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Last Thursday I gained access to the Office 365 beta. Office 365 is Microsoft’s response to Google Apps with advanced e-mail and content management/storage. Basically it’s your everyday services hosted in the cloud, bought as a monthly subscription. I will not go into pricing since the pricing plans are likely to change during the beta phase. A major difference is that while Google offers a free subscription (with advertising) Microsoft has no such offering (yet).

Office 365 is currently in beta, with a rumored release this summer. But already the service is extremely well packaged and the services and management parts are a delight.

Setup

The setup process is very simple and in just minutes the service is almost fully configured. Initially you choose a temporary domain name for the service (e.g. myservice.onmicrosoft.com), and later on you replace it with your own domain.

Home

The layout is as simple as can be.

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Outlook

Office 365 provides messaging and collaboration using Exchange technology, with Outlook Web Access (web mail and ActiveSync). From here you can manage your inbox, calendar, contacts and tasks. If you have been using Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 the interface looks familiar.

You can also setup your account on a mobile device. I’ve only tested this on my iPhone and iPad, and it works great.

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SharePoint

Office 365 comes with a SharePoint 2010 instance with Office Web Apps. This is the perfect storage for your Office files (and other files of course), and with Office Web Apps you can create and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote-files using your web browser. If you have Microsoft Office installed on your computer you can connect to your SharePoint site and work with your documents live.

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Lync

Lync is a messaging service for voice, text, video and phone with conference capabilities. I’ve not been able to test this yet.

Administration

As an administrator you have access to the Administration view. The layout is one of the greatest I’ve seen in a Microsoft product. It’s very straightforward and it’s easy to find whatever you might be looking for.

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From the Administration you manage Users, Domains and Subscriptions. You can also manage default settings for the applications (Outlook, Lync and SharePoint).

Licensing

Since Office 365 is a subscription based service you buy licenses and distribute them to your users. The beta offers 25 licenses.

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User administration

The user administration is, as everything else in Office 365, very simple.

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After setting up a user you define what services the user will have access to.

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Domain management

You can add your own domain(s) to Office 365 and let users use different domains in their e-mail addresses.

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Here I found the first hick up in Office 365; Microsoft wants control and they want to take over your DNS Zone file. This would be ok since they configure the records properly and let you manage custom A-records and CNAMEs. But by default they point your domain’s A record and www CNAME to SharePoint, and you can’t change this at all.

This however will not work for us since we want them to point to our SiteFactory CMS site. So the alternative would be to have two domains; one for the website and one for Office 365. The workaround for this is to let Microsoft think that they have taken over the DNS Zone, and instead copy all preconfigured DNS records and configure them at your own provider. Microsoft doesn’t check the configured name servers so this works perfectly.

Closing comments

Office 365 is powerful already in its beta phase, and will most likely be a great competitor to Google Apps. The prices are relatively low, but still, Google Apps have free subscription. At our office we use Microsoft Exchange and love it so what’s better than Exchange hosting in the cloud?

During the beta phase we will evaluate Office 365 and when it’s released and the prices are set, we know if we can recommend it to our customers. Even if Microsoft won’t have a free subscription, there is a lot of bang for the buck.

Website Analysis is a major feature introduced in SiteFactory 3.0 that was released in February 2009. So for over 2 years our customers have been using a tool that is, from what we’ve learned, unique in the CMS market.

The Website Analysis is an engine that regularly checks all website content for certain problems regarding Search Engine Optimization. Based on a large set of rules all content is parsed and for every rule that fails a warning is generated. These warnings are displayed in strategic locations throughout the system.

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In the system top bar a Website Analysis status is displayed, and on the start page a more eye-catching status is displayed.

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When working with a page in SiteFactory the system displays warnings by setting the tab background color to red and a list of warnings are displayed at the location where you should fix the issue.

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The Website Analysis can be viewed as a complete list containing all warnings. From here the user can re-run the analysis, filter the list.

The ruleset is based on standard SEO using in-depth content analysis, which helps the user to take care of many common mistakes. When the user has fixed all issues, the website is considered healthy and search engine optimized. From this point the owner of the website could pursue better traffic by hiring a SEO Specialist to form a strategy.

The Website Analysis is, from what we’ve learned, a unique tool for SiteFactory CMS. And the fact that our customers has been using this for over two years says a lot about our commitment to both our product and our customers websites. As the rules change over time we will have no problems updating our ruleset fast, using our Mindbite Update Service.

Closing comments

At Mindbite we focus not only on technical availability, we also focus on availability for the users and visitors. So we are proud to deliver a Content Management System that has rich features empowering our customers.

At Mindbite we develop web applications and websites using SiteFactory CMS as a content engine. In almost every project we develop custom modules or enhancements that extend the existing features of the system. For every module we create Class Libraries with objects reflecting the contents of each project’s database. All SiteFactory CMS websites use Microsoft SQL Server as a database server, and when the solution is hosted at Mindbite we specifically use Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 which is a fast and powerful database server.

We have a saying at Mindbite that we never do the same thing twice, and to live up to that we have different methods. For one, code re-use is a major part of our work method, as I’ve written about earlier. A more concrete way of incorporating this is our own tool Mindbite Code Tools.

Mindbite Code Tools is a Windows application designed to perform recurring time consuming tasks in just seconds. The smallest feature is a SQL Query parser that parses queries cutting off unnecessary query data. Another tool takes a list of privates and creates a set of properties in c# or vb. The major tool is a Class Library Builder which is kind of an Entity Framework lite.

Class Library Builder

The Class Library Builder (or as Microsoft should have shortened it; CLB) lets our developers connect to any Microsoft SQL Server and retrieve a list of databases. When selecting a database the user is presented with a list of tables. From here the user selects a table and specifies a Class Library name and in less than a second the builder sets up a new Class Library in c# or vb that contains:

  • Proper Namespace references.
  • An “Item” class containing:
    • Fields for all columns in the table.
    • Properties for all columns in the table.
    • Several useful constructors (based on our development model)
    • Fully functional methods for saving changes to the database (INSERT, UPDATE & DELETE).
    • All data input/output is automatically configured with the SiteFactory CMS Data Access Layer.
  • A class containing an “Items” property which is a List of Item.

The code that is generated is ready to use instantly, without any compilation errors.

The Class Library Builder is used on a daily basis by our developers, and it saves us a lot of time and money for our customers. Instead of doing the same thing twice in every project we can focus on what really counts, and that is creating smart solutions for the customers.

Closing comments

Before Mindbite Code Tools we spent hours creating the same kind of code structure in every project. Now, we don’t have to, and I couldn’t work a single day without this tool. Code Tools has been a part of our work method for a few years now and it’s being enhanced regularly. And for every new feature we get to focus on the things that matter.