Microsoft's Office 365 cloud partner program -- including the new Cloud Deployment program -- continues to show signs of progress. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and perhaps even Lync Online are gaining critical mass with corporate customers. But just how many VARs and MSPs are getting cozy with Microsoft cloud suite, and what ever happened to Office 365 Open -- which will eventually allow partners to manage end-customer billing?

Let's start with the latest news. Microsoft's new Cloud Deployment program is "designed to empower partners to build a capable cloud deployment practice enabled through training and deployment tools in order to help enterprise customers deploy Office 365." In my mind, that's a long way of saying Cloud Deployment helps partners profit from onboarding Office 365 customers.

Microsoft says more than 61,000 partners are active Cloud Essentials partners and more than 5,500 partners actively sell Microsoft cloud services every month, more than doubling the monthly reach of partners that sold in the last 12 months. Those are good metrics -- especially as new rivals like IBM SmartCloud Docs (part of a larger IBM SaaS suite) come into the market.

To keep its own momentum going, Microsoft at the end of 2012 will start offering partners a dedicated team to help "quickly resolve any technical issues"that potentially arise during an Office 365 deployment, according to a blog post from Josh Waldo, senior director of New Markets and Emerging Channels at Microsoft.

Here again, Microsoft is strengthening its bond between Redmond and channel partners. Assuming the support teams deliver the goods, partners should be pleased.

Where's Office 365 Open?

Still, plenty of questions remain. Microsoft really hasn't said much in recent months about Office 365 Open -- a new program that will allow partners to manage end-customer cloud billing. Microsoft announced Office 365 Open in July 2012 during the Worldwide Partner Conference, and shortly thereafter conceded that the new program may not fully debut until July 2013.

Overall, I've been impressed -- very impressed -- with Office 365's progress since Microsoft launched the cloud suite around July 2011. Generally speaking, I think Office 365 has been more scalable and reliable than its predecessor, which was called BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite). For end-customers, Office 365 demands serious consideration. There could also be a lot of potential "integration" upside for Office 365 customers that use Surface and Windows 8 tablets, as well as Windows Phone 8 devices. 

But for channel partners I believe Office 365 remains a work in progress. Many partners are waiting for the full Office 365 Open rollout before passing judgment on the cloud suite. It sounds judgment day will arrive by July 2013. Exactly when? I still don't really know.