scan the horizon

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that SharePoint 2016 IT Preview came out last month. And while this preview's focus was on building a stable foundation before adding new features — meaning that it's meant to test the investments in MinRole and infrastructure benefits — Microsoft did include a few goodies for business users as well. 

One of the major new features is the Cloud Search service application. The Cloud Search service application is a way to get your index in the cloud. It offers a real unified search when you have a hybrid SharePoint deployment. To understand why this feature was very much a necessity, let's take a look at what we had in the past.

Old School Hybrid Search

Before August, we had three options to configure hybrid SharePoint Search: one-way outbound, one-way inbound and two-way topology. And of the three, the most popular hybrid search configuration by far was the two-way topology, due to its versatility between online and on premises.

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In a two-way topology, users browsing SharePoint Online were able to search content from the on premises SharePoint Server 2013 farm, and users on SharePoint Server 2013 were able to browse content from the SharePoint Online tenant. This sounds great in theory, but let’s take a look at the end user experience. 

The screenshot below from SharePoint MVP Chris O’Brien's blog post on Office 365 SharePoint Hybrid explains perfectly what was wrong with the old-school hybrid approach. We had to create result blocks (as seen in the red box), to display information from the “other system.” So instead of showing users the best search results from both systems in one window, they had to look at two different blocks.

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What’s worse was that result blocks were limited to 10 entries, so if 20 results from Office365 perfectly matched the query, and 100 results from on premises were low matches, you only saw 10 from Office 365, but all on premises results!

When companies look to implement a hybrid solution, they want a seamless integration between SharePoint on premises and SharePoint Online. Unfortunately, the old search model didn’t really deliver. That’s where the Cloud Search service application comes in.

Cloud Search Service Application

The Cloud Search service application, currently in preview, is meant to fix the seamless integration between SharePoint on premises and SharePoint Online by building one unified index in the cloud. By replacing the result blocks with a unified index, the best results from on premises and SharePoint online will show in the same search page, completely integrated and ranked by relevancy. Here is an example:

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In the example above, I searched for SharePoint Admin, and the results in yellow are from my SharePoint Server 2016 on premises, while the ones in blue are from my SharePoint Online — a truly seamless integration.

Cloud hybrid search offers a number of benefits:

  • You no longer have to worry about the size of your search index, because your search index is in Office 365. This means a smaller footprint for your SharePoint Server search farm, and lower total cost of ownership for search
  • You don't need to upgrade any of your existing installations of SharePoint Server to have enterprise search in the cloud, because the new version of SharePoint Server supports crawling of existing SharePoint Server 2007, SharePoint Server 2010 and SharePoint Server 2013 content farms
  • Users get unified search results, search relevance ranking and refiners even if your organization has a hybrid deployment with content both on-premises and in Office 365
  • Users automatically get the newest SharePoint Online search experience without your needing to update your existing SharePoint servers
  • You no longer need to migrate your search index to a newer version of SharePoint Server because this happens automatically in Office 365
  • On-premises documents will show up in Delve

As a preview, the Cloud Search service application is pretty limited in the ways it can be deployed. If you are on SharePoint Server 2013, you need to have at least the August 2015 Cumulative Update, and if you are on SharePoint 2016, Microsoft advises you only deploy it on a “Single Server Farm” and not in a full MinRole Deployment.

Do you think this is the feature that will encourage more companies to go hybrid?

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  mendhak