This is not a technical post, but one that bumps into business. Yes, occasionally us software developers have to lift our heads up and see that there’s more to life than hacking code. This is especially true at small companies, such as Wintellect, were the effort to do business means you can’t just hide in your office and forget about everything else.

As we had started the company near ten years ago, we made the traditional decision back then of running our own Exchange Server and had set up VPN so those of us outside the Knoxville, TN home base could get to our servers when necessary. The only “cloud” that people talked about in 2000 were those floating puffy things made of water in the sky. Exchange, as everyone knows, worked great but the VPN (as all VPN’s are) was a nuisance. However, for the most part everything “was good enough.” As Wintellect has grown over the years, I was getting more paranoid about backups and we were really starting to pay some serious money for our infrastructure. I also had a nagging question in the back of my mind if we were set up to handle future growth.

With employees and contractors scattered around the US and the type of work we do, our infrastructure needs were very similar to that of a company many times our size. As we were working through setting up SharePoint servers and all the rest (especially those backups!), it was obvious that doing it ourselves was going to cost us obscene amounts of money.

I started doing some research and it was clear that Microsoft Online Services (MOS) was the way to go. We priced out our needs and I got ready to present it to our executive team figuring it was a slam-dunk decision. We were going to be cutting our IT bills by 40%-50% and I could sleep at night that our backups and restores would be rock solid. With the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), we’d get Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communicator, and LiveMeeting for employees and Exchange Online for contractors. The day before I was going to make my proposal, Microsoft handed me a wonderful gift of cutting the price for BPOS by 33% (now $10 per user per month) and Exchange Online by 50% ($5 per user per month). It felt wonderful to plug in the new numbers and say we were going to cut costs by 50%-60%.

We planned the transition over the end of 2009 and it went extremely well. By the way, we didn’t use a MOS partner we did everything on our own. Microsoft provided a great migration tool that seamlessly moved mail from our internal Exchange server to MOS. Since we have people all over the US, I also wrote an extremely detailed document on exactly how individual users were to do the transitions. That helped immensely as we had everyone from super technical to non-technical users we had to transition and we just couldn’t walk over to their computer to fix anything. We tested that document with some of the technical users first so that it was bulletproof. Most people were up and running within 10-15 minutes of logging after their mail was moved over to MOS.

The only problem we had with the transition was with Outlook. Since we were moving from one Exchange Server to another with everyone using their existing user accounts, we found out that Outlook is kind of dumb on how it caches email addresses. Outlook caches those addresses globally and not with the profile. For whatever reason, Outlook caches more than just the email address, so if you had sent a mail to “Bob Smith” it would pick up the “Bob Smith” from our old Exchange server and bounce the mail. Fortunately, all you had to do was delete the cache files according the Knowledgebase article: How to reset the nickname and the automatic completion caches in Outlook.

MOS is not a direct replacement for having your own servers, as you obviously don’t get the same level of control and extensibility. For example, with SharePoint Online, you can’t run any custom code today. We were willing to trade off those limitations for three reasons. The first is because Microsoft will automatically update MOS to Exchange 2010 and SharePoint 2010 when released. Secondly, based on what Microsoft announced at the SharePoint Conference, we’re going to have more than 90% of Microsoft SharePoint 2010’s features this year. Finally, everything on MOS is backed up with a wonderful Service Level Agreement (SLA).

Another thing I’m hoping to see in the next iteration of MOS is more automation for administration purposes. Today they have PowerShell scripts to add users, which are nice, but to add them to Exchange Distribution Lists and SharePoint you have to go into the web-based user interface. It’s not too onerous, but it would be nice to be able to completely automate adding users to everything in MOS.

I thought it’d be worth sharing our experiences with MOS in case others were interested in hearing a real story. If you’re running your own Exchange and SharePoint servers, you owe it to your sanity to check out MOS.