SharePoint 2016 and the 'Hybrid' Future

SharePoint expertise was on display this past week at Live! 360, including insights from a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) of 10 years.

I spoke with Matthew McDermott at 1105 Media's Live! 360 event in Orlando, Fla., carving out a bit of his time to discuss SharePoint's current direction. Microsoft released beta 2 of SharePoint Server 2016 on Wednesday. General availability of the product is expected in Q1, according to a Yammer post by Bill Baer, senior technical product manager for Microsoft SharePoint.

McDermott, besides being a long-time SharePoint MVP, is founder and director of Aptillon Inc., a Seattle-based consultancy focused on SharePoint and Office 365 technologies. He presented at the event and also served, along with his colleague Andrew Connell, as the Co-Chair of SharePoint Live!. What follows is an edited Q&A with McDermott.

Q: How did you get involved with SharePoint and as a consultant with Aptillon?
McDermott: My history with SharePoint started back in 2002 with the beta of SharePoint 2003. I started out as a Project Server guy. I like to joke that the only part of Project Server I liked back then was issues, risks and documents, which was all handled by Windows SharePoint Services. Both products have changed significantly since then, but I've gotten out of doing Project Server work and focus specifically on SharePoint now. Back in 2006, I was awarded my first MVP and this January will mark ten years as an MVP. I was an independent consultant before Aptillon was formed. We're five consultants, MVPs and an MCM [Microsoft Certified Master] as well. We do SharePoint work, helping companies understand how SharePoint works for them and how other companies have made it work. We also do deployments and installations. It's me, Maurice Prather, Gary Lapointe, Darrin Bishop and Dave Mann -- all of us have a long history with SharePoint, over 60 years of experience total. Now with the cloud opportunities, our focus is not just on SharePoint but also on the whole Office 365 suite.

What are organizations trying to do with SharePoint?
McDermott: A lot of them think about it is just as a document repository. It depends on the person who made the decision to pull the trigger on SharePoint. If it was a person in the IT department, you end up with one classic approach to a SharePoint deployment. If they are from the marketing department or sales where they are adopting the platform to improve their business process, then that becomes a completely different kind of deployment. Generally, the latter are driven by the business requirements. Environments where a technician just checked a box verifying a SharePoint deployment tend to be ones that are underpowered, underfunded, underdeployed and undertrained.

What are common problems organizations have with SharePoint?
McDermott: There are some general buckets that we can put the problems into. They start with lack of a corporate vision for what the tool should be used for. Lack of user adoption is a huge one, and generally that's caused by lack of training. I also train for Critical Path Training. I'm one of their lead instructors for admin and business users. I see it every day that people's eyes light up when they realize that the thing they were struggling with last week is built into this product. It does it, but they just didn't know. There's lack of clarity on what SharePoint's use should be. Are we getting rid of file shares? On the technical side, we often see underfunded, understaffed, underdeployed SharePoint environments. What do you mean it's going to take five servers -- can't we just do it on one server? Can't we just have SQL Server on the same box -- we only have a hundred thousand users? No, you can't do that. Properly architecting the environment so that the performance is good, so that the end users are happy, and the environment grows and gets adopted -- all of those things tie together. Just because you can deploy it a certain way doesn't mean that's the right way for your environment.

Are the companies you work with mostly using SharePoint Online or using SharePoint Server on premises?
McDermott: Most of the companies that I'm working with have their own SharePoint deployment, but all of them are evaluating the cloud. It goes to vision. The type of industry they're in may drive them in one direction or another. Also, it baffles me that two organizations in the same industry have legal teams that say, "We can put all of our stuff in the cloud and we're good to go." The other legal team says, "No, we can't." Microsoft started its push when Office 365 hit general availability, but it may have underestimated the amount of friction companies felt in terms of moving to the cloud. People weren't jumping on the cloud bandwagon, so what Microsoft has done is given us onramps to the cloud in the form of hybrid workloads that allow us as consultants to say, "Look at your Exchange farm and how much time it's taking you. You're considering either upgrading Exchange on prem, which can be very expensive, or moving to a fixed cost in the cloud where you know exactly how much it's going to cost every month per employee." That cost model makes a lot of sense. You also have "SharePoint hybrid" for workloads.

What are some of those hybrid workloads?
McDermott: It starts with OneDrive for Business being able to offer a terabyte of storage per user. Hybrid extranets is another one our customers are very interested in because supporting a SharePoint Server extranet means you have licensing costs for SharePoint. You have to stand up extra hardware. You have security risks involved. Whereas with SharePoint Online, you could turn external sharing on and allow your employees to share with trading partners in different domains off specific Team Sites. The extranet story is one that many of my clients are looking at because Office 365 makes it really easy. There are other workloads, like Team Sites and Site Directory and Search. What's amazing from a hybrid standpoint are the things Microsoft is doing to make it easier for IT to connect. Hybrid used to involve mountains of PowerShell and having to import and export certain certificates. It was challenging, even for gifted technicians. The hybrid story for configuring OneDrive for Business is one case in point. You browse to your Office 365 tenant, kick off a wizard and have it do the certificate exchange with your farm. Have the automation do the setup and configuration and the linking of the two environments. That alone is going to help with the onboarding.

What's the story behind SharePoint hybrid search?
McDermott: The hybrid story for search is really exciting. Up until now with SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2010, the hybrid story was disjointed. It was "I have a SharePoint search infrastructure on premises and then I have content in Office 365 that is crawled by the Office 365 crawler and indexed by indexer." You got one set of results from on prem and another set from the cloud, but the results are not comingled. They're separate. They're not relevance ranked together. It's like opening two books. With the new cloud search service application and the features that were introduced with SharePoint 2016 or SharePoint 2013 after the August Cumulative Update, we can now stand up a search service on prem that publishes to the index on Office 365. The team rearchitected the Office 365 crawling and indexing process to support this, which is an amazing feat. And then what we now can do is connect our on-premises crawler to our Office 365 tenant. The crawling is done on premises so we can introduce file shares, SharePoint content and BCS [Business Connectivity Services] content into our Office 365 index, where all of the content from Office 365 is already indexed. So now we have one set of results that is relevancy ranked. The relevancy ranking is consistent across the result set. If I'm searching from Office 365, I have secure access to the content. I can see files from on premises file shares in the cloud. I can get previews for my on-prem environment if I have that connection set up. And all of the content is available in Delve as well. So now we've got machine learning that can happen for our on-prem content, and this is just an incredibly powerful capability. Currently, it's in preview, but there are a lot of companies that are using it. One of the coolest parts is that I can connect as many SharePoint farms as I want. Now, when I'm searching in Office 365 or in any of my on-premises farms, I'm searching everything in all of my SharePoint farms across the world. That's huge, because prior to this we'd have to independently have each farm crawl every other farm to be able to support something like that or federate my queries across farms, which traffic-wise could be expensive.

Some have wondered about Microsoft's commitment to SharePoint Server, given its cloud emphasis. Lately the company has been talking about "hybrid SharePoint." What's your sense about this apparent change?
McDermott: From what I've seen, Microsoft has a better understanding of what their customers want for their on-premises environments. So you have highly regulated companies, for potentially geographic reasons, that are unwilling or unable to host content in the cloud. There is always going to be a need, at least for the foreseeable future, to have some kind of on-prem environment. Europe is a good example, but even folks in Canada are concerned because even if they are next to North American datacenters, they are still concerned about data privacy and hosting content outside their country. So I think we're seeing a softening of Microsoft's message in terms of "I want you in the cloud." Instead we're seeing an opportunity for them to offer services in the cloud that enable on-prem environment to take advantage of those services. So they offer a service called Delve that's always going to be in the cloud. It uses the power of machine learning to make connections based on signals between employees and documents and the stuff that they work on. There's not going to be an on-prem environment for that. So how do we get that benefit? You create a hybrid connection from your on-prem environment. If your business can use pieces of the cloud, Microsoft is going to provide an onramp for that.

Is the cloud vs. on-prem message kind of ambiguous right now?
McDermott: I don't think "ambiguous" is the word. We still have clients running SharePoint 2003. There still are SharePoint 2001 environments. Whatever the last final server version of SharePoint is, ten years later there will still be versions of it running. Microsoft is trying to reduce the friction and barriers that prevents people from getting into the cloud. I think what we'll see is an improvement in migration capability. People want to take Team Sites and move that lock, stock and barrel into the cloud the way it is. If I have to hire expensive consultants or buy expensive software to do that, then that's a barrier.

Are security concerns with respect to the cloud easing a bit? The argument is that an organization's internal security is not going to be as good as that of Microsoft's datacenters.
McDermott: You took the words out of my mouth. Your security is more secure than Microsoft's datacenter? I think that's a really arrogant statement. I haven't seen anyone who's willing to publish to their employees the uptime stats for their servers the way Microsoft does. It's transparency that most IT organizations are unwilling to embrace. So how can they say they are more secure and more stable than Microsoft's hosted service?

What are the considerations for moving to SharePoint 2016 next year since Microsoft mostly has talked about it in terms of being an enhancement to SharePoint 2013?
McDermott: If the problems you are having are related to managing the software, then I think it's a good move because of the way that they are allowing us to manage the servers -- they've mentioned some of the features, like "zero-downtime patching" -- that enable us to support SharePoint better from an IT perspective. If I'm looking at it from a management and stability perspective, I think it's a good move. We've also got database-level changes. The site provisioning features are enhanced. What we haven't seen in the previews yet are if there will be Team Site enhancements and things like that. From an end user perspective, it's going to be a yawn update, but from a backend perspective -- the stuff that my end users don't see but what makes them happy -- it's getting the performance and the uptime improvements, and I think that's a nice reason to move. If you don't have problems with your SharePoint 2013 farm -- they're backporting some of these features like the cloud search index -- then maybe it's not a move that you need to make. It's kind of like the way we talk about applying a cumulative update. If it solves the business problem, then apply it. There's not going to be the rush to upgrade like there was from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013 because that was a significant update. I tell people kind of jokingly, if you want to see SharePoint Server 2016, then go look at SharePoint Online because that's a branch of what we're getting in the on-prem version.

What do you tell your clients about SharePoint Online at this point?
McDermott: It depends on the company and what they're trying to do. If we can start with the assumption that the company can host their content in the cloud or on-prem, well some companies are not cut out for on prem. They don't have the maturity with the IT department to be able to manage their own on-prem environments, so they're perfect candidates for the cloud because Microsoft is going to manage it. There is not perfect feature parity between Office 365 and SharePoint on prem, so there might be business reasons why you have features that you need on prem. Aside from that, for new customers that are starting out and deciding to be on prem or on Office 365, a lot of them are great candidates for Office 365. The harder ones are the ones that already have an on-prem environment and they are considering whether to go all in and move everything to the cloud or keep the on-prem environment -- that hybrid approach. And that's where we have to pursue business requirements to figure out what they are trying to accomplish, their business goals and whether SharePoint Online will support them. What I've found is that, over the past year, the scope of Office 365 capabilities is a really compelling story for many of my customers.


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