Office 365 Admin Interfaces Five Years On: Better, but Incomplete

Tony Redmond

by Tony Redmond on 8/9/2016

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Applies to:
administration, EAC, Exchange Admin Center, Exchange Online, management, Office 365 admin center, PowerShell, Security and Compliance Center, SharePoint Online

Microsoft has improved and increased the features and functionality available to Office 365 users in the five years since the launch of the service. Some improvement has also been made in the administrative interfaces. Although Microsoft has recently refreshed the Office 365 Admin Center, there’s work to be done to refine the other administrative consoles and to rationalize the sometimes confusing way that PowerShell interfaces with different parts of Office 365.

When Microsoft released Office 365 in June 2011, the suite was composed of a set of “cloudified” on-premises applications loosely coupled together by an operations framework. Five years on, the suite is more coherent and unified and shows the benefit of work done to unify workloads in areas such as security and compliance, APIs, and monitoring and reporting. Another benefit is seen in new applications such as Office 365 Groups, Microsoft Planner, and Delve Analytics that leverage components drawn from across Office 365 instead of taking a narrow workload-centric view of the world.

Progress in design

Although great progress has been made to deliver new functionality to tenants, the system administration interfaces used within Office 365 are less impressive. On the plus side, for the last several months, Microsoft has been previewing a new version of the Office 365 Admin Center (due to exit preview soon) and has introduced the new Security and Compliance Center (SCC) as a common entry point for cross-service features such as content searches, eDiscovery cases, and Advanced Security Management. In addition, email hygiene controls (anti-spam, etc.) that used to be accessed through the Exchange Online Administration Center (EAC) have recently been relocated to the SCC.

The Office 365 Admin Center and the SCC share the same design language. In other words, the UI elements that make up the consoles use the same look and feel, black, red-and white color scheme, fonts, and so on. I was initially underwhelmed by the new layout but it has gradually grown on me, possibly because Microsoft has been busy fixing bugs and moving over all of the options that are available through the older version of the Admin Center. However, the reason why I now prefer the new version is that it is easier to use and more flexible than its predecessors.

Two examples prove the point. First, the new Office 365 Admin Center makes it much easier to maintain user account details. After you select a user, a fly-out screen appears with all their details (Figure 1). There’s no need to hunt and peck for an obscure setting because all of the settings that you might want to edit are presented (right at the bottom of the screen and not shown here are links to manage Exchange Online properties, Skype for Business properties, and multi-factor authentication for the account). In short, the number of clicks and screens required to update a user account is much reduced, which is always a good thing.

New Office 365 Admin Center makes it much easier to maintain user account details
Figure 1: Editing an Office 365 User account (new Admin Center)

The second example is how you can edit the layout of the cards (tiles) that display data about different elements such as Users, Billing, Reports, the Message Center, and Service Health. Administrators assign different priorities: some might never access the Message Center while others consult it frequently. You can drag and drop cards into an order that makes sense for you. As Microsoft adds functionality to the Admin Center, new cards are likely to become available and can be incorporated into your own personal layout.

Nagging reminders

It’s unlikely that anyone will be 100% satisfied with a redesign and I still have some personal gripes about the new layout. First, it’s disappointing that the designers have not provided a way to allow administrators to quash the nagging notifications that appear when trial or other subscriptions are expiring (Figure 2).

Office 365 Admin Center nags about trial subscriptions
Figure 2: Nagging, nagging, nagging

There’s good reason to make administrators aware that a subscription is expiring because when the period lapses, Microsoft removes data associated with the subscription from Office 365 and that data cannot be recovered. However, it would be really nice not to be told the same thing, time after time for 90 days, and have the opportunity to suppress the notifications by checking a box or other mechanism. In saying this, I know that some people check boxes without thinking and this could lead to someone losing data. You could argue that the experience would make them more careful in the future…

My second issue is the way that the Admin Center insists on representing accounts created for shared mailboxes, service accounts, and room and resource mailboxes as “unlicensed” (Figure 3). Although technically true, these accounts do not need licenses. And, what’s more baffling, is that if you take the options to access Rooms and Equipment mailboxes (under Resources) or Shared Mailboxes (under Groups), the Admin Center recognizes these accounts properly without making a fuss about their license status. It’s as if the developers don’t understand Microsoft licensing requirements for Office 365 accounts. Or, possibly more likely, they’re taking every advantage to remind administrators of the need to license accounts. For whatever reason, it would be good to be able to suppress the display of these mailboxes from the “Active Users” view.

Office 365 admin center shows unlicensed shared mailboxes, service accounts, and room and resource mailboxes
Figure 3: “Unlicensed” room mailboxes

The older consoles

I could also moan about having to reauthenticate myself at unpredictable intervals, sometimes in the middle of doing something, or that the Admin Center refuses to have anything to do with dynamic distribution groups. But these are small gripes in the context of the set of work that has been done to refresh and refine the Office 365 Admin Center. What’s still to be done is to relieve the flatness and boredom of workload-specific administrative consoles. EAC, the Skype for Business console, and the SharePoint Online administrative console are still modeled after the “Metro” or “modern” design language used for the 2013 versions of the on-premises products, while Yammer does its own thing (as normal).

According to some, the mass of white space used in the “modern” interfaces provoked headaches. Four years on, I don’t think they have aged well. Even though SharePoint Online has recently had its user interface refreshed, the SharePoint console (Figure 4) is arguably the worst of the bunch with Skype for Business in second position. The Exchange admin center is not much better.

SharePoint Online admin center shows its Metro roots
Figure 4: SharePoint Online Admin

The workload consoles used inside Office 365 largely replicate those found in their on-premises counterparts. It’s understandable that Microsoft doesn’t want to redesign the consoles for both platforms to use a common design language. Instead, the Office 365 developers seem to be concentrating on accentuating options and commands that apply across the entire services, as evident in the Security and Compliance Center. As a result, the current disjointed nature of the various administrative interfaces across the breadth of Office 365 is now quite startling and poses a confusing challenge to new administrators.

Even PowerShell is disjointed

A case can be made that PowerShell provides a level of consistency through its Verb-Noun command structure. Much as I have the highest regard for PowerShell and the impact it has had on the way that Windows servers (and the massive Office 365 infrastructure) are managed today, there’s no denying that PowerShell for Office 365 also has the potential to confuse. Everything is fine if you stay within the boundaries of a single workload, but stray outside and you find that multiple modules need to be loaded into a PowerShell session (some which duplicate existing commands) and that while some workloads are very PowerShell-friendly, others have not fully embraced Microsoft’s automation language.

For instance, to do some work across Office 365, an administrator might have to load or connect to these modules into a PowerShell session:

  • Microsoft Online Services (Azure Active Directory)
  • Exchange Online
  • Azure Rights Management
  • Security and Compliance
  • SharePoint Online
  • Skype for Business

Even Microsoft admits that using PowerShell to manage Office 365 can be messy and confusing. You can follow their advice or use the function-driven approach explained by MVP Michel de Rooij. Other ideas on this topic can be found using your favorite search engine. I guess that’s the beauty of PowerShell – if you don’t like the way someone else does it, change the code and do it your way!

Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.

Want to know more about how to manage Office 365? Find what you need to know in “Office 365 for IT Pros”, the most comprehensive eBook covering all aspects of Office 365. Available in PDF and EPUB formats (suitable for iBooks) or for Amazon Kindle.

Topic: Office 365

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