Intranet requirements range greatly from industry to industry, but intranets built on SharePoint all have several core requirements in common. 

Identifying these common requirements and exploring what it takes to make them happen will start your SharePoint intranet project off on the right foot. 

We've already taken a look at current trends for home pages, considered ways to improve the process of finding content and explored modernizing collaboration

This article will focus on integrating SharePoint and Office 365 features with the other applications we use in our daily work, as well as address some specific questions for those debating the SharePoint Online versus SharePoint on premises choice.

Bring External Data into SharePoint On-Premises Through Search

A big selling point for companies considering a move to the latest version of SharePoint or Office 365 is the search feature. Starting with the integration of technology acquired through its Fast Search acquisition, Microsoft has steadily improved search over the past few years to make it an extremely powerful and useful tool. 

What organizations may miss out on with these powerful features is that they can be expanded to more than just the content inside a SharePoint site. 

Whenever I work with organizations looking to integrate external data with SharePoint, I start by asking if the data is for consumption only or if it needs to be edited within SharePoint. Often the former is the case, in other words, they need to view the documents from the external file share, but they're fine being redirected to that location for editing.

Search Content Sources

Search Content Sources come in handy here. Configuring SharePoint to crawl content from file shares, external websites and other line of business applications makes that content searchable from an enterprise search center in SharePoint. 

The configuration requires an administrator, but even with that it could potentially save you hiring a developer to create a complicated custom integration that meets the same basic requirement. 

Business Connectivity Services

For more robust integration needs, Business Connectivity Services (BCS) also allows SharePoint to pull in and interact with external data. Users can manage the data in SharePoint lists and use it in business processes built within the tool. 

So before going down the custom integration path, explore using search or BCS to meet your requirements for integrating with external content. 

There is one catch though: your options to use these features in SharePoint Online are limited. SharePoint Online doesn't offer the option to create additional content sources, though there a few things you can do with BCS. 

Businesses who need this kind of search integration might want to explore a hybrid approach to SharePoint Online and Office 365, which offers cost saving benefits without losing all of the customization features of on premises SharePoint. 

Power BI Offers a New Way to Visualize External Data

Office 365 has some new features that also allow for robust integration, including Power BI, Microsoft’s latest business intelligence tool. 

Power BI can be connected to simple data sources stored in Excel, an Azure SQL Database or a laundry list of other services including GitHub, MailChimp, Dynamics, Salesforce and more. This list will continue to grow as Microsoft adds more services. 

Using one of these services to pull in data is a pleasure, because within a few clicks you can be up and running, building insightful dashboards that include data from the external service alongside data you have in SharePoint or Excel. 

Power BI's natural language search is one of my personal favorite features. Instead of clicking around the graphs and charts to answer questions like “What were sales in January 2016?” I can type that exact question into the search box and get an accurate result. 

This awesome feature is also a surprisingly easy way to get executive sign-off on Power BI — and I am only slightly joking on that.

Power BI is available to purchase separately from Office 365, so SharePoint on premises users can still take advantage of these features — just keep in mind that Power BI is only available in Microsoft's cloud, so there is no internal or “private cloud” version.  

Microsoft Flow Integrates SharePoint Content with the Latest Web Services

Microsoft Flow offers another option for SharePoint Online integration. Unlike Power BI, this feature is only available to Office 365 subscribers. 

Flow is pretty new and still has some kinks to work out, but it can potentially save a lot of time and money for organizations that need an easy integration. Microsoft built Flow into the new list experience in SharePoint Online, so you can create a new Flow directly from your list or library.

Flow provides numerous templates that can do simple things like save email attachments to a specific document library, save tweets to a SharePoint list, or even create a new item in SharePoint when a new order is added in Salesforce. 

Similar to the services in Power BI, the list of available Flow templates will continue to grow. Microsoft will make these services available to tools outside of SharePoint, including Exchange, Project, Dynamics and more. 

No matter what your integration requirements are, SharePoint probably offers a way to accomplish them. Businesses used to see the lack of external tool integration as a big con against SharePoint Online. The addition of new features like Power BI and Flow are slowly making those cons disappear.  

In my next — and final — article in this series, we'll look at how to get people engaged and using your SharePoint intranet.

Title image "Tackle" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  cornexo