In-Depth

The Cloud, On-Premises or Hybrid: How Do You SharePoint?

The key factors for deciding whether to use Microsoft's content management system online through the cloud, on-premises using your own hardware, or managed via an IaaS provider.

On the surface, shifting to a cloud-based implementation of SharePoint may appear like a no-brainer but there are many variables that go into deciding whether it's the right move. The most important consideration, of course, is whether doing so makes economic sense.

"Despite the hype, the uptake of cloud computing as a solution has not been as rapid as first anticipated, in part because of the confusion created around the financial benefits," warned Gartner Analyst Laurence Goasduff, in his August report titled "The Financial Case for Moving to the Cloud."

In addition to the financial tug-of-war, there's still a lot of concern with data privacy, said Gartner Research Director Kyle Davis during a presentation at the at the Nintex InspireX user conference in Las Vegas in February. "A common question we receive during inquiries revolves around data sovereignty when moving to the cloud," Davis said.

Furthering the delta between the cloud and on-premises deployments, Davis pointed out that Microsoft is innovating heavily in its cloud-based offerings while Gartner clients continue to invest significantly in their existing server-based deployments. For those looking to make the most of their SharePoint investment, the most common Gartner inquiry question is which SharePoint deployment model should we use?

The Two SharePoint Camps
Companies investing in SharePoint generally fall into one of two camps:

  1. They have an existing SharePoint deployment.
  2. They are planning a new deployment.

With a large majority of Gartner clients using SharePoint on-premises, the choice to move to the cloud or a managed IaaS model requires some serious analysis. "Though we have some data that suggests a 70 percent rate, I believe as much as 80 to 90 percent of our clients deploy SharePoint on-premises," said Davis.

For companies starting fresh, the option to move to the cloud may seem easier since legacy ball-and-chain systems and applications aren't weighing them down. Still, the decision isn't as simple as, "we will because we can."

Complicating matters, according to Davis, is that most companies won't be able to pick a single model -- they will likely end up using a hybrid model with most applications deployed on-premises and via IaaS -- with a sliver of their deployments located in the cloud.

Top 3 Reasons to Stay On-Premises
There are compelling reasons to deploy SharePoint on-premises. Here are three that motivate many companies:

Compliance is critical: The ability to prove compliance using systems in the cloud that fall outside of your direct control can present a scary proposition.
Privacy is crucial: Trusting Microsoft (or any other cloud provider for that matter) with your private or otherwise sensitive data takes a big leap of faith.
Sovereignty is non-negotiable: System failovers to cloud systems located in other countries can keep IT managers up at night.

These three reasons don't just apply to on-premises implementations. And a company's decision for how they deploy SharePoint extends beyond these reasons as well.

Comparative Strengths and Weaknesses
Davis also said, "I liken cloud computing to how fast-food really is. In reality, you can only get the cloud their way, not your way."

This illustrates how tricky the decision can be to determine if your company should deploy SharePoint on-premises vs. going the cloud route (or partnering with an IaaS provider).

The benefits of on-premises deployments are that they provide full control and close proximity to other systems of records, while providing a high-availability infrastructure that would ensure recovery if a system went down could be costly. "Keep in mind the internal SLA that you need to provide to the company for your own SharePoint deployment; can you afford to lose control?" Davis said.

Alternatively, he said using an IaaS provider still provides administrators with control and is well-suited for those with seasonal spikes, though connectivity can be expensive and it requires staff with cloud skills. "Moving SharePoint from on-premises to an IaaS model is simply a 'lift-and-shift' approach and is not truly moving to cloud computing," he warned.

Going with Office 365 SharePoint Online can result in much lower administrative and operational costs, is suited for workgroups with external participants and is frequently updated, he pointed out. In many cases though, that means customers may have less control over their service levels and some of the online services might be different than the SharePoint on-premises features, though Microsoft' is moving most of its most innovative new features to Office 365. "SharePoint online is fantastic for creating extranets and sharing content externally, but SharePoint online is twice as chatty as a traditional SharePoint server," he said.

Deployment Mode Strengths Weaknesses
On-Premises

- Full control
- Close proximity to other systems of record
- Environment and skills already exist

- High availability and disaster recovery are complex and costly
- Extranet solutions are complex
- Requires dedicated support and maintenance
IaaS

- Full control
- Simplified extranet solutions
- Well-suited for seasonal sites and development/testing

- High availability and disaster recovery are complex and costly
- Connectivity to corporate network is costly
- Requires dedicated team with cloud skills
Office 365/ SharePoint Online - Reduced support and maintenance costs
- Well-suited for external sharing
- Receives significant innovation investments from Microsoft
- Lack of feature parity with server-based options
- Lack of available solutions
- Surrenders control over SLAs and performance to Microsoft

Source: Inspirex Presentation by Gartner: "Choosing Between SharePoint On-Premises, Online, or on IaaS"

In addition to the above-mentioned core considerations, there could be some critical functionality that gets lost along the way. Along with data sovereignty, security remains a big concern when considering a move to the cloud.

"If you're planning to move your existing on-premises SharePoint deployment to the cloud, be sure you know why you are doing this," Davis warned. And in response to an audience question about the possibility of data leakage through online services, he added, "The number one security concern with moving to the cloud is whether or not you are able to contain your data."

Security Concerns May Make the Final Determination
A 2014 Gartner survey showed that 25 percent of organizations surveyed are not moving to the cloud or Office 365. "Most of these organizations claimed security concerns as the reason for their decision to stay away from this deployment model," Davis pointed out. 

Ultimately, the onus for security lies in the hands of the data owner. Some experts suggest that if security is important, then keeping full control over your systems, operations and data is the best path -- regardless of the benefits available through either IaaS or the cloud.

Certainly, there may be additional business requirements that drive this decision as well. I'd love to hear about your perspective on the pros and cons of each model.

About the Author

Sean Martin is an information security veteran of 25 years and a four-term CISSP with articles published globally covering security management, cloud computing, enterprise mobility, governance, risk and compliance -- with a focus on specialized industries such as government, finance, healthcare, insurance, legal and the supply chain.

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