Why I’m loving having my head in the Microsoft cloud

Microsoft Disclaimer – Yes I am a Microsoft evangelist. I have been working with Microsoft tech for the entire of my working career. I know there are competing technologies out there, some of them perhaps more feature rich, or cheaper, or whatever .. but this is merely a conversational piece about my experience which I still believe is the ONLY supplier you can go to in order to get the complete service across all scenarios from the same supplier … please don’t troll, we don’t feed them here!

I have to admit up front .. I have never really been what you might call an “early adopter”. I didn’t get my first mobile phone until 2001.. Everyone I knew was using laptops for years while I got my first one for myself in 2010, and until recently all of my backups have been to portable disk drives sat in the drawer of my office at home.

Things have changed though .. life is different and a whole lot easier .. I’m moved all of my stuff to “the cloud” just over a year back, and my cloud has a Microsoft logo!

Terminology Disclaimer – Yes, I know .. “The Cloud” .. we used to just call these things Data Centres or 3rd Party Hosting. But you gotta keep with the times eh!

Cloud Services
So .. when I’m talking about “moving to the cloud” what exactly am I referring to? Well .. I’ve split this into two sections; Personal Use and Business Use.

  • Personal Use
    • Email (Hotmail)
    • Personal file storage (SkyDrive)
    • Sync between phone and desktop (Windows Phone)

  • Business Use
    • Email (Office 365 – Exchange Online)
    • Document Storage (Office 365 – SharePoint Online)
    • Collaborative workspaces (can’t believe I’m actually using this phrase.. sorry!) (Office 365 – SharePoint Online)
    • Instant Messaging / Video Conferencing / Desktop Sharing (Office 365 – Lync Online)
    • Development Source Control (Team Foundation Service)

… and I could get all of this for £107 per year …

Personal Use – Email (free)
I guess with this I’ve been a “cloud” user for quite some time. I’ve actually had my Hotmail account for over 16 years (1997 .. shortly after it was purchased by Microsoft). Ok .. so back in my youth I needed an email address and this was going through school as being the “cool new thing” so I signed up (didn’t really use it much for the first couple of years though).

That effectively took care of my personal email needs, and 16 years later I’m still using the same email address (and thanks to the pretty damned awesome junk mail filtering Microsoft have in place, I get very little spam at all, if any!).

Personal Use – File Storage (£32 per year)
So the next thing I was going to look for was personal file storage.. fast forward about a decade and my email account also led me to, of course, SkyDrive. Now this service has been around since 2007 and I got it “for free” because of my Hotmail account. Things really started to get interesting when LiveMesh was launched (the beta coming out in 2008) which allowed you to start syncing files on your workstation with your SkyDrive account.

However .. LiveMesh was quite limited as it would only sync a maximum of 5GB of files to the cloud (regardless of how much free space you had .. I had 25GB of space in my SkyDrive account). I dabbled with this starting off by syncing My Documents and My Pictures using LiveMesh .. but the whole experience was a little bit clunky and to be honest .. with a 5GB maximum on there it was never going to be the most useful service to me. I still had tonnes of files sat on my workstation which I needed physical backups for and only having 1 computer I didn’t really get any value out of a “access my files elsewhere” service either which is also what LiveMesh offered.

Then came the game-changer! SkyDrive for Windows launched. This was huge (for me at least) as Microsoft had effectively opened up the floodgates. The new application  had very simple functionality which I tested for all of about 2 hours before removing LiveMesh as quickly as possible .. a worthy replacement had been found!

The new capabilities of SkyDrive allowed me to sync ANYTHING I wanted with my SkyDrive account online, and I could sync up to my maximum file allowance (25GB .. but now options to increase this in increments up as high as 125GB if needed).

I paid for the full 100GB extra storage (which cost me about £30 per year) and this basically takes care of all my backups. It runs seamlessly in the background, and it backs up all my documents, all my music, my pictures, videos and downloads..

The best part is I can access them through the web, so I go to my parents and want to show them some photos or pull up something from one note I can hop on their machine and all my files are “just there” ..

Personal Use – Phone to Desktop file sync (free?)
The final piece to the jigsaw came together about 3 years ago when Windows Phone 7 was launched. I definitely jumped on this with both feet (my previous smartphones being a Nokia N95 and an HTC HD2). This also had SkyDrive integrated right from the get-go .. I could upload photos (automatically as I took them if needed) .. I could read my office files and documents from the built-in office hub straight off SkyDrive .. and it even used SkyDrive for the Twitter and Facebook storage for uploading images if I wanted to share them ..

I’ve kind of marked this as “free” as I was going to buy a phone anyway. It didn’t cost me any extra to get myself a Windows Phone 7 (in many cases cheaper than leading Android and Apple iOS devices) .. so yes, my phone contract cost me money .. but the cloud file sync bit was “free”.

Business Use – Office 365 (£75 per year)
Well, this was mostly a recent requirement as I was formerly full-time worker and let my employer worry about things like hosting email and storing documents .. but in 2010 I joined the increasingly popular contractor route and set myself up with my own company ..

Luckily Microsoft had also recently launched its own Office 365 services .. probably the best bang-for-your-buck online service you can get with fantastic quality, Enterprise level cover and small-business prices.

For £6.25 per month (I went for the E1 plan) I could get:

  • Exchange Online – 25GB email mailbox with the latest Outlook web access
  • SharePoint Online – My own private SharePoint tenant, with all the standard bells and whistles to play with, and ability to invite external “Microsoft Account” users for free to join in!
  • Lync Online – federated with the MSN Messenger / Live Messenger network and all of the other federated Lync users (i.e. Microsoft / other Office 365 users / most Microsoft partner companies).

This to be honest was a no brainer .. I am a SharePoint professional by trade, lets be honest, I was never going to choose anything else (not to mention for the price and featurset Office 365 is simply the best offering out there).

The best bit is I could create “collaborative workspaces” (sorry again!) where I can spin up SharePoint sites (or site collections) to work on stuff with other people.

The typical use case for me is sharing my finance files with my accountant .. and it felt a lot more professional when I can do this on my own branded site and (using my knowledge and experience of SharePoint) offer customised experience specifically for that need.

Business Use – Team Foundation Service (free)
The final piece to the puzzle was Source Control

I do quite a lot of personal projects, typically working on code samples for when I’m speaking at community events (or writing up code for blog articles).

I really struggled to work out how I could get easy backup for my source control… again this stemmed from my experience point .. I have spent almost my entire development career using Team Foundation Server (with a few painful years on Visual SourceSafe) .. the problem is that TFS hosting is typically damned expensive!

Then the miracle came .. Microsoft was offering a preview service called “Team Foundation Service” (https://tfs.visualstudio.com/).

This allowed me to create my own TFS projects and use full source control and even access to build agents!! This eventually went live and Microsoft announced that for small usage (up to 5 TFS projects) it was completely free!

Well .. I made the big leap a while ago, and I am absolutely loving it! I have had to re-install my laptop twice in the past 12 months and I have never had a less painful experience!

The process for getting all of my local files back ended up being:

  • Install Windows
  • Install SkyDrive for Windows
    • Start folder sync
  • Install Office 2013
    • Configure Outlook, start mailbox sync
    • Start SkyDrive Pro sync
  • Leave running overnight

That was it .. next morning all of my files were back. I have never had to run a “backup schedule” or worry about losing my files … stress free and painless computing. It has been so successful, I’ve even gotten my parents running on SkyDrive!

  • Martin Hatch

    Hehe yes ..

    To be honest though for me it was an "all or nothing" approach. If you don't go "all in" then for me the benefits weren't quite there.

    I suppose this is similar to what people say about the Apple ecosystem. I personally don't want an individual iPad | iPhone | iPod | MacBook .. but I can see that if you have ALL of them then they work together a lot better.

    I kind of see my "cloud" journey in the same way

  • Thomas

    Wow, you are speeding up (or time traveling!). Let me get this straight, it took you til 2010 to get a laptop but now you *already* have a cloud account? Ha, welcome to the future my friend! 🙂