Yes, we’re wading into the SharePoint in the cloud debate! With major changes to SharePoint Online on the horizon, now may be a good time for us to re-examine the possible benefits that cloud computing could bring to you and your business.
I can’t describe cloud computing as the latest revolutionary breakthrough in software services; in fact, it seems as if the phrase has been around for a long time. But how many of you actually use the cloud to deliver your SharePoint software?
Pigs might fly
Cloud services raise typical concerns many organizations have around security and compliance, which can’t be neglected. A lot of mid-level businesses take the view that risking their own or their customer’s sensitive data by putting it in an external multi-tenant server simply isn’t worth any cost saving that the exercise could bring them. And as for forking out for a dedicated server, well unless you’re part of a major organization with a huge budget, this option may also be a no-go.
Aside from that, SharePoint Online – or Microsoft’s online services BPOS (Business Productivity Online Services) based on the SharePoint 2007 platform – up until now has had very limited features when compared to its on-premises counterpart. The lack of customization abilities, support for custom domain names and even daily server backups may have led you to ask – who the heck can really use this to help their business? Especially if you’re already using SharePoint internally – why would you fly over to the cloud if it would spell the immediate loss of the key features that really help your operation to run smoothly?
A sunny outlook
The forthcoming arrival of Microsoft’s own cloud offering for SharePoint 2010, Office 365, means major changes for SharePoint Online. It seems that Microsoft were fully aware of the limitations of its online offering and have been working hard to close the gap on its missing features. It’s a huge improvement and means that some organizations can take a serious look at the cloud as a viable offering. SharePoint Online is set to be much more extensible and has super improved multi-tenancy features.
There will be a tenant admin site in SharePoint Online 2010 to allow users to manage sites and configuration, offering social computing abilities, web and enterprise content management and more. As for extensibility, you will be able to upload custom code to SharePoint Online for sandbox testing, change themes, pages and site content through the UX browser and make customizations via SharePoint Designer.
Clouding the issue
But what do these improvements mean for you? I guess one of the most exciting new features is sandbox for testing your own custom code. I’m sorry to disappoint you folks, but this ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. From a developers point of view (and we’ll have a more technical post on the issue from Ryan shortly), developing real-world business solutions in a sandbox is very restrictive and sadly, the sandbox for SharePoint Online is no exception in this case.
Stuck in the clouds
Some of you may not be affected by these issues, but the reality is that while SharePoint is a tremendously powerful and easily accessible solution to use, the majority of deployments do need customization or third party tools to achieve exactly what you want it to. Newcomers to SharePoint may not forsee these issues cropping up, but in our experience, they definitely do!
This point will also affect you in a multi-tenant server situation because in this case it’s the service provider who has ultimate control over what third party tools are deemed safe enough to be deployed across the whole environment. So you may get your head stuck in the clouds if you’re not careful!
Also, although Microsoft have stated that the new features I’ve mentioned are coming soon, there is as yet no firm release date for Office 365 with SharePoint 2010. Tentative suggestions of Quarter 1 2011 have been heard, but nothing is confirmed as yet. In contrast the SharePoint 2010 on-premises solution has had all these features and more available since its launch in April this year. Can your business afford to wait until sometime next year to deploy SharePoint, when you could opt for a more powerful in-house solution right now?
A silver lining
But we’re not all about bad news here – there will definitely be some major improvements to the forthcoming SharePoint Online platform and there’s no reason why some of you can’t jump aboard the SharePoint ship and float off into the sunset. If you’ve been looking at dipping your toes into SharePoint and haven’t yet deployed an in-house version, you may be able to achieve cost savings with SharePoint Online. You won’t need to hire staff to implement or manage the solution, provided you won’t need major customizations, and you can take advantage of improved wikis, blogs and content publishing features immediately.
If you’re already using SharePoint, it may be feasible to move some of your services over to the cloud as well as having your more powerful and extensible in-house solution. This is a good solution if you really do need to store confidential data on your own in-house servers but are able to migrate other features over.
Pie in the sky?
Before you do any of this, it’s a good idea to look carefully at the list of features that aren’t available in SharePoint Online 2010 and make a realistic assessment of how urgently you need them. There are key features that won’t be available, like self service site creation, business data search and the ability to configure Information Management tools.
You should also be mindful of the potential security risks that come hand-in-hand with opting for a cloud-based SharePoint solution. Of course you may choose to opt for a more expensive dedicated server, but your services and data will still be going off-site and it’s up to you to weigh up how comfortable you are with this happening.
In our opinion, Microsoft’s upcoming changes to SharePoint Online mean that it’s no longer a solution that’s suited only to either small businesses or large multinationals, in its new incarnation some mid-sized organizations will be able to make use of it too.
But you’ve really got to weigh up how effective, extensible, practical and safe SharePoint Online will be for your business needs when compared to its in-house equivalent. I suspect that, for most of us, the cloud may continue to be little more than a pie in the sky fantasy.
Want to find out more? Here’s a list of useful resources on this debate:
From MSDN SharePoint online and overview for developers: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/gg317460.aspx
Arpan Shah on the forthcoming features in SharePoint Online 2010: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/arpans/archive/2010/01/12/sharepoint-online-in-the-2010-wave.aspx
Doug Ware on the limitations of the sandbox in SharePoint Online 2010: http://www.endusersharepoint.com/2010/01/08/sharepoint-2010-sandbox-solutions-are-bad/
Mary-Jo Foley discusses if Microsoft can close the gap in features between SharePoint and SharePoint Online 2010: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/microsoft/how-quickly-can-microsoft-close-the-sharepoint-sharepoint-online-gap/6186
Alex Williams asks if SharePoint 2010 is truly cloud-ready: http://www.readwriteweb.com/cloud/2010/05/is-sharepoint-2010-cloud-ready.php
Shane O’Neill discusses why SharePoint 2010 is more cloud-friendly than previous versions: http://www.cio.com/article/563963/SharePoint_2010_More_Cloud_Friendly_than_Past_Versions