How My View of Microsoft’s Vision for SharePoint in the Cloud Has Evolved

After working with the Office 365 Preview over the last several months, I shifted my thoughts on SharePoint in the Cloud. In this post, I share my thoughts and “revelations” about what’s coming with SharePoint 2013, Office 365, and usage of SharePoint in the Cloud.

Pointing Out Some Clouds It was about a year and a half ago when someone dialed-up the volume on “The SharePoint Cloud Message” in my world. It’s not that I hadn’t heard people talking about SharePoint in the Cloud prior to that; I guess it’s just that I started listening more closely because Microsoft was turning into one of the Cloud’s most vocal proponents.

Around the summer of 2010, it was becoming clear to me that Cloud-based SharePoint wasn’t just a passing trend. With Microsoft clearly stating its intention to make the Cloud a cornerstone of its business, I needed to start paying attention.

How I Saw Things Before

My relationship with Microsoft and Microsoft technologies goes back to the days of MS-DOS. As a result, I’ve always seen Microsoft as a company that was primarily interested in one thing: selling software. I worked for a Microsoft managed systems integration (SI) partner – Cardinal Solutions Group – for several years. During my years with Cardinal, my goal was to help others who had purchased Microsoft software make use of that software. In many cases, customer leads came from Microsoft either directly or indirectly. Microsoft sold the software, and we setup/customized/serviced/configured that software based on what a customer was trying to accomplish. It was a symbiotic relationship, and it was pretty easy for me to grasp.

Then the whole “Cloud thing” started. Cloud-based SharePoint and other Azure-branded services seemed a somewhat confusing move for Microsoft at first – at least to me. Even before Office 365, Microsoft offered hosted SharePoint through BPOS – or the Business Productivity Online Suite. At the time when BPOS was first released, I viewed it as something of a niche market for Microsoft. I had plenty of friends who worked at places like Rackspace and Fpweb.net, so the part I found unusual wasn’t really that “someone else” was hosting SharePoint and focusing on it as a service. The fact that Microsoft itself was getting serious about SharePoint and other services was the eyebrow raiser.

For Microsoft, it wasn’t just about selling software anymore.

The Biggest Hurdle

A Hurdle Of course, when Microsoft wants to succeed at something, they invest considerable planning and resources in it. Since Microsoft is essentially betting the farm (pun intended) on Office 365 and SharePoint in the Cloud, they’re pushing it very hard on multiple fronts. Redmond’s marketing machine has been talking Office 365 frequently and loudly for at least the last year. With each new release, developer tools like Visual Studio get more Cloud-friendly. Partners have incentives to get customers onto Office 365 and Azure services. Competitive price points make it difficult to ignore Microsoft’s Cloud offerings. For me (and I’m sure for many of you), it’s a lot to process.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that I think Office 365 has a very compelling value proposition, even without SharePoint. SharePoint itself is a complex platform, though, and many organizations struggle with administrative needs like data protection, performance optimization, high availability, and basic day-to-day management. The idea of turning these concerns over to someone else (or some other entity) who better-understands them makes sense to me.

After working with SharePoint 2013 for several months now, I can easily say that the platform isn’t getting any easier. SharePoint 2013 has quite a few more “moving parts” relative to SharePoint 2010, just as SharePoint 2010 demonstrated itself to be significantly more complex than SharePoint 2007.

Despite the compelling nature of Office 365, I always seemed to come back around to fixate on one thought. This thought constantly reverberated through my head anytime “SharePoint in the Cloud” became a topic of conversation:

Most companies using SharePoint have made a significant investments in hardware, software, personnel, and services to get SharePoint up-and-running. They aren’t going to simply “dump” those on-premises investments and go to the Cloud tomorrow. The Cloud will happen, but it’s going to take longer than Microsoft thinks.

In discussions with many friends and respected professionals in the SharePoint community, I knew that I wasn’t completely alone in my way of thinking. In the conversations I’d had, there was almost always agreement that a shift to the Cloud and Cloud-based services would happen over time. The greatest debate seemed to be over whether it would happen next year or if it would take the next half a decade.

Breakthrough

Old Thinking I’d say my “breakthrough moment” came after I started playing with the Office 365 Preview more extensively a few months back. I initially set up a preview tenant to familiarize myself with what was coming, how SharePoint 2013 would be exposed, how to configure Office 365 tenants, etc. The more I played with the tenant, the more I thought about how truly useful Office 365 could be, particularly for non-enterprise customers, home users, and others who didn’t fit into SharePoint’s “big deployment picture” previously.

That’s when the pieces started to click into place for me. All along I had been thinking about Office 365 and Cloud-based SharePoint deployments along the lines of the bar chart seen above and to the right. Numbers and proportions are all relative, but the key concept I’m trying to convey with the chart is this: for some reason, I had always thought that the proponents of Cloud-based SharePoint were suggesting that Cloud adoption would come at the cost of on-premises deployments; i.e., on-premises users would “convert” to the Cloud. If Cloud-based deployments grew, that meant that on-premises deployments had to shrink. In short: I was inadvertently assuming that the overall number of SharePoint deployments had hit saturation and was remaining static.

I don’t think that way at all anymore.

New Thinking After I’d done some playing with my first tenant, it wasn’t long before I was setting up another two Office 365 tenants for other side projects. In conversations with friends in the SharePoint community, I was discovering that “everyone” was setting up tenants for their families, for their spouse’s business, etc. In almost all cases where tenants were being setup, the use cases were ones that didn’t align with traditional enterprise-scale on-premises SharePoint deployment and usage. In fact, the use cases were typically the types of things that would eventually find a home on Google Apps or its equivalent because Microsoft (previously) had nothing strong to offer in that space.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that Office 365 growth – once the new 2013 Preview goes live – will be aggressive and look something more like what I’ve charted above and to the left. While Office 365 might replace some on-premises deployments, particularly for smaller organizations, I don’t see that as its primary market (initially) or its strong suit. The greatest degree of Office 365 traction is going to be obtained with users who need a Google Apps-like solution but for whom buying the required infrastructure and expertise for Exchange, SharePoint, etc., is cost-prohibitive.

So, I stopped thinking “replacement” and started thinking “complement.” That’s my assessment and working outlook for the Office 365 (Preview) right now.

Why Not Everyone?

I’m sure that plenty of folks who’ve believed in “Cloud Power” since Day One probably think that I’m still being too conservative in my outlook for SharePoint on Office 365, and that may be true. However, I still see plenty of concerns that are near-and-dear to most enterprise and larger business customers, and I believe that they will be Cloud adoption blockers until they’re addressed directly and decisively. Here are just a few that come to mind.

1. Who owns the data? Sure, it’s your tenant … but do you own the data? Common sense would seem to suggest “yes,” but this is still uncharted legal territory. Don’t believe me? Do some background reading on the Megaupload situation and see how users of that Cloud-based service are faring in their attempts to get “their data” back.

2. What about disasters? Many people point to the Cloud as a solution for business continuity and disaster recovery (DR) concerns. The Cloud can certainly help, but I’ll tell you (somewhat authoritatively) that the Cloud doesn’t make DR concerns “go away” – especially for SharePoint. For one thing, you’re locked into your provider’s terms of service; if you need more aggressive RPO and RTO windows, then you need to be looking elsewhere. Even Cloud data centers themselves go down; what’s your plan then?

3. Can I leave my provider? Everyone is quick to talk about moving to the Cloud, and many companies are happy to talk about migration strategies. What if you want to leave or change providers, though? Do those migration strategies work? What do you lose? How long would it even take? These may not seem like important questions now, but they will become increasingly more important as Cloud adoption grows and more companies get in on the action. It stands to reason that some portion of those companies will fail, close-up shop, be bought, etc. When that happens, what do you do … and what happens to your SharePoint?

Wrap Up

Of course, my perspective on Office 365 uptake in the next several years could be completely off-the-mark. After all, I don’t really have any numbers to back up my hypotheses. They’re just my opinions, but they are in-line with my gut feel.

And I’ve learned to trust my gut.

References and Resources

  1. Network World: Microsoft’s Ballmer: ‘For the cloud, we’re all in’
  2. Company: Rackspace
  3. Company: Fpweb.net
  4. Company: Cardinal Solutions Group
  5. Microsoft: Windows Azure
  6. ZDNet: The road to Microsoft Office 365: The Past 
  7. Microsoft: Office 365 Preview
  8. Google: Google Apps
  9. TorrentFreak: Megaupload Seized Data Case Will Get a Hearing, Court Rules
  10. Book: The SharePoint 2010 Disaster Recovery Guide
  11. SharePoint Interface: RPO and RTO: Prerequisites for Informed SharePoint Disaster Recovery Planning
  12. ZDNet: Amazon cloud down; Reddit, Github, other major sites affected

Author: Sean McDonough

I am the Chief Technology Officer for PAIT Group, a Cincinnati-based Microsoft partner providing SharePoint solutions and consulting. I have been developing software, building infrastructures, and solving technical problems for over two decades. I have acquired a diverse and expansive skill set as consultant, product manager, solution architect, team lead, administrator, and platform evangelist through the years. I am an author, blogger, and frequent speaker/instructor at technical conferences, user groups, and similar events all over North America. I am also a Microsoft MVP in both the Office Development and the Office Servers and Services categories. I can be reached through my blog (http://SharePointInterface.com) or Twitter (@spmcdonough).

5 thoughts on “How My View of Microsoft’s Vision for SharePoint in the Cloud Has Evolved”

  1. I have been working with the Office365 preview version of SharePoint online (2013) with the intention of moving a client to it upon release. While it looks promising in general and my client will enjoy the other benefits of Office365, it doesn’t appear that we will be able to use some of the methods and features I originally envisioned and use with my SharePoint Server clients, primarily SSRS and integrating his other data through linked servers. For the latter I’m looking into BCS of course and a possible better alternative from a third party.

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