Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – e-Mail Aliases

(This post is part of a series comparing our experiences with Microsoft Office 365 and Open-Xchange e-mail hosted by Rackspace. Click here for the overview)

Our e-Mail Alias Needs

Here at Asatte Press, we use e-mail aliases heavily. We buy almost everything we use on the web. As such, we have more than 100 different companies for which we have registered online profiles. Each of these profiles demands to have an e-mail address for status notifications, invoicing, upgrade announcements, and so on. Now, say I have an employee Fred who is setting up a new project for the company and needs to sign up for four new online services in the process. Do I want to have Fred register his personal company e-mail address as the contact address for the company? What if Fred leaves? What a nightmare.

In order to work around this common problem, we use e-mail aliases. Instead of having Fred use his own Asatte Press e-mail address, for registering a profile with the company XYZ, we create an “alias” like VendorContactXYZ@asattepress.com and point this alias to Fred@asattepress.com. That way, when Fred leaves and is replaced by Sally, we can simply redirect the e-mail alias to Sally’s e-mail address.

Our requirements are:

  1. Unlimited number of aliases
  2. Central table of aliases for easy maintenance

The first requirement eliminated Google Docs from consideration. They can only support 30 aliases per ID. Office 365 does meet the first requirement, but not the second. Rackspace E-Mail meets both requirements and adds three bonus features:

  1. A single alias can be pointed to more than one e-mail address.
  2. The target e-mail addresses can be external to the system.
  3. Aliases can be exported to and imported from spreadsheets in bulk

Office 365 e-Mail Aliases

So, it is the middle of the day. You have your normal e-mail open, and you are filling out a web form. You suddenly realize that you need a new e-mail alias for IJK corp. What do you have to do as an Office 365 administrator? Let’s walk through the procedure.

1 – Log Into Admin Account

Screen Capture Log Into the Separate Admin Account

Log Into the Separate Admin Account

The first step is to log into the separate “onmicrosoft” administrator account. In order to avoid confusion, I bookmarked the administrator account in Internet Explorer (which tends to pop up the yellow warning box) and use my personal e-mail account from Firefox. While we were using it, Office 365 blocked the browser from remembering your password, so you had to remember and retype your annoying secure password every time.

2 – Wait for Admin Screen to Load

Screen Caputre of Wait for Admin Account to Load

Wait for Admin Account to Load

Next, you have to wait for the admin account to load and initialize, typically around 30 seconds.

3 – Bring Up “Manage Exchange” Screen

After the admin account loads, you click the blue “Manage” link under “Exchange”

Wait Another 30 sec for Manage Exchange  to Load

Wait Another 30 sec for Manage Exchange to Load

You wait for the “Manage Exchange” element to load, usually another 30 seconds. On some days, this component may never load at all. On normal days, it is apparent that it had to sequentially add quite a few different elements. You will see the screen slowly filling in, one element at a time.

4 – Select a User

Screen Aacpture of Wait 15 sec for User Details to Load

Wait 15 sec for User Details to Load

The next step is to select a specific user. This point is a problematic design. Aliases are assigned to specific users rather than the other way around. In any event, you wait another 15 seconds for the user information to load. Again, some days it never loads at all.

5 – Scroll Down to E-Mail Options

Screen Capture of Expand E-Mail Options

Expand E-Mail Options

The section of the dialog box you need is buried at the bottom. You will need to scroll down to find it. The section is called “E-Mail Options” for some reason even though what it actually does is control e-mail aliases.

7 – Scroll Both Outer and Inner Windows

Scoll Inner and Outer Window to Display Alias List

Scoll Inner and Outer Window to Display Alias List

You may want to check to see if you have already assigned the alias (and simply forgotten it). You may also have more than five aliases assigned to this user already. In this case, you will have to use both outer and inner scroll bars to scroll the small display up and down to check the alphabetically sorted list of aliases.

8 – Assign the Alias

Screen Acpture of Add the Alias

Add the Alias

Success! You are now ready to assign the actual alias! Don’t forget to properly distinguish between the “onmicrosoft.com” domain that Microsoft creates for initial registration and your actual company domain. Obviously, you will now need to back out of several layers of nested menus by clicking “OK”

Rackspace/Open-Xchange e-Mail Aliases

The Rackspace E-Mail procedure is much quicker.

1 – Log Into Control Panel

Log into Control Panel

Log into Control Panel

Unlike Office 365, the Rackspace e-mail system does not create a separate domain or a separate admin account. Instead, the Rackspace E-Mail system has a control panel. Since the access to the control panel is a different URL, you can maintain two bookmarks in a single browser: one for e-mail and one for the control panel. I find this arrangement much more convenient. No need to log out of the e-mail system or open a different browser.

Unlike the Office 365 login, the Rackspace e-mail control panel does not suppress the browser’s ability to remember your password. Login takes less than 4 seconds from Austin. It might take longer from some other geographic location.

2 – Select Manage Aliases

Select "Manage Aliases"

Select “Manage Aliases”

The second entry in the top box of the control panel is “manage aliases”. Click on that link.

3 – Alias List Screen

Alias List Ready in 3 Seconds

Alias List Ready in 3 Seconds

The alias list will come up within 3 seconds. From this screen we can either add a single alias using a menu, or upload multiple aliases in bulk from a spreadsheet. There is also a control at the bottom of the screen to export all the aliases to a spreadsheet.

4 – Add an Alias

Add Alias Members

Add Alias Members

Here we can see how adding an alias works. You can select multiple members from your domain and click “Add” to add them. You can also add up to four external aliases.

References:

Office 365 vs Open-Xchange – Microsoft Office Support

(This post is part of a series comparing our experiences with Microsoft Office 365 and Open-Xchange e-mail hosted by Rackspace. Click here for the overview)

The one remaining aspect of comparing Office 365 to Rackspace E-Mail is support for office productivity applications: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Presentations. Bundled Microsoft Office support is part of the value proposition for Office 365 and it isn’t for Rackspace E-mail. Moving to Rackspace E-mail leaves the office productivity app question unsolved. Unfortunately, there is no really good answer.

Office 365 Web Apps

If you look carefully at the different Office 365 plans, the “Small Business” and “Midsize Business” plans offer something called: “Office Web Apps” as well as “Office Mobile Apps”. These are new apps (probably written in Java) that run directly in your browser. Files are stored in Microsoft’s cloud, although it is possible to upload and download files to/from your local hard drive. These apps are nice enough, but they simply are not compatible with the full range of stuff in existing documents. That is, if your staff only use the Word component to write single page memos with no headers, trailers, or formatting these apps may be adequate. However, these apps simply can’t handle existing complex documents with embedded spreadsheets, fancy formatting, cross references and so on.

For our purposes, Office Web Apps are not a solution. We did not evaluate the Office Mobile Apps.

Office Professional/Subscription

At the enterprise level, Office 365 offers “Office Subscription”. This service is basically the option to download a slightly modified version of Microsoft Office and install it on up to five devices. The modified version “calls home” periodically to see if you are still paying for the service. To be fair, this approach worked fairly well, but there were a few limitations:

  1. The initial download was in excess of 600 megabytes. There was a way to download it once, make a CD-ROM and then run install from the CD-ROM on multiple machines. We did so.
  2. You also had to install a special online sign-in assistant to handle the “call home” part. This piece of software was a bit quirky, idiosyncratic, and hard to get working in some cases. However, once installed and debugged, it worked fine.
  3. Even though Microsoft has a version of Office for the Mac, they don’t provide this downloadable support for the Mac. This limitation left us in the position of paying double for our Mac users, about half of our employees.

Microsoft Office Site Licensing

For companies our size, there is basically no discount at all for a site license of Microsoft Office. It is really expensive – hundreds of dollars per seat.

Google Docs

Our cursory testing of Google Docs revealed a product similar to Microsoft Web Apps: fine for very simple documents, not fine for realistic, full-complexity business documents.

Apache Open Office

Apache Open Office is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office. The product started in Germany as Star Office in the 1980s. I have been watching it myself for almost 20 years, coming back to it to take a look every 5 years or so. All my previous experiences were pretty disappointing. The impression was similar to Google Docs and the Office Web Apps: nice toy for simple tasks, but not ready for prime time.

The latest version is a different story. The apps are now very powerful, polished, easy-to-use, and highly compatible with Microsoft Office.

The compatibility story is interesting. As of Office 2007, Microsoft changed from a binary file format to a format (DOCX) which is actually a zipped XML file. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry worked on an open zipped XML format (ODT) Although the formats are very similar, Microsoft apparently refused to participate in the industry open standard effort. The net result today is that Microsoft uses Microsoft’s proprietary zipped XML format and OpenOffice uses the open standard zipped XML format. Interestingly:

  1. Microsoft Office will save files as either DOCX or ODT.
  2. Apache Open Office will save files only as ODT (no DOCX option)
  3. Microsoft Office will open a ODT file created by Open Office but may complain about “corruption” – even though the file is only a single line of 5 words.
  4. Apache Open Office will open either the DOCX created by Microsoft Office or the ODT created by Microsoft Office without complaint.

In addition to file formats, there is the question of whether complex formatting features move back and forth gracefully. For the word processing components, the level of interoperability is now impressive. There may still be quirks here and there, but there are sometimes quirks when files are moved between different versions of Microsoft Office.

The presentation element of Open Office is also very robust. It seems to be as powerful as PowerPoint and in some ways easier to use. Interoperability seems to be very good.

The only disappointment so far was the spreadsheet element of Open Office. Again, it looked very polished, and seemed to be very powerful, but it crashed a few minutes into my first attempt to use it. Software crashes are a non-starter for me. My reaction is similar to that of getting food poisoning at a restaurant; no amount of persuasion will get me into the restaurant a second time.

Conclusion

Our medium term direction will be to migrate off of Microsoft Office completely and switch entirely to Open Office. For our Mac users, we have already transitioned. For the most part, our work output is PDF files and Open Office is very good at producing PDF files. The one remaining question will be how often we get into a situation in which we need to collaborate in editing a Microsoft Office file with another company.

To this end, the Open Office community could finally seal the deal with me by providing more explicit support for Microsoft’s zipped XML formats.

References:

Wireless Internet Service by Clear

We ended up not having wires to our office at all. So how do we get internet service? We get internet service quite easily from two 4G wireless LAN modems provided by Clear.

– – –

May 2012. During the Spring Semester we had hosted five interns from the University of Texas part-time at our house. We knew that we wanted to have ten interns full-time during the summer and that we would never be able to host them in our house. We would need to rent genuine commercial office space. After some initial looking around, we got hooked up with a commercial real estate buyer’s agent named Matt Watson at Austin Office Space.  Matt helped us find and negotiate the lease on a very nice office and was giving us general tips on how to get setup as we scrambled to get ready to have ten paid interns starting Monday, May 21st.

Picture of Remnants of Previous Wiring

Remnants of Previous Wiring

One of the first things Matt clued us in on was the fact that the landlord would want absolutely nothing to do with the wiring in our office. They would be happy to repaint, re-tile, remove doors, whatever – these things could be negotiated. Computer and telephone wiring would definitely be out of scope.

Initially, this behavior seemed puzzling, but only a few seconds of thought yielded the obvious reason for the landlord’s skittishness: liability. No landlord would want to be responsible for any loss of business caused by failure of computer or telephone communication. As a result, the landlords leave it to each tenant to arrange for wiring and each tenant does so – leaving no records of what they did for the next tenant. Examining our office space, we could see archaeological evidence of multiple generations of incompatible and uncoordinated wiring.

Matt recommended that we contact Stacy Talent at Telco Data for a quote. I did so and Telco Data sent out a supervisor who discussed what I thought we would need and put together a very meticulous and professional written quotation.  For our particular requirements, the proposed cost was a bit more than two-thousand dollars.

Picture of Telephone Wiring Closet

Telephone Wiring Closet

Next problem: find an internet service provider. Every office building has a central telephone wiring closet. The service providers bring their cable to this closet. Your cabling provider runs the cable from the closet to your office and hooks you up. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get the landlord to tell me which internet service providers actually had service to our building, I began to realize that the landlords view these wiring closets as something similar to the Embassy of North Korea – they are not sure what goes on in there and they really don’t want to know.

OK. Let’s get on the internet and see what we can find. First stop: the website of AT&T. I Googled “AT&T Business Internet” and found the seemingly convenient “AT&T Small Business Internet” site. Clicking through their site, I found my specific address and even the floor of my building. Great!  I ordered a 6 megabit service. Great! Pressed go. Phew. All setup.

The next day, an AT&T representative called me. Had they said 6 megabits? Opps. Their Bad. They meant 384 kilobits. Oh, and it would be really expensive and require and extended contract. Ten people sharing 384 kilobits?! I cancelled my order on the spot.

Let’s see, Time Warner Cable had been blanketing the airwaves with advertisements claiming to be the absolute savior of small business phone and internet world – let’s call them. They wanted $259/month for a 15 megabit service. Gulp. And there would be a two-year minimum contract. GULP! Oh, and it would be at least 6 weeks until they could dispatch a tree sloth to connect the service.

6 WEEKS!?!  I was now five days away from having ten $15/hour interns standing around unable to do any work!  My blood-pressure went through the roof! What was I going to do?!

Clear's Convenient Coverage Map

Clear’s Convenient Coverage Map

I am not sure how I became aware of Clear. I think it was a radio advertisement they were running. It might also have been a billboard they had up in the area.

I got on Clear’s website and the first thing I found was Clear’s very convenient coverage checking tool at: http://www.clear.com/coverage

I entered the address of our office and found that there were nearby towers all around. Our office is on the top of a hill. I looked out the window and found that I could see one of the Clear towers at exactly the location shown on the map as shown in the screenshot above to the right.

Clear 4G Wireless Internet Modem

Clear 4G Wireless Internet Modem

Next I called their sales line. The customer service rep discussed our needs, the number of people in the office, the type of work we would be doing and so on. He recommended that we sign up for two wireless modems on the “4G Internet Plan” as shown on their Home Internet Plans page.

Next he gave me the codes I would need to setup the modems and got my shipping address. About twenty minutes later, he had my credit card number and the modems were on their way.

The modems arrived the next day. We have two window offices and we setup one modem in each. Setup took about 10 minutes for each modem.

We ended up with two wireless LANs – AsattePress1 and AsattePress2.  We average about 5 megabits of throughput on each LAN. Users can connect to either wireless LAN. Most machines will choose the one with the slightly stronger signal. In each room, we connected a printer to the modem using an ethernet cable.

We have now had the service for almost a year and are very satisfied. At first I thought that  the service might have trouble in bad weather, but the few heavy rain storms we have had seemed to have surprisingly little impact on the service.

The only problem we have experienced is that every 4-6 weeks we will come into the office in the morning and find the service down in the weeds. That is, the links will be up, but throughput will be down to a crawl. The first time this problem occurred, we called Clear technical support and were told to power off the modems for five minutes. We did so and that cleared up the problem. Powering off for ten seconds is not sufficient as such a brief interruption gets handled at the lowest link level of their equipment. By powering off the modem for five minutes, you give the higher level service time to notice that your modem is no longer there. When you power the modem back up again after a five-minute absence, you get a full reset that clears out the clogged up routing equipment.

Early in my career, I actually designed telecommunications switching equipment for a living and my opinion is that Clear needs to lean more heavily on their equipment suppliers to clean up this problem. That is, the answer rolls off the tongue of the Clear helpdesk reps the instant you describe the problem – obviously this problem happens a lot. The need for the end-user to perform a power-switch-reset to clear a routine and repeating problem is the symptom of amateurish equipment design. Well-designed telecommunications equipment should be polling for service quality automatically and detecting and correcting these sorts of “down in the weeds” performance problems before the end users ever notice them.

That having been said, the problem does not happen very often and it is easy to fix. I just pull the plug on the modem and go have a cup of coffee. By the time I finish the cup of coffee and plug the modem back in, the problem has corrected itself.

There was an initial charge for the modems (I seem to remember $175 each) but there is no extended service contract. Including taxes, we pay just a little over $100 per month for both modems.

Overall, I would strongly recommend that any small business owner give Clear a close look before submitting to the pricing extortion and poor service of the traditional wired internet service providers.

Cloud-Based Phone Service by RingCentral

Logo of RingCentral

One of the cloud-based services that works best for small business owners is virtual telephone system service. At Asatte Press, we use RingCentral to provide our toll-free main and FAX numbers and are delighted with their service.

Our Package

Our RingCentral package includes:

  • One dedicated toll-free main number.
  • One dedicated FAX number.
  • Ten extension numbers.

It also includes some number of incoming and outgoing minutes that is two orders of magnitude more than we ever use. All told including all taxes and other charges, we pay $35.19 per month.

Look Mom! No Phones!

We don’t even have wires to our office. There are no phones on the desk. We are a true “BYOD” (“Bring Your Own Device”) company. Here is how it works:

  1. Employees show up with cellphones. We are a brain-work company and we have yet to encounter an employee who did not own a personal cellphone.
  2. We assign each employee an extension number from the pool of ten numbers. Each extension number can be any four-digit number you want. You don’t have to number them in sequence. You can make up any numbering scheme you want. The RingCentral extension number is setup to call the employee’s personal cellphone.
  3. Callers to our toll-free number receive the usual announcement about “If you know your party’s extension number…”
  4. After the caller enters an extension number, the caller hears another announcement: “Please hold while I connect you.”
  5. RingCentral next places a call to the employee’s cellphone.
  6. When the employee’s cellphone rings, the display shows the caller ID of the original caller, NOT the caller ID of RingCentral. (Nice design!)
  7. When the employee answers the cellphone, the employee hears an announcement: “You have a caller. Press 1 to accept the call.” This announcement lets the employee know that this is an Asatte Press call, not a personal call.
  8. The employee takes a deep breath, presses “1” and answers: “Asatte Press, this is Fred Smith.”

This system works really well.

But, But, But…

Surely, there must be some problems? We haven’t discovered any. RingCentral seems to have thought of everything.

Screenshot of RingCentral Answering Rules Setup

RingCentral Answering Rules Setup

  • After-Hours Calls – Each extension can be setup with a set of answering rules that route incoming calls differently at different times of day. Our employees do not get Asatte Press calls at 3AM.
  • Outgoing Calls – We haven’t used it much, but RingCentral provides a webportal so that employees can have RingCentral place an outgoing call and connect the call back to the employee’s personal cellphone so that the caller ID at the other end shows up as “Asatte Press”
  • Greetings – Each employee can record a greeting if they want.
  • Messages – Voicemail messages are sent as MP3 files to the employee’s e-mail address. This service is very convenient. The messages can also be browsed on the RingCentral webportal.
  • Default Extension – A default extension number can be assigned to accept calls from callers who don’t know who they want to talk with. In our case, this extension number belongs to Tomoko Hetherington, Asatte Press Vice President of Everything Else.

FAX Service

Incoming FAXes are sent to your e-mail address as a PDF file. Outgoing FAXes can be uploaded as PDF files and sent from the RingCentral web portal.

Call Blocking

We had one particularly obnoxious supplier who would not get the message that we no longer wanted to do business with them. It only took a few seconds to set their number to be blocked in the RingCentral web portal.

Professional Voice Prompts

You can record MP3 or WAV files and upload the voice segments you want for each announcement. If you don’t happen to have a recording studio and an actress available, RingCentral refers you to Snap Recordings who will record them for you for $50 per prompt.

The choice of professional voices and the smoothness of the final recordings produced were adequate for our purposes. You can call our tollfree number to hear a sample: (866) 308-2139. If you are trying to sell some sort of premium luxury product, you might prefer to spend weeks of time and thousands of dollars to hire a recording studio and a professional actress to produce something more polished.

If you have special requirements for pronunciation of your company name, be sure to read the Snap Recording instructions very carefully. They will not pay any attention to e-mails you send to their support e-mail address after you click “submit”.

What if We Grow?

As your business grows and you need things like high-quality speakerphones in conference rooms, or fancy desk phones for well-dressed marketing people, RingCentral can provide pretty much anything you need as a dedicated VoIP (Voice over IP) service.

Summary

Here at Asatte Press, our primary source of investment funding is the cracks between the cushions in our sofa. If you are a cash-starved small business like us and getting ready to move into your first office, don’t waste thousands of dollars on cabling up a traditional phone system. Let employees use their personal cellphones and let RingCentral make the entire thing look and feel like a big company’s traditional phone system to the outside world.