anything relying on SPD workflow, XOML, etc. is absolutely correct. One might say that same is true with WFE as a service packs and Microsoft product upgrades will almost certainly break workflow - just look at what happened with SP2010 vs. 2013 and workflow. However, AgilePoint's declarative model is their own XML schema and not based on XOML at all; therefore it has none of those drawbacks. In my view it has proven to be very reliable. 
 
It seems not we've heard a bit from some folks from K2, and I do appreciate that since my review of that product is a bit sparse and I think people need to hear about what it can do well in addition to where it falls short. I may take another look at the product if the opportunity presents itself.


Renier Britz
12/12/2013, 2:49:50 PM
Hi Thomas, 
 
Thank you for taking the time to put this post together.  
 
To be completely transparent, I work for K2.  
 
The first thing, you are correct by saying that K2 relies on Workflow Foundation our runtime execution engine is built on workflow foundation, to date we have never been disrupted by any updates on Windows Workflow Foundation. SharePoint ships with a workflow runtime that is also build on top of windows workflow foundation. You called out SP 2010 vs SP 2013 workflows, it’s not because of changes to Windows Workflow Foundation it is because of changes to the implementation of workflow runtime on top of workflow foundation. K2 is unaffected by changes made on the SharePoint workflow runtime as we don’t rely on the SharePoint workflow runtime and therefore don’t inherent the same set of limitations. 
 
The second point I would like to address: Pricing – as you mentioned “Workflow (and the need for BPM) often starts at the project level and not in the enterprise” I agree 100%. K2 pricing is competitive and allows organizations to start small, in many cases started on department level. We have more options in the works, lookout for major announcements in March ’14 at the K2 User Conference. 
 
Now back to what this is all about, workflow tools for SharePoint – With SharePoint 2013 Microsoft made a ton of existing enhancements, the app model being one of the most interesting changes. We had a choice, take what we have and make it work on SharePoint 2013 OR take full advantage of the changes and build something that will truly change the way people create forms and workflow-driven apps on the SharePoint platform (emphasis on create, this should not be a developer only play). The easiest way to get familiar with what K2 has to offer, go and have a look at the following recorded webcast: http://pages.k2.com/sharepoint2013beta.aspx 
 
If you have any questions let me know. 
 
Cheers, 
r


Thomas Carpe
12/12/2013, 3:15:45 PM
Renier, 
 
Thanks for sharing. I really do appreciate getting an outside perspective on K2. Our goal is always to make sure our customers get the right solution that works for them, which as I said before is one of the reasons that I may seem a bit ambivalent when it comes SharePoint workflow and third-party products. 
 
Going to what you said about WFE, you are correct and I am sorry if I was less than clear on this. WFE is a sub-structure which is different from SharePoint workflow in the same way that ASP.net is a sub-structure and not the same thing as the SharePoint API. What I was referring to in the comment about the move from 2010 to 2013 SP workflow is that there was a lot of shifting around in the way Microsoft implemented workflow between the two versions. 
 
Some of that may be like you said, part of a fundamental shift in the way Microsoft wants developers to deliver on the platform. Back in July, I heard Ira Fuchs present on the differences between SP workflow in 2010 and 2013 and I have to say that I was not impressed at the loss of capabilities on the new model and that MS has basically said that if you don't like the takeaways well then you can still build SPD 2010 workflows instead. 
 
Maybe they will provide it later - maybe not. Either way, if you can't manipulate SharePoint with it, what was the point in Microsoft making the update in the first place? For now, all the third-party workflow products are safe until MS figures out how to do it right, but after 5+ versions I'm not holding my breath. 
 
At any rate, it's all part of a big shift to client side code, and like many people in the SharePoint development world I have mixed feelings about that too - and I am not fully sure that I can say I trust MS to deliver a framework that will be a place where we can exceed our client's expectations - at least in the near term future, since they usually take their time and a few tries before they do anything right. ;-) 
 
I do look forward to seeing what you guys are cooking for next year. Perhaps I will revisit this topic then, or take a more detailed look into K2 at that point. 
 
By the way, I maintained your product link in the comment. Make sure to hit your bosses up for a Christmas bonus and have a great holiday. ;-)


Steven Bretti
12/12/2013, 8:58:04 PM
K2 is a serious BPM product that allows for a number of capabilities that cover business needs very well. Forms, Data, Workflow and Reporting. It empowers the business users with simple user interfaces and no-code solutions. 
I think this is its biggest advantage, the ability to provide no-code solutions not just for the workflow, but also for capturing data through K2 smartforms, and any CRUD based requirements through K2 smartobjects without having to write code. Purely point and click through the UI. 
Yet it still has the capability to scale this out at a later stage to do more advanced business automation. 
This is important. You want to buy one product to cover the enterprise needs, rather than have multiple tools that you're paying multiple licences for. 
K2 can live within your SharePoint solution as a seamless application, or it can live on its own. It is not limited by SharePoint. It also provides integration options to common enterprise systems such as CRM, Salesforce and other LoB systems. 
 
Definitely a product worth considering in any BPM based solution, whether you are looking at it for a SharePoint based solution, or for your enterprise needs. I think it covers both very well, and priced accordingly.


Thomas Carpe
12/13/2013, 5:52:12 PM
Thank you steven for your insights. 
 
I do think that what you're saying about is probably true for any enterprise class BPMS product include AgilePoint Enterprise Edition. K2 also has a light-weight version that runs in SharePoint alone as I understand it, so to be fair I think I'd compare *that* version to Genesis and Nintex. It just seems a bit unfair to me to judge different weapons manufacturers by comparing a tank to a rifle. ;-) 
 
I have to say, I've noticed that this blog has gotten a lot of attention from the folks at K2. Their marketing department must be really good about getting the word out. I certainly don't mind since it's great exposure and a love a vigorous debate. It would also be cool to see hear some more from some of those people from in the original survey who voted for Nintex and AgilePoint. ^_^


Thomas Carpe
12/13/2013, 6:06:16 PM
Decided to check in on the original survey and see if things were still holding neck and neck or if there might be some trends. I was surprised to see today that AO is pulling ahead at almost 40% and Nintex is not too far behind. 
 
You folks who love K2 may have a point, but the survey seems to be saying something slightly different. Well, it's a web-poll so I guess you can't take these things too seriously, right? ^_^
Gerhard
12/16/2013, 11:36:50 AM
Hi Thomas, 
 
Thanks for a very interesting article. I do not have any experience with Nintex or Agilepoint but your comparisons and descriptions of them has been interesting. I do however have more than 10 years’ experience with K2 and I’d like to add to your review of K2 – and in fact compare it more closely to what you have written about Nintex and Agilepoint, especially since as you said you did not have a lot to write about K2, maybe this will be helpful.  
 
K2 vs Nintex 
Building simple SharePoint only workflows in either tool I guess is going to be a matter of preference. However the fact that the Nintex workflows run on the WFE vs K2 having its own dedicated execution engine is quite a big drawback. I guess that could even out if K2 is installed on a very small single server footprint, but I really like the fact that K2 can easily scale and a process that starts out simple now can grow as your organization’s needs grows. I believe that Nintex workflow reporting data is only stored for something like 90 days - In K2 this is not an issue at all as all data is stored in K2’s own databases and can be stored indefinitely or archived after a period of time. The other drawback for Nintex is complicated workflows as you mention – should not be a problem with K2.  
 
K2 vs AP 
 
You mention long running processes as a major feature and benefit, something that K2 is also good at, as mentioned above. K2 processes are versioned so by default process instances remain on the process version it started on (which is a good thing imo). Tools exist to manage cross process version migrations if that is really necessary. The ability to create K2 workflows inside Visio has existed since the late 2000’s but I guess it never really caught on with customers, since the K2 UI is already so user friendly and easy to use that the Visio UI components disappeared from the scene and frankly I do not miss them – so me personally… not to excited about building processes inside Visio in AgilePoint. It sounds almost like building forms inside MS Word.. the tool does not fit the job. I have not seen AP’s implementation of this, but that is just my opinion of it. Ease of use, non-developers making changes while still having flexibility to create amazing add-on components can all be done in K2, just like in AP. Your point about needing a consultant to “really make it sing”… I like the way you put it, and that’s also true for K2, but again it’s probably fair enough because in any such a complicated platform you will need a specialist to really bring it to its full potential.  
 
So from the information on your blog it seems to me that K2 is really not that different than Nintex or AgilePoint - and I guess you are right in that you will have to know your requirements for a workflow product very well and only with that in mind can you really decide amongst these contenders. Personally my vote will go for K2 because I am confident that I can really build any solution on it and scale it well into the future.  

Thomas Carpe
12/16/2013, 12:29:47 PM
Gerhard, 
 
All your points are well taken. This was the best read on K2 that I have seen yet, and yes I think you really are helping to create a complete picture which is great. I've gotten a lot of good information about a product I admittedly knew less about. 
 
I'd like to throw in a few Segway comments if I might, that were just sort of inspired by your remarks. 
 
The first is about Visio and its relationship to workflow. If I were diagramming a workflow or business process without any sort of BPA behind it, obviously I would diagram that in Visio using a flow chart. That's a no brainer. 
 
Over the years, I've used a variety of tools including BizTalk and yes sometimes even SharePoint Designer, and I've always been disappointed in their sad attempts to integrate with Visio. I never used the tools for Visio and K2 either, so I can't comment if they're better than the ones I've used. 
 
AgilePoint was the first product that I saw where I could basically map out my entire flow as a drawing and then publish it and refine the properties etc. In that aspect my biggest frustration is often that I get a flow chart in Visio from a business analyst and I have to re-draw the entire thing using AP shapes. The thing that I really like about it is that when it shows the status of my workflow in SharePoint it uses my actual Visio drawing to display it, including any custom shapes and comments I might add to it. There's an image up on this blog post as an example. Somehow people just really like seeing where their process it; and having the flexibility to display it in ways other than a cascading downward waterfall is great for me. If some other products can do that for me, yes I would really like to see that. So, maybe you don't go squeeeeee over Visio, and that's OK, but I see real value in using it. 
 
The other thing I thought of here is that it does generally depend on the developer's confidence in a product. And, confidence is generally a function of experience. We need those past products to help us understand the capabilities and also the limits of the products we are working with. This is true of SharePoint, and also I think that's true of any product including the workflow products we've been discussing here. In the end I think we will support those products where we have the most positive experiences and tend to drift away from products where we have negative experiences - or insufficient ones. And with that in mind, it's more than just a technical question but also a question of the marketplace. Though I worked with it before, my small firm couldn't find and win K2 projects at the time when we really started doing business, which was 2010. Thus, we never really developed that affection for the product. We got some lucky breaks working with AP and found that we were able to do some really impressive things with it, and at the same time there were a lot of clients asking for Nintex because their needs were less complex and they liked what the product could do. 
 
For this reason, I think you can't necessarily read what I've had to say all along as a recommendation per-se; rather it's a comparison based on my personal experience. If someone is looking for impartial analysis to choose a product, there's Forrester and Gartner etc. My hope is that we can help people to understand what we're able to work with as consultants and developers, and sort of which types of projects we've found that these products do a good job at meeting the requirements. To that end, I think there's no right or wrong answer to the question at the top of this article. 
 
That being said, if we can all manage to argue about it for just a little bit longer, I think everyone will benefit from the free publicity. ;-)


Mike Fitzmaurice
12/20/2013, 11:22:35 AM
Full disclosure: I am an employee of Nintex. 
 
I love blog posts that spark discussion — especially when Nintex is part of that discussion. Looking amid the fray, what’s quite apparent is that the wonderful world of SharePoint workflow solutions is alive, well, and worthy of plenty of enthusiasm. And that’s a Good Thing.


Thomas Carpe
12/20/2013, 12:10:45 PM
Mike, 
 
Good to hear from you. I completely agree! More information is always a good thing, and I enjoyed hearing from everyone on this. 
 
As a Nintex person, I do have a question for you. Did the changes to SharePoint workflow architecture in SP2013 cause any significant changes in the way that Nintex Workflow runs or is licensed on SP2013 as opposed to 2010? For example, I understand that now in 2013 all the workflow is supposed to run on its own service and not on the WFE anymore, so do you guys still sell it by the number of servers in the farm and did you find that this change has improved performance or scalability over the older version of SharePoint?


Rob
2/12/2014, 1:03:16 PM
Biggest downsides of Nintex: 
1. Workflow data and history are stored in mulitple locations. If you run into any issues with a workflow or the databases, it's extremely difficult to manage and control the workflow data. Their best practices are extremely cumbersome and not database friendly. 
2. Rollbacks are next to impossible. If you need to roll back a deployment, you will be SOL. You will need to copy the entire web app and nintex DB onto another environment. 
3. Documentation seems to have been written by a crossword puzzle designer. Info and steps are broken up between God knows how many docs. Best of luck.
Luis
3/25/2014, 6:56:56 PM
I think you need to investigate more of Sharepoint 2013 workflow manager and service bus as this is a highly scalable product, even more than Nintex, NIntex runs on wfe servers, but with workflow manager you can have a separate farm for workflows, which makes it an amazing product. 
 
This comparisson without comparing the ootb product makes no sense to me.


Thomas Carpe
3/27/2014, 1:18:53 PM
Hi Luis, 
 
While we haven't done a great number of solutions based on SPD workflow lately, I can say that I've done a lot of these over the years. I understand there were a lot of improvements in the architecture of workflow on SP2013. However, my issues with it are more a question of what features existed in 2010 workflows that were not carried over to the new version. You should check out Ira Fuchs' presentations on SharePoint workflow; I agree with a lot of his points. Beyond that, it is just a matter of the fact that we're now several major versions into SharePoint and yet the workflow portion of the product has had major shifts with each one. From a business perspective it is a real challenge to get someone to invest in technology that will have a shelf life of just a few years. 
 
That being said, I do have some customers who are asking what they can do with OoTB workflow and if something comes along that changes my opinion I will be sure to share it on the blog.


MikeL
3/28/2014, 4:55:43 AM
Nintex is good, but only for simple workflows. Also it's forms application is terrible from what I've heard. 
 
K2 - much better when it comes to more complex workflows. Altough with high barrier to entry. Additionaly my customers say forms application has lots of bugs and performance issues. 
 
AgilePoint is the closer to BPM than simple workflow here. Although visio and their graphic designer have their limitations. 
 
You may want to check out WEBCON BPS. Forms and workflows (and business processes) in one application. Graphical designer, changes in processes can be done on the fly (no need to publish new version) and you also get plenty of DMS capabilities along with OCR, barcodes etc. On the downsize: it doesn't support cloud.


Alex
3/30/2014, 11:06:56 AM
Great review !!! 
nowadays I actually need to decide between nintex and agile point for our company . 
 
I still a bit confused regarding the strength of nintex compared to agile point . since agile point uses an external and separate server ,hence processing resources ,from share point itself (it's agnostic to SharePoint) and it cost about the same as nintex what's the question here ? would you say that nintex is not up to complexed and long processes managing ? 
 
from the review it seems like agile point is perfect if you have the time and human resources to invest in learning it's foundations and from the moment you get it it's one league above nintex for the same $ so what's the dilemma? or am I missing something here..... 
  Alex


Thomas Carpe
3/31/2014, 10:13:57 AM
First I want to thank everyone who has made this a very active thread since it was posted back in December. You guys rock. 
 
Alex, to answer your question, there are differences between the two products that might affect your choice. 
 
AgilePoint has a forms engine also, but until recently they were using InfoPath as their main forms engine for Genesis. The Nintex forms engine has been a part of the product for a long time. If you are looking for an escape from InfoPath, this might be your option although AgilePoint is catching up fast. 
 
Nintex has been ahead on Office 365 development for quite a while. We are still waiting eagerly for an offering from AgilePoint but unfortunately it is still vaporware at this point. 
 
Nintex has pretty good support but they are a huge company. If your needs are complex they will probably connect you with a random partner. AgilePoint is a smaller shop and you would get to know the development team personally. 
 
AgilePoint server is a separate install. It can be configured to run on one of the SharePoint servers if necessary. There are different options if you are running SP2010 or SP2013 because of the .NET framework 3.5/4.0 difference. IMHO, the 4.0 version is much better. The installer varies a bit among the different builds and sometimes there are issues setting up advanced features such as data export. Nintex installer is pretty tight, but the options are fairly standard - NW 2010 or NW 2013. 
 
There are designer differences. Nintex designer is a web based tool built into SharePoint. If you have Visio aleady, then using it for AgilePoint will not bother you. If you don't have it, then the extra licensing cost for it will be another obstacle. Nintex charges by the number of WFE in your farm, and to the best of my knowledge there's no extra cost per user. 
 
Because as you mentioned, it is more system agnostic, AgilePoint will integrate well with more third-party systems. Both will do just about anything you want via calls to web services if you have that option. 
 
And off the top of my head that's about all I could think of today, but I hope it will help you.


pravesh kumar sharma
4/15/2014, 2:40:37 AM
i agree with most of the point which you have mentioned in blog .. i have worked on SharePoint and Skelta BPM tool for 8 years.. Technical and functional point of view.. 
i would like to add some points.. 
 
1. most of the enterprise tools having workflow capabilities (ERP,CRM, CCM, SCM etc. even MOSS) but that is very limited to its own suit. 
2. SP workflow does not have capability of process life cycle(designing, deploying, monitoring etc.) 
 
3. BPM engagement starts from Business point of view keeping in mind many factors (SOA, agility etc..), but workflow initiatives most of the time comes from IT initiatives and just customization of some small process 
 
4. workflow required customization most of the time whereas BPM suits having its own OTB modal like designing process, reports, UI and readymade LOBs connectors. 
 
5. SP workflow is very limited to SharePoint artifacts like DL, List, InfoPath, outlook etc.. whereas BPM starts from automating process via connecting machines to machine(SAP, oracle, SQL etc.) and people to people(Fin to HR to Procurement to Admin etc.) 
 
6. BPM provides BAM components and monitoring tool for KPI, MIS, graphical reports for Process and data in order to Optimize the process 
 
7. in last but not the least.. BPM is superset of workflow  

Thomas Carpe
4/15/2014, 8:25:39 AM
Thank you Pravesh for your comments. I agree with basically everything you have said here. If there were a line representing a maturity model, SP workflow would be on the lower-left end of that line, and BPM would be at the upper-right. Products like Nintex sit somewhere in the middle. It is important to understand that BPM goes well beyond what SharePoint does - or tries to do - and that these different tools serve different needs.


Walter
4/17/2014, 1:44:43 PM
Excellent overview and comments. We are using SP2010 OOB and a big issue we have is that it's so hard to troubleshoot a misbehaving WF. I'd be interested in hearing from Nintex and K2 "light" users on how well or poorly those products might address this.


Ahmed Mostafa
5/14/2014, 3:30:27 AM
I like this article. I have used K2 on a number of engagements for my clients. What I really want to investigate is ECM dimension. I believe the way SP stores fields and attachments together in SQL is a big drawback that affects the total performance. Have any of these vendors addressed this issue? how do they store their attachments and meta data?


Michael Mangan
11/10/2014, 9:24:11 AM
One of our specific requirements is to embed the workflow approval as a digital stamp on the document, do any of the solutions support this?  
 
I really appreciate this blog. Thanks


Kamal
2/20/2015, 2:56:44 PM
Excellent article, Thanks all, hang around everyone will learn from each
Shalin
3/6/2015, 4:53:31 AM
flowchart likes diagrams can be drawn from many visio alternatives as well. Its ok to use a visio alternative if it is online as platform indepedent


Cierra Luke
4/24/2015, 2:51:32 AM
Hi Thomas, 
Thanks for this helpful post. I a professional software solution provider in a web designing and development company. We have been using MetaStrom from last 3 years, but now our CEO wants a new BPM software to manage our workflow and processes. Can you suggest any good one? 
Thanks in advance


Thomas Carpe
4/24/2015, 10:57:26 AM
Thanks to everyone for the comments and questions. Haven't gotten the chance to come back here and reply very often, which I regret. Business has been getting quite active - perhaps the economy has finally really turned a corner? Will post some replies now to try and catch up. 
 
In the question of lite versions of Nintex and K2, I can't really make the comparison since I have seen the Workgroup and cloud versions of Nintex but have not played around much with K2. An old friend of mine, Mark McGovern recently went over to a new job at K2, and perhaps he can connect somebody with a person there who can speak to their product line. 
 
From what I know of the products we work with often, I would say that the workflow engine that drives the process will be the same in the lite version as in the enterprise edition. That's just good software development, because who wants to maintain two build sets. right? That being said where I think you'll see differences is in things like number of allowed users, what activities/actions you can perform in a workflow, etc. 
 
=== 
 
Moving on the SharePoint Foundation 2013 and the workflow product that Microsoft has produced. We've done some projects lately where this was required, because the customer did not have a budget to purchase another product. If you must go this way, I think you'll survive. But, I still feel like the MS workflow manager is not as robust as any of the products I talked about in this blog, and probably even Bamboo and Datapolis have something to offer that it does not. The new version has the disadvantage of needing to be installed on a seperate server from the SharePoint farm. Otherwise, you're stuck with SP 2010 workflows. Yes, I realize maybe I am talking out of both sides of my mouth here, because I will say the same thing is a feature of products such as AgilePoint which can be installed on their own server - however, it is possible to install AgilePoint on the SharePoint server if necessary and they cohabit quite nicely. I've never had anyone recommend to me that this is possible with MSWM. So there's the distinction in my mind. I also know that many of the activities that were possible in SP2010 workflow are no longer available in WM/2013. Haven't looked into it lately, so maybe that's changed. However the laundry list of takebacks was quite lengthy last I heard and MS would have serious catching up to do to make it comparable to what it was in the previous version. Anyone who wants to know the current status should seek out Ira Fuchs, as he's the guy that I have learned so much from in the past and can tell you what Microsoft is doing now at a level of detail that would just go beyond my own knowledge. 
 
If you find yourself in the unenviable position of working with SharePoint OOTB workflow, I believe you will find that it gets the job done well enough for simple processes. We use it all the time in Office 365 where it is a built in part of the feature set and I don't have to worry over things like who installed the extra server on the farm. I like it quite a lot when I need a short workflow to produce the same kind of behavior on SharePoint Online that in past years I might have been able to do with a List Item Event Receiver or Timer Job instead. But, like anything you get what you pay for, and I think with SP workflow what you gain by not buying a product is offset because it is back to IT people having to implement the workflow and there's a lot that business users will not be able to figure out for themselves. Since all the big players now have cloud capable versions of their workflow products, there's no reason to be stuck in this situation. 
 
Speaking of the lightweight and OOTB workflow in SharePoint, one product that came up on my radar recently was KissFlow. This product uses Zapier to integrate with other cloud products and says it has a connector connector to Office 365. While they don't offer one yet for SharePoint, look for them to become a major force in the market if that ever changes. The current lack of a proper connection to SharePoint is a major shortcoming IMHO and an opportunity for somebody. 
 
=== 
 
On the question of whether it is OK to develop workflow using online tools instead of Visio, I think this is just a question of personal preference. To be honest with you, I have tried many cloud platforms over the years - not just workflow - and for something really complex, I want to have the file on my desktop and not have to rely on a web browser to properly render it. I find cloud based development to be well over that magic 400ms threshold where my mind will wander and eventually I find myself checking email and standing up to get a cup of coffee. That being said, this is my criteria and for you the pros and cons may be different. Web based platforms have the advantage of being workable from anywhere regardless of what software you have. One thing I really like about AgilePoint by the way is that you can now choose either method to develop a workflow, so if you like Visio use Visio and if you like the browser use the browser. :-) 
 
=== 
 
On the most recent question about Metastorm. That's a tough one. I did a thorough analysis of Metastorm for a client a couple years ago, and I have to say that while it was a powerful product, it was definitely showing its age and there were lots of things that made it a poor fit for our project. 
 
That being said, without detailed criteria, it is impossible to say which product you should switch to if you're moving away from Metastorm. For example, you need to consider what processes you already have in that platform and whether you are using it like a BPMS or are the workflows you already have actually quite simple. Obviously, if you have a lot built on the Metastorm platform, you are going to need something equally robust which is going to take you toward the K2 and AgilePoint end of the spectrum. If your lack of satisfaction comes from feeling that you never fully utilized the product feature set, then maybe going with a simpler solution like Nintex or SP workflow would be the way to go. 
 
Hopefully this helps you realize that the problem is a really complex one and can't be easily solved with a one size fits all answer. "It depends." Classic consultant response, am I right? :-) So, go back and start asking the detailed questions and I think the answer will present itself. Best of luck!


Thomas Carpe
4/24/2015, 11:02:09 AM
I was reading my own old posts and wanted to chime in to remind everyone that you can now subscribe to MS Visio in Office 365, so that's another barrier to entry that's come down. If you need a quote for anything Office 365 related, follow the links to contact us and we'll do that for you. :-)


Brian Garnica
4/27/2015, 1:49:46 PM
It was really good to read this article!! Excellent job about comparing different products. We had been making some research to offer the right option to our customer. 
 
Thanks.
Thomas Carpe
4/27/2015, 3:36:33 PM
Brain, thanks for the whuffie. Feedback about the blog posts is always appreciated, as they're a labor of love. Hope your customer makes a good choice; it is always a complex decision figuring out which horse to hitch your wagon to. ;-)
ali
7/8/2015, 3:16:23 AM
just to make it clear i dont work for any of these companies but I am a sharepoint developer from 2003 to 2013 so far. I have used k2 2003, black pearl and now nintex. nintex by far is seriously bad for complex worflows and time consuming. K2 is far better in complex workflows that span over time. plus i dont care what people think of what they like but care more about what business use.... in my experience in the uk the majority of banks and consultant companies use K2. the place i work for at the moment are using nintex and they already regret it.
Thomas Carpe
7/8/2015, 12:08:11 PM
Ali, 
 
Good to hear from you. 
 
I am so surprised this post still attracts comments so long after I wrote it! It seems everyone has strong feelings about this stuff. 
 
I was more familliar with Black Pearl and Black Point back in the 2003-2007 days and really started drifting away from it in 2010. With AppIt from K2 released now as well as AgilePoint NX One cloud offering and new pricing models for Nintex on Office 365 too, I feel like maybe this topic is due for a revisit. There are so many more exciting possibilities to choose from this year than there've ever been before, especially if you don't have the luxury of managing your own SharePoint farm. 
 
I imagine that market share for the big workflow software products varies by country and type of company. It's my understanding that Nintex has the most market share overall when it comes to SharePoint - I wouldn't be shocked if Microsoft buys them outright - but there will be local differences in different places around the world and various sizes and types of companies. That being said, my feeling is that who's on top shouldn't be the way that companies decide what product to choose. You have to go with your experiences and those of others in the community, and I am grateful for everyone who shared here because it gives me a good sense of what people are seeing outside of my own little world. 
 
You're definitely not the first person I've heard express some negatives about a particular product. I think that each case is different and you have to consider the pluses and minuses individually, and that the market and the best choice is a moving target. I still have to say that whatever the down sides may be, almost any product would be better than the OOTB experience in SharePoint. 

Why Choose Office 365 Instead of Buying Office 2013?

Back in August, I received a call from a new customer asking for a quote for Office 2013 licenses.

While I was looking for pricing, I came across an interesting article, Microsoft really doesn't want you to buy Office 2013. The gist of this seemed to be that MS has structured things to make buying Office 2013 unattractive.

How outrageous! But can it be true? And if it was ever the case, does this still hold water today?

I was really curious about the ROI of the subscription pricing vs. pricing conventional software. I decided to do a little napkin math. So, let's do some cost comparison and explore the return on investment from renting Office 2013 instead of buying it.

Comparing Traditional Office 2013 with Office 365


Firstly, we need to decide what we're comparing to what.

For my example, I'll stick to pricing for small business. This is where most of the interest in Office 2013 prices seems to come from - at least based on the calls I get here in the office. Microsoft refers to their small business discounted pricing as "MS Open for Small Business".

Also, I am going to stick to MS Office Professional Plus. You could save some money buying MS Office Standard, but there are a lot of components missing from the cheaper package. Since Office 365 is Professional Plus edition, we'll compare similar options here.

Office 2013 Professional Plus comes in two flavors, you can buy it with software assurance or without. If you buy without SA, you're basically saying that you want to pay the full price to go ahead and upgrade to 201x whenever that version comes out. If you buy with SA, then you'll pay about 50% more, and you'll have to renew the SA in 2 years, but your cost for the upgrade is covered by keeping the SA agreement current.

Here are our MS Office Professional Plus prices for MS Open Small Business: 

  • without SA is about $475*
  • with SA is about $740* 
    *Prices are from October 2013; if you need current prices, please contact us using one of the the links below.

Let's use an office of 25 staff as an example. This is pretty typical, although I've certainly worked with customers who have as few as 10 - or even 5 - employees.

If you consider that Office P+ with SA is going to cost about $740 per user, then 25 users is an $18,500 up front investment. That’s not tiny. Assuming a shelf life of 3 years, which is typical for MS software, you’d be looking at a monthly “budget” of $513.89. Say I took that budget and broke it up across the 25 users. Your cost will be about $20.56 per user per month.

Suppose you run the same numbers without software assurance, which is probably the better apples-to-apples comparison - since at the end of the product's useful life you'll be spending the full amount all over again. Your total up-front investment would be $11,875 for the fleet, at a monthly budget of $329.86 or $13.19 per user per month – compared to $12.00 if you subscribe to the license via Office 365.

Can that really be right?

I ran these numbers again at the wholesale prices that my distributor gives us. Even at that slightly discounted rate, I was only able to shave a few cents off the monthly cost compared to Office 365.

And these calculations assume that you can actually pay the monthly cost over time, interest free. If you finance the purchase obviously you'd pay even more.

Different Prices for Different People


One important thing to keep in mind here is that Microsoft will require you to buy a different license - and thus pay different prices - depending on who you are and what kind of organization you work for.

There are also different prices for with and without Software Assurance and different editions of Office such as Standard, Professional, and Ultimate. And then there's OEM pricing, which assumes you're buying a new PC to go with your software. This leads to the most confusing matrices of prices and options humanly possible!

Here's some more example pricing for Office '13 (P+ w/o SA) that I found from CDW and other major chains**:

MS Select Plus Academic $58.99 (CDW)
MS Business Academic $86.99 (CDW)
Product Key Card $379.99 (NewEgg)
Retail Box $399.99 (Office Depot)
MS Select Level D $379.99 (CDW)
MS Select Level A $479.99 (CDW)
MS Open for Small Business $495.99 (CDW)
MS Corporate Business $505.99 (CDW)
**Prices as of 11/11/2013 - YMMV

So, as you can see, the ROI of subscription software is going to be different depending on whether you work for or attend a college, are employed by a gigantic mega-corporation, or are part of the government. Everybody else is paying more. I'm assuming this is usually because smaller groups buy less volume, though the evidence doesn't always bear that out.

So which way should you go? The magic number appears to be $432. Taken over a 3 year lifetime, this translates to $12 a month. So if you have a pile of cash sitting around, and you can get Office for less than this price, you may want to just go ahead and buy it. Everyone else most likely does better paying for it monthly.

Some More Reasons to Choose the Office 365 Subscription Model

Assets, liabilities, and business property taxes


This is the distinction between assets, capital expenses, and operating expenses. Office 365 is considered an expense and will generally treated that way by accountants. I don’t know if you pay business property taxes, but here in Maryland we pay a tax on any software “asset”, whereas with Office 365 we write 100% of it off, no depreciation, and no taxes. Also, there's no need to worry about depreciation with expenses. (Note that some localities will let you depreciate 100% of the cost of software, so it depends on where your business is located).

Up-front Costs, Budget Approvals, and CAPX vs. OPEX
In the above example $18k is a sizable investment. If you have more than 10 workstations to license, your finance people may prefer it if you subscribe rather than buy. Otherwise, it may be a while before you could get the funding approved. It might even be CAPX, and nobody likes that.

Buying it All at Once vs. Pay as You Go
In the above example, if you truly need all 25 copies right now, your cost would average out to $320 or $520 per month over the 3 years you use the software. (There are a lot of reasons that you wouldn't want to keep running back to buy more licenses every few months in this way.) With Office 365, you can start with only 10 or 15 copies and easily add new licenses as you need them. This way, your cost would only be $120 (for 10x) or $180 (for 15x) month to start. On that budget, it's about the same as buying just one “boxed” copy of Office every 3 to 4 months.

Additional Cost to Renew SA
SA (Software Assurance) is a 2 year deal, not three. You’d incur an extra fee to renew the SA agreement at the end of the second year. And - many companies either forget to do it, which means paying full price for Office anyway the next time you upgrade it. Others forgo the SA pricing, and end up buying the software all over again later. Some folks pay for SA and then later decide they can’t afford to renew. These folks then end up using older copies of office for 4 or 5 years which ultimately affects productivity, drives up IT support costs, and that adds up to greater expenses down the road.

Same Price with Added Value
Finally, there are other bundled cloud services that make Office 365 even more worthwhile. MS charges $12 a month for Office Pro 365 which is a pretty advantageous cost, but the whole suite including Exchange Online e-mail and a SharePoint intranet (and public facing web site) is just $20 a month. Just moving e-mail service alone can save many thousands per year in server maintenance and licensing costs.

Where to from Here?


Whether or not you're sure that what I've described here is the right option for your small business, you can reach out to me and I'll help you figure out your individual ROI on Office 365.

When you're ready to go, we can help you choose the right combination of Microsoft Online Services tailored especially for you. I’d also be pleased to set up an appointment to walk you through creating your O365 account and setting it up.

If your needs are straightforward and you already know the number of seats you need, here are some links where you can start a free trial or purchase a subscription. These links include delegated administration from LMS, so we can help you get the most out of your account.

Office 365 ProPlus

30 day trial 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users

Mid-sized Buisness Plan

30 day trial for 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users

Enterprise E3 Plan

30 day trial for 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users


if you're outside the US, want to integrate your Office 365 accounts with your current Active Directory, or have more complex needs that don't quite fit into the table above, please contact me with your specific requirements so we can create a custom solution that's right for your business.

Also, please note that there are significant technical differences between the Mid-size Business and Enterprise plans - and you can't readily migrate from one to the other - so ask us if you have questions about which one is right for you.

Well, that’s about all I have to have about buying Office – rent it; don’t buy it. It’s a no brainer.

How to Smoothly Migrate Files to Office 365 SharePoint Online

Many clients ask me what they can do to make their Office 365 migration into SharePoint Online go as smoothly as possible. Often, they're sincerely looking for a way to reduce the costs for everyone involved.

In part 1 of this series, I'll focus mainly on the technical complexities of moving files from traditional shared folders into SharePoint Online. In future episodes (that's what my shrink calls them) we'll take a look at things from the architectural and strategic perspectives.

First, let me say that Office 365 customers come from all sorts and sizes of business. Some have IT staff supporting hundreds of users. Others are just a handful of folks with one or two office administrators - who often work double-duty as the IT help desk. Whether you're big or small, IT savvy or technophobic, on the bleeding edge or upgrading from Windows 3.1, planning to use commercially available migration tools or making your unpaid intern Carl copy all the files by hand, there's something here for you in the lessons we've learned.

Communication Plans
They say that communication is key. Like any other project, this is absolutely true with a major migration like moving into SharePoint Online. There are lots of things that probably should go into every communication plan. In a future part of this series, we'll tackle the fuzzy stuff. For now, let's focus on some of the hard technical details that many project managers forget to include when they coordinate an Office 365 migration.

Locked Files
It is important for users to understand that files which are open are likely to interfere with the migration procedure. This can even include folks who have a network share open in Windows Explorer on their desktop. While it's possible to work around these issues, during critical times, it might be a good idea to encourage users to close unused folders and documents in Office.

Note this is especially true for files open in MS Office, as it not only locks the file but also creates an auto-recovery file starting with ~$ that can't and shouldn't be migrated into SharePoint Online.

Backup Window
Often users will want access to their documents right up until the last minute. Whether you're using ZIP files, Acronis, or some other strategy to do a last minute backup - really any backup method, it is important to let the users know after what point their files will no longer have a backup.

File Move Timing and Locations
If you're doing everything under cover of darkness, then one day folks will come into the office to find all their files have been moved. If you're migrating during business hours (my personal preference is to not stay away all night babysitting a file move) then some users will still be working up until the last minute. Either way, you need to communicate to the users when the files will move and where they are going. This is especially true if you're doing some reorganization - whether elective or forced by Office 365 limitations.

Remember to Include in Your Communication Plans:
When will the move be taking place, including regular updates
Instructions about closing windows or office apps - or logging out completely
Advice on when files will no longer be backed up
Information about who to reach out to if there seem to be problems after the move


Technical Gotchas

Permissions


File permissions are one of those things that we've found can create a lot of problems when migrating to Office 365. Even though you may be using an administrator account with high level access, there may still be the occasional file buried deep in a folder structure that maybe was copied from a user's desktop and dragged very limited permissions along with it. Or, there may be entire folders that somebody locked down - sometimes with good reasons long forgotten about.

Obviously, you can't do much with these files if you can't get to them. It can be even more frustrating to find this kind of issue late in the game, when they'll blow up a move operation or a ZIP archive that's only halfway done.

Illegal Characters in File Names
One of those things that can be really vexing about moving to Office 365 is the limitations on the characters you can use in file names. The restrictions on Windows file names are not as stringent as they are on the web. So many users will have files with ampersands, hash-signs, and other "illegal" characters. But, I've also seen really exotic characters such as the registered trademark and copyright symbols, long-dash, and other unusual stuff.

Here's something to consider. When you get into Unicode and upper ASCII, the list of invalid characters can be quite long. If you're screening against the list of known illegal characters, you might let one slip through. Consider checking against known legal characters rather than known illegal ones.

Why is it that Office 365 has these restrictions?
Well, a lot of it has to do with the way the web actually works. For example, characters like “#”, “&”, and “?” All have special meanings when they are used in URLs. When you upload a file to SharePoint using the web site, these characters get converted to special codes that are safe in URLs; this process is called URL encoding. However, the encoded filenames look like unreadable gibberish when they're viewed through Explorer View (WebDAV) and other places, so we try to avoid using them at all.

Still other special characters may be using something called Unicode that allows the display of things like Chinese and Japanese characters alongside English. Unfortunately, web addresses use older standards called ANSI and ASCII which only allows English characters (and a few extended characters that are implemented so inconsistently across all the different computer systems that we really can't rely on them anyway).
Oh yeah, and these restrictions count for folders too! And while we're at it, did I also mention that there are certain names you're not allowed to give to a file in SharePoint, and certain words you cannot end the file name with? 

Renaming these files by hand is extremely tedious; it's so tedious that I actually made my son do this as a rite of passage when he first joined us here as an intern at Liquid Mercury Solutions. Needless to say he was very excited to have software that would do this instead.

Fortunately, you can use PowerShell, download a tool, or buy any of several products that will take care of this step for you.  You'll want to have some input into how files ought to be renamed, and the configurability will vary from solution to solution.

If you hire IT folks to do your migration for you, then they should have at least one of these methods.  Here at LMS, we generally use a combination of PowerShell and products from MetaLogix and ShareGate to complete Office 365 migrations. Other good choices come from MetaVis, Dell Software (formerly Quest Software), AvePoint and others.

File Name and Folder Structure
But, file names alone are not the only problem. There are additional limits.

For example, ZIP files have a limit in how long any given file name can be, so good luck backing your files up if you go past this threshold. (Some of this can be avoided by using WinRAR or newer versions of WinZip instead of the built in Windows ZIP file utility.)

Windows also has a slightly longer limit of no more than 248 characters in a file name and no more than 260 characters for the full file path including folders. This can be problematic if the file was copied to a network location using a mapped drive, but you need to access it using the longer UNC file share name.

SharePoint itself has a limit that the URL pointing to a file, including the DNS name of the server and path to the document library, can't be longer than 255 characters. So woe to you with lots and lots of sub-sites - or long domain names like liquidmercurysolutions.com.

Blocked File Types
There are a number of file types that are blocked in SharePoint Online. This is done for security reasons, including DLLs and executable files (EXEs).

It's worth noting that Microsoft has sole discretion on what file types are blocked. I was recently very surprised during a demo I tried to upload an MSI file to show that it would get blocked - and surprisingly it worked! So check to see what the latest list of block files is before you start; this can be done from the Office 365 management portal.

Miscellaneous Poor Fit for SharePoint
In the course of evaluating content, you're likely to encounter files or even whole folders that just aren't a good fit for the cloud. For example, thumbs.db and desktop.ini files are great for making Windows UI more useful, but they serve no real purpose in SharePoint - and they can lock the file system which can complicate moves. Likewise, Office recovery files (those that start with ~$) or their analog in WordPerfect (*.TMP) can be a nuisance since they're marked as hidden and system files.

Large files like AVIs, ISOs, and ZIPs may be a poor fit for SharePoint. While technically you can put up to a 2GB file into SharePoint Online, some folks just don't have the bandwidth to put the files into the cloud and also have them be useful. Even in circumstances where you're just archiving the file, you should consider that you might spend a very long time uploading it only to find that the operation will time out and the effort will be wasted. You best bet is to test your bandwidth, then decide where to draw the line.

A folder full of executable programs - and probably all the non-executable stuff in that folder too - is a poor fit for SharePoint. Use your own judgment, and don't be afraid to exclude certain parts of the folder structure altogether if they seem to support running software.

  • Before You Start: File Structure Check
  • Permissions
    • Take ownership of all the files you need to archive and/or move.
    • Make sure you have permissions to all the files by overwriting the current permissions.
  • Illegal Characters
    • Avoid &, ?, #, and others - get the complete list here
    • What tools are you using to rename files?
    • Check folders as well as files
    • Legal characters or illegal characters
  • File Types / Filename Extensions
    • All files must have an extension
  • Check for blocked file types - get the complete list here
    Length of Individual File Names
    • Beware any single file with a name longer than 60 characters; here there be dragons!
  • Best bet: try to keep them 50 characters or less
    Length of Folder Paths
    • Can your backup solution handle long file paths?
    • Check the windows path of all files to ensure it doesn't go over 248 characters
    • Check the intended destination URL for each file to ensure it isn't longer than 255 characters.
    • Best bet: try to keep them under 200 characters
  • Misc. "poor fit" for SharePoint
    • Delete desktop.ini, and thumbs.db files
    • Move or otherwise deal with any ~$*.* or *.TMP recovery files
    • Test your bandwidth to see if it supports very large files
    • Consider what to do with very large files such as AVI, ISO, ZIP, etc.
  • Optional, if using ZIP with legacy support:
    • Make sure your archives will not exceed the 4GB limit.
    • Make sure your archives will not have more than 65,535 files/folders total.

Office 365 and SharePoint Limitations

As if all this were not enough to consider, you're going to have a number of limits and options on top of this when moving into the SharePoint Online platform.

A lot of these impact choices about site and information architecture, which is where Liquid Mercury Solutions comes in to help our customers. Even if you're using custom tools, it's often best to have a SharePoint specialist who can help you choose the right way to organize your sites and files.

Here are a few of the not-so-fuzzy limitations that we often have to work around.

Begin Your Start: Check for SharePoint Limitations

  • User quotas - if you're not a site collection admin
  • No single file can be > 2 GB
  • No more than 5000 items in a single folder
  • No more than 100GB in a single site collection ("supported limit" is 200GB)
  • No more than 30,000,000 items total in a single document library, including all documents and folders
  • SkyDrive Pro has its own weird limits which are different


Other Best Practices


There are lots of other best practices to take into account when moving to SharePoint Online - so many that we'll have to save them for another episode in this series. So, tune in next time!

Meanwhile, here's some more information for you. We recently saw a very thorough presentation on this topic given to the Baltimore SharePoint User's Group by my friend Mark McGovern from MetaLogix. And, our colleagues over at ShareGate have written a good article that starts to scratch the surface on some of the complexities involved.

If you'd like to purchase tools to help with your Office 365 migration, or if you want a professional consultant's advice please contact us and we'll be happy to help you. If you find these tips helpful, and want to give migrating to SharePoint Online a try on your own, please consider joining our free support network. Whatever path you decide to take, we wish you the best of luck!

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Error Creating WCF Connection for BCS Content Type in SharePoint Online

***some links Currently Broken***

I started this week's Super SharePoint Detective Adventure while trying to follow Nick
Swan's blog article about creating a BCS External Content Type for CRM 2011. This kind of integration between SharePoint and CRM is something I've been wanting to prove out for our own use for a long time now, and Nick's approach (although it still involves a lot of "glue code") seems like the most reasonable one I've seen to date.

True, his article talks about SharePoint 2010, but he has another one based on 2013 and all the concepts look like they ought to be backward compatible. In fact, everything was going fairly well, until I got to the last step in SharePoint Designer where you actually create the ECT connected to your WCF service. Then, things just wouldn't work - no matter what I tried, SharePoint Designer kept giving me this error.

  • An error occurred while accessing WCF service URL: http://<myStagingGuid>.cloudapp.net/BcsTest.svc
  • Connection to the WCF service that has connection name BcsTest cannot be established.
    • Unknown Error occurred. Unable to load one or more of the requested types. Retrieve the LoaderExceptions property for more information.


I could see others online are having this problem too, as there are questions about it posted in a few places, but mysteriously so far there was no answer:

  • MS Forums: Problem creating external content type from WCF service
  • Stack Overflow: Consume WCF Service in Office365 from window Azure


So, I did some experimentation. People say this works in on premises SharePoint, so I point
SPD at my on-prem SharePoint 2013 farm, and just as they say everything works fine.

Maybe my types are too complex. After all I am trying to pull a ton of data fields from a CRM Account. I create a much smaller web service with a data structure containing just a string with "Hello world!" and an integer ID of 1234. Still, I cannot create the data connection to this service either.

I spend some time trying to package up my data model into a *.bdcm file, and then do the export from my on-prem farm to SPO. No dice! This just breaks differently, because now when I go back to SP Designer my data connections are still broken, and my options from the SharePoint web UI are too limited to complete the configuration.

After beating my head against the wall all Friday evening - then stressing out all weekend about how I'm supposed to get a good hybrid solution with one part in the cloud and one part on our local network when I can't get the in the cloud part of it to work - I decided to open a ticket with support. At this point, I am not expecting great things to happen.

I guess it's a good thing that my experience did not live up to my expectations. I got the answer that I needed, and I didn't even have to wait a fortnight!

Update: Yay! Microsoft releases official KB article for my issue. KB2879695: Unknown Error occurred" error message when you try to create an External Content Type in SharePoint Online by using SharePoint Designer 2013 came out yeterday; interesting timing, indeed. ;-)

I was also surprised when I learned the cause to this problem, and its solution - or at least the workaround. More on the cause in a moment. I think it may surprise you. Here's the workaround for you, in glorious Technicolor.

  1. Find the spdesigner.exe.config file. In my case this was in C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office15 because I am using the 64 bit version. You're all using 64 bit now right? Right?
  2. Make a backup of this file, because you never know when you'll want to reverse this fix, like maybe on whatever day SharePoint 2016 finally rolls out.
  3. Add the runtime element below, so that your file looks like the following code, then save it.

    And that's it. Just re-execute SharePoint Designer and it will magically work.

So what's going on here? Bascially, we're telling SPD that if it gets a reference to a version
16.* assembly, it should use version 15.0.0.0 instead. Seems that the Office 365 team has incremented the version number for SharePoint online to 16.0.0.0 for some reason. That's why the BCS connection will work fine if you are pointing to your on premises SharePoint farm.

Do they have a time machine into the not-so-distant future? Are they pilot testing the super-secret-squirrel beta version? Was somebody just a very bad typist working with an equally bad set of software testers? As Fox Moulder once said, "The truth is out there." But it turns out that it really isn't so exciting. I'm told that the reason this was done is to help differentiate the build running in Office 365 from the on premises version.

I'll defer judgment for now on whether this was a particularly wise decision on Microsoft's part, but I encourage you to leave your opinions in the comments. Let's just say that heir workaround has had some unintended consequences, and my error was one of those.

And of course, if you think this was a particularly brilliant piece of detective work and want us to help on your next SharePoint project, you can reach me here.

Further reading / related articles:

 

**Moved over old comments for this blog***

Office 365 User Permissions Gotcha!

Congratulations! You convinced your client to sign up for Office 365. They subscribed to licenses for various apps like SharePoint Online and SQL Azure. The wireframes look good. You've created the SharePoint site structure. Wonderful! You're off to a great start. But… get ready for a big "gotcha!"

You decide to make use of the Content Type Syndication Hub. Wise move. You go into the SharePoint online site, activate the Hub and click on the link to the Hub… bzzzzzzzzzzzz! Access Denied.

Uh oh.

You've run into a little known gotcha in Microsoft Office 365.

According to the small-print regarding Permissions in Office 365, "The person who signs up for Office 365 for his or her organization automatically becomes the 'top-level administrator.'" Notice, though, this says nothing about the fact that it's also the only person/account who can access certain features of the Office 365 products.

At the time of this writing, the Content Type Hub and the Search Center are the only two features known to be provisioned with a default administrator (I've only encountered this in SharePoint Online so far). The Search Center is provisioned automatically when the root site collection is set up (the first time Office 365 is logged into by the person who created the account). The Content Type Hub is provisioned when the feature is activated in the Site Collection Features.

Microsoft's logic is that, like an on-premises server hosted at your facility, roles need to be delegated such that no single person (except the domain admin) has access to every role and resource. This is essential for many reasons, security being the biggest.

But unfortunately, this becomes illogical when you move to the cloud. Now, instead of increasing security, you're actually committing an IT sin by creating a single point of failure. When you're hosting your own server, you probably have access to the domain admin account (or at least to someone who does). But if you're in the cloud, you probably don't. And even if you do, you don't have access to the administrative console on Office 365.

Needless to say, as a SharePoint consultant, having to ask your client for permission to do things on the "very-first-ever" account is less than ideal. What if you lose access to that person at a critical juncture? (In my case, they went to the Carribean for two weeks, yay!)

When we discovered this problem, the client was small and the need for the Content Type Hub was not particularly urgent. No harm, no foul. If your client's business depends on a web site that hosts thousands of transactions per day, you can see where that could make for some trouble all the way around.

Microsoft, unfortunately, says they will not reassign this account under any circumstances without explicit orders from the portal creator. But what if the Portal account is deleted by mistake? What if the account creator quits the business, leaves the country, or gets hit by a bus?

Just ask this guy what happens. Not pretty.

According to Microsoft, best practice is to delegate this control to other admins. Agreed!

But, your client may not be that savvy - or that motivated. Or your client may be a control freak. Maybe, like many of our clients, they only became your client *after* they created their O365 free trial account and got in over their head. I can list a million reasons this creates risk, but mostly, it's the reasons I can't think of that usually kill me.

So how to handle this issue? The best way would be to change this policy system-wide.

It's Microsoft, so don't hold your breath.

Another way is to ask the client to share their credentials with you after they've created the portal. This is also risky, and, like I said, some clients are reluctant to give up so much control.

A third way is to ask your client to let you create the portal for them. This is fairly low-risk and should work in many cases, but there's always those situations where you got involved at a point where it's too late - or control issues, yet again.

The last reasonable solution is to ask the client to create a dummy Windows Live account (such as 365Admin), which they can use to create the portal and which they'll be comfortable sharing with you or any other vendor. We recommend doing this from the beginning; it is slightly more painful, but possible, to rename the "primary" account after the fact (and create a new account for the CEO).

Got any more ideas to improve these best practices or know of any other features in SharePoint Online or other Office 365 components that would have this issue? Post them in the comments and I'll stick them into a follow-up post. Hope this helps some of you avoid this weird gotcha. Getcha next time!

SharePoint, Office 365, and The Little Guy

Friends, Small Businesses, Little Guys... Lend me your ears! We little guys need to stick together!  For years, SharePoint has been one of Microsoft's greatest successes.  SharePoint's close connection to Microsoft Office and amazing feature set has resulted in extensive adoption amongst the upper echelon of the business world. But that's the problem!

SharePoint, historically, has ALMOST SOLELY been the prerogative of large corporations like Ferrari, Proctor and Gamble, Kraft, and Dell Financial Services. It's just far too cost prohibitive for the little guy. 

What About SharePoint Foundation Server?
No matter how much you need to get organized, a small company can’t justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a SharePoint farm.  Sure, there's the "free version" -- SharePoint Foundation Server -- but let's face it, that only gives you the foundation. You can't live on a concrete foundation; you have to build a house on it.

SharePoint Foundation Server is great, but it lacks critical features like InfoPath Services or an effective Search tool.  Public facing websites are not recommended in Foundation because the absence of a *Publishing Infrastructure opens you up to too many security risks.  Additionally, there’s no real governance, making your sites essentially wikis.  It's frustrating for the end-user, as well as for a SharePoint Consultancy like ours.  

I don't blame Microsoft for the limitations of Foundation.  After all, it's free.

Nevertheless, when we have potential customers call to ask us why they can’t do this or that in Foundation, our answer has always been, "There's just nothing we can do unless you upgrade."  This answer has lost us opportunities.  Another one bites the dust. Freddie Mercury might be able to make that sound cool, but that's because he wasn't running a SharePoint Consultancy.

Microsoft Throws Us a (Yucky) Bone
To their credit, in 2008 Microsoft attempted to throw a bone to the little guy and hit us with Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), may it rest in many fractured pieces.  That said, if you have any familiarity with BPOS, you'll understand why I step quietly over that dark time in Microsoft's history.

Given that, when Microsoft later released their newest cloud solution, Office 365, we were reticent. 

One of the biggest virtues a company can have is to admit when they're wrong!  Microsoft did it when they did away with Vista, and again when they did away with BPOS and brought in Office 365.  So we decided to see if they had truly atoned for "The BPOS Transgression."

Microsoft Gets It Right!
Guess what? We were wrong! Microsoft really came through for the little guy with this one.  In addition to Office Professional Plus, you get your Exchange hosted, Lync Online, Office Web Apps, Dynamics CRM, SharePoint that actually works, and Software Assurance to boot.  All this with a guaranteed uptime of 99.9%!  I’ve never heard of an on-premise farm that can make that boast -- but urban legend suggests that they do exist. 

Portal-wide Search is solid; a *Publishing Infrastructure is provided, making a public facing website suddenly both affordable AND secure; InfoPath Services are available; and you're completely capable of setting up Governance.  There are lots of BI capabilities, though admittedly there’s no support for Power Pivot or Performance Point.  

These are usually tools of the Upper Echelon, but rumor has it that Performance Point may be supported in the next version of Office 365.  As one of the little guys who need these tools, we're hoping to see this released by the end of the year.

Even Small Construction Companies Can Now Use SharePoint
And just like that, we're seeing tons of small businesses with big-dog solutions in the Microsoft Cloud.  For a ridiculously low monthly cost and some initial setup, small businesses are getting the kind of ROI that was previously available only to the higher end of Corporate America.

Amazingly, one of our first Office 365 projects was for a small Construction Company!  What the heck is going on?  I thought SharePoint was only for industry lions and tigers and bears -- but oh my, a small construction company? 

In the past, you mainly saw SharePoint in government, healthcare, education, finance, and at larger NPOs.  Now, we're seeing all sorts of new clients in a variety of start-ups and smaller businesses.   Office 365 is for everybody! Well, for anybody who needs to manage documents, stay connected within their company, and use Microsoft Office.  It doesn't matter if you're a construction company, a legal professional, a waste management company, a local doctor's office, or a family restaurant -- Office 365 will work for you.

But Not JUST For the Little Guy
Interestingly, though this post is about the little guy, it doesn't actually stop there. 

Even companies with larger revenue are taking advantage of SharePoint in the Cloud as an affordable means of using SharePoint for their public facing websites.  The benefits are manifold but the most desirable seem to be the speed and ease of updating site content; the high level of interactivity both internally and with customers; and the ability to use your public site as an extranet where you can provide ease of access to your customers, building stronger relationships.

This is exciting stuff.  I recognize that this post has turned into a bit of a testimonial for Microsoft, and hopefully they'll send me something free if they read it.  But what I'm really trying to get at is that us little dogs don't have to shy away from an Enterprise Class solution anymore.  Here at Liquid Mercury Solutions, we're eating our own dog food, using it in-house. 

Feel free to give us a call and we'll be glad to show you a demo of the things that Office 365 can do for you.  You can reach us here at Liquid Mercury Solutions by phone at 410-633-5959. 

If you're reading this after business hours and can't wait to see a more customized presentation, you can always check out a click-through demo at:

(removed due to dead link. Fix that soon! Sorry!)

 

*Because the Publishing Framework provided in SharePoint is specific to each portal, Microsoft cannot feasibly support the framework.  It is very stable, and can easily be supported at low cost by a competent SharePoint Consultant.