A. Most organizations maintain a lot of infrastructure such as directory services, messaging, collaboration platform, monitoring, backup, and so on. All of these elements require maintenance such as product upgrades, patching, security, hardware work, and monitoring. In addition, organizations require specialists to maintain these technologies, which can be difficult for small companies.

Many companies are looking at hosted options for certain services, which is where another company hosts the service and make it available to the organization's users. Microsoft is now getting into the hosted service space with Microsoft Online Services, which consists of the following elements:

  • Exchange Online: E-mail, calendar, contacts, Outlook connectivity (anywhere), virus/spam filtering, and ActiveSync
  • SharePoint Online: Intranet portal, document sharing, content and workflow management, and site search
  • Office Live Meeting: Collaborative and interactive meetings, including media sharing
  • Office Communications Online (IM/Presence only)

Dynamics Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Online can also be purchased for customer management.

The advantage to organizations is that Microsoft is responsible for patching, maintaining, and keeping the services up to date with the latest product versions. Organizations are also protected by Microsoft Forefront technologies.

Organizations sign up for Microsoft Online on a per-user basis for the price of $15 each per month, which gets the organizations all of the above services (except CRM). Users access the services via the standard capabilities of the client. For example, Outlook can connect to Exchange using Outlook Anywhere capabilities, SharePoint is accessed through Internet Explorer, and Office Communicator Server also works over the Internet.

There are actually two models of Microsoft Online Services, Shared and Dedicated. In the Shared environment, organizations connect to an online service that is used by many companies while maintaining logical isolation, which means users for your company won't see users for other companies in places such as the Exchange Global Access List.

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Dedicated has infrastructure that is separate for each organization, which adds complexity. You need around 5,000 seats to qualify for dedicated, but you don't have to go dedicated above 5,000—its just an option.

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You'll probably be wondering about how your users access the services in terms of authentication. For the shared model, you have a separate authentication store at Microsoft Online that you can manually manage through a web interface or an AD sync service. The sync service will synchronize your organization's local AD with the Microsoft Online authentication store, but passwords aren't synchronized, so users will have a separate password for Microsoft Online. Client utility is provided for end-user desktops that caches Microsoft Online credentials and allows a one-click connection for all services.

For the dedicated model, you actually have a domain controller for your domain at Microsoft Online, and you're required to have a dedicated, permanent network connection between your datacenter and Microsoft Online. This means users only have one credential for both local and Microsoft Online services, but you have the extra infrastructure requirements.

More information about Microsoft Online Services and a free trial are available at the Online Services site.

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