Q&A: Looking at SharePoint in the Cloud

Acrowire President Ted Theodoropoulos gives expert advice for businesses choosing between on-premises and cloud SharePoint.

Ted Theodoropoulos launched Acrowire LLC as a boutique app-development consulting firm. These days, Acrowire has found a healthy business in helping customers develop apps that can run on Microsoft Office 365, which offers SharePoint hosting capabilities. Redmond spoke with Theodoropoulos about moving from on-premises SharePoint to a cloud provider.

Q In what cases are users better off doing SharePoint on-premises versus in the cloud?
A Letting a third-party vendor who specializes in SharePoint host and manage your environment can make a lot of sense. Most network administrators have the basic skills to get SharePoint up and running, but usually don't have the requisite depth to get the most out of the platform. SharePoint touches many other areas of infrastructure -- including Exchange, Active Directory, SQL Server and more -- and has specific integration requirements. Unless the environment is deployed by trained SharePoint administrators, we find that best practices are often missed and the environment underperforms as a result. Dedicated vendors rarely make these basic mistakes, which improves user experience and allows the business to derive the most return on their SharePoint investment. We also find that organizations that don't have specialized resources managing their environment are more likely to be one or two versions back. We've even seen companies run on completely unsupported versions of the platform because of insufficient resources to move to a current version. Migrating to a hosted environment can alleviate these issues.

While migrating to a hosted environment can drastically improve an organization's SharePoint return on investment, there are factors that need to be considered. Certain industries, for example, have regulatory requirements that make storing certain data in multitenant environments problematic. Cloud-based SharePoint deployments are also dependent upon the organization's Internet connectivity; if connectivity is down or degraded, users may be unable to access resources. Another consideration involves integration with resources behind the firewall: While environments like Office 365 support integration with on-premises line-of-business data and Active Directory, there's additional complexity involved. The added complexity isn't excessive, but organizations would be wise to engage an experienced partner to guide the process.

Typically, the overall level of environmental cost and complexity goes down because the administration and cost savings far exceed integration challenges in most scenarios. Taking into account the ability to scale up and down at will and the related software savings, cloud-based SharePoint deployments often become extremely attractive. For example, Office 365 offers Exchange, SharePoint and Lync for as low as $8 per user, which is a fraction of the cost of deploying these products on-premises.

Q SharePoint is all about collaboration, document sharing and social media, so is it better positioned for the cloud than other apps?
A SharePoint is all about collaboration, and any time you remove barriers to collaborative tools you facilitate processes. Putting SharePoint in the cloud eliminates the need for external vendors and customers to have VPN access and domain credentials, which in turn reduces risk and broadens engagement. The cloud also enables access to SharePoint resources to remote employees via mobile devices without VPN connectivity. SharePoint provides the ability to render mobile views of Web pages out-of-the-box, which offers limited value when those resources are locked up behind a firewall.

The next release of the platform, currently known as SharePoint 2013, contains significant social and collaboration enhancements. SharePoint 2013 introduces a document-sharing protocol that allows users to send anonymous links to documents to external partners for edit and review. Jared Spataro, who's a SharePoint product manager at Microsoft, was recently quoted as saying: "The first 10 years of SharePoint were about connecting employees. The next 10 will be about crossing organizational boundaries." This implies that collaboration with third parties will be easier but will require organizations to implement a public-facing SharePoint environment. Standing up SharePoint in the cloud is a great way to accomplish that.

Q What are the economics of SharePoint in the cloud?
A Hosted SharePoint deployments provide economies of scale that are out of reach for private organizations. It's not practical for an enterprise to develop an internal SharePoint practice with scale and depth to match that of vendors whose business revolves around the product. In certain scenarios, it's not impractical -- it's impossible. In the case of Office 365, for example, SharePoint Online is managed by the same company that built the product. As a result, Microsoft can offer the best-possible service because of its product expertise, and it can do so at the best price because it doesn't have to pay licensing fees. Therefore, in many cases, it makes good economic sense to take a serious look at SharePoint Online.

In addition to the economies of scale, SharePoint in the cloud provides the opportunity to replace capital expenditures with operating expense. When standing up an on-premises SharePoint environment, there's a lot of capital expense: servers, SANs, routers, switches, OSes, SharePoint, SQL Server licenses and more. All this expense requires financing, increases tax liability, bloats balance sheets and decreases agility. However, multitenant deployments require a simple low monthly fee, require little or no up-front investment, and can scale up or down without penalty or delay.

Q Many shops use SharePoint tactically. In fact, SharePoint instances often spring up without IT or corporate knowledge. How does the cloud support this? How does the cloud bring discipline to this?
A Both the cloud and SharePoint give business users the ability to provision resources on their own, which can take corporate IT out of the critical path. When a business deploys SharePoint in the cloud, IT can be taken out of the process completely if governance mechanisms aren't in place. This creates both opportunity and challenges. By enabling the business we improve productivity, but by removing controls we create risk.

Organizations that fail to use SharePoint in a strategic way are usually the ones that deploy the platform haphazardly and without a governance plan. A lack of discipline usually results in disorder regardless of whether the environment is in the cloud or on-premises.

One challenge unique to SharePoint in the cloud is that there are far fewer management tools available for multitenant environments. Because there are multiple organizations leveraging the environment, hosting companies must limit what any one tenant can do so they don't impact other tenants in that environment. For example, Microsoft doesn't currently support Windows PowerShell-based administration for SharePoint Online, which means that internal IT staff will have challenges administering and monitoring the environment if they're used to using this method. Also, most third-party management tools designed for on-premises environments don't work out-of-the-box with SharePoint in Office 365. A few companies have created tools specifically for the SharePoint Online environment, but they're typically less powerful and less common. This will change over time, but it's important for early adopters to be aware of.

Q Does the cloud allow IT to be more strategic when it comes to building SharePoint apps? If so, how -- and what's the payoff?
A Deploying custom SharePoint applications to the cloud requires more planning because of the limitations present in multitenant environments. Building custom Web Parts that integrate with internal line-of-business data is a great example. In Office 365, all custom code must be sandboxed, and line-of-business data must be wrapped with a service layer and consumed through Business Connectivity Services. In an on-premises environment, you have no restrictions, and you can deploy unrestrained custom code solutions and link directly to native data sources. While these constraints do add overhead, they also require a more disciplined approach to ensure the SharePoint environment doesn't collapse due to sloppy code.

Another strategic advantage to using SharePoint in the cloud is that the vast array of add-ins -- such as Access, Excel and Visio Services -- are easily enabled and don't require administrative support. Many on-premises environments we see don't have these services enabled because of resource constraints or the inability to configure and support them. The cloud also brings the ability to cross-organizational and geographic boundaries, which creates significant strategic value and opens the door to many additional use cases.

Q Can the cloud give IT the kind of control over SharePoint apps that IT might be used to?
A In general, the cloud will give IT far less control over SharePoint applications. IT will have less visibility into the infrastructure and less control over the environment. As we discussed, management interfaces like Windows PowerShell are not available, and third-party tool support is limited. There are management APIs and enough vendor support to make it work with a little bit of effort. One of the main motivations for moving SharePoint to the cloud is to lower administrative costs and allow IT to focus on other things. So providing IT less control may be desirable.

Q What should IT look for in a SharePoint hoster?
A While deploying SharePoint in the cloud is cost effective, migrating an existing environment from on-premises or another cloud host isn't always easy. The amount of migration work is dependent upon the level and nature of customization in the source environment and the limitations of the target environment. Because switching costs are not trivial, it makes sense to choose your provider carefully. The amount of due diligence required should be proportional to the criticality of the environment.

Q What else should IT consider?
A Organizations would be wise to engage partners who have experience with the target SharePoint environment. Because many cloud environments are relatively new, this might not be an easy task. Best practices for on-premises SharePoint environments are often different from cloud environments. Just because a firm has in-house SharePoint experience doesn't mean they can move their existing environment to the cloud and maintain the same user experience. You can always allocate more hardware resources to a performance problem on-premises, but you don't have that same luxury in a multitenant cloud. The solution must be designed with the cloud in mind to perform optimally. Having an experienced vendor involved in the migration planning will reduce rework and more than pay for itself over time.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.


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