Office 365 explained: Microsoft Office in the cloud

Single subscription

If you want both the Office client and server applications as a cloud service, you can get them as a single subscription with Office 365 Small Business Premium, Office 365 Midsize Business or Office 365 Enterprise (depending how many users you have and whether you need more powerful features for ediscovery, rights management, voice mail, business intelligence and Yammer, which are all available in the enterprise plans). There's even an option to run Lync Server 2013 on premise to replace a PBX as part of your monthly subscription.

Plus you get the same set of Office desktop tools (with the addition of InfoPath in the midsize and enterprise plans) that install quickly, run on up to five devices and can be streamed on demand if you borrow a PC to get some work done.

Working with Office 365

If you're used to running Exchange, SharePoint and Lync in your business, you'll notice some differences between the 2013 servers and the Office 365 versions. You administer them all from the Office 365 Web portal, where you can also create users (or import existing user accounts, from a spreadsheet or your Active Directory), assign licences and nominate specific people as administrators. You can also see the health of the service, including any planned maintenance, manage your Office 365 subscription, request support (by email or phone), see which users haven't signed in recently, and set Office 365 to use your own domain for email and your company website (you'll also need to change some settings with your domain registrar).

When you create users in Office 365, they get Active Directory accounts. If you already have an Active Directory, or you're running Office servers on your own network as well as using Office 365, you can synchronise accounts so the passwords are the same. For a small business that's just using Office 365, you can treat these as just accounts that give users access to Office 365 but if you add services like Windows Intune for managing PCs or Azure for running virtual machines and cloud services, you can use the same Active Directory accounts for those too. If you're moving to Office 365 from older versions of Exchange and SharePoint on your own servers, or from another email server, you can import your email archives to Office 365. Microsoft provides some tools for doing this, but if you have a more complex setup there are plenty of third-party tools to help you.

The admin dashboard shows you a few handy stats, like how much incoming email is being blocked as spam, but you can get detailed reports on everything from mailbox usage and detected malware to how many team sites you have on SharePoint and how many people have been sharing their screens in Lync meetings.

You access the Yammer admin tools from here, but they still open in their own separate website, at least for now.

Portal of power

Users get their own Office 365 portal, which they can also find as part of the Outlook Web App interface, where they can download software and change their password. That's different from the profile page they get on SharePoint, where they can add a biography and profile picture.

If you have a Small Business plans, you get simplified admin interfaces for the servers; with the midsize and enterprise plans you see the full admin interface for Exchange and SharePoint (except that SharePoint doesn't allow you to install custom code and only the enterprise plan for Office 365 gives you the full ediscovery and rights management tools for Exchange). If you need to run your own custom SharePoint applications, you can run the code on Windows Azure (where badly written code won't slow down anyone but your users) and connect to it from Office 365.

The new model for adding features to SharePoint, and to the desktop applications like Outlook, Word and Excel, is to install what Microsoft calls 'apps for Office 2013'. These are built using HTML5 and JavaScript so they work inside the Office web apps as well as in the desktop programs, and for Outlook they actually run inside Exchange. You can find free and pay-for apps on the site, and a few apps come as part of the Office 2013 programs like the Suggested Meetings feature in Outlook 2013.

Lync between worlds

The Lync admin interface is much simpler than the Lync Server admin console, because it has fewer features and fewer options. You can control presence information, manage access to external Lync domains and public IM services, add your logo and disclaimer to Lync meeting invitations and choose whether users get push notifications for IMs, voicemail and missed calls on Windows Phone and Apple devices. But if you want to do anything else with Lync, you need to sign up with partner services, for example to let people dial in to a meeting from a landline or mobile phone without the Lync client.

You can also use PowerShell to manage your Office 365 servers the same way you would Office servers running on your own network, but you don't have all the same commands because you can only control product features, not the server setup.

Office 365 has multiple plans because you can choose how you want to use it; it can be a simple solution for a small business or a full-powered workflow system for a large company – so make sure you get the version you need.


Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.