O365’s Email Solution – Caution!

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2017 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from MinistryTech Magazine

Microsoft’s O365 has many features that interest churches and ministries– especially because of the generous charity license Microsoft provides. Some aspects of O365 are good, but we found enough problems with their hosted email service that it’s worth posting an Enter at Your Own Risk sign.

O365’s Charity License
Microsoft is willing to give to nearly any non-profit a license to use their hosted O365 solutions and services for free! The only exception we’ve experienced is for pregnancy centers and clinics; Microsoft has been unwilling to extend the charity to license their way.

Microsoft, in its desire to be as inclusive as possible, recently modified some language in their application process to give comfort to religious organizations who legally discriminate in their hiring and employment practices. That is worthy of our appreciation!

O365 Hosted Email Service
My firm is a Microsoft Cloud Partner. We have many clients using various aspects of O365, and we think some of those aspects make great sense.

Because many churches and ministries turn to us for recommendations, we test solutions as carefully and as thoroughly as possible. So, we moved our Exchange server into Microsoft’s hosted email server solution to see how it performed; we expected it to do at least as well as Microsoft Exchange. What we experienced, however, was very disappointing. Here are the details:

  1. Email often stopped moving. We saw times during which no email would move; the longest of which was about three hours. The stoppage was not always to our entire domain (whoever@mbsinc.com), but was sometimes just one person in the mbsinc.com domain. As a Microsoft Cloud Partner, we can look at what’s happening when there’s a support need and try to resolve it, but the most we could ever determine was that Microsoft was aware of email flow stoppage and was working to resolve it. We could never learn anything more specific than that, nor were we allowed to resolve it.

    I’ve spoken with other Microsoft Cloud Partners, and they have seen this too. Like us, they also found they could do nothing more than learn Microsoft was aware of it.

  2. We started getting a lot of SPAM. Microsoft has SPAM protocols protecting its hosted email servers, but a much higher amount got through than we were used to when using our Barracuda SPAM Filter with our Exchange Server. Our first conclusion after talking with Microsoft about this issue was to start using our Barracuda SPAM Filter again with their hosted email server. Doing so prevented a lot of the SPAM that had been getting though, but we continued to get a lot of obvious and potentially dangerous SPAM. Further analysis determined that it was being generated by other users of O365 hosted email servers. Talking with Microsoft about this, we concluded they didn’t have a way to stop SPAM that was generated from within their email ecosystem, perhaps because it was sourced behind their SPAM protection solution.
  3. Data started disappearing. I use Outlook for more than just email. I rely heavily on Outlook’s calendar and task management functions; in fact, the calendar is a part of my income tax documentation for mileage logs and business-related expenses. I was shocked when about six months of my recent calendar data disappeared! Then I noticed my tasks were randomly disappearing, causing me to miss fulfilling promises I had made to clients and publishers. We contacted Microsoft, and that led to the fourth issue.
  4. Microsoft does not backup its hosted email servers. There was no way to recover data that disappeared. If I had deleted the data, it could be undeleted within a reasonable period, but because it just disappeared, there was no way to undelete or recover it. Apparently, they decided their email ecosystem had so much redundancy that it didn’t need backups!

In fairness to Microsoft, it’s appropriate to say the experience we had is not typical. I was talking with an IT engineering colleague about that, and told him sometimes the Lord uses us in this way to help protect The Church. As a small firm, we are often amazed at how He uses us to uncover hardware and software system weaknesses and then gives us the opportunity to help the solution provider resolve those weaknesses. We’ve done that with Microsoft many times over the years, but on this issue Microsoft told us they had no interest in working with us to identify the cause of the O365 email server issues and fix them.

Our Conclusion & Recommendation
Microsoft’s O365 has many good features, but their hosted email service is not ready for enterprise users. I told our engineering team that if any of the Exchange servers we set up for our clients were as unreliable as the O365 email server, our clients would fire us! And appropriately so! So, we moved our data back into an Exchange Server, where we once again enjoy stability without an onslaught of SPAM.

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