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SharePoint On-Premises or SharePoint Online?

By MRS on Sunday, July 3 2016

SharePoint grew up on the farm: since 2003, it has predominantly resided on-premises, in an organization’s server farm. However, new CEO Satya Nadella is not keeping Microsoft’s intensions a secret, as he proclaims a “cloud first, mobile first” focus.

What does this mean for SharePoint specifically? The 2015 Q1 earnings call showed a lot of success for Office 365 and, by extension, SharePoint Online. Though the two products resemble one another, the Online version of SharePoint differs from the Server edition.

To understand the differences, here are some questions that IT leaders should ask before deciding on an approach.

1. Where are the companies SharePoint users?

The only connectivity tool needed for SharePoint Online is an internet connection and web browser. Employees can access their SharePoint portal through a web browser on a PC, tablet or phone. The Server edition of SharePoint is different. Special configurations of company firewalls, and/or a VPN connection will be needed to access SharePoint information remotely. VPN connections may be difficult for end-users to setup, especially given the current BYOD trend.

2. What other systems (ERP, file-share, email) does the company use?

This is important as the cloud edition of SharePoint, while having the same FAST search capabilities as the Server edition, lacks some of the more complex integrations to other systems such as SAP or Oracle ERP and IBM Lotus Notes email and collaboration tools. If the company wishes to use SharePoint to acquire data and information from these systems, only the Server edition will work. As will be discussed further, the data is not accessible for business intelligence reporting either.

3. Is the Power BI app enough for my company?

One feature that is missing in SharePoint Online is the ability to display business intelligence dashboards. Whereas Server can act as a hub to display relevant reports and data, Online cannot. This poses a significant impediment to those with ERP software from other vendors.

Power BI is a replacement app supplied by Microsoft that helps end-users pull reports themselves, which is useful. The Power BI application also holds a natural-language processing capability, allowing a user to pose a question in plain English and let the app determine the best method of presenting the desired data. For power users, Power BI may be limiting, however Power BI also may be the key to convincing business users to pay attention to the data.

4. How much customization is needed?

When using any cloud service, you must play by the vendor’s rules. I have heard SharePoint described as a Swiss Army knife, where many tools are available to be pulled when needed. As well I have heard it described as a large piece of cloth: it isn’t a garment in itself, however it can be used to create many different garments. Each metaphor displays SharePoint’s versatility. Hosting SharePoint elsewhere, of course, puts many of these options into doubt.

Complex custom code cannot be applied to a public cloud, though a degree of customization is possible. The Cloud version has many easily installable applications through a web store that may offer out-of-the-box functionality that helps users. These applications can be put into a custom store for individual business, which is administered by the IT folks and downloadable by the business users. These apps can also be applied to the on-premises version but of course are subject to Microsoft’s cloud limitations.

5. Do we have the infrastructure, in-house resources and disaster plan required?

SharePoint Server requires hardware to run on, talented people to keep it running and a backup plan in case of a disaster of some sort. This costs money up front, pushes salary costs higher and will take up the IT staff’s time determining the most efficient disaster recovery plan.

Do we know what we want from SharePoint/do we have the investment?

SharePoint Server is fairly costly. Server edition has associated hardware costs, and either a lot of training for IT staff, new hires or consulting services. SharePoint Online, conversely, is a subscription-based payment model that can be included in the costs of Office 365. Office 365 offers a more flexible way for companies to pay for Microsoft Office (and always stay up-to-date) so many companies have either already purchased licenses or are planning to. If this is the case, including SharePoint Online licenses will offer a cheap and simple means to evaluate the appropriateness of SharePoint in your environment.