Thoughts on the Maturity of the Cloud Partner Ecosystem

I was reading through the latest Gartner social software magic quadrant, which Microsoft pointed to on the Office blog this week, and have thinking about what this really means to Microsoft and the industry at large – that we’re finally starting to see the shift of companies over to the cloud in large enough numbers that can drive the partner ecosystem. It’s been an issue for years now: Microsoft has been encouraging partners to move to the cloud, but established companies (i.e. mid-size to large partners) have struggled to make the transition. And it’s not just about changing business models, but in immature APIs and solutions available for partners to build against. There just hasn’t been parity between software and solutions available on prem and what has been available online. As a result, partner solutions have also been limited.

imageA great example of this was during the last year with Axceler, when our ControlPoint admin product was the undeniable leader in admin and governance solutions…but due to limited APIs and reduced functionality within Office 365, the version of ControlPoint for the cloud was very limited. Not that we didn’t want it to do more of what our on prem product could do, but Office 365 just wasn’t mature as a platform – and the APIs were (and in some ways, still are) very immature.

For many partners, the promise of customers and revenue in the cloud are just beginning to be realized. The use of cloud assets has slowly permeated organizations for quite some time, of course — from cloud-based file sharing tools (Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and OneDrive), to free cloud email (Hotmail, Gmail) and other social and business applications, such as payroll and customer relationship management (CRM) services. Cloud is becoming integral to how customers connect, how we archive our messaging and content, and how we approach complex business activities. Recognizing that most customers cannot make a complete switch to the cloud in one step, Microsoft has softened some of their cloud messaging over the past year and a half – which is also helping partners (especially ISVs) to make the transition. The company is focusing on reducing the fears surrounding security and performance, and at the same time is providing more tools and content and support for hybrid solutions. In fact, SharePoint 2016 has a huge focus on supporting hybrid scenarios, which is the result of a couple years of feedback and concerns from the partner ecosystem, as well as direct customer feedback to Microsoft.

What has become clear in my conversations with partners and customers is that organizations are being very thoughtful about what to move into the cloud, and how quickly. For some, the move is fairly straight-forward because their investments in SharePoint on prem were light — no major workflows, third-party solutions, or line of business (LOB) integrations that could take time to re-architect for the cloud model. For others, it will take time and effort to transition these workloads.

As you begin to build your strategy for moving to the cloud, some questions you might ask and start planning for include:

  • What are you plans for the cloud today?
    Hopefully your team is experiencing some degree of introspection, possibly initiated by corporate goals to move some or all of your collaboration activities and other workloads to the cloud. Developing a strategy should begin with an understanding of the drivers behind the move, and expectations from end users, admins, and business stakeholders.
  • Which workloads do you have in the cloud today?
    If you think your organization is 100% on prem, you’re not looking hard enough. Part of your initial assessment should be to catalog the various solutions in use today — approved or unapproved — and to include those cloud assets as part of your broader strategy, which may include plans to incorporate (or shut down) rogue cloud tools, and re-train employees on the new technology. You will likely also need to reinforce training on policies for unapproved tools and data usage.
  • What is your transition plan?
    Once you understand the drivers behind your move, and have an accurate picture of what is in place today, start thinking about the workloads which can easily be moved — versus those that will take time and budget to re-design, re-architect and re-build for the cloud. Depending on the complexity of your workloads, you might consider a phased approach, rolling out email and possibly a cloud-based partner extranet as your first steps, and then work with your team to prioritize each subsequent workload rollout.
  • What is your governance strategy?
    Remember that a hybrid environment means that you are managing (at least) two disparate systems. Ensure that your policies and procedures around security, auditing, and other compliance measures are being met during and after the transition. Remember that tasks you may have automated in SharePoint on prem around things like permissions management, reporting, and provisioning all operate very differently in the cloud. Be sure to review your transition strategy through the governance lens so that you are not caught with your guard down.

A hybrid SharePoint solution is not the desired end-goal for most organizations –- because hybrid means you are supporting and maintaining two separate systems. There’s no way of getting around that. Management costs and risks go up, period. Having said that, it may still make sense for you to move to a hybrid model, either as a permanent solution or as a long-term strategy to transition to the cloud. The fact remains that companies have made large investments in their SharePoint environments, and it may take time for many to transition to the cloud. While there are many variations of hybrid, the most common strategy is to move the easiest workloads to the cloud first, such as email and basic team site collaboration, and then to assess and rebuild more complex workloads over time. Much like the early days of SharePoint, when many companies decided to start using the "free" SharePoint licenses that came with their Enterprise Agreements from Microsoft, I anticipate a surge in SharePoint usage in the cloud as more and more organizations make the transition to Office 365 for other workloads (primarily email).

As the capability of SharePoint Online becomes more integrated into the overall Office 365 platform, and the features become more compelling, we will see a surge in adoption of these cloud collaboration tools. And with that surge, partners will follow – and innovation in the ecosystem will once again outpace the innovation coming out of Redmond. You can count on it.

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.