“Why would I ever put my email in the cloud?” is no longer a common conversation I hear when I visit other CIOs. Many have moved already, others are preparing to do so, or working to find the resources and gain consensus. Most of us, however, have not fully embraced all of the capabilities of Office 365. While Microsoft continues to invest in many areas such as the recent addition of business voice services and Office 2016 capabilities, there is a lot to consider when moving to the cloud versions of SharePoint and Office.

“The Office 365 platform has been an easy way for IT organizations to move this messaging infrastructure from on premise to the cloud”

As the CIO at Blackbaud, I have an exciting and unique opportunity to not only provide IT services to our business, but also to work side by side with our nonprofit clients. Blackbaud is the leading provider of software and services for the global philanthropic community. In practice, we help our clients with IT needs so they can spend more of their valuable resources on their mission. Likewise, we help our clients manage their technology needs with our cloud solutions; Microsoft does so with its Office 365 product both for Blackbaud and our clients. No longer do we need to worry about Backups, Disaster Recovery, Data Center management, capacity planning, security, and system patching.

Messaging platforms have been a primary target of this move; beginning with email, but extending quickly into chat and web conferencing capabilities. Other tools such as Office 365 deployed versions of SharePoint, Word, and Excel have, in general, seen slower adoption. The Office 365 platform has been an easy way for IT organizations to move this messaging infrastructure from on premise to the cloud. As such, it is much faster and easier for a new organization to implement this capability without the needed capital and skillset it once took to stand up these services themselves. I have helped several of Blackbaud’s clients implement these capabilities in hours instead of the weeks allowing them to focus on building a new organization and furthering their mission.

For Blackbaud, this migration has not only allowed us to redirect resources from managing messaging infrastructure toward more impactful activities, but it also allows us to more easily take advantage of new capabilities very quickly. Many organizations today have a “Cloud First” component to their IT strategy for this very reason. Microsoft has invested heavily and continues to enrich features that are continuously deployed to our end users without IT intervention. Tools like SharePoint and OneDrive provide new capabilities that no longer require managing infrastructure such as networks, servers, and storage. Traditional Office products such as Word and Excel are now able to be automated or self-installed by end users with the right credentials with no IT intervention. When upgrades come out, they just show up for our associates. The Office 365 story is getting even more interesting as Microsoft has introduced features that can support core business voice and audio conferencing capabilities.

While the upside is compelling, there are a number of challenges to overcome.  These include a solid migration plan, security, control, and capacity planning. First, the migration plan can be more complex than anticipated. In some cases re-architecture of directory services, implementing ADFS, and the migration itself can be expensive, time consuming, and disruptive. A solid plan that includes heavy employee communication was paramount for Blackbaud. The migration also poses planning on the desktop side to address concerns such as, “Will my client applications interoperate with Office 365 versions of Outlook and Excel?”

Security is another major factor to consider. While Microsoft offers features such as DLP, automated patching, and virus protection as part of the service; many organizations will be moving tools from infrastructure that requires remote users to utilize a VPN client toward a model where data can be accessed more easily from anywhere. The proper policy, training, and technical controls must be an important part of any organization’s plans.

Third, in a cloud deployment model, organizations don’t have the ability to control how and when features are delivered. Upgrades happen when Microsoft deploys them, so organizations need to make sure they’re using the latest version and implementing any required routine maintenance. Our users get updated software without the ability to manage and control training or usage patterns. Testing cannot always occur in a linear fashion prior to roll out.  These can all be managed, but require us to change our approach to managing the changes. 

Lastly, we must all take a good look at our operations models as we implement cloud solutions.  For example, capacity planning must take into account increased network traffic, business continuity plans must consider a higher dependency in internet services, and cloud monitoring needs to be considered. For many organizations email is the first Tier 1 system to truly move to the cloud.

While there are real obstacles, the opportunity is also very real. At Blackbaud embracing this technology has enabled us to increase our customer focus by giving our employees better tools and reducing the time we spend managing them.