While cloud services can pay off on their potential, they can't promise technology nirvana, an enlightened environment where IT problems never occur and the help desk is not needed. Like with many important decisions, moving critical applications such as email and productivity tools online can come with a tradeoff, according to MessageOps founder Chad Mosman.
"The cloud has a lot of advantages, but one of the disadvantages is that you have a lot less visibility into what's going on in the underlying systems," Mosman said in an interview. His firm, a Microsoft partner, makes 365Command, a monitoring and reporting tool for Office 365 environments. But less visibility doesn't necessarily mean fewer problems; that's simply known as sticking your head in the sand. When issues do arise, it can be tougher to identify causes and fixes.
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"With cloud services, if your users are having problems connecting or something is slow, it's difficult sometimes to determine: Is the problem on my side? Is the problem on Microsoft's side? Is it my Internet service provider? Things like that," Mosman said.
Microsoft gets that. While you might be more likely to see choreographed dance routines than troubleshooting tips in their ad campaigns, the company offers a range of free tools for ensuring a healthy Office 365 environment. Several of them require little to no technical expertise, either, which make them a good fit for small businesses and other organizations that prefer cloud applications for ease of use. These are Mosman's must-haves for Office 365 administrators.
"[Administrators] don't have access to the servers like they used to," Mosman said. "These tools at least give them some visibility into what's going on in the Office 365 cloud."
1. Office 365 Outlook Connectivity Guided Walkthrough
This is the go-to tool for anyone who fields the "Hey, I can't see my email" variety of help-desk tickets. (No, those don't magically disappear in the cloud.) The Office 365 Outlook Connectivity tool tests for issues affecting the connection between Outlook clients and Office 365 mailboxes. User mailboxes are the most common troubleshooting scenario, according to Microsoft, although the tool can be used for Archive and Shared mailboxes, too. A key reason why Microsoft provides the service: This large bucket of issues keeps their support lines ringing, too.
"This is the one of the most common problems and it's a big support cost for Microsoft," Mosman said.
2. Message Analyzer
Most Exchange administrators know about the Remote Connectivity Analyzer, according to Mosman. What's relatively new is a message-trace feature called Message Analyzer. (Click on the Message Analyzer tab at the far right of the Remote Connectivity Analyzer screen.) Mosman calls this one of the most useful tools out there for administrators because it helps determine the cause of message delays. The next time a user gripes about an email that took two days to reach its recipient, you can simply copy-and-paste the message header into the Web-based tool.
"It will automatically show you where the delays occur -- whether it was on the sender's side or the Microsoft side," Mosman said, adding that the tool can serve other purposes, too, such as migration testing.
3. Mail Protection Reports for Office 365
This Excel plug-in makes it easier, Mosman said, for administrators to capture data and generate spreadsheets about their email activity in the new versions of Office 365. (Note: It requires Excel 2013.) So you'll essentially have ready reports on things like inbound spam levels, top 10 senders, top 10 recipients and so forth. "In the old version of Office 365, it was a little bit of a hassle," Mosman said. "[This] makes it easy for anybody to open up this spreadsheet and get data relevant to their organization, mainly around messages coming in and leaving the [company]."
Things begin to get more specific -- and potentially more complicated -- with tools four through six, Mosman said. This one troubleshoots potential problems in environments that run both on-premises Exchange servers and Office 365 mailboxes. "This is for larger companies if they are doing a hybrid configuration," Mosman said. In particular, it helps ensure that cloud users can see free/busy information for on-premises users and vice versa.
5. Scan for Problems in Microsoft Outlook
This downloadable tool scans your Outlook profile for potential issues and/or recommendations for optimization. While not specific to Office 365, Mosman notes that power users can occasionally uncover obscure settings that might interfere with or otherwise cause headaches in connecting Outlook and Office 365.
6. Microsoft Online Services Diagnostics and Logging (MOSDAL) Support Toolkit
If you want to supersize your internal support levels, you might as well use what Microsoft uses. "Microsoft Support uses this tool all day long," Mosman said. The downloadable toolkit collects log files, registry keys and configuration settings that otherwise are time-consuming to keep up with. In fact, it collects so much data that Mosman half-joked that "run MOSDAL" is Microsoft Support's go-to stall tactic if it doesn't immediately know the answer to a question. "They say 'run this' because it spits out so much information."
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That info gets technical in a hurry, Mosman said, but that makes it useful for IT pros with the requisite know-how. "It's useful to see exactly how the system is configured, what patches are installed, all of the network settings," Mosman said. "It's just a big dump of all this data."
RIP: Office 365 Speed Test
Alas, Microsoft recently mothballed another of Mosman's favorite tools, the Office 365 Speed Test. Akin to free Internet connection tests like speedtest.net, the tool offered detailed technical data -- latency, quality of service, number hops -- on connectivity to the nearest Microsoft data center, be it in Blue Ridge, Va., Dublin, Ireland, or elsewhere in the world. But the tool was built specifically for former BPOS customers migrating to Office 365 and was shut down after BPOS went bye-bye.
You can still use free tools like speedtest.net, though they don't often contain the same level of information that Microsoft's own tool did -- Mosman said the Office 365 Speed Test was "like those sites on steroids."
Yet slow connection speeds and other network issues can be a killer for companies that rely heavily on cloud applications. A common first step is to turn to your ISP for troubleshooting or upgrade options. A second step is too look inward for possible "bad behavior" inside your company that might be bogging down your network.