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To the cloud! That’s all the rage these days and for SharePoint customers, the dominant message.

Push to the Cloud

It seems that Office 365 and the associated hosted implementation of SharePoint 2013 is what most people from Microsoft want to talk about. That was the primary message, by a far margin, at the most recent SharePoint Conference in the fall of 2012. Let there be no mistake -- hosted SharePoint is a great option for many companies as they no longer have to worry about upgrading to the latest version, performance of their hardware, backups or making sure their environment is locked down and secure.

In addition, customers no longer have to deal with the significant up-front cost in acquiring the licenses and deploying a SharePoint that comes at a high cost, as well as do those who need to manage and maintain it. With the push to Office 365 and hosted SharePoint deployments by Microsoft and others and the minimal discussion around on premises deployments, the question many are asking is: do SharePoint on premises deployments even make sense anymore?

In my opinion, on premises deployments of SharePoint 2013 are just as valuable as hosted deployments. Just as many customers find Office 365 an ideal solution, an on premises deployment is equally relevant and pertinent to other customers. So what are some of the aspects and use cases that customers should consider in deciding if their organization should use the hosted SharePoint solutions, including Office 365, or on premises deployments?

Hosted vs. On Premises: Factors to Keep in Mind

All of the benefits of a hosted SharePoint deployment don’t always fit the needs of every current or potential SharePoint customer. Some features and capabilities offered by SharePoint 2013 are unavailable within Office 365.

Out of the Box or Customized

Customers should consider how out-of-the-box they want their deployment. If you need advanced customizations, you may very well need farm solutions, also referred to as fully trusted solutions. These have been available to SharePoint developers since they were officially introduced in SharePoint 2007. They enable advanced customizations, but are not allowed in Office 365 because they introduce the possibility of negatively affecting the host SharePoint environment and thus, other customers on the shared platform.

This was the primary reason Microsoft introduced the new SharePoint App Model as an extensibility option in SharePoint 2013. While the new App Model is quite feature rich, many customers are finding it has many rough edges and lacks the capability to do many of the things we could do with solutions, including both farm and sandboxed solutions. So, if your project plan requires any customization of SharePoint 2013, from average or advanced customizations, you should take a long look at this issue.

Web Content Management and Search Factors

If you plan to use any of the Web Content Management (WCM) capabilities of SharePoint 2013 or any advanced search capabilities, you should keep these factors in mind. As you may have heard, Microsoft invested quite a bit in these areas of SharePoint 2013.

Search is very powerful and includes a lot of the powerful capabilities that the previous FAST Search for SharePoint 2010 offering included, however a lot of these capabilities are limited to on premises deployments only. The WCM features of SharePoint 2013 received a significant amount of attention in the latest release and much of it is based on the underlying search improvements. If you are considering any of the WCM capabilities of SharePoint 2013 in your project, it’s a pretty safe bet that Office 365 is not going to be an option for you.

Where Does Data in the Cloud Reside

The previous two points I’ve elected to highlight addressed more of the capabilities and limitations of a hosted SharePoint 2013 deployment. There are arguably many more feature and capability areas similar to these that customers should consider when deciding between on premises and hosted deployments. However there are other angles customers should consider. One of these is where the data in their environment will reside. This is not so much a SharePoint issue as it is a bigger cloud issue. Many countries and industries mandate that certain data remain in their jurisdiction. When you put something in the cloud, you don’t always have control over where that data will reside.

Automatic Updates for Office 365

Another aspect that doesn’t get much attention nor factors into the decision process until a company is well down the road of their hosted SharePoint 2013 adoption is Microsoft's commitment to frequent updates. This comes up with Office 365.

Learning Opportunities

One of the biggest selling points of Office 365 is Microsoft's commitment to frequent updates -- a big change from the previous three-year release cycle. Now customers are seeing updates to the product coming out and applied automatically. While a big selling point and advantage, this can also introduce some interesting challenges, one that today's customers have no other option than to just “deal with it.”

Think about it like this: have you ever had a computer enabled to automatically update your operating system only to have one of those updates wreak havoc or cause a big problem with your laptop? Even if you are lucky enough not to, you’ve certainly heard of someone who’s been hit by this problem at some point.

For your laptop, you can disable automatic updates, but for a cloud-based solution, this isn’t nearly as easy. So far Microsoft has not set a public schedule for when environments will get these updates. In fact, there are many customer posts in the forums about sites reporting they are running version 16 (SharePoint 2013 is version 15)! In addition, there’s no guarantee when you start a project what version you will be on when you deploy it. Factor in that SharePoint has many dependencies that all have their own patch schedule and there’s no visibility into the update schedule of all the dependencies in your hosted deployment.

Now, in a purely academic sense, an API should not change or introduce breaking changes from one version to the next, but we all know that isn’t always the case. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by some hosting partners who are now offering commitments to let customers know when they will be updated or allow them to have a little more control over updates while still offering a hosted SharePoint 2013 deployment. This may not be enough for some customers and in those scenarios an on premises SharePoint 2013 deployment is the only option for them as it allows them full control of their update schedule.

Know Before You Buy

So, what is the big takeaway here? While all the marketing and chatter these days seems to focus on the cloud and hosted SharePoint deployments, the fact remains that in the real world there are a great number of existing and new customers for whom an on premises SharePoint 2013 deployment is the only real and viable option. Like so many other products and buying decisions out there, do your research before buying into the marketing push as the bill of goods may not be the best thing for your organization.

Title image courtesy of cammep (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more about the evolution of SharePoint here.