Microsoft Office 365 review

Office heads for the cloud, but does it send productivity sky-high?

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Unlike the MMC snap-ins and System Center management packs you might use to administer Exchange on your own server, all the administration for Office 365 is done in the browser.

Exchange 2010 had its own web portal nested inside the admin portal for Office 365, which wasn't always easy to navigate. Small business accounts used a simplified control panel that could only deal with a limited number of objects and covered Exchange, Lync and SharePoint Online, while enterprise accounts got the more complex Exchange 2010 web admin interface, which felt shoehorned in.

Now all accounts get the same simple interface for everything, from managing Office 365 licenses to enabling Lync federation to setting up Exchange mail routing-flows. It's all logically arranged and with the simple options presented first so they're easy for administrators who are not experts.

If you know what you're doing, you can click through to get all the extra properties and settings to work with, and can even use PowerShell to manage your Office 365 services. But a smaller company can set up everything they need without getting out of its depth.

Office 365 portal
The Office 365 admin center includes tools, reports and a service monitor

The admin portal itself has a clean new look (matching the Office 2013 desktop interfaces) that's far easier to navigate.

Instead of 15 identical orange or blue headings and links in three columns, the opening page is a dashboard with clearly organised links to the different tools and a colour-coded overview of all the Office 365 services (including problems and planned maintenance). There's a list of admin shortcuts for the most common tasks at the side of the page, and usefully, the top links are for resetting passwords and adding new users.

Click (or tap – the Office 365 portal works well on a touchscreen) on the Admin heading at the top of the page to open the separate portals for Exchange, Lync and SharePoint, which all have the same consistent interface style. You can open them from anywhere on the site, without having to go back to the main admin portal and find the right link again.

Portal links
The drop-down makes it easy to switch from managing Office 365 to managing the services

Getting started is fast; provisioning Exchange, Lync and SharePoint Online for a 25-user Enterprise account took less than five minutes (and we were able to work with the rest of the portal settings while that was going on).

You can set up users by connecting to your on-premise Active Directory, by importing details (from a .CSV file, for example) or by creating users one at a time (most suited to a small business); and when you create individual users you can assign licences as you go. If you want to pick and choose who gets which features, you can allocate Office 2013 software licences, Lync, Office Web Apps, SharePoint and Exchange licences to users individually.

New user
Adding users is simply in the friendly interface

Furthermore, it is now possible to archive information across the entirety of Lync, Exchange and SharePoint with what's called the eDiscovery center. Concisely enough, eDiscovery is a component of Office 365 with which company officers or auditors may seamlessly view information on the company's office domain: no extra resource dump is required for data storage and monitoring.

This feature streamlines the process firms have to go through to monitor information on them, thus making for a cheaper, faster and more convenient informational management paradigm.