Microsoft Office 365's Back-end Tools: No IT Pro Required

Office 365 delivers Microsoft server and productivity software from the cloud for businesses of all sizes, meant to free them from having to set up and manage infrastructure. Here's how it lets you manage users and permissions.

Microsoft Office 365 Opens Up: The View for IT Admins

Microsoft's Exchange Server, Office, and other productivity tools are the lifeblood of many businesses. Yet, taking advantage of all that Microsoft offers requires a considerable investment in software and hardware infrastructure, as well as in IT staffers who have the skills to manage the setup. But not any more, thanks to Office 365, which becomes available to the public in beta, testing form today.

Office 365 delivers business tools in a cloud-based, software-as-a-service package. Customers receive the same applications and productivity software--including the desktop Office Professional Plus--while leaving the cost and hassle of maintaining infrastructure to Microsoft. I've had an opportunity to work with the Office 365 beta. Let's take a hands-on look at what the package has to offer for company managers.

Admin Console

When you log in to Office 365, you encounter the Admin Overview. This feature lets you manage the domains and users associated with Office 365 services, and it provides links for managing services such as Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint. Links under Management enable you to manage users or domains. Administrator shortcuts at the bottom of the main pane jump to common tasks such as resetting user passwords, adding new users, and provisioning licenses.

Domain Properties

Clicking on Domains does little--at least for the Small Business beta account I used. The beta service required me to create a convoluted domain that is actually a subdomain of, but the final version of Office 365 will let you associate your existing company domain with Office 365 services.

Manage Users

The Users page defaults to a list of the current active users of Office 365 in your company, and provides tools for setting up and managing them. For example, to reset someone's password, you can select a user and click Reset password at the bottom of the page.

Assign Permissions

From the Users page, you (as the admin) can click Edit--or click the Display Name of the user--to manage an individual's account. You can fill in properties such as job title and department; assign or unassign Office 365 licenses for the account; manage Exchange mailbox and Lync Online options; and modify settings, such as whether to permit the user account to sign in and access Office 365 services.

Exchange (Nearly) Everywhere

Exchange Online gives users e-mail, calendar, and contact functions, plus built-in antivirus and antispam protection. Users can gain access to information by using Outlook on their own PC or Outlook Web Access on any Web-enabled device, or by using a smartphone or tablet.

To get to Exchange configuration settings, click Manage under 'Exchange Online' on the Office 365 Admin Overview page. The left pane has links for managing users and groups, roles and auditing, mail control, and phone and voice options. Within Users & Groups, the admin can edit the configuration of individual users' mailboxes, create or edit e-mail Distribution Groups, add External Contacts, and migrate e-mail to Exchange Online.

Exchange ActiveSync

Exchange Online is easy to set up and maintain if you just want to use it as a robust e-mail system for your company. If you want to invest more time, the Exchange Online console also provides comprehensive tools and reports for troubleshooting e-mail issues, auditing logs for compliance and security, and defining policies for ActiveSync to help protect data on mobile devices.

The Point of SharePoint

SharePoint Online is an Office 365 component that lets you create a team site for sharing and collaborating on documents, working with customers and partners, managing projects, creating an intranet site, and more. The SharePoint console gives Office 365 admins access to software for building and configuring a SharePoint site, as well as controls for managing users and permissions. SharePoint Online lets you create and customize a team Website with simple, intuitive tools that require minimal knowledge of SharePoint, or Website development. The best part is that Microsoft manages the SharePoint server infrastructure.

Lync Online

Lync Online--formerly known as Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS)--provides unified communication tools to make collaboration more efficient. Lync Communicator software enables users to see available contacts, and it provides a single platform for VoIP phone calls, instant messaging, audio- and videoconferencing, whiteboarding, and real-time collaboration. Lync integrates with Exchange and SharePoint, as well as with the Microsoft Office suite.

The Lync Online Control Panel Overview essentially lets you enable or disable external communications for Lync Online. But if you click on User Information at the top of the display, you can modify settings for users, such as whether they can use Lync for file transfers, or for audio- and videoconferencing.

Service Health

Office 365 provides a snapshot view of the health of its various services, including Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync Online.

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