Cloud integration

by Mary Branscombe

Major business applications are taking to the Cloud, but do they really give you the best of both worlds? Mary Branscombe finds out.

HardCopy Issue: 57 | Published: September 1, 2012

When you think Cloud these days it’s replacing servers and infrastructure that tends to spring to mind, but the term was in fact first used in reference to Web-based services replacing in-house applications. Now we seem to have turned full-circle and there are indeed desktop applications that you can move to the Cloud, or supplement with Cloud services to bring new collaboration and workflow facilities. And it’s not just Web start-ups: the biggest names in desktop software, such as Microsoft and Adobe, are going Cloud. Adobe now offers a Cloud subscription to its Creative Suite that bundles storage and online services with access to applications. Microsoft Office 2013 will go even further, including deep integration with Cloud storage and hosted versions of the Office servers through Office 365.

Office 365 interface

A simple interface but Office 365 lights up your desktop applications with new features from the Office servers.

You can also use Web-based versions of the applications that run in the browser instead of locally. These are rarely as powerful as the rich desktop programs you’re used to and they rely on a fast Internet connection, so they’re mostly useful as a supplement rather than a full replacement. However they are an increasingly useful part of the Cloud application world.

The combination of Cloud services and connected desktop applications brings many benefits to your business, including mobile and flexible working, backup and remote access, high availability, much faster deployment and reduced costs, all within an environment familiar to both users and administrators. Shifting expenditure from one-off, up-front capital investment to subscription charges changes the way you finance your IT too, spreading costs and potentially saving money.

Your IT team still administers the service within the Cloud but they no longer have to provision a server and deploy applications – Cloud services usually include on-demand installers for client applications. That can free up IT time but you may need to budget for some training as your users may be getting more up-to-date versions of the desktop applications that they are used to. However that should bring new features and improved security, so it’s also an advantage.

 

Microsoft Office 365

Office 365 isn’t the Cloud version of desktop Office; it’s the Cloud version of the Office servers that unlock features within desktop Office, namely Exchange, Forefront, SharePoint and Lync. With some subscription plans, Office 365 also includes licences for the Office desktop applications themselves.

Yo! Sushi and Microsoft Office 365

Despite having 60 restaurants, and a high-technology image thanks to its drinks robots and conveyer belts of food, YO! Sushi has a relatively small staff of 150 and only one full time IT manager, Billy Waters. In 2011, managers wanted an intranet and collaboration tools for their users, and Waters felt that the existing Exchange Server 2003 and Office 2003 environment needed replacement. “Our hardware was reaching the end of its life cycle. We were close to our data volume limits and the system simply could not sustain our rate of growth or performance needs.”

Rather than upgrade to new servers and Exchange 2010, Waters worked with consultants IMGROUP to move the restaurant chain to Office 365 and Office 2010. “It could have been tailor-made for us,” Walters explains. “It was considerably less expensive than the alternatives, easier to manage, and removed our business continuity and disaster recovery concerns.” Office 365 saved YO! Sushi the capital cost of replacing servers every five years, plus around 40 per cent of the costs of adding new servers each year as the company expands: “I’m no longer concerned that adding new users will affect memory space and processing power.”

Because the user licences allow installation on up to five computers, Walters is saving around £200 a year in licencing costs for email, while users can now access email, contacts, calendars and documents remotely or from mobile devices when they’re on the road. He’s also been able to do away with VPN for remote access (a notorious source of helpdesk requests) without compromising the security required for financial compliance.

Walters used SharePoint Online as the basis for the intranet and plans to add social networking options to connect staff in the restaurants with the office teams. “The My Site functionality in SharePoint Online will give employees in the more remote restaurants the information they need to identify their colleagues at head office and search for contacts or find how-to guides.”

SharePoint Online includes the Office Web Apps too, which can be useful – you can view features like SmartArt diagrams within Word documents for example, even though you can’t edit them online, which means you can share a document or give a presentation in an emergency. However the intention isn’t to move everything to the Cloud – the intention is to give you Cloud services and desktop applications that complement and augment each other.

The version of Exchange Online served up by Office 365 is a full multi-tenant version with the familiar Exchange management interface, Forefront anti-malware and full PowerShell support. Small business subscriptions get a simplified interface for managing users and mail, and with Microsoft looking after the servers themselves, there’s little maintenance left for you to do.

An enterprise subscription, on the other hand, gives you the same options for setting up groups, creating retention policies, managing journaling and audits and building company-wide mail rules as you would get with an on-premise installation. You can also manage mobile devices that connect to Exchange Online, using EAS and ActiveSync policies. These allow you to enforce security policies on Windows RT tablets as well as smartphones, requiring minimum password lengths and encryption on devices, limiting how much information synchronises, or locking down device features like Wi-Fi. Users can also manage their own devices with facilities for blocking or remote wiping a lost phone.

SharePoint Online isn’t quite the same as on-premise SharePoint: there are far fewer options for customising SharePoint with your own code or with third-party services, and the Business Data Connectivity options for connecting external data are more limited. At this moment SharePoint Online is well suited to running external Web sites or internal document libraries complete with workflow, approvals, discussion tools, InfoPath Forms, shared calendars and search, but it’s not really a platform for building custom systems.

Lync Online is even more streamlined compared to the on-premise unified communication service. Out of the box you get online meetings complete with chat and presentations or desktop sharing, and you get instant messaging with audio and video (either from the desktop or from phones that have a Lync Mobile client installed) rather than standard phone calls. You’ll need a dial-in conferencing provider if you want audio for your online meetings, and you’ll need a Lync phone provider such as Jajah Voice if you want to use Lync for phone calls.

With Office 365, the majority of the options that it brings to the desktop Office applications simply work. These include knowing when the person who just sent you email is online for a chat, or being able to send an attachment by email and have it live in SharePoint so everyone edits it there rather than creating multiple versions, or giving an online presentation complete with Q&A straight from PowerPoint. Unified communications, with features like seeing voice mail in Outlook, require far more work, including integration with your PBX.

In this current version, Office 365 is a great Cloud service to replace servers you might or might not already have. However with Office 2013, it will also become a Cloud service that both delivers and improves upon the desktop applications that your users rely on.

 

Microsoft Office 2013

The most visible changes in Office 2013 are in the new-look Windows 8-style user interface, however the new Cloud features could be more significant. The Consumer Preview lets you try many of them out, including new versions of the desktop Office applications themselves plus Office 365 with updated Exchange, SharePoint, Lync and Office Web Apps.

Microsoft Excel screenshot

Microsoft Excel shows off its new user interface and its ability to save to SkyDrive.

SharePoint, whether the Office 365 version or on-premise, is not very useful if users persist in saving documents locally. By default, ‘Save As’ in the Office 2013 apps points to either SkyDrive (for individual users) or SkyDrive Plus (for business users) which is a personal location on SharePoint. That gets documents into document libraries where you can manage and back them up. Furthermore, go to another PC and not only can you get at the same files because they’re in the Cloud; they’ll also be on the ‘Recent Documents’ menu and you’ll get the same links taking you to the slide or page where you were most recently working.

SkyDrive and SkyDrive Plus also synchronise other key settings such as your custom dictionary, while getting an Office app onto a new PC is as simple as opening an Office document from the Cloud: you can open it with an Office Web App or you can choose to open it within the desktop application. If that’s not installed, then the application is streamed from the Cloud with a Click-To-Run installation that lets you start working within just a few minutes – even before those less frequently used features have fully downloaded. It’s fast enough to put Office on a PC that you’re only using temporarily.

Office 2013 will be licensed in the traditional way, but if you want on-demand streaming then you should buy it as part of an Office 365 subscription. This lets each user run Office on up to five computers which can be either Macs or PCs.

The Office servers light up more Cloud features in desktop Office 2013 apps, such as Lync integration for sharing documents to start a meeting. SharePoint continues to be far more than a document library, driving the Office Web apps and services. The Office Web apps get new features like word count in Word, SmartArt diagrams in PowerPoint and PivotTable editing in Excel, as well as the same Metro-styled interface as their desktop counterparts. The Outlook Web App gets a similar Metro-style interface to Outlook.com (the consumer replacement for Hotmail) but with extra features like offline availability. There’s a new Project Web App to use with Project Online which has BI reports and Excel-style dashboards. Project can sync to SharePoint so that Project tasks show up with the rest of your tasks within the SharePoint newsfeed, and you can instigate Lync conversations with others in a project plan.

SharePoint can also host Apps for Office that you develop yourself in HTML5 and JavaScript, and these work in both desktop and Office Web Apps. SharePoint is also behind the new spreadsheet compliance and control tools for helping you keep on top of the information and models in Excel workbooks across the business.

There are too many new features in Office 2013 to cover here (we’ll review it in more detail when it’s closer to shipping) but the big picture is how integrated both the desktop programs and the Office servers are with Office 365 and SkyDrive. You’ll be able to use Office 2013 without Office 365 and vice versa, but they’ll definitely work much better together.

 

Adobe Creative Cloud

Like Office 365, Adobe’s Creative Cloud combines the latest versions of powerful desktop applications with a monthly subscription and Cloud services that improve the workflow for developers and designers. You get the full Adobe Creative Suite 6, which comprises Photoshop Extended, Illustrator, InDesign, Muse, Acrobat X Pro, Flash Builder, Flash Professional, Dreamweaver, Edge, Fireworks, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, SpeedGrade, Prelude, Encore, Story Plus, Media Encoder and Bridge plus Lightroom 4, together with upgrades to the next releases as they come out.

Adobe Creative Suite options

Pay for Creative Suite with a monthly subscription and get synchronisation, storage and extra Cloud services with Adobe Creative Cloud.

You can pick and mix language versions (handy if you have an office overseas) as well as mixing Windows and Mac programs on the same subscription. You do have to pay for the six Adobe Touch applications for tablets which you can also access from the Creative Cloud download page, but you get a free month of Creative Cloud to make up for it.

Moving to Adobe Creative Cloud Team

Different Patterns, the in-house design department at Omnisoft Services, already uses Adobe Creative Suite to create brochures, banners, flyers, Web sites and iPad apps for clients. However creative manager Alan McDowell is keen to switch to Creative Cloud Team as soon as it’s available. That’s not just because it will save the company money, although he does praise the licensing options and the flexibility they offer when designers join or leave the team. Cloud storage will also be useful for collaboration and client approval. “All the work is centralised in one place. We can get feedback from clients and other designers wherever they are in the world.” The five hosted Web sites will be useful, too: “We’ll use them for some of our smaller clients – or even our own stuff, if we need a promotional Web site that’s only up for a few weeks.”

McDowell is particularly keen on being able to publish to iPad with Digital Publishing Suite, but in general sees it as a great deal. “It comes with so many features that it’s a no-brainer, especially for us because we’re using all its components.”

Each user gets 20GB of storage space on Creative Cloud and content is synchronised automatically across your PC, Mac, tablet and smartphone, so if you create a project in Photoshop Touch or a colour palette in Kuler you have those on your machine ready to use in Photoshop. And you have the InDesign layout you were working on last on your tablet, ready to demo in Debut.

You can preview the files that you’ve synched to the Cloud and see metadata such as the list of fonts used in an InDesign layout or the palette of a Photoshop file – indeed grabbing that from Creative Cloud is faster than exporting it from Photoshop. In the future, sync might also work through content delivery networks for large files like video or enterprise content management systems.

The services included in Creative Cloud aren’t just for designers. You get hosting for up to five Web sites with Business Catalyst, and you can use Typekit Web fonts on an unlimited number of Web sites with a limit of 500,000 page views. You can also save files stored in Creative Cloud as PDFs, which is handy if you want to show off your portfolio.

Google Docs and Google Apps

Even with the new offline capabilities in Gmail and the Windows sync application for the long-awaited Google Drive (which are only available to Chrome users), Google Docs isn’t a replacement for Microsoft Office. Instead it competes with the Office Web Apps, with Google Apps for Business offering Gmail (with your own domain name, Postini spam filtering and simple remote management for smartphones), Calendar, Contacts, Chat, Groups mailing lists and some control over user access to other Google services for £33 per user per year.

Running Gmail for Google Apps looks far simpler than running Exchange Online because you have very few tools, in much the same way that the small business plans for Office 365 don’t include administrative controls for Exchange Online. As you’d expect, Office 365 does a much better job of integrating with an existing Active Directory and implementing single sign-on using ADFS 2. Using a SAML bridge and an LDAP directory for signing in to local apps using Google credentials is complex.

Neither Google Docs nor Google Apps has any equivalent to SharePoint Online – the Sites tool is for creating Web pages for intranets or public sites and has none of the discussion tools, shared calendars and workflow or version control of SharePoint. You can use Google Apps to control whether documents default to public or private, and whether users can share documents outside the business, but those documents live in the individual storage associated with a user account rather than a centralised document library. Syncing Office documents isn’t a seamless process either. When documents are edited in Google Docs they are imported and the changes stay in the Cloud. What syncs back to the original computer is a link to the online document rather than a copy.

Google Chat and Google Talk are simpler and possibly more familiar than Lync Online, but they’re very tied to Gmail and Google Docs for seeing who is online and starting conversations. If you don’t have an Android phone you’ll need a third-party client like Vtok or Fring (both available on iPhone), a solution that relies on users setting it up individually. There are fewer options for management – you can block external chat in Google Apps, for example, but not file transfers. And while the XMPP protocol used by Google Talk is widely used, federating is an all-or-nothing option that you have to enable by editing your domain SRV record. You can’t allow the marketing team to make external calls, for example, but block the research team the way Active Directory groups and Lync Online can.

This is a very different way of working from Office and it will suit businesses that are prepared to adopt Google tools broadly and where users already have expertise with those tools. Generally, Google Apps works best for a business that doesn’t already have an IT infrastructure and an investment in desktop applications, and where you are comfortable with the level of change in the service. Even when you pay for Google Apps, you don’t get the option to control when new features become available to your users.

And more services are planned. There is talk of an online version of the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite that will create single iPad editions of interactive magazines from files you have in Creative Cloud which can be submitted to the App Store or used as brochures. If you’re using PhoneGap to develop for multiple smartphone platforms then you can upload your code to the PhoneGap Build service and have it deliver a native binary for each app store you want to target – you just need to add certificates and signing keys. The beta version is currently free for open source projects and works with repositories like GitHub. A version that lets you make commercial applications will follow.

You can pay for Creative Cloud a year at a time or month by month. The annual charge includes a significant discount but the monthly plan means you can effectively rent Creative Suite for a specific project and then cancel, or make the Adobe tools available to a changing workforce without worrying about whether they take the licences with them. Adobe has also announced Creative Cloud Team which will allow you to share Cloud licences between contractors and agency workers and have them upload projects into a team account rather than their own Cloud space. In the meantime a subscription to Creative Cloud Team Ready ensures you will be able to move your memberships to the Team service with the minimum of hassle when it becomes available.

This combination of Cloud services and licence flexibility makes Creative Cloud an attractive way to access these powerful desktop apps, and get some useful extra perks.

 

Mindjet Connect

Traditional project management tools like Microsoft Project are designed for trained project managers and concentrate on formal methods. However many managers and team use far less formal methods. Even if you have a project manager, the transition from early planning and brainstorming to tracking project resources and goals takes time and can easily leave some of the key goals and inspiration stranded in documents no-one goes back to check. Mindjet takes a very different approach.

Mind Manager screenshot

Brainstorm ideas, create tasks, track projects in the browser or from the Mind Manager desktop application through Mindjet Connect.

You can use the Mindjet Connect Cloud service on its own, in which case you can make mind maps in the Vision page, create and manage tasks in simple steps, and track people and the projects they’re connected to in the Action pane. Alternatively you can integrate it with the MindManager desktop mind-mapping software and the mobile Mindjet apps for iOS and Android which makes it easier to go from brainstorming sessions and action points to the projects that arise from them. You can also connect Mindjet Connect to SharePoint so that you can view libraries as maps, or brainstorm tasks and ideas and share them along with your other business documents.

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