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No Point in Preserving a Feature No One Uses
Tired of pushing water uphill, the Exchange development group announced plans to deprecate the EAC feature to migrate distribution lists in bulk to Microsoft 365 Groups (Figure 1). The news comes as no surprise because the feature has not been maintained since its introduction in August 2016. At least, that’s what it seems like.
Microsoft says that the feature “was designed to provide continuity for DL users and to enable continued collaboration without having to make new groups from scratch. As Microsoft 365 Groups is now a mature feature, we are deprecating the feature for migrating DLs to Groups. The deprecation will happen on February 1, 2023.” The announcement makes no mention of the ability to convert an individual distribution list to a Microsoft 365 Group that’s included in the new EAC. It’s all about bulk conversion.
Changes Since 2016 Affected Outlook Groups
First introduced in November 2014, Office 365 Groups (now Microsoft 365 Groups) are certainly a mature technology. But more importantly, the technology environment that existed when Microsoft launched the distribution list migration feature in August 2016 was very different to today. At the time, Office 365 Groups had just picked up support for Azure B2B Collaboration (guest access) and seemed poised to be the cornerstone of Microsoft 365 collaboration.
Everything changed with the preview of Teams in November 2016 (general availability in February 2017). Today, Teams has more than 270 million monthly active users. The last number for Outlook groups is “more than 10 million” (April 2017). I’m sure some growth has happened in the five years since but maybe not much. Teams has sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the Microsoft 365 collaboration space.
Today’s reality is that the importance of Outlook Groups disappeared a long time ago and the major function of Microsoft 365 Groups is as a coordinating mechanism for group resources and the provider of membership services to Teams.
Other Factors in Play in Distribution List Migration
Two other factors are in play. First, Microsoft is busy trying to move functionality from the old Exchange admin center (EAC) to a modernized version. That process is taking far too long. Cutting features enables the transition to accelerate, which is a good thing.
Second, the bulk migration feature can only process simple distribution lists. The value of many distribution lists lies in their ability to include different types of mail-enabled recipient, including other distribution lists. Dynamic distribution lists are very powerful, especially with custom recipient filters, but the migration feature doesn’t support these objects either, even though dynamic Microsoft 365 Groups (and Teams) are.
Admittingly, dynamic Microsoft 365 Groups were a long way away in August 2016, but the fact that the migration feature has not maintained pace with technical developments within Microsoft 365 is evidence that no one has paid much attention to updating the distribution list migration code recently.
Microsoft’s Suggested Replacement is a Manual Conversion
Microsoft’s suggested approach is extraordinarily manual. Essentially, it’s the same approach that you’d take to move an on-premises distribution list to the cloud (create a new Microsoft 365 group and switch the DL attributes to it).
Although their suggestion is a valid approach, I’m surprised that Microsoft hasn’t created a script to automate the process. The task is not particularly difficult, especially if only “eligible” (simple, non-nested) distribution lists are the target. Microsoft might even be able to repurpose the code in the to-be-deprecated EAC feature, if only the appetite existed to deliver a conversion script to customers. Some old migration scripts are still available in the Microsoft download center that could have been updated and brought into service. Maybe Microsoft doesn’t want the hassle of supporting the code.
It’s even possible to script the conversion of dynamic distribution lists to Microsoft 365 Groups, albeit with static group membership because of the different filtering capabilities that exist in Exchange Online and Azure AD.
Migrations can be tough. I’m sure Microsoft has some data to justify their decision to deprecate the conversion feature. Maybe they’ve noticed a reduction in the use of distribution lists or that the percentage of Microsoft 365 Groups that aren’t team-enabled is dropping. Only Microsoft knows. What’s real is that February 1, 2023, will see the disappearance of a feature that once promised so much and ended up being a neglected disappointment.