Think you're not getting the most out of your SharePoint deployment? That's because you probably don't have the ability to experiment.

If you've seen one of my recent presentations, you know that I've been pointing people toward CloudShare as a tool for SharePoint experimentation. One of the realities of most organizations is that people do not have the ability to experiment.

My popular session 10 Best SharePoint Features You've Never Used (But Should) is not about advanced features hidden within the ribbon, but straightforward, out-of-the-box features of which most organizations are just not taking advantage. And the main reason is that people just don't have access -- their limited permissions do not allow them to experiment. That's where vendors and hosted solutions like Fpweb and CloudShare come into play.

The Value Proposition

Why should companies consider using a hosted service like Fpweb or CloudShare over building out and maintaining their own virtual machines or Hyper-Vs? I had a conversation with Chris Riley (@hoardinginfo), who recently left CloudShare to join the growing team at Pingar, but who is still a strong advocate for the platform:

There are the obvious benefits of the cloud, scalability, accessible anywhere, forget about infrastructure. But SharePoint Dev/Test in the cloud has the additional benefits of collaboration, change control, and the ability to FAIL FAST."

And this last point is a key to what I tell people at various SharePoint events. What people tend to forget about their on premises hardware or VMs is that if you want to share or work with someone else, it's a matter of allowing RDP (remote desktop protocol) to your VMs, which is a networking headache, or actually copying the files ... which takes a long time.

Chris continues, "I remember when I was working with an SI (strategic integrator, or consulting firm), and in every management meeting people would lug around hard drives in order to share VMs. It's too much work. Yes, nerds like talking about their heavy laptops and hyper-visors, but they are even nerdier if they are efficient."

Having a web-based, secure platform in which to test solutions and partner with customers or solution providers allows for a much higher degree of efficiency. It gives teams and individuals an opportunity to try out all of those hidden features inside SharePoint, some of which may be hidden or turned off within the corporate environment. And if you break something, who cares.

CloudShare's environment is quick and easy to purchase, setup and begin using. As Chris points out, if you were to build out a test VM environment internally, provided you took a snapshot, it can take about 30 mins to reset your system if something breaks. If you didn't take a snapshot, you'll likely lose patience with the process long before you have a solution back up and running.

To clarify, the purpose of CloudShare’s platform is for development and testing only -- the nature of their licensing allows for flexibility on configuration, but you cannot use it as described as a production platform. For persistent solutions, Fpweb (and other similar hosters) offers low-cost solutions that give you full control over your environment. In fact, CloudShare and Fpweb make a great one-two punch for organizations without the headcount and infrastructure to maintain SharePoint on premises.

Trying Something New

Not surprisingly, most people experiment with hosted solutions when there's something new to review. A month ago, the hottest SharePoint configuration people were using on CloudShare was SharePoint 2010 Enterprise with the BI (business intelligence) stack VM template. But now with the introduction of SharePoint 2013 Preview, everyone seems to be utilizing the platform to experiment with the new version of SharePoint.

According to recent analysis by AIIM, most organizations are not yet even thinking about moving to SharePoint 2013, but most engineering teams are evaluating some of its technical capabilities so that they can better understand the new features, and how difficult it may be to move when the time comes. The SharePoint 2013 Preview VM template is quickly surpassing usage of all of CloudShare's other VM Templates.

And for people who are trying to wrap their arms around Windows Azure and the new SharePoint app model, CloudShare is a great place to start rather than going through the expense of purchasing and maintaining multiple systems. It allows you to quickly reconfigure and replicate Office365, on premises, private cloud, hybrid cloud, Azure cloud or any other setup necessary for the solutions you are building and testing.

"Because CloudShare makes it so easy to start your SharePoint project with pre-configured templates," Chris adds, "you start there to get the ball rolling, and build your solution. When it's done, you will have a clear picture of where your production environment will be best placed. At the same time, you keep your dev/test environment handy for when you want to try something new."

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more of Christian's thoughts on how to get the most out of SharePoint? Then read Driving Value with SharePoint Search