The Microsoft Office 365 offering is popular with organisations of all sizes. However, many people remain unaware of its ramifications on corporate networks.
The cloud-based Office 365 service is designed to improve the flexibility and productivity of teams, but it also puts considerable strain on networks and security architectures. Office 365 users will have, on average, between 12 and 20 persistent connections to the Internet as they use Exchange email, Word, Excel, Skype, and other services. These long sessions can quickly overwhelm firewalls and they result in considerably more traffic — an increase of up to 40 percent — which can drive MPLS backhaul costs in a traditional hub-and-spoke architecture.
According to a recent Okta report, Microsoft Office 365 is the most widely used cloud-based business application today, surpassing Salesforce. The growth of Office 365 singularly illustrates the extent to which the Internet has become the corporate network. Organisations need to ensure their infrastructures are optimised for this new world. They must not only support the use of Office 365 throughout the distributed enterprise — with great performance in headquarters and branch offices alike — but they must also enable the business to fully leverage the agility and productivity benefits of the cloud.
The user experience
Microsoft Office 365 has been widely praised for its ability to improve collaboration and productivity. But those benefits are quickly undone by poor performance, which is a major problem for Office 365 users in regional and branch offices. In these environments, traffic is often backhauled to centralised resources over MPLS links before it can go out to the Internet and connect to Office 365. Then the traffic from Office 365 takes the same circuitous route back to the user. It all leads to frustrating latency and high costs.
So, what is an organisation to do when rolling out Office 365? There are three options.
Option 1: Hub and spoke
One option is to stick with a traditional hub-and-spoke architecture and augment it with a direct connection, such as Microsoft's ExpressRoute. But even Microsoft recommends against this approach, stating that Office 365 was designed to be accessed securely and reliably by a direct Internet connection.
Option 2: The branch appliance
While many organisations will try to continue to use a hub-and-spoke model, there is little doubt that it will eventually fail to deliver the required performance for users. Such organisations will try to solve the problem by installing appliances in branch offices. This can seem like a good solution. After all, Office 365 is not likely to be the only cloud-based service being used, so the demands from branch offices for better performance will only continue to grow.
In this scenario, the user experience will continue to be highly dependent on how network traffic is routed and whether the appliances can cope with the high number of long-lived sessions. If not, connection issues will arise, revealing the need for more appliances, and costs will quickly mount. And just as quickly, IT teams will realise that adding more and more hardware — and then having to manage it all —goes against the rationale for selecting cloud-based resources in the first place: simplicity.
Option 3: The cloud
Adoption of the cloud will be driven by a desire on the part of CTOs and CIOs for rapid, cost-effective deployment and a great user experience.
The cloud enables a configuration known as “branch office breakout,” in which an organisation can send Internet-bound traffic directly to the Internet and secure it via a cloud service. Because of this direct Internet connection, the user experience is fast, with traffic going directly to the Office 365 network. Cloud-direct organisations also stand to save significantly on their networking costs.
The bottom line is that adopting a cloud networking option is likely to satisfy the needs of all parties within the organisation. The CIO will be happy, as the most visible and essential business applications can be deployed quickly and simply, and users will get the performance needed for improved productivity, which is the whole point. The CFO will be happy, as the costs associated with moving traffic across expensive network connections is dramatically reduced, as is the need for costly hardware upgrades. Meanwhile, users will be happy, as they can enjoy a consistent online experience that allows them to get their jobs done when and where they need to perform them.
Clearly, Office 365 has much to offer organisations, and choosing a networking infrastructure that is up to the task of supporting it will ensure those benefits are delivered. How will you know if you’ve chosen correctly? That’s easy. If your users are happy, your deployment has been a success.