And what it means for small business.
Microsoft’s cloud services for business fall under the umbrella of Microsoft Online Services. Consumer cloud services such as the free email service Hotmail and the online storage service CloudDrive are housed in the consumer cloud portfolio, Windows Live.
Microsoft Online Services can be divided into five sections. They are: Business Productivity Online Suite, a collection of business productivity programs which includes an online version of the email program Exchange, but not Microsoft Office; a set of online services for companies with on-premise Exchange, such as email archiving and security; the online version of the popular Microsoft Dynamics CRM; a PC monitoring and repair service called Windows Intune; and Azure, a hosting service that runs customers’ Microsoft applications in Microsoft’s own enormous data centres.
Each tranche of services has different benefits for small business.
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This suite includes services to help a business communicate with other businesses as well as its employees. The services include hosted email (Exchange Online), document management and intranets (SharePoint Online), web conferencing (Office Live Meeting) and instant messaging, telephony and video conferencing (Office Communications Online). These services are also available individually.
Of these, Exchange Online stands out as a huge improvement for small businesses over the burden of running an email server themselves. Microsoft takes full responsibility for maintaining the quality of the service, and the amount of storage in each email account (25 gigabytes) can be 100 times larger than a small business would provide for employees on its own.
SharePoint Online is another standout product that can have a hugely positive impact on small business. The SharePoint service stores documents in Microsoft’s data centre and has a strong set of tools for document management and workflow. The BPOS suite is an excellent range of complementary services for small businesses that use Microsoft Office, and they can cut IT costs and raise productivity considerably.
Exchange Hosted Services
Microsoft sells several complementary services for companies running their own Exchange server. These include archiving, compliance, regulatory and e-discovery (Exchange Online Archiving); email encryption (Microsoft Exchange Hosted Encryption); and email security including antispam, antivirus, message reporting and disaster recovery (Forefront Online Protection for Exchange).
While these services are available to businesses of all sizes, small business is better served by using the abovementioned Business Productivity Online Suite which includes the Forefront Online Protection free of charge. Email archiving is definitely a service worth considering for small business, however.
Dynamics CRM Online
Microsoft launched an online version of its popular and powerful customer relationship management software in January 2011. Dynamics CRM is designed to help businesses improve their sales process by tracking customers, analysing sales and managing quotes and invoices. The on-premise version of Dynamics CRM is normally viewed as an application for larger businesses, but the per-user, per-month pricing for the online service puts it within the grasp and budget of small businesses.
The idea behind Windows Intune is to provide a service that mimics an IT administrator who secures and maintains all PCs in a business. Windows Intune provides updates the Windows operating system and Microsoft applications. An update provides fixes for bugs and patches for vulnerabilities in the software that could leave a PC open to attack by a virus or a hacker.
Intune also provides a hardware and software inventory, sets security policies, provides remote assistance and proactively monitors the health of PCs. The service costs US$11 per month for each PC. It only works with the business editions of Windows: Business, Professional, Ultimate, or Enterprise. The service is compatible with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. The minimum contract is one year, paid monthly.
The advantage for small business is that they can save money on basic IT maintenance and receive a high-quality, automated and vendor-backed service instead.
Azure is like a virtual engine room for running customers’ applications. Instead of running the application on your own server, Microsoft will run it for you on a “virtual machine” in one of its six data centres spread around the world.
Azure is used by developers who know how to load an application on a virtual machine and move information from your physical server in your office to Microsoft’s virtual one.
Azure is ideally suited to running databases and other applications which require large amounts of computing resources. Azure has many other benefits, but one of the most important is the ability to run an application on demand without having to buy a server on which to run it.
Azure can allocate more memory, storage and processing power to a virtual machine at the click of a button when there is a spike in demand, such as a retailer’s online inventory during the Christmas sales. The retailer only pays for the resources used that month, so during the rest of the year when demand returns to normal the cost of running the inventory application is much lower.
If the database were running on a physical server, a business would have to buy a server big enough to handle the Christmas rush, and for the rest of the year it would be using very little of its full capacity.
And because Azure is a service, the cost is an operating expense rather than the high, upfront capital expense involved in buying a server.
What comes next
Microsoft’s next addition to its online services is much bigger than an upgrade to the Business Productivity Suite (BPOS) which it replaces. Microsoft Office 365 has all the services in BPOS including Lync Online, the replacement to Microsoft Office Communications Live.
But the bigger news is that Office 365 will for the first time integrate with the online version of Office, Microsoft Office Web Apps. Microsoft Office 365 is expected to launch at the end of June.