Email Security

    How to Keep Exchange Online Up and Running During an Outage

    What’s Your Contingency Plan for an Exchange Online Outage?

    by J. Peter Bruzzese

    This winter I was sitting in a hotel room in Boston watching a blizzard fall outside my window.  Not the worst situation I could be in (as I sipped my cup of coffee).  At some point, the news flashed a number at the bottom of my screen for folks to call if the power went out.  If the power goes out?  Now that would have changed my comfy scenario pretty quick and I jotted that number down just in case I needed a contingency plan.  Does the hotel have a generator?  Where are the emergency exits (elevators would be out)?  A moment ago I was enjoying the snowfall, but now I’m thinking ahead because…well…things happen.

    Things happen.  And it’s smart to have a contingency plan in play to ensure you aren’t just a standby victim waiting for the lights to come back on (or in the case of Exchange Online, for your email to come back up).  In the years that Office 365’s Exchange Online has been available, there have been major and minor outages of the service each year, often at inopportune times (as if there is an opportune time to lose email).  I think of the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in Orlando in 2015 where the email service was down for several hours.  Or the December 2015 event that hit Europe due to a misconfiguration error of a Microsoft engineer with Azure (which affected the Office 365 customers that rely on Azure for identity management and such).  Or the June 30th, 2016 outage that affected some North American customers for up to 9 hours!  Last day of the sales quarter! 

    Some say, “well, that’s the risk of going to the cloud and when things go down, they go down… and you wait!” That may be true of some things.  But what if I told you there was an alternative when it comes to Exchange Online.  What if I told you that when it goes down (and it DOES go down) your users could continue to work and not even know there was an outage.  A pretty nifty trick, especially if you’re the one who proposed the move to Exchange Online and don’t want to have to explain the outage (or lack of ability to do anything other than fold your arms and wait for Microsoft to fix it).

    The solution?  Mimecast’s Continuity for Exchange/Exchange Online 

    The way this works is brilliant.  When you bolt Mimecast on to the front end of your Exchange or Exchange Online, you basically have the MX records pointing into Mimecast and then set up send/receive (aka outgoing/incoming) connectors to have mail flow between the two.  That allows Mimecast to perform enterprise-grade security scrubbing along with an optional archive data bank storing emails coming and going.  In addition, Mimecast has their own MTA so in the event a problem occurs on the email server itself (Exchange or Exchange Online) the admin simply has to kick off a continuity event in their Mimecast administration portal and mail flow is now completely handled on the Mimecast side (with a 100% SLA).  End users can continue to send and receive email in one of three ways:  through Outlook if they have the Mimecast plugin for Outlook, through their Mimecast mobile app and/or through a Mimecast web portal.

    One of the biggest challenges facing IT admins these days with regard to availability of the Office 365 suite of services is transparency.  It’s often the case that end users start to complain about a loss of services but the IT admin doesn’t see an alert from within their Office 365 admin center.  Everything is showing up green, but their end users faces are all red.  The IT admin turns to Twitter or Reddit or other social media outlets to try to determine if the problem is on the company side or Microsoft’s side.  In Microsoft’s defense, there is quite a bit happening on their end and while one customer might be down or a grouping of customers, depending on the extent and type of outage, it isn’t time to throw out a red flag just yet.  But for those customers who are down, they need more transparency.  However, monitoring this type of outage is becoming increasingly more difficult as Microsoft breaks users into separate pods, ultimately obscuring the true extent of an outage.

    To address the need for better transparency, Mimecast is upping its game in the continuity space by adding in Continuity Event Management or CEM.  One of the key elements to CEM is the ability to monitor your connection to Exchange Online on a continuous basis looking for possible problems.  It does this using an ‘organic’ inbound check (can my SMTP server receive mail) and a ‘synthetic’ outbound check (can my SMTP server send mail).  In the event of a problem, an alert gets sent through SMS or to an alternate email (logically because your primary is down) and you’re basically given a panic button to manage the alert.  Push the button, invoke the Mimecast continuity mode for your people, go back to whatever it was you were doing before the alert with the knowledge that your people are fine.

    In Conclusion:

    Truth be told, things happen.  You know it.  Cloud infrastructure breaks down sometimes.  If you’ve been impacted by a cloud disruption, you’re not alone.  And if you haven’t (yet), you’re not immune. So what’s your contingency plan?  What do you do when Exchange Online goes out in whole or in part?  If your answer is ‘fold your arms and wait for Microsoft to fix it’ that’s a choice you’re making.  It’s not the only choice you have.  You could choose to have a plan b. An email continuity solution that can keep your people sending and receiving email, despite the outage.

    You have a choice.

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