Office 365 Import Service – The What, Why and How …

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Last week my colleague Andrew Brown wrote in this blog about Microsoft’s recent announcement about their Office 365 Import Service. This is now available as a preview. It is an interesting development by Microsoft, so I’m going to take a look into what they are actually providing, and what this means for Office 365 customers.

What is the Office 365 Import Service?

Put quite simply, it’s a service to import email via PST files into Office 365 (Exchange Online) mailboxes. It is sometimes referred to as “drive shipping”, but they have actually provided customers with two different options.

Office 365 Import Service ... drive shippingFor larger volumes of data you can copy your PST archive files onto a hard drive and then send this by courier directly to the nearest Microsoft datacenter. Once they have received the drive, they will copy the PST files onto their internal servers, and then import the mail from within these files into your Exchange Online mailboxes.

For smaller amounts of data you can upload the PST files to an Azure storage account, and Microsoft will import the email data from there.

The service is officially in “preview” mode at the moment, but is actually available for use by all customers. It is free of charge for the time being, however Microsoft have said that they may charge for it once it moves out of preview.

This first release of the service is only for PST files, and they expect to extend the import service to support other data types later on.

Why has Microsoft released the service?

It is in direct response to the strong feedback they have been getting from customers and partners for quite a while about the difficulty of uploading large amounts of email data to Office 365, and then ingesting it into Exchange Online. They say they are being consistently approached by customers and partners asking for help with migrations that could otherwise easily take several years to complete.

Drive Shipping to circumnavigate painfully slow uploads to Office 365The service uses their internal datacenter network to load data into Exchange Online, which they claim gives “significantly faster throughput and lower latency”. However we have yet to see reliable statistics on the overall performance of the service compared to other current methods.

It is positioned as a companion to Microsoft’s free PST Capture tool, but I can’t see any real evidence of this. There is no integration between the two, and the functionality provide by PST Capture overlaps with that provided by the Import Service.

How does the service work?

Before you can use the service, you have to gather together in a central location all the PST files that you want to import to Office 365. This can be quite a prolonged task if there are a large number of files involved, or if you don’t know exactly how many files you currently have or where they are at the moment.

The next step is to tell the Import Service where you want the data from each PST file to be loaded to. You have to do this by creating a CSV file that maps each PST file to a target mailbox. This again can be quite time-consuming, particularly if some of the PST files are not currently attached to an Outlook profile and therefore don’t have an obvious owner.

If you are shipping a physical drive, the third step is to prepare the drive and copy all the PST files onto it. You will need to download a tool from Microsoft for doing this as the data on the drive has to be in a specific format. Once all the data has been copied onto the drive you have to log into Office 365 to create an import job for it. Then you can call a courier and get the drive shipped to the Microsoft datacenter.

If you are uploading PST files over the network, the third step is to obtain an Office 365 upload storage account in Azure (this is free), and use the Microsoft Azure AZCopy tool to upload all the PST files to Azure. Once all the data has been uploaded, you then log into Office 365 to create an import job for it.

Once your data has arrived in the Microsoft datacenter (either by shipping a drive or uploading to Azure), you just have to wait for Office 365 to open each PST file and copy the contents into the specified mailbox. You don’t have any direct control over when this process happens, but you can monitor progress using the Office 365 Admin Center, and any errors in processing are flagged up there.

So how useful is the service?

As I noted above, there are a number of manual tasks that have to be completed before you can send your data off to the Microsoft datacenter. These can be quite time-consuming and expensive, particularly in larger organizations.

It is clearly not a complete end‑to‑end solution for managing the problem of PST files. Other solutions exist that incorporate different feature sets, and these might be a better choice in particular circumstances, especially when the time comes to find and collect PST files from end users and network locations across the organization.

You can read more about the Office 365 Import Service in this Microsoft TechNet article:

In my next blog I will take a deeper look at the limitations of the Office 365 Import Service, and discuss when it may be appropriate to consider third‑part tools such as our own PST Enterprise.

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