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Thursday, November 7, 2013

A First Experience with Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint Online

Early this year I had my first experience with Microsoft Office 365, in particular with SharePoint Online, and I have to say the experience was excellent.  To set the stage, due to the nature of most of our customers at the time (primarily military and government) I typically worked with on-premises SharePoint deployments, but I was researching the capabilities offered by SharePoint Online for a specific project I was assigned and I needed to get up and running quickly.

The setup process was simple, fast and without any hassles.  It took about 45 minutes to get a new Office 365 tenant setup and using SharePoint Online.  SharePoint Online is part of Microsoft Office 365 and your first step to getting setup is to purchase an Office 365 subscription, which can be done here:
As it was my first experience, I signed up for a free trial which is also possible at this site.  When purchasing a subscription there are several plans to choose from, starting as low as $5.00 per user per month (for the Small Business subscription) and ranging up to $20.00 per user per month (for a full blown Enterprise E3 subscription).  There are several levels available between those depending on your needs and your business.

Once you’ve registered for a trial or purchased a subscription, you’ll be taken to an Administrative Center portal page.  This page allows you to manage all administrative functions for your shiny new Office 365 tenant.  It contains a number of tasks you need to perform to get setup – these include:

·        Adding Domains

Adding a domain is one of your first steps.  If you already own a registered domain name you may use it.  The Administrative Portal guides you through the process of verifying ownership and setting up the appropriate DNS records to point to your Office 365 tenant.

·        Adding User Identities

Next you’ll need to add users to your Office 365 deployment.  You can add users one at a time, specifying various attributes for each user.  Alternatively you can add users in bulk by uploading an appropriately formatted CSV file.  As well, depending on your subscription you can Active Directory Synchronization to allow existing users to use their existing AD credentials to access SharePoint Online (only available with an Enterprise level subscription plan).  As well, you can enable Single Sign On through Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) to allow users to access SharePoint Online using their existing credentials and not requiring them to enter their credentials again. In order to enable Active Directory Synchronization and Single Sign On there are a number of steps to complete, and you should follow the Microsoft guidance provided on these very helpful articles:  Prepare for Single Sign On and Using Active Directory with Microsoft Office 365 
·        Configuring a SharePoint Team Site and Web Site, or Adding Additional Sites

Once SharePoint Online is setup it will contain 2 sites by default: a team site and a web site.  A team site is an internal SharePoint site, where teams and groups of users can exchange documents, connect with one another, store and retrieve content and generally collaborate.  A web site is a SharePoint site which represents a public facing web site for your business, where external partners and customers can retrieve information about your organization.  SharePoint Online provides both sites by default, and allows you to create additional SharePoint sites as needed from the available templates.  These default sites as well as new sites can be configured as needed, with additional libraries, lists, views, apps, web parts, etc.  At this point you can configure the default sites, or add additional sites for various purposes.
·        Creating Groups and Configuring Permissions

Once end users are created it will be necessary to configure those users with the appropriate permissions to access the content they need to perform their daily tasks.  The simplest and most manageable strategy to accomplish this is through the use of groups.  As opposed to assigning permissions to users directly, it is recommended that administrators create security groups, they add end users to those groups and then assign permissions to the groups. When first starting out with SharePoint Online this is an effective strategy to allow administrators to more easily track of which users have access to specific sites or content.  Security groups can often represent teams or roles within the organization that have certain types of access to content – for example, finance team members can be part of a “Finance” group that has the Full Control permission level assigned to the organization’s financial documents. 

SharePoint Online uses the same permission model as on-premises deployments.  So, administrators can expect to work with permission levels which are assigned to security groups or users and to content, and which are made up of predetermined permissions like View, Open, Edit, etc.  As well, they can expect to work with permissions that are inherited from libraries, lists and sites, or with unique permissions that are assigned to specific information objects like documents.

·        Configuring External Access (if required)

If required by the business, an administrator can configure SharePoint Online to allow external users to access the organization’s SharePoint Online sites.  This can be configured through the Administration Center portal by accessing Settings and selecting Manage External Users.  Once configured here than individual site collection administrators or site owners are able to configure external users to access to their site collection’s sites (it is still disabled by default and must be configured for each site collection).  They must provide the email address of each external user that is to be granted access, and they are able to send email invitations to these users to access content which has been shared to them.   This is an extremely useful option if you have business partners outside of your domain that you wish to have access to specific content within some specific site collections.

·        Adding Content to SharePoint Online

At this point you’ll likely want to start moving content into SharePoint Online.  Once you’ve figured out which content needs to move into SharePoint, you have several options available for uploading content:  uploading a single document at a time, uploading multiple documents at one time, accessing SharePoint through the Windows Explorer view to add multiple files and folders at one time, or dragging and dropping multiple files onto a SharePoint 2013 library in the web browser.  Typically, you need to think about moving other forms of content as well, such as announcements, contacts, lists, business data, databases, appointments and even business workflow.

There are of course many other options available during the setup process which are not discussed here, including configuring Microsoft Exchange for business email, Microsoft Lync for unified communications such as online chat and Skype, as well as enabling mobile access.  As well, it’s important to understand that before proceeding to get your entire organization up and running with Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint Online, many of these steps require careful planning to ensure that they fulfill the business needs of the organization - for example:

·        Understanding which features are included with each subscription and selecting the plan is right for your business

·        Determining which users need access to SharePoint Online, which user attributes are important to configure for those users and determining if single sign on is a real requirement for the business

·        Determining which types of team sites are needed, and by which user communities

·        Determining if all corporate content needs to move to SharePoint Online, or if some content that has not been accessed for a long periods of time can be archived instead

·        Etc…

The main point I wanted to get across in this article is that Microsoft has made the process of getting up and running with Office 365 and SharePoint Online extremely easy.  As I started off mentioning, I was able to easily get a demonstration SharePoint Online instance up and running, with some users, some required customizations and some sites and content in about 45 minutes following many of the configuration steps mentioned above.  This was possible even without having much knowledge about Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint Online to start off with. 

I highly recommend you go through the process yourself and learn all that Microsoft Office 365 has to offer – you can begin here:


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