Platforms are difficult things to explain, with respect to their definitions as software. Essentially, they are systems built with the intention of being built upon. An application has at least one tangible function it performs on behalf of a user.
Applications today are built upon platforms, and platforms exist to one degree or another on every kind of device: on clients such as smartphones, tablets and PCs; and on servers, including those in the cloud.
SharePoint is a server-based platform, whose intention is to provide businesses with a medium for their applications to exchange documents.
There was a time when we would say a SharePoint server was basically a website with a Microsoft-branded host. This isn’t accurate any more, because what SharePoint produces is not necessarily a site that you pull up in your browser and scroll through.
Connecting SharePoint and Office 365
SharePoint presents the appearance of a single destination for information being shared with the rest of the company (and perhaps also with partners and customers) and a single source for that information for those authorized to be seeking it.
SharePoint Online is Microsoft’s way to provide many of the services provided by SharePoint through its own servers, rather than being installed on-premise.
Whereas SharePoint began its long history as a server-based system for composing internal Web sites (still called “Team Sites”), today it has grown into a facilitator of information and documents being shared online between colleagues and collaborators, however they may be shared.
This is where SharePoint’s relationship with Office 365 comes into the picture. In many ways, SharePoint and Office 365 are two sides of the same service. Indeed, for SharePoint Online, the native way to create collaborative materials is with Office 365.
In this relationship, SharePoint serves as the platform upon which business services are built, and Office 365 as the toolkit for building and utilizing those services.
Exactly which end is the master and which the slave, sometimes depends upon whom at Microsoft you ask. At times, SharePoint Online has been defined as a member of the Office 365 family of products, and Office 365 has been defined as a member of the SharePoint family of products.
At a company conference in May 2015, a Microsoft SharePoint product manager so much as publicly admitted that the “barriers” between the two product lines are gradually eroding, and that Microsoft will be marketing both lines more and more as though they were joined at the hip.
Specifically, as Microsoft continually evolves Office 365, that product will pick up many of the content creation and management features of SharePoint, while continuing to leverage SharePoint as the platform upon which they’re hosted.
Just how the roles of the two product lines differ, to the extent that they do, depends on what classes of data or documents you intend to share with your colleagues:
The document library has long been a feature of SharePoint Services, and for the near term, will continue to be. SharePoint’s association as a content management system derives from this basic feature.
Essentially, a document library is a network-accessible location (including through a browser) for the sharing and publication of documents to an organization and its partners. Office XP helped launch SharePoint’s next stage of popularity by integrating SharePoint document library support from within its applications.
Microsoft wants users to utilize OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), arguing that it’s a more mobile-friendly, lightweight, app-driven system. OneDrive for Business is indeed a separate system, still built on Microsoft’s cloud platform but designed for IT administration and policy-driven sharing.
In presentations to SharePoint users, Microsoft has said point-blank that OneDrive will eventually push personal document servers and document libraries aside.
OneDrive is presented to users as a function of Office 365 — specifically, as the storage location of choice for documents produced using its cloud-based applications. At the time of this writing, OneDrive for Business was being renovated to incorporate many of the functions that individuals have come to expect from competitors Dropbox and Box.
This ongoing project seems to have thrown a lifeline to SharePoint Online, which has recently been retrofitted with OneDrive-like synchronization features, and has been spotlighted as SharePoint’s managed file sharing system of choice for the time being.
SharePoint will continue to present the tools necessary for site designers and Web developers to build company portals, as central destinations for the publishing of content pertinent to people doing business together.
As Microsoft explains it now, the “Team Sites” core of SharePoint will still be used for organizations that want not just original content but original and unique functionality in their portals. Web developers familiar with common Web standards such as CSS stylesheets, as well as “legacy” SharePoint standards such as master pages, will be encouraged to continue using the SharePoint platform to build portals.
Meanwhile, Microsoft will be concentrating on Office 365 as a means of delivering templates and functions that can help someone prop up a portal more instantly, using customizable but basic formats. What’s more, the company’s functions for embedding indexed video and other media classes will be delivered first on Office 365.
Delve, a culmination of the project originally code-named “Oslo,” is Microsoft’s system for automatically composing contextually related content from across the corporate network and, where applicable, across the Web. The Office Graph system is used to draw these contextual distinctions, in an effort to compose a scrollable page of items of interest that are almost guaranteed to matter.
It might seem that Delve could have been a kind of automatic SharePoint portal. Instead, it is being offered as part of Office 365, not as a platform (which “Oslo” actually is) but rather as an app.
This seems to point to a trend where functionality delivered by way of automation or in an à la carte menu fashion, is being steered toward Office 365 as its delivery venue.
Delve may also be leveraged going forward as an alternative to the Enterprise Search Center feature introduced in SharePoint Server 2007. ESC introduced a semantic search tool for both corporate documents and employee databases.
Microsoft clearly believes that its Office Graph functionality will produce a richer set of associations, some of which may be “surfaced” through Delve, which in turn will be part of Office 365.
ESC utilizes a separate, on-premises index.
As a result, searches that were conducted simultaneously on-premise and over the Web produced separate results sets. Microsoft has demonstrated what it described as a test build of SharePoint 2016 that incorporates a hybrid index.
That index does include content that was collected by the Office Graph system, which coordinates contextually related materials in the background. However, the results of a search on this merged index appeared in a screen that was clearly marked “Office 365.”
This may be the key class of SharePoint functionality that is not being shifted over to the Office 365 brand. SharePoint will continue to be Microsoft’s brand for hands-on enterprise content management, and will incorporate business intelligence (BI) tools to that end. Meanwhile, Office 365 will be the “surface,” if you will, for content and functions that utilize back-end automation, including machine learning.
Beginning with SharePoint 2016, Microsoft will shift its development emphasis to the Online edition over the on-premises SharePoint Server edition.
The objective, company officials have said, is to produce a hybridized platform that leverages on-premise and cloud-based resources as necessary, perhaps under a more generalized “SharePoint” brand (no “Server,” no “Online”).
Both SharePoint and Office 365 are adopting a faster release cadence, where new features appear in both product lines on almost a monthly basis.