Hey SharePoint, What Flavor Are You?

With SharePoint 2016 moved into RTM status, we’re going into the all-too-familiar cycle with many SharePoint customers beginning to think about upgrade. I’m still running into customers who are running 2010 and older versions (haven’t found anyone still running 2001 in a while, but plenty of 2003) and trying to convince their organizations to make a move. And then there’s the whole cloud versus on-prem decision. Lots to think about, and perfectly valid reasons for moving slowly. I’ve always been a big believer in "if it works, why break it?" when it comes to SharePoint upgrades, so it makes sense to have strong use cases and a clearly defined value proposition before you move forward.

While there is definitely a lot of hype around cloud, there are many benefits to getting out of the infrastructure management business and consuming cloud services. But is now the time to move to SharePoint 2016, or do we augment what we have today? On the ‘Ask the Experts’ panel at SharePoint Saturday Houston this past weekend, one of the questions we fielded was "What features are you most excited about with SharePoint 2016?" to which I added my thoughts that support for hybrid search scenarios, and connecting to various online and on-prem data sources was a huge benefit. But for the many customers who support multiple SharePoint environments and versions, the ability for SP2016 to connect these disparate systems could actually slow down the move of those systems to the cloud.

As you make your plans, 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 it is pretty much the same analysis and risk assessment you should give to any project.

So….should you move to SharePoint 2016 on-prem, or should you make the move to Office 365?

Unfortunately, like everything in SharePoint, the answer is "it depends." 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 of my quick thoughts on the 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, and SP2013 is still fairly new. If you’re on an older version, you should seriously consider upgrading, as the features now available far outpace what you have in place today — and you will definitely see value.

You can begin moving assets to the cloud by using Office 365. 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 Office 365 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 Office 365, 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.

You can upgrade to the latest on prem version, SharePoint 2016. 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 or older 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 (Office 365) should be prioritized for release to the SharePoint 2016 on premises version.

You can move some assets into the cloud, but maintain on prem assets. Hybrid will remain 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, Office 365 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. Microsoft is constantly extending Office 365 administration and streamlining processes within workloads (like SharePoint) as well as across workloads. All good stuff. But 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 possible, and where there are gaps. I was talking with fellow MVP Jason Himmelstein (@sharepointlhorn) from Rackspace about his recommendations for organizations thinking about upgrading from older versions of SharePoint, and about moving to the cloud or remaining on prem, and here’s what he had to say:

First, either option is better than where you are today.

Most organization still on SharePoint 2007 is there for one of two reason:

1.) you haven’t upgraded for financial reasons

2.) your organization prefers to stay a rev or two behind because of trust issues

If the answer is #1 then make the upgrade to 2016 because you likely aren’t going to be offered another opportunity to “upgrade” for another 9 years and the way that Microsoft is updating SharePoint 2016 has changed so that you will be able to enhance your world through hybrid means without having to do another massive upgrade project.

If the answer is #2, I still suggest going to SharePoint 2016 for all of the compliance opportunities and security enhancements in the product, however if you choose to go to SharePoint 2013 you will still be able to take advantage of some of the newer hybrid features. It will just be a financial investment that you will end up making again to get up to SharePoint 2016 later.

Microsoft is focused on the experience of the user as we move forward from here and you will ultimately be happier if you make the choice to get on SharePoint 2016.

I think Jason would agree that every customer should migrate to the latest version when it makes sense for their business to do so — not because a vendor tells you it is time to move. There is tremendous value in being on the latest version of SharePoint, and separately, there is value in moving to the cloud. But the reality is that there is more value to be achieved, at least for the time being, by sticking with your older system with its customizations and Line of Business (LoB) integrations. There may also be 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. Go into these decisions with your eyes wide open. And as always, make informed decisions about how to move forward.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, and the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Lehi, Utah, through which he provides fractional-CMO for partners in the Microsoft ecosystem.