In the early days of Office 365, you would be accustomed to a certain kind of experience when purchasing licenses as a small/medium size business (SMB) customer. As these types of organisations are typically too small to warrant the cost for Enterprise Agreements or Volume Licensing, your only recourse to buying Office 365 services was via the portal itself. At this time, any involvement with a Microsoft Partner would be minimal or even non-existent. Partners would only enter the picture if a business opted to grant them Partner of Record status, thereby allowing them to manage aspects of your subscription behind the scenes. This process, while wholly sufficient, did have some notable gaps and, if you were an organisation focused on tightly managing all aspects of your customer journey, could be prone to change or interruption via interference from Microsoft

The Cloud Solutions Provider programme (or CSP for short) is Microsoft’s “next-generation” opportunity for partners to get directly involved as part of a customers journey onto Office 365, Dynamics 365 and/or Azure and aims to resolve some of the issues highlighted above. Instead of turning directly to Microsoft when you need a new license subscription or have an issue with a particular Office 365 opportunity, customers would instead deal directly with a CSP provider, who will be able to offer them all of this, and more. Everyone wins – the customer, CSP provider and Microsoft itself – and here’s just a few reasons why:

Moving to CSP can save you money

Perhaps the most important reason of all to consider CSP ūüôā The price you will pay for pretty much every single Office 365 Subscription offering available via Microsoft directly will be lower if purchased from a CSP partner. In most cases, this will typically result in a 10-15% reduction across the board guaranteed; a figure which, depending on the size of your organisation, could be a significant portion of your per annum IT spend. In addition, there is no need to wait for your subscription anniversary to switch – any early cancellation charges will be credited in full by Microsoft, should you cancel at any point in your subscription and migrate to the equivalent CSP subscription.

CSP users can benefit from special promotions, previews and other deals unavailable via Microsoft Direct

One example of this at the moment is the preview for Microsoft 365 Business Рthe next evolutionary step for Office 365 Рwhich is accessible to those who are working with CSP providers currently. Other promotions may also appear from time to time, so you should be speaking to your CSP provider regularly to ensure that they are informing you of any potential discounts or offers available.

CSP enables your current Microsoft Partner to support you better

If you are working with a Microsoft Partner to help support your Office 365 services or Dynamics 365 deployments, there’s a good chance that they may have spoken to you about CSP or migrated you across already. The reasons for this will not be purely based on an altruistic desire to reduce your monthly running costs; by having their customers operating under CSP licensing, Partners are granted additional information regarding your subscriptions and their usage. They also become the¬†de facto organisation that needs to be contacted in case any issues occur relating to the subscription. A customer who, for example, contacts Microsoft directly regarding an Exchange Online issue on their CSP subscription will instead be referred back to the CSP Partner in the first instance; they will then be responsible for escalating the case to Microsoft if required. In most circumstances, this can surely be seen as a plus and in helping Partners to work more closely with their customers.

The above example also goes some way towards explaining why CSP license prices are cheaper compared to going directly to Microsoft. By placing Partner organisations at the front-line of dealing with common 1st/2nd Line support issues, Microsoft can reduce the number of support professionals it allocates internally ¬†and place the burden instead on Microsoft Partners to do the “heavy lifting”, particularly when it comes to dealing with easy to resolve issues (i.e. any support request that can be resolved via the Administration Centre).

It’s for Azure as well…with some caveats

Chances are if you are using Office 365 within your organisation, then you will also be consuming some additional Azure services on top of this – either Virtual Machine(s), storage, websites or even some database capacity. The good news is that you can also look at moving your Azure subscriptions across to CSP, with the same benefits available: reduced monthly costs and the ability for your partner of choice to support you better.

At the time of writing this post, the key “red flag” I would draw you towards when considering Azure CSP is what you lose compared to a Pay As You Go or other direct subscription. For example, ongoing and previous usage history will not be visible on the Azure portal and, chances are, you will only get full visibility of your Azure usage costs at the time when you are billed by your CSP partner. If you typically prefer to micro-manage your ongoing Azure usage costs, then a 10-15% saving may not be a fair trade-off for losing this visibility.

Finally, don’t be surprised if this becomes the de facto way of buying Office 365/Azure in the future if you are an SMB

I mentioned above one reason why CSP license costs are cheaper, and through this, you can begin to see the writing on the wall for SMB’s. This is not necessarily a bad thing. My own personal preference would be in dealing with a Microsoft Partner as opposed to Microsoft direct, as Partners will generally be a lot more flexible and reactive to work with. Having assumed that Microsoft can generate significant¬†internal cost savings and also give eager Partner organisations the opportunity to fill the void, why would they not then turn round and say “We’re sorry, but if you are an organisation that employs 300 people or less, then please speak to a Microsoft Partner for further assistance.”? Certainly, the vibe and talk around CSP at the moment would seem to indicate that this is the long-term trajectory for the programme. Watch this space, but it will be interesting to see in the future whether the Microsoft Direct route is downplayed or removed completely if your potential license order per annum is in only in the hundreds of ¬£’s.

When Server-Side Synchronization¬†(Server-Side Sync) was first introduced in Dynamics CRM 2013, I imagine that lots of application and email server administrators breathed a huge sigh of relief. The feature greatly simplified the amount of effort involved in integrating On-Premise/Online CRM instances with their equivalent Exchange Server versions. Previously, the only way of achieving such an integration was via the E-mail Router, a cumbersome application that provided limited integration between email servers and CRM (i.e. no synchronization of items such as Tasks, Appointments, and Contacts). Granted, the E-mail Router was desirable if you were running a non-Exchange based Email Server, but having to provision a dedicated computer/server as the “intermediary” for all email messages to flow through could start to make a simple application deployment grow arms and legs very quickly.

Since the addition of Server-Side Sync, the feature has been continually updated to make it more versatile and the de facto choice for getting your emails tagged back into CRM & Dynamics 365 for Enterprise (D365E) Рto the extent that the Email Router will shortly be extinct. Server-Side Sync now supports hybrid-deployments (e.g. D365E Online to Exchange On-Premise and vice-versa), has been expanded to include other Email protocol types and is now tailored to provide easier mechanisms for diagnosing mail flow issues from within the application itself. The last of these developments is best epitomised by the introduction of the Server-Side Synchronization Monitoring dashboard, introduced in CRM 2016 Update 1:

With this Dashboard, Administrators now have a simplified means of monitoring the health of their Server-Side Sync settings, facilitating the easy identification of problematic mailboxes, mailboxes that have failed a Test & Enable and those that have a recurring error being generated on them. Having all of this information at our fingertips enables CRM administrators to much more proactive in managing their health of their instance.

When recently working within some D365E organizations, which were originally provisioned as Dynamics CRM Online 2015 instances on the same Office 365 tenant, I noticed that the above Dashboard was missing:

Therefore, when clicking on the appropriate button in the sitemap area, an alternative Dashboard is loaded instead (either the user’s favorite Dashboard or a random one instead). So the question was – where has the Dashboard gone?

It turns out that the reason for its absence is down to an error as part of a previous major version upgrade, and is an issue that may be encountered by CRM Organisations provisioned a few years back. After escalating to Microsoft Support for further assistance, we were able to find a workaround to make the Dashboard available on the instances that were missing it. The steps involved are relatively straightforward, but in our case, we did have to resort to a spare trial/demo instance available that had the Dashboard installed successfully. The workaround steps are as follows:

  1. Log into an instance that contains the Dashboard. Go into Customizations and rename the Dashboard (doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as it’s not the same as the default name).
  2. Create a new unmanaged Solution and add in the renamed Dashboard. Export the solution as an Unmanaged Solution.
  3. Import the Solution into the instance that is missing it.
  4. Attempt to access the Dashboard and verify that it loads successfully.

You may be wondering why the Dashboard needs to be renamed before exporting. When attempting to import this Dashboard into any target instance with its default name, the component is automatically skipped during the import process. A Microsoft engineer advised that this is because an instance with the missing Dashboard actually thinks it is there and therefore does not try to import and overwrite a system component with the same name.

For the benefit of those who may also be experiencing the same issue and do not readily have access to another CRM/D365E instance, I have uploaded below two unmanaged solution files for the previous two versions of the application:

Version 8.1 (Dynamics CRM Online 2016 Service Pack 1)

Version 8.2 (December 2016 update for Dynamics 365)

The solution is a simple 1 component solution, containing a renamed version of the Server-Side Synchronization Monitoring Dashboard:

Once you have downloaded your Solution of choice above, follow steps 3-4 above and then go into Solution and the Dashboard to rename it from¬†Copy of Server-Side Synchronization Monitoring ->¬†Server Side Synchronization¬†Monitoring. The application will accept the changes and it will be as if you always had the Dashboard there in the first place ūüôā

It seems strange that this issue occurred in the first place, and I suspect I may not be the only one who has faced it recently. The Microsoft engineer I spoke to seemed to confirm that they’ve had this type of issue crop up several times previously, which makes it strange that this has not been acknowledged as a bug, either within the application itself as part of the twice-yearly upgrade processes. Notwithstanding this fact, it is good that an established workaround can be applied to fix the issue.

With the dizzying array of cloud-hosted applications and database systems available to IT system administrators today (often deployable at a few button clicks), you may be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft Access has joined the ranks of InfoPath, Visual FoxPro¬†and other semi-legendary deprecated applications. Far from it – Access is still a mainstay within most Office 365 subscriptions today, alongside Word, Excel etc. What’s more, if you are looking to develop a very simple application to be utilised within your organisation, you would be hard-pressed to find an equivalent product at the same price point that would do the job as well. Here are just a few reasons on why Access is great.

  • It has the ability to connect to a wide variety of data sources – SQL, SharePoint and others – as well as letting you store data within Access itself.
  • The application contains rich customisation options for forms, buttons and other controls, enabling you to tailor the interface to suit a wide variety of business requirements.
  • Access has full support for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), giving you the further potential to integrate complex logic when building your Access application.

Although there was some concerning news recently regarding Access within SharePoint Online, that looked like the writing on the wall for Access, quite the opposite effect seems to be happening. The application is being continually updated within Microsoft, with one of the latest of these updates catching my attention:

Last November, we shared our plan to add a set of modern data connectors that will enable Office ProPlus customers to expand what is possible in their organizations.

Today, we are pleased to announce the addition of two new connectors in our portfolio: Microsoft Dynamics and Salesforce. These two connectors are rolling out to customers with Office 365 ProPlus, E3, or E5 plans.

To clarify,¬†Microsoft Dynamics in this context refers to the Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement (Dynamics CRM) application, and not any other product within the newly revamped Dynamics 365 family. Getting started with the new data connectors is fairly easy, and may be useful for your business to look at more closely. With this in mind, let’s take a look at how to setup a straightforward Access application that links with Dynamics 365.

Before we begin…

At the time of writing, the new data connectors are only available for those who on the First Release branch of Office ProPlus, something which has to be explicitly enabled on the Office 365 Admin centre. As part of this, you may need to reinstall your Office applications (like I did) to ensure that this kicks in correctly.

Once you’ve verified that you’re on the correct Access version, you can then proceed to create your Dynamics 365 “powered” Access app…

Open up Access and create a brand new Blank database app called Contact Management.accdb, saving it in a location of your choosing:

A blank Access app will be created with an empty Table (this can be safely deleted). Navigate to the External Data tab on the Ribbon and select the From Dynamics 365 (online) external data source:

A pop-up will appear, asking for your Dynamics 365 application URL and how you want to store the data within Access – take a one-time copy of it (Import the source data into a new table in the current database) or connect directly (Link to the data source by creating a linked table). Select the 2nd option, which I would always recommend to select:

Access will then attempt to retrieve a list of the Entities within the application. You may also be asked to log in using your Office 365 credentials, but based on my testing, it seemed to automatically pick these up from my currently logged in Office 365 account for activation – which is nice ūüôā

The Link Tables window will then return a list of the entities that you are able to select. In this example, select Contacts and then press OK.

Access will then begin importing the table definitions and the underlying data, which can take a few moments. It is worth noting that Access will also automatically import tables for each N:1 entity relationship for your chosen Entity. This is to allow you to effectively query for “friendly name” information, as opposed to returning the rather ugly looking Globally Unique Identifier (GUID) values for each relationship:

With our data successfully imported, we can then start to build out a Form to enable users to interact with and change records. The quickest way of doing this is via the Form Wizard, which can be found on the Create tab:

By following the Wizard’s instructions. we can select the fields we want on our new form…

…our preferred layout…

…and then, finally, our form name:

Clicking on Finish will load up our newly created Form. From there, we can run a test by adding a Mobile Number value to the Marissa Burnett sample Contact record and then verify this appears successfully on Dynamics 365 after saving:

Conclusions or Wot I Think

The role of Access within the wider context of Microsoft’s offerings is one that has been increasingly open to question in recent years. The debut of exciting new solutions such as PowerApps and Dynamics 365 for Business, does make you start to think whether Access will be for the “chop” in the near future. By adding the new Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement and Salesforce connectors, along with the other updates that are continually being rolled out for the application, Microsoft makes it clear that for, the time-being, Access is very much here to stay. The reasons for this can be perhaps garnered from my opening comments – it still remains a very versatile way of building quick to deploy, database vendor agnostic solutions that are tailored for desktop use within businesses of any size globally. Another reason for its mainstay – and the release of these new connectors – could be seen as a stealthy means of getting organisations slowly moved across to solutions like Dynamics 365, without the need of moving everything across in one go.

Whatever the reason(s), we can be encouraged by the fact that Access is very much being actively developed, even within the current landscape of varying CRM/ERP solutions. And, what’s more, it’s very cool to be able to say that Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement is Access compatible ūüôā

We saw previously on the blog some of the great features that you have at your disposal when using Office 365 Groups in conjunction with Dynamics CRM/Dynamics 365 for Enterprise. When deployed prudently, they can massively enhance what is traditionally possible via distribution groups and give internal/external users a better way to collaborate with content, as opposed to a mountain of email attachments. As I cautiously hinted towards in the above post, some thought should go into how you go about rolling out Office 365 Groups across your organisation, which should inevitably include internal testing. By doing this, you can highlight a particular functionality quirk that you will more than likely need to address before issuing a general rollout.

When you first go to create an Office 365 Group, you will notice that the domain address of the newly created group mailbox has defaulted to the onmicrosoft.com domain for your Office 365 tenant, instead of any bespoke domain you may have setup on your tenant:

You would think that this is caused by the fact that the Default Domain for the tenant is still set to the onmicrosoft.com domain, as we can see below:

However, after changing this accordingly, we are still forced to create a Group email address that utilises the onmicrosoft.com domain:

Rather frustrating! Fortunately, there is a way in which we can get around the issue, which involves two steps if you have existing Office 365 Groups that need renaming:

  1. Modify the Email Address Policy for your tenant via PowerShell to force new Groups to use your desired domain.
  2. Update the SMTP address of all existing groups via PowerShell.

Both of these steps will now be demonstrated, but be sure to have PowerShell installed on your machine first before you begin.

Connecting to your Office 365 tenant

Start your PowerShell client as an Administrator (Run as Administrator option on Windows) and execute the following command first to ensure all subsequent scripts run correctly:

Set-ExecutionPolicy RemoteSigned

You should receive a prompt similar to the below:

Press Y to proceed

Now we are ready to connect to Exchange Online, using the following cmdlets:

$UserCredential = Get-Credential
$Session = New-PSSession -ConfigurationName Microsoft.Exchange -ConnectionUri https://outlook.office365.com/powershell-liveid/ -Credential $UserCredential -Authentication Basic -AllowRedirection
Import-PSSession $Session

You’ll be prompted to enter credentials to authenticate:

Make sure the credentials used have the relevant privileges on Office 365 and then hit OK. After a few moments, you should see a window similar to the below, which indicates that you have successfully connected and have all the Exchange Online cmdlets at your disposal:

Set Default Email Policy for Office 365 Groups

Modifying Office 365 to use a different domain when creating Office 365 Groups requires invocation of the New-EmailAddressPolicy cmdlet, a broad brush command that is useful for a number of different Exchange management scenarios. The command can be specifically tailored to create a policy applicable to Office 365 Groups, basically telling your tenant which SMTP domain to use when creating new Groups:

New-EmailAddressPolicy -Name Groups -IncludeUnifiedGroupRecipients -EnabledEmailAddressTemplates "SMTP:@mydomain.com" -Priority 1

You can tell if the command has executed successfully if you see something similar to the below in your PowerShell window:

Next, we can then verify that Office 365 has detected the change by creating a new Group and verifying that the Email address value reflects our desired domain:

Rename Existing Office 365 Group

Assuming you are just starting out with Office 365 Groups, the simplest way of renaming your existing groups would be to recreate them. This may not work if they are already being utilised, given the level of effort involved in migrating existing content across to a new group. In this scenario, there is an additional cmdlet we can rely upon to change the SMTP address of our group to our desired domain:

Set-UnifiedGroup -Identity "Test Office 365 Group" -PrimarySmtpAddress test@mydomain.com

PowerShell will only return a message in case of an error, so to verify our changes have taken place, we must again return to Office 365 to confirm that the new SMTP address is in place:

With this now updated, email messages should flow successfully to the new Group SMTP address.

Conclusions or Wot I Think

It is rather strange that there are no obvious means of specifying which default domain should be used with newly created Office 365 groups, nor at the fact that there is any way for the user to override their choice so they can select a domain that is available on the tenant. As discussed at the start of this post, this situation provides an excellent argument for ensuring that proper processes are followed for the introduction of all new technologies within the business. Whilst exciting and innovative solutions should always be duly considered and not hampered from being rolled out, it is crucial that an appropriate amount of time is allocated for thorough testing. The last thing you want to do, in reference to this situation, is to cause irritation to end users by not giving them the ability to present a professional and correct domain name for their Office 365 Groups; by running through some test scenarios and involving end users as part of this process, where possible, you can help to prevent issues resulting from a roll out and (hopefully!) enthuse colleagues within your organisation at the new piece of technology that is being introduced.

Even with the best will in the world, objects that we own or operate will sometimes break down completely. In these occasions, after typically spending an inordinate amount of time attempting to resolve things ourselves, we refer to others who have the expertise and ability to provide a fix. Often, this will come at a price and,¬†depending on the nature of the issue and how it’s ultimately resolved, you will walk away happy as Larry or anything but.

Dynamics 365 for Enterprise (D365E) applies very much to the scenario illustrated above. As an application system developed and, in most cases, hosted by Microsoft, you will occasionally come across issues that cause the application to be inoperable or prevent you from carrying out a specific task. In these instances, we generally need to raise our hands and get someone from Microsoft involved to help out. The routes available to do this can vary, meaning you have to consider carefully which option is best for your business.

In this week’s post, we will take a closer look at the different support offerings that are available to D365E customers, what you get as part of each one and the pros/cons of each offering. If you are currently in the process of evaluating which support option is best for you, then this post will (hopefully!) leave you much better equipped to determine the best option for your /organisation.business

Standard Support

All subscriptions on Office 365 include access to Standard Support, generally amounting to the ability to open support requests on the portal and getting assistance to resolve issues with a particular application/service. D365E is no exception to this rule, and organisations can be comforted in knowing that they are covered from a support perspective the second after they purchase their subscription. However, unless you already have dedicated expertise within your business on how to operate the application, do not expect this service to be an effective hand-holder through your early days with the application. The priority level for Standard Support requests is low and will generally be routed to Microsoft affiliates as opposed to dedicated support professionals within Microsoft itself. Nevertheless, Standard Support does provide you with the ability to get your critical issues with D365E resolved.

Pros

  • Included in your subscription.
  • Guaranteed resolution for all break/fix issues.

Cons

  • Responses are only guaranteed within 24 hours of first raising the case.
  • Support provision can generally be lacklustre and cumbersome to deal with.

Enhanced Support

For smaller businesses, often the cost of obtaining more streamlined support provision for internal applications can be prohibitively expensive. Enhanced Support attempts to try and overcome this by providing a very cost effective means of putting in place a 2-hour SLA response time for any support requests raised involving D365E. This is definitely a huge improvement over what is offered as part of Standard Support. If your business has made a firm commitment not to align yourself with a Partner, then I would strongly recommend looking at Enhanced Support to keep you afloat while using D365E.

Pros

  • 2 hour response time guaranteed for all service requests.
  • Grants access to CustomerSource, an online repository of training resources to help you brush up on your D365E expertise.

Cons

  • As a paid offering, each user in your organisation will require the appropriate add-on subscription to ensure compliance. The additional cost (amounting to a few extra ¬£’s per month) will, therefore, need to be factored into your monthly budget.
  • Provides in-hour support only, with no guarantee of a response/action outside of normal business hours.

Professional Direct Support

Professional Direct Support is best geared towards medium to large size organisations or those that require the peace of mind of having speedy responses to any problems. The 1 hour SLA represents the pinnacle response time that Microsoft customers can receive and the offering is also enhanced further via access to a dedicated person within Microsoft who will look after you and ensure your requests are being dealt with effectively. Unlike Enhanced Support, you also have explicit access to 2nd line support professionals within Microsoft, with a commitment towards priority escalation to engineers when a serious problem is identified. Professional Direct Support is the best support offering to go for if you place significant value within your D365E investment and want to align your support provision very closely with Microsoft.

Pros

  • 24×7, 1 hour guaranteed response for all of your issues
  • Access to a Service Delivery Manager within Microsoft, as a point of contact for all support requests and to provide ongoing review of your support experience.

Cons

  • Costs an additional ¬£6.80 per month on top of your existing D365E subscriptions
  • Cannot be relied upon to provide in-application support (e.g. entity customisations, plugin development etc.)

Working with a Partner

Partners are perhaps a natural choice for medium to large size organisations who cannot afford to have the dedicated expertise in-house to manage their D365E deployment, but are looking for a cost-effective way of having this knowledge at their disposal. Dynamics 365 partners are plentiful, and many of them can prove to be a lot less daunting to deal with day-to-day compared with Microsoft directly. They will likely have lots of combined expertise across different areas of the product and will be able to tailor a support offering that suits your requirements more neatly than Microsoft can. The key thing to remember when choosing your partner is to ensure that they have an Advanced Support for Partners (ASfP) or Premier Support for Partners (PSfP) agreement in place with Microsoft. Why is this important? By being enrolled within one of these offerings, the partner has the ability to log support requests relating to your subscription with enhanced routing/SLA’s in place, meaning your request will be dealt with faster – in some cases, a 1-hour response is guaranteed for critical issues. The partner will also, arguably, be in a much better position to support you more generally, as both of these schemes afford ample opportunity for the partner to keep up to speed with everything that is happening with D365E.

Pros

  • Excellent resource to have in place for in-application issues (i.e. problems that don’t require escalation to Microsoft).
  • Low month-on-month investment, anywhere from ¬£200-¬£700 or more per month, depending on the size or your organisation.

Cons

  • For any issues that require customisation/developer expertise to resolve, expect some punishingly expensive day rates for the work; in some cases, I have seen prices going up to ¬£950 a day for a junior consultant(!!)
  • Does not benefit from any of the above offerings to help you as a business maximise your investment in D365E. You will be reliant solely on your partner of choice to provide this as part of the service (if in fact, they do at all).

Conclusions or Wot I Think

The myriad of support options presented as part of this post are very much designed to cater for organisations of different sizes, agendas and visions of how they see their D365E system at a strategic level. The list is by no means exhaustive too, as enterprise organisations can look at¬†Premier Support¬†as well. As this kind of support offering would generally involve provision for multiple Microsoft/Microsoft Online Services products, I have deliberately left it out this list, due to it very much being “overkill” for supporting a single application. What you are left with as part of this list is arguably 3 viable support options that can be recommended depending on which boat you are sitting in:

  • If you are a small business with sufficient technical expertise in-house, then the Enhanced/Professional Direct Support options are best.
  • If you are a larger organisation looking to very closely align yourself with Microsoft and are confident in your in-house technical ability, then Professional Direct Support is the one for you.
  • If you are a¬†business of any size and very much don’t want to worry about managing and supporting your D365E system, then the Partner route is a very sensible approach.

The implication with all of the above is that the Standard Support option is not one that I would recommend you have in place. Whilst you can be assured that your critical issues will ultimately get looked into and resolved, you may find yourself waiting days and weeks for a resolution and not necessarily be afforded the most technically accomplished support professionals to assist you in resolving your case.