Office 2013: Everything IT needs to know

Microsoft takes leap into the cloud with Office 2013/Office 365

With Office 2013, Microsoft sets the bar high. The reworked suite of applications runs on a range of devices, including new Windows tablets; it has a new look, which is fast and fluid, yet has familiar commands; it responds to touch and stylus, as well as keyboard and mouse; and everything's cloud-connected.

The customer preview we tested is available in four plans through Microsoft's cloud service, Office 365. We selected Office 365 Enterprise Preview since it meets the needs of midsize and large organizations. This subscription includes Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, Access, OneNote, Publisher, InfoPath and Lync clients. Additionally, enterprises have access to Exchange Online (including new archiving and legal hold capabilities), SharePoint Online and Lync Online to conduct meetings.

In the Preview, administrators can create 25 user accounts, with each allowed five installations of the applications on different systems. Microsoft hasn't announced pricing or scalability for its new Office offering. The current Office 365, which supports more than 50,000 users, costs from $8 to $22 per user per month. The top-tier enterprise plans include a subscription to Office Professional Plus 2010 for up to five devices per user.

Further, we tested the traditional Office Professional Plus 2013 client software suite that can be installed on a single machine. Also, we installed the 2013 versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync servers on virtual machines running Windows Server 2008 R2. Our client hardware was a mix of Lenovo and Dell desktop and laptops loaded with Windows 7 Enterprise and a Lenovo X220 tablet with the Windows 8 Release Preview.

IN PICTURES: 10 things we love about Microsoft Office 2013

Click and go

The new Office 365 service has the same modern user interface as Windows 8, providing a clean, uncluttered admin console. However, the software is clearly unfinished, as we found inconsistencies in the look and operation between different areas, such as the main console and Exchange Online. Still, much as we found in our earlier look at Office 365, it's a snap to add new users, assign software licenses and monitor the health of various services.

Microsoft uses "Click-to-Run," its streaming and virtualization technology, to install Office products. In Office 2010, this was limited to individual consumers only, but with Office 2013, Click-to-Run supports large enterprise deployments through the Office 365 hosted service.

We see a number of advantages to this approach. First, there's the user experience, where workers can begin using applications almost immediately. We started creating a Word document within a minute of starting the download (connected to a Wi-Fi network) and the whole Office suite finished installing in five minutes.

Second, since Click-to-Run virtualization runs Office products in a self-contained environment, you can operate Office 2013 products along with Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 versions. For IT groups, perhaps the biggest benefit of Click-to-Run is that once Office 2013 is downloaded and installed from Microsoft it's kept up-to-date automatically -- no more patches and service packs to deal with.

But what about in-house installs? Your staff can use common software management tools, such as Microsoft System Center Management Configuration Manager, to maintain Click-to-Run and MSI (Windows Installer-based) Office products; for example, both can use the same set of Group Policy settings to manage security or add-ins.

Built-in DLP

After setting up users in Office 365 and installing the Office suite, we switched to the Exchange Administration Center (EAC), a Web-based admin interface. The Windows 8-style UI decreased the amount of time we spent managing the mail system's existing and new functions. For example, we easily created distribution groups and created a disclaimer that was appended to all messages that were sent outside our organization.

We'd imagine that your technical staff will use a desktop PC with keyboard and mouse to navigate the server interface. Still, the UI uses the same touch-friendly, uncluttered layout of Windows 8 and the Office 2013 applications, so we were equally at ease completing tasks on our Windows 8 test tablet.

What we appreciated the most about Exchange 2013, though, were its safety and compliance features. The built-in defenses against viruses and spam, data loss prevention (DLP) and regulatory functionality may not always match the flexibility that's available in third-party add-ons, but come very close.

The new DLP feature, for instance, let us quickly create policies that detected personally identifiable information and financial information within messages; PolicyTips in Outlook then alerted the message creator about policy violations before sensitive information was sent. The built-in policies are based on regulatory standards such as PII and PCU. Although the number of rules is sparse, security professionals can create their own custom policies.

Compliance officers can use the new Exchange eDiscovery Center to evaluate Exchange, SharePoint and Lync data. In this test, we created a query that searched specific mailboxes for messages that contained certain keywords and placed those mailboxes on hold for a specific number of days.

Storage management takes a lot of work and money for enterprises, and Exchange 2013 appears to do a good job here. For consumers, Microsoft's SkyDrive is the preferred cloud-storage option. But businesses often balk at using it because of their strict security and compliance requirements. For those reasons, Exchange 2013 lets you keep all data in one place with Exchange archiving, large mailboxes and retention policies.

It works like this: Document storage and versioning is provided by SharePoint, while messaging is handled by Exchange. In our testing it was a seamless experience. As an example, users with a large mailbox can save email in their primary mailbox or move messages to the archive. Then, we created a retention policy to hold email that was saved in the archive for five years.

SharePoint improvements

We discovered a number of significant improvements to SharePoint 2013 (which was reviewed using our virtual server setup), but also a few confusing parts. In the latter category is SkyDrive Pro. It's basically a re-branded SharePoint Workspace 2010, where you can synchronize one personal SharePoint document library to your desktop. This capability is helpful if you need to quickly take documents with you, but less valuable when sharing documents with colleagues (though you can set permissions on personal documents and folders). We feel that with these extra steps, the traditional SharePoint document libraries are a better choice for collaboration.

This quibble aside, SharePoint 2013's many remaining new and improved features are much appreciated. As with the rest of Office 2013, the simplified interface makes performing tasks easier -- for both users and administrators. Case in point: When we created a publishing site, SharePoint 2013 clearly displayed options for information architects and visual designers, which resulted in a functional site in about 25% less time compared to SharePoint 2010.

The familiar ribbon bar means those contributors who already use SharePoint 2010 will need little additional training. Yet we feel that the less visible changes mean the most. Authors can now copy content from Word into several types of SharePoint Web parts and have semantically correct HTML markup automatically appear -- complete with styles that were defined by the site's designers.

When we uploaded videos, a preview thumbnail was automatically created, which was an extra manual step previously. Further, we inserted an iFrame element into an HTML field to display a map from another site. And image rendition enabled us to generate different-size images for various sections of the site; we used a large source image for an article and smaller version for a table of contents -- all without needing to upload multiple images.

One past shortcoming was SharePoint's lack of flexibility when dealing with international websites or intranets. Based on our testing, we feel that Microsoft listened to customers' global needs. In the SharePoint 2013 Preview, the variations feature is now used exclusively for multilingual sites. When we created a Japanese variation, SharePoint copied our source English site and then redirected site visitors to the Japanese site based on the language setting of their browser. The system then kept any changes we made to the source English site synchronized with the variation. Most significant, however, is that SharePoint 2013 let us select certain areas of our Japanese site for human translation while other parts were marked for machine translation.

It's also worth noting that Microsoft's new Office 365 development toolset, code-named "Napa," can be used to create apps for SharePoint, too. These apps ("Agaves") can be hosted in the cloud, made available through the Microsoft store, or distributed through an internal app catalog. Napa coding is done through a browser and you write in HTML, client-side ASPX, CSS and JavaScript. In a few hours we wrote a SharePoint app that integrated with an external database; we then made this application available through our private app catalog. For more elaborate projects, you can extent your code with Visual Studio.

The Lync 2013 server and client follow the same consistent experience as the rest of Office 2013. There aren't many new administration features compared to Lync 2010. However, business users should appreciate being able to connect with other organizations over Skype. Plus, meetings can include multiple video streams. And being able to create and share OneNote notebooks within Lync meetings boosted productivity of our sessions because decisions we recorded were immediately available to all participants.

Office 365 and Office 2013 show a lot of potential. Beyond the new, modern look and important functional improvements, they represent Microsoft's vision in which the cloud is the future of Office. That said, Microsoft has created a clear path where enterprises can get there at their own pace. You can install Exchange, SharePoint and Lync in your data center -- and support users that stay with your on-premise infrastructure using traditional perpetual Office client licenses. Office 365 is based on the same server technology -- so there's compatibility with those workers who consume services from the cloud.

The real question, we believe, is whether enterprises buy into this model. And even if you do, it's likely to be a multi-year journey.

Heck manages portals for a large pharma company and writes about enterprise applications. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022