One of the big advantage of software as a service (SaaS) is supposed to be reduced overhead: there are no servers to install or configure, so provisioning services is supposed to be much easier. That might be true for customers, but it isn’t necessarily true for us as administrators and consultants. Learning about Office 365 really requires hands-on experience. You can only get so far from reading the (voluminous) documentation and watching the (many and excellent) training videos that Microsoft has produced. However, there’s a problem: Office 365 costs money.
There are a few routes to get free access to Office 365. If you’re an MVP, you can get a free subscription, limited (I think) to 25 users. If you’re an MSDN subscriber, you can get a tenant with a single user license, which is fine for playtime but not terribly useful if you need a bigger lab. Microsoft also has a 30-day trial program (for some plans: Small Business Premium, Midsize Business, and Enterprise) that allows you to set up a tenant and use it, but at the end of that 30-day period the tenant goes away if you don’t pay for it. That means you can potentially waste a lot of effort customizing a tenant, creating users, and so on only to have it vanish unless you whip out the credit card.
- Go to http://www.microsoftofficedemos.com/ and log in.
- Click the “Get Demo” link in the top nav bar, or the “Create Demo” link on the page, or just go to https://www.microsoftofficedemos.com/Provision_step1.aspx. That will display the page below. Note that you can download VHDs that provide an on-prem version of the demo environment if you want those instead.
- Make sure you’ve selected “Office 365 tenant” from the pulldown, then click “Next”. That will display a new page with four choices, all of which are pretty much self-explanatory. If you want an empty tenant to play around with, choose the “Create an empty Office 365 tenant”. If you want one that has users, email, documents, and so on, choose “Create new demo environment” instead.
- On the next page, you can choose whether you want the standard demo content or a vertical-specific demo pack. This will be a really useful option once Microsoft adds more vertical packs, but for now the only semi-interesting one is retail, and the provided demo guides (IMHO) are more useful for the standard set, so that’s what I’d pick. After you choose a data set, click “Create Your Demo”.
- The next page is where you name the tenant, and where Microsoft asks you to prove you’re not a bot by entering a code that they send to your mobile phone. (Bonus points if you know why I picked this particular tenant name!) The optional “Personalize Your Environment” button lets you change the user names (both aliases and full names) and contact pictures, so if you’re doing a demo for a particular customer you can put in the names of the people who will attend the demo to add a little spice. The simple option is to customize a single user; there’s one main user for each of the demos (which I’ll get to in a minute), but you can customize any or all of the 25 default users.
- Once you click “Create My Account”, the demo engine will start creating your tenant and provisioning it. This takes a while; for example, yesterday it took about 12 hours from start to finish. Provisioning demos is just about last on Microsoft’s priority list, so if you need a tenant in a hurry use the “create a blank tenant” option I mentioned earlier. You’ll see a progress page like the one below, but you’ll also get a notification email to the address you provided in step 5 when everything’s finished, so there’s no need to sit and watch it.