Microsoft debuts online enterprise services

Exchange, SharePoint, Communications Server available in hosted model; file storage and sharing beta available free to test on Web

Microsoft on Monday pulled out of incubation its online enterprise services around Exchange, SharePoint and Communications Server and introduced a free document storage and collaboration Web site that begins to answer challenges from Google.

The newly branded Online services had been offered as part of Microsoft Managed Services, launched three years ago as an incubator for providing hosted services to companies with more than 5,000 users.

Currently Energizer, XL Capital and two unnamed companies are buying managed services from Microsoft around the three collaboration servers: Exchange, SharePoint Server and Communications Server.

Now those services are generally available beginning Monday to any enterprise with more than 5,000 users as a hosted service from Microsoft or from one of its partners.

The Online offerings are the tip of Microsoft's strategy to combine its traditional software and online services. The company says it plans to unveil other Online services and Live Web-based services, such as the free document storage called Office Live Workspace, in the coming months.

CEO Steve Ballmer told attendees in July at the company's annual Partner Conference that services hosted by a partner, Microsoft itself or any combination of those two will lead a revolution to combine today's technology with new service models.

To support that effort, Microsoft has been building out its data center capacity around the globe to go along with its operation in Washington, where they host much of the Managed Services operations. The company recently bought two data centers for US$200 million, opened another in Washington earlier this year, and broke ground in July on another in Texas.

With those facilities in place, Microsoft is adding the services to a lineup that already includes Live Meeting for online conferencing and Exchange Hosted Service, an e-mail hygiene service.

"What we are offering is the power of choice," says Eron Kelly, director of product management for Microsoft's business online services group. "You can choose on premise, get a partner-hosted solution or come to Microsoft and get a Microsoft hosted version of the technology."

The new services around Exchange, SharePoint and Communications Server will provide users with a dedicated environment configured to their specifications in the Application Service Provider model.

Microsoft officials said they did not have any announcements about services built around multitenant software, which is used by companies such as SalesForce.com and others. Microsoft is building the next version of its Dynamics CRM, code-named Titan, as a multitenant application.

In addition to the Online brand on enterprise services, Microsoft is designating a Live brand of online tools, the first being a beta version of Office Live Workspace. Microsoft officials would not comment on the final release of Workspace, which is a free online site where users can store as many as 1,000 documents that can be shared with other users. Those documents can be created using any text editors, but Workspace will include special features that work with Office applications.

Registration opens Oct. 1, but the Workspace will not be live for another month or so.

Microsoft plans to offer offline access to those documents for Office users via its Groove client software, which has been stored behind the scenes since Microsoft acquired the company owned by Ray Ozzie, now Microsoft's chief software architect and czar for its online strategy. The back end of the Workspace site will be hosted on SharePoint.

Users can create password-protected Workspace and make them available to other Office users or on the Web using a browser and plug-ins.

The capabilities are similar to what Google is offering with its free Docs & Spreadsheets for consumers and the enterprise version Google Apps Premier Edition, which is priced at US$50.

In addition, Microsoft says it opened up the Microsoft Exchange Lab to work with universities and school districts to test "next-generation messaging and unified communications capabilities in high-scale environments."

The company also rebranded its Microsoft Office Live hosted small-business service as Microsoft Office Live Small Business.

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