With broad adoption of SharePoint 2010 coupled with the business need to drive down costs and management overhead of information technology, many organizations are looking more closely at hosted versions of SharePoint -- both private and public cloud offerings, as well as Office365.

Questions about the service popped up again this weekend while I was presenting at SharePoint Saturday Orlando (#SPSORL) before making my way over to #TechEd2012 across town. So I was very interested in the session on Office365 for the Enterprise, presented by one of Microsoft's service managers.

Some stats she shared:

  • 70 percent of IT budgets are spent maintaining inflexible and siloed data center equipment
  • 95 percent of information workers report using at least one self-purchased device for work (like an iPad or smart phone)
  • 1.2 billion mobile workers worldwide by 2013 (more than 1/3 of the world's workforce)
  • In 2011, 15 percent of IT spending was on the cloud (public and private)
  • By end of 2012, 80 percent of new software offerings will be available as cloud services
  • Gartner estimates 20 percent of business will own no on-premises IT assets by end of 2012
  • By 2015, 20 percent of non-IT global 500 companies will be cloud-service providers

We've all seen the marketing data, and independent software vendors and consulting companies alike are having conversations with customers about the cloud. What is becoming crystal clear is that the movement toward the cloud is not a marketing ploy by Microsoft and the other major software vendors to force another upgrade, but is very much being driven by the global economy and advances in technology.

The question is: can Office365 meet the needs of enterprise customers today?

Flexibility of Office365

At the outside, Microsoft makes a clear distinction between O365 being configurable, not customizable. This distinction is clearest with its SharePoint component: SharePoint can be molded like clay to meet your business requirements, while O365 has already been fired in the kiln.

In other words, the former is a platform, the latter a product of that platform. This is one of the main differences that I try to explain to people who have become accustomed to being able to change every aspect of their on-premises SharePoint deployments.

Within O365, Exchange Online provides about 90 to 95 percent feature parity of its standalone counterpart, while SharePoint Online, according to the Microsoft presenter, offers only 70 to 75 percent parity, at best.

Key Questions About Office 365

The question to be answered during the session was clear: is Office365 ready for the enterprise? Microsoft's response was to answer head-on most concerns articulated during the lifecycle of O365's predecessor, BPOS (Business Productivity Online Services).

Can the platform be trusted?

Microsoft provides privacy of data within the system so that only those authorized to see the data can access it. They also outline for enterprises the level of transparency of what management and operations can see and control.

The platform touts multiple compliance certification, including a new SSAE2 certification. The number one CIO concern for cloud-based platforms is security, and O365 has gone to great length to highlight its operational procedures service level agreements (SLAs) to answer these kinds of concerns,

Does it provide the level of control we need?

With federated identity and single sign-on (using SAML), role-based access and a simplified management console, O365 provides flexibility for teams on how to incorporate the tools into their user experience -- especially in a hybrid world.

In fact, Microsoft emphasized specific hybrid solutions, knowing that many organizations are not considering a complete move to O365 but a hybrid model where specific use cases or teams use the tools. Microsoft offers workload migration flexibility, allowing teams to move over to O365 at their own pace -- or even to move back to on-premises, as needed. And with a single licensing agreement, costs can be optimized and users can be transitioned when it makes sense.

Is there the level of support that we need?

While level of support varies based on licensing model, Office365 does offer enterprise support options, including 24x7 web and phone support, a fairly robust self-service dashboard that includes things like current health statistics, planned maintenance data (status, schedule, details), and RSS feeds into the dashboard for easier consumption.

Microsoft also understands the importance of the partner ecosystem and community, providing tools for both to interact with O365 customers. Additionally, Microsoft has added complete service overview documents, outlining specifics on service descriptions, support options and difference -- all available for download on Microsoft's website.

What has changed since the Office365 launch?

Finally, the presenter walked us through the differences between the Kiosk worker offering and the Information Worker offering.

The Kiosk plan includes a 1gb mailbox, use of the Office Web Apps, and Exchange Active Sync (EAS), and is meant to be a low-cost option for those who do not have a collaboration platform today (they cannot author documents in SharePoint -- view only access).

The IW plan is more of what enterprise customers expect, starting with 25Gb mailboxes, Lync and other communication capabilities, and more robust support options. But Microsoft has also added new Government and Education offerings, as well as numerous SharePoint Online updates, including business connectivity services, increased enterprise directory sync, a much-needed email invitation capability, support for IE9, Chrome and Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango), and an improved recycle bin, among other additions.

Is it Time to Make the Move?

What was missing from the overall presentation was what I believe many were looking for -- use cases illustrating specific scenarios where it would make sense for an enterprise organization (which I classify as anywhere from 500 to 5000 employees and above) to consider O365.

Beyond Microsoft's marketing -- when does it actually make sense to move to the cloud? I hear this question a lot in my travels, but honestly, this is not a fair question for Microsoft -- it really needs to be answered based on what the business needs.

Microsoft is clear on the lack of parity between O365 and SharePoint, but offers quite robust solutions at reasonable price points. As with any technology, businesses need to consider a number of things in addition to perceived cost savings before moving to the cloud. As with any SharePoint deployment, success with Office365 requires up front business understanding of what you are trying to accomplish.

All in all, Office365 is becoming much more robust, and within the next couple years will achieve parity in functionality with on-prem solutions.

One of Microsoft's primary considerations is that as enterprises begin to look at the business needs of their platforms, the user experience must be seamless across any device or platform. The current O365 platform begins to move the SharePoint and Office experience toward that vision. While there is opportunity for improvement in the story around a true hybrid experience, Microsoft and the partner community are working with customers to create those stories.

Editor's Note: To read more by Christian Buckley: