My take on Groups in Office 365

The Groups feature was first revealed back in April, during the MEC 2014 conference. It made quite the impression, so many of us were eagerly waiting for the official debut. The official announcement hit the Office 365 blog on Sep 25th, and the YamJam session attracted great interest. Less than 48 hours ago, the Office 365 customers that have switched the First Release setting received the Groups update. ​Being the curious type, I took the feature for a spin, and here are my initial impressions. Note that the feature is still being updated and it will take a while until we see it in its final form.

The Groups feature is intended to be user-centric, so creating a Group is actually a very easy task. All you need to do is login to OWA and press on the Create group button. And since the team wants to emphasize on the feature, they have actually modified the left navigation pane in OWA, as shown on the picture on the right. The default Folders menu has been moved to the top and will no longer list all the folders. It will also appear contracted, and has some other minor issues, but we will talk about that later. The People menu is also contracted, and right beneath you will find the new Groups menu. The little plus sign on the right end servers as a quick ‘create new group’ button. Your recent groups will be listed below, displaying their image and name. Right-clicking on one of the entries will bring up the context menu, which allows you to either remove the group from your favorites or view its details. The details card is very similar to what you get for a Distribution list card, but has some added quick navigation links. You can take a look at it below:

Pressing the More button will take you to the extended Groups menu, which offers some additional options such as Browsing for groups created by other people in your company or viewing the list of all groups you have joined (the compact menu only shows a limited number). You have the option of creating a new group from here as well, so let’s go over the process. Pressing the “Create a group” pane, as shown on the right. The setup is very simplified – you get to name the group and select its ID, or email alias. There is unfortunately no option to control the domain part of the email alias, as it’s directly tied to the default tenant.onmicrosoft.com domain you have. It will however warn you if the alias you have selected already exists and you can edit it on the spot. Next, you get to type in a description for your group, and it’s highly recommended that you do so. Below the description box, you can make the selection of whether the group will be a Public one or a Private one. Choose wisely! While you can edit the name, description or members on a later stage, the Privacy options cannot currently be changed after the group creation. You can also select whether to auto-subscribe the group members to conversations. This option ensures that a new message is delivered in the users’ mailbox for group conversations. It will be important for hybrid scenarios, as it will allow on-prem users to follow the conversations, while otherwise being unable to experience the full groups experience due to the OWA dependence.

Once you are satisfied with the settings selection, press the Create button and wait for a sec. The new group will be created and you will be presented with the “Add group member” pane. It’s an easy and convenient way to populate the group membership, but of course you can also manage that on a later stage. Once you confirm the changes, you will be greeted by the following message:

Once the group is created, you can start exploring its features. Group conversations is the default view, but you can easily switch to any of the others. The Calendar view will offer a quick overview of the events in your and the groups calendar, and you can of course easily create a new Group meeting. In the Members view, you can examine the list of the current group members and make adjustments as necessary. Left clicking a user will bring up his details card. Right-clicking will present you with the options to grant or remove admin rights, as well as to remove the user from the group. You can also use the Add button to provision some new members, and filter the list based on status or name. The Files view will take you to the Group’s OneDrive folder, where you can store the documents. Uploading new documents can be done by drag/dropping files or pressing the Upload button. Be careful with what you upload however, as the storage is counted towards the total tenant storage, and you do not get 1TB for free like with personal OneDrive. Compared to the ‘regular’ OneDrive view however, the options are very limited. You cannot rename items for example, and the ribbon is totally absent. The Item menu only offers you the Edit action and deleting existing files can only be performed by selecting the item(s) and pressing the delete key on your keyboard. The guys at Microsoft are of course aware that these limitations are not welcomed by the users and are busy adapting the menu to offer the familiar functionality from SharePoint/OneDrive. Syncing files is also not possible, and I have not found a way to open the ‘folder’ with Explorer.

Continuing with the menu items, you have the options to Leave a group, remove it from Favorites or Unsubscribe to the conversation notifications. Admins will also be able to select the Edit Group item, which allows them to perform some common admin tasks. Changing the group Privacy options unfortunately isn’t one of them, but editing the Picture, Display Name and Description is easily done. Apart from that, the admin can choose to Delete the group, change the default subscription settings or the delivery options (i.e. allow people outside of the company to send messages to this group). While we are on the subject of admin tasks, as a tenant admin currently your options will be very limited. Part of the problem seems that not all of the group related functionality has been rolled yet, so we are missing things like the group-related cmdlets in PowerShell. Another part however seems to be by design, as the product group has chosen to empower the users instead of the admins. This is certainly not a very good thing in my book, and seems that other fellow MVPs share the same concern. Let’s however discuss the options we do have available currently. From the Office 365 admin center, you will be able to view all the groups under the new Group menu. You have the power to edit the group name, description, membership and owners. You can also delete the group if necessary. If you decide to perform those admin actions using the WAAD module for PowerShell however, you will be greeted by the lovely “You cannot update mail-enabled groups using this cmdlet. Use Exchange Online to perform this operation.” error message. The only thing you can do is actually delete the group.

Continuing the administration topic, the Exchange related cmdlets are simply missing in the current version. Doing a simple check on the group object in Exchange also fails:

PS C:\> Get-Recipient firstgroup@michev.onmicrosoft.com

The operation couldn't be performed because object 'firstgroup@michev.onmicrosoft.com' couldn't be found on 'DBXPR03A001DC01.EURPR03A001.prod.outlook.com'.
+ CategoryInfo : NotSpecified: (:) [Get-Recipient], ManagementObjectNotFoundException
+ FullyQualifiedErrorId : [Server=DBXPR03MB617,RequestId=65495253-159f-436f-b255-a19df0ab5071,TimeStamp=10/23/2014 7:49:23 PM] [FailureCategory=Cmdlet-ManagementObjectNotFoundException] E6973519,Microsoft.Exchange.Management.RecipientTasks.GetRecipient

This unfortunately breaks one of my favorite cmdlets in Exchange, as Get-Recipient is a very quick way to check whether particular alias exists in the organization and what kind of object it is assigned to. Not all is lost though. The GroupMailbox object is visible to all the Get-Mailbox related cmdlets. The bad news is that the Set-Mailbox cmdlet cannot be used to change any of its properties. So if you want to be able to change the delivery settings for example, your only option will be to ask the user to do so, unless you are added as admin of the group. Which I’m sure will go great in large enterprise organizations J. Any other actions that rely on the Set-Mailbox cmdlet, such as changing the primary SMTP address or adding new ones, configuring MailTips and quotas, etc, will not be possible. Putting the mailbox on Litigation hold will NOT be possible. Configuring auditing will again not be possible. So we are missing on some important features. The good news is that you can use pretty much any other mailbox related cmdlet. You can add, view or remove mailbox and mailbox folder permissions. You can use the Search-Mailbox cmdlet, which is a very good thing. Heck, if you are bored enough you can even add an Archive mailbox to it:

PS C:> Get-Mailbox firstgroup@michev.onmicrosoft.com | fl *archive*

ArchiveDatabase : EURPR03DG039-db130
ArchiveGuid : 577a3146-10b5-485e-9068-2db4bdf6ffa5
ArchiveName : {In-Place Archive - First group}
ArchiveQuota : 100 GB (107,374,182,400 bytes)
ArchiveWarningQuota : 90 GB (96,636,764,160 bytes)
ArchiveStatus : Active
ArchiveState : Local

And since with Exchange 2013 we now also have the In-Place hold, the security guys can breathe a bit easier. While the EAC does not expose group mailboxes and you cannot create an eDiscovery search from there, PowerShell does not have such issues. You can use the New-MailboxSearch cmdlet to put a group mailbox under In-Place hold:

PS C:\> New-MailboxSearch "group" -SourceMailboxes firstgroup@michev.onmicrosoft.com -InPlaceHoldEnabled $true

WARNING: The hold setting may take up to 60 minutes to take effect.
Name CreatedBy InPlaceHoldEnabled Status
---- --------- ------------------ ------
group S-1-5-21-3675944716-2045640655-299186705-... True NotStarted
PS C:\> (Get-Mailbox firstgroup@michev.onmicrosoft.com).InPlaceHolds
b1eadd0b4ca94eeeb1f328b5aa2c3a0a

Unfortunately, while In-Place hold works, the actual eDiscovery search fails with the following error:

Failed Search or Export, Mailbox:/o=ExchangeLabs/ou=Exchange Administrative Group (FYDIBOHF23SPDLT)/cn=Recipients/cn=75632edc70be4f6ea9587d3a6f1ba9b0-firstgroup::Item:::DocumentId:::ItemId: with error: [FailedToSearchMailboxes] The mailbox recipient type is not supported.

But as I mentioned above, you can also use the Search-Mailbox cmdlet, which allows you to search, copy or delete messages matching specific criteria. So at least some of the compliance needs are met already, and I am sure the team will provide the rest accordingly. Oh, and in case you are wondering how I knew the type of Recipient:

PS C:\> Get-AddressList

Name DisplayName RecipientFilter
---- ----------- ---------------
All Groups All Groups ((Alias -ne $null) -and (RecipientTypeDetailsValue -eq 'GroupMailbox'))

Here I should notice that the PG has promised to bring the new group related cmdlets soon and we have actually seen them during the introduction meeting we had with the PG. I will make sure to update the article with the list of what’s possible and what is not once we have the cmdlets and I can play with them. For now, I can still mess with anything other than Set-Mailbox and create some havoc. Testing EWS commands is a good idea for example! Outlook however seems to be stubborn enough and does not allow us to open the Group mailbox either as additional mailbox or additional account. But, my fellow MVP Darrell Webster had the brilliant idea to use the Home page functionality in Outlook to display the OWA page for the group mailbox. The link you will need is in the format: https://outlook.office365.com/owa/groupmailbox@tenant.onmicrosoft.com/?offline=disabled#path=/mail. The end result will look like this:

I guess the guys at the PG really hate me by now J. Hopefully someone will figure out a way to do the same with the OneDrive part, which seems to be accessible at https://tenant.sharepoint.com/sites/firstgroup/

Lastly, I do have one complaint about the UI. In their desire to emphasize on the “Groups” menu, the PG made some changes to the UI taking the focus out of the Folders and the actual mail. Now, the Folders menu shows only a subset of the folders in your mailbox and it makes it a bit harder to actually focus on reading mail. We can use the “Keep showing all folders” pin available when you drill down to the Folders menu and select the “More” link to force a behavior very similar to what we previously had. They also allow us to mark a folder as Favorite, pinning it in the default group for easier access, but that will hardly be useful to people with many (sub)folders. And, we have a minor bug with the new UI. It seems that once you select the “Keep showing all folders” pin, OWA will no longer respect the “Select first message in the list” option. And to make things worse, this will be the case even for tenants that do not have First release enabled and thus do not yet have Groups deployed. I understand the desire of wanting to showcase and emphasize on the new feature, but redoing the UI and leaving that small but annoying bug should have been avoided.

So, to wrap things up and go to sleep, I just want to say I had a blast playing around with the Groups functionality. It certainly seems to be a very cool feature, and once Microsoft delivers the promised updates I can see it quickly replacing the good old shared mailboxes. Whether it will be the actual successor of Public folders we will have to wait and see, but things certainly look promising.

Oh, and just in case I spooked you with all the ‘broken’ things I described in this post, Microsoft was kind enough to give us the ability to disable group creation easily. To check out how, click here. Plus the rest of the help articles here.

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