Finding the Right Flavor of SharePoint

In case you missed the marketing messaging, Microsoft is "all in" on the cloud, and is pushing fairly hard on their new offerings, from Office365 and SharePoint Online, to Yammer and SkyDrive Pro. For many organizations, these tools are an amazing introduction into the Microsoft collaboration platform that many enterprises have been using and benefitting from for more than a decade. Still other organizations who have made heavy investments in on premises versions of SharePoint — the leading document management and collaboration platform — are now making difficult decisions about whether to move from their existing SharePoint environment to the latest version of the platform, which may include moving some or all of their assets into the cloud.

shutterstock_102793991While there is definitely a lot of hype around "the cloud," the reality for the SharePoint platform is that this decision is in front of us all: do we remain on premises or move to the cloud? And is now even the time to move to SharePoint 2013 at all, or do we augment what we have today? There are many options available, from architectures to hosting options, and from social collaboration solutions to workflow tools. SharePoint has always been the "Swiss Army knife" of collaboration, allowing an organization to extend it beyond the basic features, supplement it via custom configurations and third-party solution, or to integrate and pair it with other tools like Microsoft Office and the Dynamics platform to enrich the overall end user experience. SharePoint’s rich history has shown us that, if anything, CIOs and their SharePoint administrators have many options into how they design their platforms and build out environments that best meet their individual business needs.

Despite the options available, these are not easy decisions. Many organizations are struggling with their strategies for moving forward. My advice? Don’t move forward until you understand your business needs, what the various platform options can and cannot provide (because all versions are not equal), and what it will cost (hardware, software, people, ongoing management, risk) to get there. I often refer to this kind of decision as "Project Management 101," because its pretty much the same analysis and risk assessment you should give to any project.

People are constantly asking "Should I move to SharePoint 2013 on premises, or to Office 365." Unfortunately, they never like hearing the generic "it depends" answer, but it really does depend on what you are trying to accomplish, what your content and data governance/compliance/security guidelines will allow, what your end users expect from the experience, and the degree of complexity (integrations, customizations, or apps) you plan to include in your environment.

Some thoughts on your available options:

You can stick with your current on prem deployment. There is nothing wrong with making the most of your existing SharePoint investments. Let’s face it — SP2010 is a stable platform, and may be delivering solid value to your business. While you should definitely weigh the costs of managing the infrastructure, maintaining the necessary support and development expertise in house to keep things running, and any other 3rd party or educational costs, the numbers may lean in the direction of keeping things where they are — at least for the time being.

As your end users begin asking for features and capabilities not available out of the box — such as social collaboration, or deeper line of business application integrations — make sure you adequately identify the costs of enhance the existing toolset, either through custom development or through the partner ecosystem. There are still many customers on older versions of SharePoint, such as 2007 or 2003 (I haven’t run across many SPS2001 installations for a while). In these cases, I’d say that there is even less of a reason to stick with your current system, and to consider jumping ahead to 2013.

You can begin moving assets to the cloud by using Office365. When you bundle the power of SharePoint with the #1 enterprise email platform in the world and the most economically-priced communication tools out there, how can you not see the value of moving to the cloud? But the real story here is not as much about the capability of the solutions as their delivery method: is your business goal to develop and maintain SharePoint hardware and software expertise, or to run your business? Do you want to constantly test and deploy patches, updates, and new features — or let the system handle these remotely? That is the power of cloud. While there may not yet be complete parity between on prem and Office365 versions of SharePoint, you can bet there soon will be.

Of course, for some organizations, the lack of parity between platforms is key. Many companies extended SharePoint to meet their unique business requirements, using it as their central collaboration hub. The costs of re-architecting these platforms in the cloud (possibly using Windows Azure) may be expensive, or not yet possible due to limitations of Azure or the SharePoint APIs. Before you run head-first into talks with Office365, take the time to understand what workloads, customizations, and features are essential to your business so that you can accurately map them to Office365’s available features.

I should also point out that O365 is not the only option for moving to the cloud: there are a number of solution providers that offer cloud solutions, including AWS, Apptix, Rackspace and others.

You can upgrade to the latest on prem version, SharePoint 2013. Yes, that’s right — you can stick with your server-based platform. It is not going away. Microsoft recognizes that a percentage of organizations will never be able to move SharePoint activities to the cloud — whether because of compliance and regulatory issues, or out of perceived (or real) data security issues. In these cases, there will continue to be an on premises version of SharePoint available.

As with organizations who plan to stay with their 2010 environments, there are advantages (customization and integration flexibility) and disadvantages (slower update/new feature release cadence from Microsoft). As you review your SharePoint strategy, make sure to discuss your requirements and concerns with your Microsoft rep, as they do listen to feedback from customers on which features and capabilities within SharePoint Online (office365) should be prioritized for release to the SharePoint 2013 on premises version.

You can move some assets into the cloud, but maintain on prem assets. Hybrid will likely be a popular solution for the next few years as the online platform matures, and as organizations slowly migrate their on prem assets toward the cloud model. Some advice for organizations considering this model: be sure that you thoroughly understand the governance and administrative overheard of managing two platforms. For example, Office365 provides some great tools and reporting for management of your SharePoint Online environments, but the granularity of this data — and your ability to dig into log files — is very different than what is available on prem. As part of your platform requirements and planning, be sure to map out your reporting and governance requirements in detail, and thoroughly understand the gaps between platforms.

As you begin to think about your SharePoint plans, remember to do your homework on what you need, what is p
ossible, and where there are gaps. I was talking with one customer about their decision to move over to Office365 based on the enhanced BI capabilities, but they were shocked to hear that they would have to put their critical financial data in O365 to enable that key functionality. In this case, their governance and regulatory standards would not allow them to put this data in the cloud, and so they had to go back and re-think their overall strategy.

You should migrate to the latest version when it makes sense for your business to do so — not because a vendor tells you its time to move. The reality is that security or regulatory issues may require you to keep certain assets on premises, while other assets and workloads can easily fit into the cloud model. As always, make informed decisions about how to move forward.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.