For those organizations contemplating a move to SharePoint, there are a couple of ways to test the product before committing to a purchase. Which trial method is right for your enterprise? Read on.

When SharePoint 2010 launched, the product range was fairly simple. There was SharePoint 2010 (Standard or Enterprise) and SharePoint Foundation. Both products could be downloaded or came on a CD, required local installation and typically needed to be maintained by an IT department. Foundation, formally Windows SharePoint Services, is a cut down version of SharePoint 2010. It doesn’t include all of the features of SharePoint Standard or Enterprise, such as My Sites or much in the way of business intelligence functionality.

The Microsoft licensing model is also fairly simple, at a very high level at least. SharePoint Foundation is "free" and the main products are "not free." "Not free" then becomes slightly more complicated with server licenses and user CALs to consider. "Free" only means that you already have a Windows Server license, which most enterprise companies do. As a result of this zero price point, SharePoint Foundation quickly became the option for curious users wanting to find out what Microsoft's best-selling enterprise product could do for them.

New Options

But the world is slowly changing. The Cloud is now everywhere, and many enterprise applications and services are happily migrating. SharePoint is one of them, included as part of Microsoft's wider Office365 offering. SharePoint Online, available as a free trial for 30 days, is now another way to investigate the world of SharePoint.

However it is important to realize that Online differs from Foundation, and indeed all the locally installed versions, in a number of significant ways. So for the new users wanting to evaluate SharePoint, which is best -- SharePoint Foundation or SharePoint Online?

SharePoint Foundation

As we have seen, SharePoint Foundation is basically a free product. Whilst its feature set is limited compared to its paid for siblings, it is still very much an enterprise class tool. As a result it also comes with some enterprise sized hardware requirements.

SharePoint Foundation will happily run on a single server, but any serious use will require a more typical setup utilizing a dedicated SQL Server box. Installation and configuration also needs to be fully considered -- getting up and running isn’t going to be instant. These activities may be trivial tasks for a competent IT department, but new users will likely find them daunting.

Once up and running, SharePoint Foundation provides a great flavor of what SharePoint can do. Most of the standard document management features are present and correct, as are the out of the box webparts. With a little elbow grease you could have a solid Intranet up and running in no time, complete with blogs, wikis, search and some basic design. What’s more, this is no time limited demo. If the features available work for you, SharePoint Foundation will scale to the content and users you require of it. There are of course some functional limitations. You won’t be able to work with external data sources as easily, nor see how Web 2.0 style features could be implemented in your organization. But basic intranet functionality is very much within your grasp.

SharePoint Online

Starting out with SharePoint Online is as simple as a few clicks and signing up for a free 30 day trial. You need a Microsoft Passport account, but that's really it as far as prerequisites go. You actually have to sign up to Office365, which gives you much more besides just SharePoint -- Outlook, Office Web Apps and Lync to name but a few. The overall package is impressive and hangs together very well.

SharePoint Online is now basically on a par, functionally, with the locally installed versions. Historically it lagged a little behind, but a significant update in November of last year pretty much gave it parity. The most significant new addition was business connectivity services, supporting external lists and data columns. This feature allows SharePoint to easily interface with externally hosted data sources.

So setup is a lot easier, and the product behaves in a very similar way to SharePoint Foundation. What are the downsides? They boil down to two things: the cloud element and the cost. Starting with the latter, SharePoint Online is a subscription service, and your free trial won’t last very long. The tariffs, and there are several, are very reasonable. But you will be paying a monthly fee per user for the duration of your usage.

Second, and more significantly, this is (of course) a cloud product. Your content and data is stored by Microsoft, under the jurisdiction and laws of wherever that particular data center is located. This isn’t an issue for everyone, but is a consideration for some larger clients, or those with particularly sensitive data.


In summary, once you are up and running with both products they feel very similar to each other. Microsoft has done a great job with SharePoint Online and it really does hold its own with the locally installed versions of the product.

However SharePoint Online, and Office365, win hands down for the speed with which you can be up and running. If you have never used SharePoint before, this is surely the best way to start. Assuming 30 days is long enough for you to conduct your tests, you can get a real feel for how the platform works.

Lawrie Siteman, a director at Microsoft Gold Competency Partner Program Framework, thinks SharePoint Online will be the product to help drive even more customers to the platform in the future:

SharePoint Online is now a very stable mature product, and its future is bright. Whilst we still see customers who aren’t ready to move to the Cloud, we feel that Office365 will see greater and greater penetration in the enterprise market as 2012 progresses.”

It isn’t completely one sided though. If your organization has concerns over the Cloud model, or you want to trial the installation and configuration process, SharePoint Foundation still has an important role to play. But generally speaking, look at SharePoint Online if you need to see what all the fuss is about.

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