Microsoft Warns Of Online Services Downtime

The Business Productivity Online Suite, which includes the Web-hosted versions of Exchange Online, Outlook Web Access, SharePoint Online, and LiveMeeting, will be taken down Tuesday at 4 p.m. Pacific time for the upgrade, which will add several improvements and bug fixes, according to a memo distributed to partners last week by Microsoft's Online Services team.

The per-user subscription services aren't slated for general availability until sometime during the second half the year, but Microsoft's Online Services team expressed its contrition for the downtime.

"We understand the impact downtime has on our customers and we apologize for the inconvenience," the Online Services team said in the memo. "The team will make every possible effort to minimize this event happening in the future."

In an email to ChannelWeb, John Betz, director of the Business Online Services Group at Microsoft, said the scheduled maintenance doesn't break any Service Level Agreements and impacts only the beta test environment and participating beta customers, which is "consistent with expectations Microsoft set for the program with participants."

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Ric Opal, vice president of PetersAssociates, an Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based solution provider, says the the market reality is that customers will have to feel confident that services are running and operational.

"When you look at how Microsoft is building out new installations around the world to support these services, it's clear that they're serious about putting the right policies and procedures in place," added Opal.

But despite the fact that Microsoft gave plenty of advance notice of the upcoming service outage, the news didn't go over well with some channel partners.

"Last year, Steve Ballmer promised me that Microsoft Online will open up a whole new set of opportunities for Microsoft partners," wrote Vlad Mazek, a Microsoft Exchange MVP and Small Business Specialist based in Orlando, Fla., in a blog post late last week.

"I didn't know that he meant their incompetence would make me look like a shining star -- but thank you, we're now heading towards double-digit headcount increases on a monthly basis and we're pushing ahead," Mazek wrote.

But Susan Bradley, a Small Business MVP based in Fresno, Calif., says it's unfair to criticize Microsoft for downtime resulting from its attempt to improve the functioning of a beta service.

"Remember boys and girls that BETAs mean 'don't put your production networks on this sucker unless you are getting major kickbacks from the vendor,'" Bradley wrote in a blog post over the weekend.

Microsoft, as part of its Software Plus Services vision, has been urging channel partners to shift their business models from selling products like Exchange and SharePoint to selling the services versions of these offerings. Microsoft last year told partners it would sell these services only to enterprise customers, but in March revealed plans to sell them to businesses of all sizes.

"Certainly, the 'Google-ization' of the industry means that these online types of services need to be bulletproof," said Mike Ritsema, president of i3 Business Solutions LLC, a Grand Rapids, Mich., solution provider and Microsoft Gold partner.

The fact that Microsoft notified partners well in advance is a positive sign, as communication is one of the keys to successful services deployments, according to Ritsema.