Outages happen. Fact!! So how do you achieve always-on email with Office 365?

Danny Bradbury

Hanging your hat on Office 365? It’s a great collaboration and productivity tool, bringing the benefits of cloud-based data storage to your team for a regular monthly payment instead of a large, complex software license. There is a downside, though: outages are a problem.

A history of downtime

Office 365 suffers from service issues – and with alarming consistency. Its quarterly uptime figures suggest a smooth operation that never seems to waver, but real customer experiences tell a different story.

Back in February 2015, the company suffered a two-week password change outage that caused enough trouble for some customers that they threatened to take their business elsewhere.

An outage that appeared to last days for some in January 2016 may affect Q1 uptime figures, which weren’t available at the time of writing. But then again, it may not. Microsoft has several categories for service status, including ‘service degradation’ for slow or sluggish behaviour and ‘extended recovery’ for services that are getting better but may still not operate properly. It can be difficult for customers to know what’s included in downtime behind the scenes, even as they read about the issues in the press and experience service disruptions themselves.

Impact to customers

When email fails, the fallout spans two key areas:

Customer-facing disruption
Many existing or potential customers still prefer email as a first point of contact. An inability to answer them promptly may directly impact customer satisfaction or kill your chance of a new sale.

Internal disruption
While it’s true that services like Slack are changing the way many people communicate, few companies have eradicated email altogether. Many employees are used to dealing with each other via email and while this can sometimes be inefficient, the prospect of resorting to phones is far worse. 

Mitigation

What can you do to protect yourself from potential email disruption? One step involves keeping real-time tabs on the state of Office 365. Microsoft has been criticized in the past for only publishing updates via its customer-only Office 365 Health Portal and Emergency Broadcast System rather than to the wider web. That can be a problem when the portal and EBS themselves become unavailable

As an alternative, you can monitor the system’s health using a third-party Office 365 monitoring service or you can fold monitoring support directly into your own tools using the service health API that the company has recently made available.

Managed services

Knowing immediately when Office 365 goes down is useful, but only part of the puzzle. The other part is protecting your mail service with an email continuity solution that keeps you in business. 

When it comes to contingency planning for email disruption, your mail exchanger (MX) record is your friend. MX is a part of the Internet’s domain naming system that effectively tells the Internet where your mail servers are. You can point these records to a complementary provider that will scan and archive mail for you before passing it onto Office 365, which will still be your primary email access point. 

This mitigates the Office 365 outage issue, because when Microsoft’s service fails, your email will still be available. Users will be able to send and receive their email directly from the secondary provider’s web interface, keeping them in contact with customers, other third parties and each other.

Any cloud service naturally involves a certain level of risk. Microsoft is not alone in this. But with Office 365 now such an important service for millions of commercial users worldwide, it’s effectively a critical resource. As such, nothing should be left to chance.