Office 365 Groups Versus Public Folder Mailboxes for Migration of Public Folders

Are Office 365 Groups or Public Folder Mailboxes good options for your public folder migration? Is one better than the other?

Making decisions on how to map your organization’s use of Public to the new options can be extremely complicated. What can seem to be simple from a high-level perspective can be ridiculously complex as you look further. If you choose to stay pat do nothing, then you risk further complicating this effort down the road. Nothing exemplifies this point more than when it comes to the use of Public Folders.

From the casual observer, it would seem at first glance that Public Folders should migrate just as simply as an end users’ mailbox. Copy it on the back-end while in use, continue to copy delta’s, and then when the time is right, cut over quickly. Unfortunately, this is just not how it works.

Depending on whether you are using what Microsoft has termed as Legacy Public Folders (Public Folders existing in Exchange 2010 or prior) or Modern Public Folders (Exchange 2013/2016 and Office 365), your migration path can be a tumultuous one. However, this is just the first of many concerns for the future of your Public Folder content.

Moving Public Folder Content from Exchange to Office 365

Initially, Office 365 did not support Public Folders. In response to demand from clients, you will now find support in Office 365 for your Public Folders. It would seem that the path for moving Public Folders has been solved, but if you do not understand the limitations imposed on Public Folders in Office 365, you can hit another dead end.

What works for your version of Exchange does not always apply to Office 365. If you are currently using Legacy Public Folders, you need to know how to distribute this among Public Folder mailboxes as well as leave space for growth. For those with thousands of folders, this is going to turn into a long and arduous research project.

If you are currently on Modern Public Folders in your on-premises deployment of Exchange, then you would think that you are in the clear because the same methodology applies to Office 365. However, folder and data size restrictions can have you undergoing the same exact exercise as for organizations that have Legacy Public Folders.

Exceeding the Office 365 Limits for Public Folders

If your organization is projected to exceed the Office 365 Public Folder limits, then you can be forced to continue to host your Public Folders on premise in a Hybrid configuration. This means your on-premises Exchange environment is not going away even though your organization moves to Office 365. The cost implications of this are significant. Isn’t one of the main points of going to Office 365 to free your Messaging team from the worries of maintaining an on-premises Exchange environment?

If your organization is like many when it comes to Public Folders, they sit at the core of your business processes. Having to make decisions on what to move, what to exclude from the migration, and what to do with the content you are not moving are not simple decisions.

Fortunately, Microsoft’s focus is on improving the collaboration experience, especially when it comes to Office 365. The question to be asked then is how do you get from Public Folders to this new type of collaborative environment so that your users can benefit from the always improving Office 365 experience?

Know Your Options

Collaboration is the mainstay of Office 365. While it still functions as your email server with the same capabilities that you are accustomed to, the connection into new features and functionality continue to expand and intertwine with one another.

Public Folders in Office 365

Public Folders are considered one of the first ways that organizations used collaboration in an Exchange environment. The Outlook Client was the primary interface, and since everyone needed Outlook to access their email, using the same for accessing collaborative content made it an easy solution for sharing in an organization.

Users can create folders, deploy shared calendars, store content (messages or files) and share them with other users by assigning permissions on the folder level. Mail-enabled folders can be created to receive e-mail to a specific Public Folder.

Migrating your current Public Folder environment over to Office 365 Public Folders can be a way of solving a short term problem of alleviating the burden of supporting Public Folders on premise. As long as your organization does not exceed the limits of Public Folders in Office 365, this can be an excellent stop-gap solution. It can buy your organization more time to evaluate the newer collaborative features of Office 365 to determine what’s best for your organization.

SharePoint Online

SharePoint has been around almost as long as Public Folders, but is now available as SharePoint Online in certain Office 365 plans. It is a collaborative solution for sharing, managing and working on content between a certain defined number of end users. SharePoint “Sites” are created to address each function specifically and because they are websites, they can be accessed almost anywhere.

SharePoint Online is also heavily integrated, and in many ways, is the backbone of the Office 365 experience. So, in addition to deploying SharePoint sites, other services in the Office 365 suite are also using it, with OneDrive for Business being a primary example.

It is also important to note that SharePoint is not Exchange. When it comes to mail-enabled folders for example, SharePoint is not going to fill this need in the same way that Public Folders can with mail-enabled folders.

Office 365 Groups

Groups appeared in Office 365 Exchange Online in 2016. Groups are intended to be the replacement solution for Public Folders. This feature is only available in Office 365, so you are not going to find it in Exchange Server on-premises. To use this feature, your plan must have the following:

  • Exchange Online
  • SharePoint Online

If you do not know what your plan supports, you can view the comparison chart for more details.

What are the Benefits of Office 365 Groups?

At first glance, some of the benefits of using Office 365 Groups over Public Folders are obvious.

For one, you get a Shared Inbox and Calendar upon creation which can receive messages inside and outside of your organization. Instead of having to create these manually in a Public Folder and assign access, this comes by default and is ready to use. When you assign users to an Office 365 Group, they get the permissions they need upon assignment; whereas with Public Folders, you need to manually assign the proper permissions.

Groups also support the concept of Private or Public. However, regardless of that setting, they cannot be accessed by external users unless a person is specifically invited as a guest.

When you create an Office 365 Group, a SharePoint Document Library and Team Site is created (essentially a OneDrive for Business site). This gives you all the benefits of document management, version tracking and collaboration of SharePoint. When you take this functionality, and merge it with the mail-enabled benefits of Public Folders, you get the best of both worlds and a true upgrade path.

Accessibility of Groups is also key. So where you can only access Public Folders from Outlook or OWA (Outlook Web Access), Groups can also be accessed via a mobile app too.

Office 365 Teams

Teams is a feature that has just been released to the Office 365 at the beginning of 2017. How do Teams differ from Office 365 Groups and which one should you consider?

Teams modernize that conversation experience that occurs within a collaborative environment. This means that it’s not just another option to consider, but an addition to your current experience. In fact, Groups can be linked to Teams, enhancing the collaborative experience. It doesn’t matter if you already have created Groups or not because a Team can easily be added to an existing Office 365 Group, which is some much-needed flexibility!

Skype for Business is a big part of the Teams experience, bringing chat and video conferencing as core features. With open API’s available, you can expect to see more integration with other third party providers in the months ahead.

Choose Your Path

Figuring out how to plan your transition is the next step. The biggest concern will be whether your organizations Public Folder hierarchy can fit within Public Folders in Office 365.

Public Folders will fully move to Office 365

If you can move all your Public Folders to Office 365, then you are fortunate enough to be able to:

  • Migrate Public Folders completely off premise and potentially eliminate any last vestige of Hybrid infrastructure.
  • Avoid disrupting your users with new concepts and a change in their working behavior.
  • Allow time to research and understand the options available to improve the collaboration experience beyond Public Folders.

Public folders will not all move to Office 365

If you can’t fit your entire Public Folder hierarchy into Office 365, then you will need to make several decisions, namely:

  • How can you best analyze your current Public Folder data?
  • Will some of the data move to Office 365 Public Folders, and if so, what?
  • For data that will not move to Office 365, what is the strategy? Can it be archived to cloud archive in Azure? Or should it archive into SharePoint Online or Groups? Maybe there are folders that can be deleted?

Create a Plan

As with anything, a well thought out plan is critical to success. This is no different when it comes to determining your migration from legacy or modern public folders to Office 365.

If you’re a heavy user of Public Folders, you may not be able to directly migrate all of that content to Office 365 Public Folders. It helps to classify your data as follows:

You may find that you can move your Public Folders to Office 365 Folders and stay within the limits. If not, you will want to consider beginning to use Office 365 Groups for your Recent and Active content. Before doing so, it’s important to understand some of the limitations within Office 365 Groups.

Office 365 Groups share the same limitations as a SharePoint library

  • Up to 1 TB storage capacity
  • Ability to upload files up to 2 GB in size
  • Uses the usage-based storage model, meaning space will be allocated as needed
  • Groups count against the used space in your Office 365 tenant

Office 365 Groups Guidelines

  • There is no limit to the number of Groups per Office 365 tenant
  • Each user can create up to 250 Office 365 Groups
  • Each user can be a member of up to 1,024 Groups
  • Groups with over 1,000 users are supported
    • Group conversations can be slow in groups of this size or greater
    • Public Groups can be a risk, since anyone in your organization can join them
  • A special Group mailbox is created in Office 365 to store all the Groups content.
    • The maximum size of this mailbox is 50 GB

SharePoint Online or Office 365 Groups?

When it comes to content you elect to archive, SharePoint Online would seem to be the best choice. However, if you need to archive an email-enabled Public Folder, then this option may not be suitable. Migrating your archived content to Groups and creating a preservation policy in the Security and Compliance Center is best.

Regardless of what you choose to move, you will need to group your Public Folders into logical groupings. This means defining what root folders in your Public Hierarchy map to which Office 365 Groups:

When you plan to migrate Public Folders to Office 365, you should plan for how data access will continue to work as you execute your migration. Does your data need to be locked down to “read-only”? Will some of the content be available? Can your users still add content during the migration? Defining how this will work for your plan and then communicating to your end users will be critical.

Lastly, it’s important to know where in your plan you have the option to rollback to a previous step. Labs do not always mirror production. If you account for the unexpected, it will make it easier to make decisions if the migration hits a snag.

Make it So

Innovation occurs at a rapid pace in this day in age in the IT industry. What’s new at one point can be quickly supplanted by the next best thing. Nothing exemplifies this point more than Microsoft’s Office 365 Suite.

With all of the decisions in place, it’s time to move forward with your migration plan. Stay in contact with your end users and inform them of the progress every step of the way. Getting feedback throughout the migration will ensure that any problems are identified and quickly remediated.

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