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Integration is key to Office 365’s progress

We look at how Microsoft Office 365 works and how far it has gone towards becoming a platform for integrating other tools

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In 2010, Microsoft announced Office 365, a successor to BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), one of its earliest online services.

The plans for Office 365 were ambitious: to provide a platform for businesses of all sizes and consumers, linking together Microsoft’s collaboration servers (SharePoint, Exchange and Lync Server) with its Office tools, or rich client, as Microsoft terms them (the Office most of us know and love – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, OneNote).

All were to be made available both as online services and/or on-premise. The magic, according to Microsoft, would be the combination.

The move was a response to the reality of a world moving to cloud computing and to keep at bay other productivity tools, especially G Suite (as Google Apps was rebranded in 2016).

Initially, the Office 365 rich client was based on Office 2010; currently it is Office 2016. With a cloud service at its core and Microsoft Update in place, Microsoft has transitioned to a DevOps approach where Office 365 is constantly updated.

Office 365 is subscription-based and the move to major new versions and all iterations in between is automated and included in the subscription. This is good for security because newly identified vulnerabilities are patched swiftly and users get new features as soon as they are available (whether they want them or not).

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Currently, Microsoft claims it has more than 100 million active Office 365 business customers. These users are not licensing a single product, but various components of a broad suite of servers, tools and services, working in harmony, says Microsoft. This includes not just Microsoft products, but a broad range of third-party components from suppliers that have been attracted to the Office 365 platform.

Office 365 aims to improve collaboration between users and their access to content. To this end, the Office 365 platform has two capabilities at its core – Groups and Graph.

Office 365 Groups provides common access to applications and content to individuals working together on a project or in a team, not necessarily in the same organisation. Groups can be linked back to Active Directory, which most organisations still use as a repository for identities. Users can readily be provisioned and deprovisioned from groups, like a single-sign-on system, with the addition of automated access to content.

Mapping of data

Office 365 Graph provides a mapping of data across different data stores based on user identity and activity. It combines data from Microsoft’s 2012 Yammer acquisition, which had its own social graph (based on postings, connections, and so on), with Office 365 data (such as SharePoint activity, calendared meetings and email conversations).

Graph is transparently designed to locate content for a user wherever they happen to be. Given the complex range of data stores Microsoft has accumulated, perhaps it had little choice but to provide such middleware. Graph only indexes Microsoft’s own Office 365 data stores, not the other places where many organisations store data that can be processed within Office 365.

The Microsoft stores mapped by Graph include the various iterations of SharePoint (both on-premise and cloud-based), OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service, Exchange, where documents are attached to emails and meeting invites, the Windows Server file system, and so on.

Microsoft has exploited Graph itself with its new Delve search product, which shows documents to users relevant to their current activity. Delve knows when multiple users are collaborating on the same document. Microsoft also has a new collaboration product called Teams.

Non-Microsoft storage

Box, Dropbox, Google G-Drive and other storage services can be assigned as Office 365 Places. Firms will have selected these systems over Microsoft’s own storage for many reasons. One is that they have better support for non-Microsoft products such as Salesforce, Slack, Apple products and Linux. Graph does not map third-party Places. In some cases, audit logs and file histories may be maintained longer with non-Microsoft data stores.

Box and Dropbox both say their Microsoft integrations are frictionless. All the Office 365 rich client products can access content directly from both and open files with a choice of the relevant rich client or cloud-based Microsoft tools when selected directly from their storage systems. Office 365 co-authoring is supported and both have already integrated with Microsoft Teams.

Box says policies can be set to prompt users to send content via a secure Box link rather than an email attachment. Microsoft Office documents and more than 120 different file types can be previewed natively in the browser. Beyond Office 365, Box has other third-party integrations, for example it can act as the content layer for Salesforce and Slack.

Dropbox plus Office 365 is better than the sum of the parts, according to Dropbox, which also says it has thousands of integrations built into its platform. These include other productivity tools from Slack, Salesforce and Adobe and security products from Okta, Symantec, MobileIron and Microsoft Cloud App Security (based on the 2015 acquisition of Adallom, which was already a Dropbox partner).

To make Office 365 function as a platform and attract third parties to integrate, Microsoft has many application programming interfaces (APIs). These must both enable Office 365 tools to access non-Microsoft Places and enable third-party tools to manipulate content accessible via Office 365 Graph.

Confusingly, Microsoft has another Graph, Microsoft Graph, introduced in 2015, which is a unified API, combining APIs from Outlook, OneDrive, OneNote, Planner and Office 365 Graph. Microsoft Graph does not depend on Office 365 Graph, but provides more functionality when the latter is enabled. Microsoft Graph’s availability does not mean other APIs have been disabled.

No platform would be complete without a store to find out and sample the integrations on offer. The Office Store currently lists 2,196 Microsoft and third-party apps/add-ons that have been integrated at some level with Office 365. All the main Microsoft rich client products are listed on the store. Prices are given in US dollars, even if you are logged in as a UK-based subscriber.

Applications can be searched for by their association with one of eight Office 365 products. Topping the list is SharePoint with 1,183 add-ons, followed by Excel with 338, Word 264, Outlook 246, PowerPoint 146, Power BI 97, Project 35 and OneNote 11, which adds up to more than the total, indicating some overlap.

Applications can also be searched for by 11 functions including communication, customer relationship management (CRM), data analytics, education, productivity and search.

Some are free add-ins; others are charged for. For example, there are currently 28 “Best apps of the year”, seven are free, 15 labelled “Additional purchase may be required” (freemium – you get something for nothing up front, but may incur a charge down the line). Six have prices ranging from one-off charges of $3.99 for Range Tracker for Excel to $299 for a sales and opportunity maximiser for SharePoint and Sensei Schedule Analyzer for Project, or $29.99 a month for Milestone Gantt for SharePoint.

Searches for Microsoft’s own products display plenty of options, for example “Dynamics” (the family name for Microsoft business applications) returns 78 applications, including a free one from Microsoft which “enables data connections to Microsoft Dynamics systems” and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online connector. There are several add-ins for Skype for Business.

Searching for certain third-party products also turns up plenty of options. “Salesforce” returns 30 apps, many of which have clear links to the eponymous cloud CRM service, including Salesforce’s own “Lightning for Outlook”. There are five for SAP (none from SAP itself). “Oracle” returns seven, but none appears to be from the supplier Oracle. Searching for Google returns 97 items. Software giants can’t avoid each other – some are specific to G Suite. There are 12 add-ins linking Zoho’s SMB office suite to Office 365.

The Office Store is not the be-all and end-all – there are many other Office 365 integrations available that are not listed. The Box and Dropbox links above do not feature. RiskIQ, a digital rights management supplier focused mainly on Office 365, is also not listed. There must be many others with links to Office 365 that are not in the store.

Tracking down support

Even tracking down support for Microsoft products in the store is sometimes not easy. Searching on Team is too generic, Delve throws up eight results, but none seems to relate to the new Microsoft product. Searching for LinkedIn (which is owned by Microsoft) lists 11 add-ins, but some are incidental because the add-in itself links to LinkedIn.

Licensing Office 365 is complex business. As with many software suppliers, as Office 365 delivery has moved online, licensing has moved from a one-off payment to subscriptions that include all ongoing upgrades.

The various commercial subscriptions include a mix of 10 standard and 11 advanced services. There are three focused on smaller businesses – Business, Business Essentials and Business Premium. Five are aimed at larger businesses (enterprises) – ProPlus, K1, E1, E3 and E5. A PDF with a grid outlining the configurations can be found by searching for “Office 365 Licensing Brief”.

Microsoft’s UK guidance pricing for monthly per-user subscriptions to Office 365 is: Business £7.90, Business Essentials £3.80, Business Premium £9.40, ProPlus £11.50, E1 £6.00, E3 £17.60 and E5 £30.80. In all cases, an annual commitment is required. Individual resellers may offer discounts.

Microsoft has long held a dominant position in the user productivity market. Office 365 demonstrates that it has adapted to an IT world re-orientating to cloud computing. Its position will only be strengthened as more third parties choose to integrate their products to the Office 365 platform.

However, for many Microsoft customers, third-party integration is a necessity. Few are pure Microsoft shops and any organisation committing to Office 365 must check that its other key suppliers are linking to the Office 365 platform.

Bob Tarzey is an analyst and director at Quocirca.

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