In-Depth

SharePoint Server 2016: IT's Ultimate Swiss Army Knife?

Microsoft is focusing on compliance, file sharing, search, hybrid cloud and an improved UX with its next release. How many blades will prevail?

As Microsoft prepares to release its newest version of SharePoint Server, it will arrive at a time when the environment for collaboration has changed markedly since the last major upgrade three years ago. SharePoint, widely used in organizations of all sizes, was never the only choice available for file management and collaboration. Nevertheless, SharePoint remains quite popular, especially among organizations with Microsoft license agreements. That could give SharePoint longevity, but at the same time, its role in the enterprise is up for grabs, because the way workers store and share information has changed and a wider variety of offerings available. Microsoft has also made clear its future emphasis on collaboration lies with Office 365, and its OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online services. Even so, many shops running SharePoint on premises will continue to do so even as Microsoft encourages them to move certain aspects of it online.

Despite fears that Microsoft might not upgrade the on-premises iteration of SharePoint, the company confirmed plans earlier this year and released the first Technical Preview of SharePoint Server 2016 in late August (see "Inside SharePoint Server 2016"). The SharePoint Server 2016 Technical Preview shows improved compliance and file sharing, a new Document Library and enhanced search capabilities, among other new features.

However, in an increasingly crowded competitive envi­ron­ment, where does SharePoint Server 2016 stand out? Microsoft says it has targeted three key areas of growth when architecting SharePoint Server 2016: Improved UXes, Cloud-Inspired Infrastructure, and Compliance and Reporting.

The fundamental code base of SharePoint Server 2016 TP is the same as its online services, but Microsoft has modified it to accommodate an on-premises environment, fitting in with its new cloud-first model of rolling out new features.

SharePoint has evolved to serve four core functions: Enterprise Content Management (ECM), Web Content Management (WCM), Social Workplace Collaboration and File Sync and Share. Taking into consideration what we know -- and what we don't -- about SharePoint Server 2016, let's see how SharePoint Server 2016 is going to stack up, whether it will serve your needs or if you'll need additional collaboration software or services as an alternative or to complement it. Keep in mind, Microsoft could add new features in future technical previews, or in the release itself, before releasing SharePoint Server 2016 next year.

Enterprise Content Management
Information technology leadership faces unique strategy con­cerns that simply didn't exist 10 years ago. Managing the relationship between cloud, mobile and on-premises applications requires an eye toward innovation and change -- and a willingness to take a few risks to improve business practices.

A recent Gartner Inc. report, "Flipping to Digital Leadership: Insights from the 2015 Gartner CIO Agenda Report," best describes the challenges of IT decision makers. "Seizing this opportunity requires flipping long-held behaviors and beliefs -- from a legacy perspective to a digital one in information and technology leadership, from a focus on the visible to the genuinely valuable in value leadership, and from control to vision in people leadership."

ECM, which consists of the strategies and tools used to store and provide access to information across organizations, is at the heart of the leadership struggle. ECM used to be simple -- create a file, put paper in it, add it to the file cabinet. Now, ECM comprises of a complex web of different online communications, file types, and formats, even social and collaborative content.

SharePoint for ECM
In a keynote address at the October 2009 SharePoint Conference, Jeff Teper, the Microsoft corporate vice president known as "the father of SharePoint," called it the "ultimate Swiss Army knife" of ECM for its ability at the time to tie together file management, the hosting of internally and exter­nally facing Web sites, and enterprise search.

Many organizations use SharePoint for various purposes while others have eschewed the Swiss Army approach, which is hardly surprising given the distributed nature of enterprises today.

Six years later organizations who committed to SharePoint are sticking with it and believe it can be a part of their ECM strategy. During a presentation in March at the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) conference in San Diego, Doug Miles, director for market intelligence, said more than 25 percent of survey respondents to its annual SharePoint survey said they were "committed to building SharePoint as their ECM and records management system," and another 20 percent said it was their "system of choice" for the foreseeable future. More than 75 percent stated some commitment to "making SharePoint work."

As for enterprise content management, Microsoft certainly is a key provider of ECM infrastructure, though SharePoint Server isn't considered the overwhelming leader, either. Providers such as EMC Corp., IBM Corp., OpenText Corp. and Oracle Corp. are also among the formidable content management providers. As noted, Microsoft's emphasis is on SharePoint Online and it remains to be seen what capabilities introduced there find their way into the server edition moving forward.

Hybrid and SharePoint Server 2016
One of the primary selling points of SharePoint Server 2016 when it arrives next year will ultimately be its hybrid relationship between the cloud-based features available in Office 365.

The Cloud Search Service Application (SSA) continues to garner the most buzz. SSA allows organizations to crawl on-premises content and index the content metadata in the cloud for use across other applications (see a video of a session on the SSA given at the Microsoft Ignite conference in May 2015). SSA is a compelling feature, as the documents and content itself will not reside in the cloud, just the indexed metadata. The hybrid search solution gives on-premises implementations the flexibility to use Delve, the content aggregation service added to Office 365 launched earlier this year, for example, which otherwise wouldn't be available given its reliance on the cloud-based Office Graph technology.

SSA also provides some key financial benefits -- organizations can minimize the cost of maintaining large search indexes because they're hosted in Office 365. SSA can crawl all versions of SharePoint -- back to 2007 -- without costly system upgrades. Of course, there's data that doesn't live on-premises -- Microsoft, however, is banking on the fact that an organization's data index policies will allow more flexibility for cloud solutions -- as long as the actual data doesn't reside in the cloud.

Getting less attention, but potentially just as intriguing, are the upgraded compliance and data-loss prevention tools that feature an in-place hold policy and new document deletion centers that give organizations increased control over items in SharePoint and OneDrive.

Equally important in the hybrid scenario is the ease with which Microsoft intends to make upgrades, patches and new feature rollouts. New "zero downtime" patching could mean far less disruption in key business systems for organizations -- increased or at least uninterrupted productivity and potential cost savings.

The ECM Landscape
As Microsoft adds more features to SharePoint Server to establish it as a hybrid ECM solution, rivals are doing the same. Oracle continues to focus some of its energies on its Oracle Documents Cloud Service and Oracle WebCenter Content solution. An Oracle-sponsored report by research firm IDC argues the mobile elements of these solutions shouldn't be overlooked. Cloud-based file share solutions give employees access to their data on the go -- but often aren't connected with the organization's ECM solution. Hello, hybrid. Now, organizations can implement governance and security, but still allow for collaborative file share and file sync.

Another established ECM provider, OpenText, has also spent the last several years building its hybrid solution toolbox. Its solutions continue to lead the ECM landscape and, interestingly, are extensible enough to play nicely with other document and content management solutions. The integration of OpenText eDocs with SharePoint allows organizations to leverage the robust records and document management capabilities of OpenText while using SharePoint as the front-end UI.

SharePoint Server 2016, while not a complete overhaul of SharePoint, should keep SharePoint Server 2016 in the EMC game. But it's too early to say if the changes are enough to shake up the leaderboard. SharePoint, should keep SharePoint in the ECM game. But it's too early to say if the changes are enough to shake up the leaderboard.

"[For Microsoft] this is part of a longer-term strategy, enabling people to move to the cloud much more easily," says Antonio Maio, a SharePoint MVP and senior SharePoint architect at Protiviti Inc. (the firm where I'm a SharePoint consultant). "It allows you to put your toe in the water, and then a bit more, and a bit more. Over time it can significantly change SharePoint's place in the marketplace."

Web Content Management
Every ECM solution has a WCM component. Naturally, with WCM, it's less about document management and more about Web sites, Web pages, SEO and overall digital strategy. Effective WCM systems have employed publishing, workflow capabilities, content targeting, mobile experiences,and extensible search options. Choosing the right WCM system means understanding your business, your users and your internal resources.

Earlier this year, Forrester Research Inc. analyzed 10 key WCM providers, which includes Adobe Systems Inc., Ektron, IBM, Oracle, OpenText and Sitecore. Interestingly Microsoft didn't make the initial list, though in a separate report Forrester evaluated other challengers in the market, including Microsoft and some lesser-known, but unique, tools such as Kentico Software, Alfresco Software Inc. and Liferay Inc.

It's safe to say using SharePoint to run a public-facing Web site was once very much a part of the conversation, but that conversation has quieted significantly in the past several years. Over time, the SharePoint licensing model has shifted, making it sometimes difficult to discern the cost implications of hosting a public Web site with SharePoint. Add to that the announcement in late 2014 that Microsoft was dropping the pubic site option from Office 365 completely, and suddenly the idea of SharePoint as a full-featured WCM seemed to be fading.

SharePoint for WCM
Not too much in the SharePoint Server 2016 Technical Preview appears to position SharePoint as a strong challenger as a WCM system. That's not to say SharePoint as a public-facing Web site will vanish completely -- it just doesn't appear to be a strong consideration in new features going forward.

The one point of interest, however, is the new emphasis on responsive design (see Figure 1). SharePoint mobility (or lack thereof) continues to be a hot topic among SharePoint Server power users. The new out-of-the-box interface in SharePoint Server 2016 is responsive -- but the continued emphasis from Microsoft encouraging limited branding carries over to on-premises implementations, especially ones leveraging SharePoint Server 2016 infrastructure more substantially.

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1. The SharePoint Server 2016 TP WCM responsive design interface. Source: Microsoft

From the WCM UI standpoint, the changes in the SharePoint Server 2016 Technical Preview are minimal. Again, this is not surprising given the online roots of SharePoint Server2016 -- if it's actually possible for UI changes to be more philosophical than actual that's what's happening here. Nothing in the interface is jarring, certainly I'm not describing the jump from SharePoint 2010 to 2013, but the subtle changes elevate mobile use and pay credence to the "personal."

None of this however, really, positions SharePoint any differently against the big WCM tools. Sitecore, for example, continues to battle Adobe for supremacy in the WCM landscape. Its ASP.NET platform, like that of SharePoint, appeals to developers who want more control over their Web content management platforms, and it also lends itself to a wide variety of add-ons, extensions and integrations. Subtle differences in Sitecore give it a significant edge over SharePoint in this space. That's because it's much easier to implement a UX for an unauthenticated user in Sitecore than in SharePoint. But, there are more complex reasons it functions better at WCM than SharePoint, too. The Sitecore Digital Marketing Suite (DMS) can target content to anonymous users based on their viewing patterns on a particular Web site, which is critical in today's me-centered Web universe.

The Adobe Digital Experience Manager (AEM) focuses on the delivery of content and content assets. Adobe gives customers the opportunity to manage their digital experiences across channels -- it's not just about content editing and dissemination, but more about what content, when. AEM is a key part of The Adobe Marketing Cloud -- as such it can draw from other applications in the Adobe suite with ease. Sounds appealing, but AEM is expensive. However, Sitecore and SharePoint are also expensive. At this point organizations should put a value on their Web presence.

The long and short of it is that SharePoint -- while still technically competing in this space -- isn't stacking up, and based on the first SharePoint Server 2016 Technical Preview, Microsoft hasn't done anything to further WCM.

Social Workplace Collaboration
Social Workplace Collaboration is easily the dirtiest lens through which to view enterprise software. What works and what doesn't work remains to be seen. For that matter, what's the actual meaning of social workplace collaboration?

The simplest description is the use of online "social" tools to facilitate collaboration and productivity in the workplace. The nuances, of course, lie in the word "social." Am I talking Twitter, or an internal online social network such as Facebook?

SharePoint for Social Collaboration
Microsoft's 2012 acquisition of Yammer positioned the company to dominate the social workplace marketspace. The rationale in acquiring Yammer was that Microsoft would have a social tool that would eventually integrate with the business tools we all know and love. That was the vision, anyway. Fast-forward to this quarter when the Yammer discussion often sounds more like an afterthought. While Office 365 continues to make strides integrating Yammer to the SharePoint landscape, there's no evidence yet that SharePoint Server 2016 with the first Technical Preview has made significant progress toward integrating Yammer into the on-premises landscape; so the debate continues: Yammer or SharePoint social?

SharePoint Server 2016 does include the ability to redirect from a My Site to a OneDrive for Business account -- enabling sharing and potentially co-editing. If other integrations with Yammer are a part of the SharePoint Server 2016 hybrid strategy, Microsoft has yet to reveal or emphasize it.

Social Collaboration Providers
Meanwhile, IBM, Jive Software and Salesforce.com are all jockeying to topple Microsoft's lead in social collaboration. IBM has software for everything, which is its strength and, some say, its weakness. IBM social business integrates with its ECM suite, and its digital marketing suite; from a Web perspective it's simply another spoke in the wheel. IBM considers social business a solution, an experience, an opportunity to "work smarter."

So, how does Salesforce.com Inc. fit into all of this? As a CRM provider, Salesforce.com is leading the charge, so why not push internal connections beyond database management? Salesforce.com offers the opportunity to automate business processes in favor of building business.

What's curious is that no one knows what to expect from Microsoft as it pertains to SharePoint, Yammer and some of the new features emerging in Office 365. About four years ago, SharePoint social tools were dead-in-the-water, revived in SharePoint 2013, renewed with Yammer. It doesn't appear SharePoint Server 2016 will give Microsoft dominance in this category; if anything it will slip a bit -- but the company has articulated the importance of it and it's a safe bet Office 365 will bring interesting developments.

Enterprise File Sync and Share (EFSS)
EFSS is no longer new, but the last five years have seen significant movement and an absolute need for users to be able to get their documents, images and other files from a variety of devices.

It's not unheard of for end users to leverage EFSS tools outside their network environment to share and sync business files with ease. Organizations want to, and need to, get their hands around this common problem. Enter EFSS solutions.

SharePoint Server 2016 and EFSS
One of the smaller, but no less important, stories in the SharePoint Server 2016 hybrid approach is its continued improvement of OneDrive for Business. Just a month ago, Microsoft released improvements to OneDrive for Business, which is the EFSS component included with Office 365 and SharePoint Online. Sync, in particular, was under fire for its inconsistencies. Additionally, UI improvements make browser-based OneDrive for Business use as "friendly" as the app. OneDrive, the private, file, sync and share application from Microsoft, served as the inspiration for many of these changes.

The EFSS Space
As Microsoft boasts significant enterprise adoption of OneDrive for Business, Box, Dropbox, Syncplicity LLC and Citrix Systems Inc. (ShareFile) have all been offering enterprise file and sync services for several years. That hasn't stopped Microsoft and Google Inc. to continue to place emphasis on EFSS as a part of their ECM strategies.

Interestingly, despite its focus on OneDrive for Business, Microsoft and Box continue to build their partnership (see "Box Targets Office 365 and SharePoint with Deeper Integration"). Yammer allows for simple integration with Box, and Box plays nicely with Office applications. Syncplicity, too, includes a built-in editor to edit Office documents and offers VPN-less access to SharePoint. Citrix takes it even a step further and extends its ShareFile tool to allow one-application access to SharePoint and OneDrive for Business. Making Citrix a secure entry-point into other (presumably secure) file sharing applications. Dropbox also has a partnership with Microsoft.

It's important to remember, though, making any move here really requires a willingness to store data in the public cloud. The leaders in this space are making compelling security arguments -- Microsoft is promising new data-loss prevention features in OneDrive for Business. Google Apps for Work, for example, recently rolled out a new ISO/IEC 27018:2014 privacy standard to its compliance framework.

Outlook for SharePoint 2016
So far, based on the first Technical Preview, SharePoint Server 2016 is under-the-hood about incremental moves toward a bigger goal -- it's all splish but no splash. Indeed it has a lot to offer but it doesn't look like the "ultimate Swiss Army knife" that Microsoft's Teper described six years ago. At the same time, much has evolved since then, perhaps most notably Microsoft's willingness to interface with rival systems.

Does that mean what Microsoft has shown with SharePoint Server 2016 suggests Microsoft isn't making progress? No. Ultimately it will depend on how you use the on-premises platform in the years to come, and your organization's threshold for hybrid solutions. Microsoft's strategy depends on the adoption of the cloud by organizations -- wholly or partially -- and SharePoint Server 2016 is just the latest phase in that larger gambit.

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