The volume on the cloud conversation in the information technology space has gotten louder, and that’s particularly true for those of us making a living in and around SharePoint. Ever since Steve Ballmer declared that Microsoft was “all in” with the cloud back in March of 2010, we've been seeing and hearing more about Azure, SharePoint in the cloud, and especially Office 365.
In the last year or so, the push towards Office 365 in marketing and discussion in particular has gone up. Way up.
When I first heard the predictions that large companies would be abandoning their on-premises implementations of SharePoint to migrate to Office 365, I had a hard time believing it. Even now, I remain skeptical. I am aware that many organizations are investigating the Cloud, seeing which workloads they can safely place there, and trying it out. What I haven’t seen, though, is a steady stream of stories indicating that enterprise customers are abandoning their investments in business-critical infrastructure and personnel to risk it all in an arena that holds much promise but is short on definitive answers to some important questions.
For example, who really owns the data out in the Cloud? Who should be called if a Cloud-based system goes down? What happens to you and your data if your Cloud provider goes belly-up and stops operating tomorrow?
Whether or not many large organizations and enterprises will bet their businesses on Office 365 is still a topic of great debate between those inside Microsoft and those on the outside, but there is one segment of users who are undoubtedly adopting Office 365 with great haste: those who traditionally fall into the small-to-midsize business (SMB) category.
SMBs Finally Get Easy Access to SharePoint
For SMB users, Office 365 represents an unprecedented opportunity to inexpensively obtain software and Microsoft-hosted services that are crucial for most day-to-day operations.
It’s not that SMB owners and users couldn't obtain Office 365’s services and software before the arrival of the Cloud-based offering. Pre-packaged software like Microsoft Office, for example, could be picked up easily with a quick trip to the local big box retailer. With the exception of Microsoft Office, though, the cost to obtain robust implementations of services like Exchange-based email were beyond the reach of many.
This was especially true for SharePoint. If an SMB that traditionally purchased Microsoft products wanted collaboration capabilities, for instance, they’d frequently have had to turn to a more cost-friendly offering like Google Apps.
Other barriers beyond cost also made it difficult for SMBs to adopt SharePoint. Licensing complexities were mind-boggling. Daily administration and upkeep for SharePoint required an ongoing investment in technical personnel. Upgrades to new versions of SharePoint were painful and required even more planning and investment. With Office 365, Microsoft assumes all of these responsibilities and leaves customers free to focus on making the most of SharePoint’s capabilities.
And there’s a lot of SharePoint “bang” to be had for Office 365 users. Specific capabilities vary by subscription plan, but all plans offer collaboration capabilities, external sharing, Office Web Applications (for browser-based viewing and editing of Office files like Word and Excel documents), powerful search, social features, mobile support, SkyDrive Pro (for cloud-based document storage and synchronization), a public website that can be accessed anonymously and quite a bit more. Premium and enterprise plans introduce additional features such as business intelligence capabilities and advanced records management functionality that tend to be of interest to larger organizations.
By making capabilities like these available at an attractive price point and assuming responsibility for their upkeep, it’s easy to understand why Microsoft (and much of the market) consider Office 365 to be a “no brainer” for SMBs.
Office 365 customers diving into SharePoint’s feature set may not be familiar with the platform’s past. When SharePoint first entered the market many moons ago, it was really only used for one thing: collaboration. SharePoint became very, very good at facilitating collaboration, and SharePoint’s successes in that arena helped to drive the platform’s adoption. As it grew in popularity with the enterprise organizations using it, however, SharePoint’s capabilities evolved to meet additional organizational needs that were important to its users.
The latest release of SharePoint, SharePoint 2013, still carries a very rich set of collaboration capabilities. Collaboration really is just the tip of the iceberg, though. SharePoint’s feature set today is probably far beyond what anyone originally envisioned for the platform when its “Tahoe” Server release candidate arrived at the beginning of 2001. These capabilities certainly weren’t added to SharePoint all at once, but rather in response to the needs and requests of the product’s user base.
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