With the public beta of Office 365 now in full swing, many are looking at the benefits of moving to SharePoint online. Here's a look at some of the benefits of going to the cloud.

Anyone with half an eye on the IT industry can’t have failed to notice the rise and rise of what is now called "The Cloud" in the last couple of years. Despite not really being a new idea, the concept is starting to gain real traction with a number of interesting offerings being made available. The Cloud can be summed up as a means of accessing data and services from computers other than your own, specifically the Internet. Basically it’s storing files, and accessing "web apps," across the Web.

Microsoft’s Latest Cloud Offering

Microsoft has developed a number of different cloud-based services over the years. The biggest could be argued to be its Hotmail Web service, which predates most other online email services. The enterprise space has more recently been served with Business Productivity Online Services (or BPOS for short), which comprised various tools including Exchange Online and SharePoint Online.

BPOS has now been superseded by Microsoft's new flagship cloud product, Office365. Comprising Office Web Apps, Lync Online, and new versions of Exchange Online and SharePoint Online, the product has recently gone into full public beta testing. Microsoft will have the suite available in the second half of this year as a stable commercially-supported product.

The "Local Cloud"

Many small to medium companies will rightly see Office365 as a relatively simple way of bypassing much of the work and many of the risks inherent in getting up and running with the often complex SharePoint enterprise platform. Choosing this route avoids hardware or software installation issues, and enables customers to get up and running with a vanilla system in a short space of time.

However, many people don’t realize that a number of vendors and SharePoint partners have been offering this capability to customers for some time now, and long before Office365 arrived on the scene. By hosting and managing full (non Office365) SharePoint environments for their clients, vendors are in fact offering what is a "local cloud" solution. The client gets effectively the same end product with the same cloud benefits, but gets the full SharePoint experience. Let us look at the pros and cons of the various approaches.

Office365 and SharePoint Online

The first point to make when looking at SharePoint Online is that it is in fact a cut-down version of the full SharePoint 2010 product. This can actually be a good thing when considering its use in many projects. SharePoint is a sprawling and complex product, and focusing the feature set on what you actually need can be a very useful exercise.

The key areas that SharePoint Online doesn’t support are:

  • Business Connectivity Services (connecting to outside data sources and systems)
  • Records Center functionality
  • Much of the Business Intelligence and PerformancePoint functionality
  • Advanced search features

Much like SharePoint Foundation doesn’t include all the features of SharePoint 2010 standard or enterprise, and is often used as an inexpensive way to start projects, so too can SharePoint Online. Except SharePoint Online is even easier to get moving. For a reasonable monthly fee (priced per user) you can avoid any hardware, setup, or installation headaches. What’s more, the infrastructure can scale to suit your usage needs as and when you need it to. Starting out with a small number of users, then scaling to a global critical line of business system, can often involve complex hardware and software planning within a more traditional setup. With SharePoint Online these worries simply don’t exist.

SharePoint Online also offers a more intangible benefit. It offers a way to "trial" SharePoint in a genuinely useful way. It allows smaller organizations to get really hands on with the product, to setup a fully blown enterprise system containing real data, and to work with it in the long term. If SharePoint doesn’t solve the problem, then little investment has been wasted. If it solves the problem then great, it’s a scalable supported platform. If limitations are met, then there is a clear path forward toward a full implementation of SharePoint "proper."

Lawrie Siteman, director responsible for Office 365 at SharePoint partner Program Framework, feels SharePoint Online also makes sense for those looking at the other tools in Office365:

SharePoint Online offers a huge range of functionality on its own. But the Office365 proposition, and price point, becomes all the more compelling when you consider its companion tools - like Lync Online and Exchange Online. The tools tightly integrate with each other, and for many organizations it will make sense to put them all in the cloud - not just SharePoint.

SharePoint 2010 in the Local Cloud

Using SharePoint in the "local cloud" offers the immediate benefit of getting the "full" SharePoint experience from the off. In effect a third party supplier manages the hardware and infrastructure on behalf of the client. Standard or Enterprise SharePoint is installed and used, complete with all the features and functions that can be expected from this full version. In many ways, this is more of an outsourcing model than a cloud model. Somebody else is being paid to manage and maintain the system.

The downside of this approach is it will cost more to get up and running than SharePoint Online. The standard, and immensely confusing, SharePoint licensing model applies and needs to be considered carefully. Hosting partners will also include a cost of their own for providing their service. Finally, different hosting partners will offer different service-level agreements. It is important to understand how resilient and available a system needs to be, and ensure any supplier can meet these demands.

Conclusions

Many SharePoint projects fail because people struggle to manage the scope and breadth of both their project and SharePoint itself. Struggles with SharePoint’s vast feature set are nothing new, and it is this problem that often causes projects to grow and then deviate from their original goals.

SharePoint Online offers a great way to focus on real project benefits. It offers slightly less than the full product in terms of features, and it certainly can’t be customized to look like a custom-designed, public-facing website. But its low barrier to entry means users are up and running in no time. In this scenario the reduced feature set can actually result in a more well-rounded, well-thought out solution. For many small to medium enterprises SharePoint Online is the perfect entry point.