The trouble with Microsoft Online/BPOS/Office 365

Last year we transitioned our mail system off a local Exchange server to a "cloud"* solution provided by Microsoft. The testing phase went well amongst our department. We didn't encounter any real problems, the migration went well and it was a relief not to have to consider a Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010 migration plan.

For the first few months things seemed to go as expected. Mail worked for the most part and the vast majority of problems were around user training and functionality. The main issue was (and still is) the lack of integration between the Microsoft Online Services sign in client and AD accounts. Long gone are the days the users have a single sign on. Now they have this teensy little thing running in their task bar. It's unobtrusive, so much so every 90 days it's forgotten causing tons of confusion about why e-mail isn't working and schedules aren't appearing. In a pro-active move where I can prepare and clear my schedule, I've dubbed this quarterly issue The Password Changing Times.

But slowly, more issues rise up and we find ourselves in a position where we just can't fix it. That wouldn't be such a problem except... neither can they.

This is a list of our experiences specific to users thus far:

  • An upgrade for a user going from Deskless to Standard accounts turned bad when he could no longer receive calendar notifications. Instead of appearing in his Inbox as an invite, they went directly to the calendar. People miss meetings this way. We contacted support, who could not fix it and were told to delete and recreate the account. Remember this user, it is important later on.

  • We deleted and recreated the account at the behest of "hosting." Lo, the user no longer appeared in the address book. No amount of downloading the address book solved the issue. What ended up fixing it was adding a new alias for the user.

  • We had a second problem with the address book around the same time. We added a resource for a room and allowed the replication period to pass by a fair amount. No amount of downloading or re-downloading the address book showed the room resource. Was it in the admin panel? Yes. The fix ended up being creating another resource. Suddenly the older one also appeared (you still with me?)

  • We started getting NDRs for the user with the calendar/address book issue. The cached name in Outlook pointed to a GUID as opposed to the e-mail address. We had to remove the alias in step two to e-mail the user.

  • In September another user started being prompted every 30 minutes or so to enter his password into the Outlook client. (This should not happen, allegedly the Sing In client handles all authentication requests.) We still have not been able to solve this problem. Even by deleting and recreating the account (tech support's solution to everything.)

  • Just this month e-mailing with the address book/alias/calendar problems generates NDRs. Again.

  • The user experiencing the Sign On client problems is now no longer found in our address book. We've had to create an alias and open another ticket. We deleted and recreated the account because MSOL support told us to.

More generalized issues include...

  • Well, have a look at their outage RSS feed from March

  • Frequent connection issues with iPhone mail clients. I refuse to taint my Android with their bullshit, so I don't know how other devices handle it.

  • The RSS feed is the only way they communicate outages.

  • Frequent problems with users' passwords expiring or just not working after a couple weeks. This has been verified several times by us in the IT department.

  • The password sync problem mentioned in the first paragraph is not a small one.

  • The Deskless client, or OWA does not prompt for password changes. The only way to change the password is through the home.microsoftonline.com site, which most people don't use unless they have the whole suite.

  • They recently replicated address books to the wrong customers. You know, all the information that would make social engineering irrelevant.

  • For the first year of your contract you cannot decrease your license quantity. Be careful what you buy.
  • I have to repeat my issue to MSOL support more than once as a rule. Today is a good example: I sent the information to them about the user generating NDRs, they asked me if this is happening in Outlook 2007 or in OWA. I specified the user is on OWA but users experiencing the problem are using Outlook 2007. Below is what I received for troubleshooting instructions. 

    To resolve this issue, you can use one or more of the following methods:

Option 1: Delete the nickname cache entry from the AutoComplete list:

1. Login to your mailbox using by using OWA.

2. Compose a new message.

3. Begin typing the name or email address you want to delete until you see it in the AutoComplete list.

4. To remove one entry from the list, you can highlight the name in the AutoComplete list by using the arrow up or arrow down keys.

5. When the entry is highlighted press the Delete key.

Option 2: Clear Most Recent Recipients List in OWA:

1. Log into your mailbox by using OWA Light. Make sure that you enable the Use Outlook Web Access Light check box.

2. Go to Options - Messaging.

3. Under Email Name Resolution, click Clear Most Recent Recipients List.

Note: This procedure is also known as clearing the Most Recently Used (MRU) cache.
My experiences with Microsoft Online Services, or Office 365 so far, would make me urge anyone looking in to using them to strongly reconsider. Or perhaps even consider the Google cloud solution.

I know every service and piece of technology has problems and not every problem has a solution. But sometimes finding the solution should go further than "have you turned it off and turned it back on?" even if it can't be fixed.

Thus far, the technical support has been nothing but frustrating; not at all timely, incompetent, uncommunicative and virtually useless. Any fix we've made was purely on our end unless it has to do with the frequent larger outages. Is there 99% up time? I can't say for sure, but I doubt it.

For those of you looking for solutions I'm sorry to say I can't provide you with any more information. What I will provide is a little bit of solace. I'm with you. Oh boy am I with you.

(And Twitter often seems to be a good way to get some help.)

Microsoft Business Productivity Suite site
MSOL Team Blog


Edit: FEEDBACK E-MAIL ADDRESS FROM FACEBOOK! onlnfdbk@microsoft.com

* this phrase brings more and more murderous rage to my eyes

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