To Cloud or Not to Cloud with SharePoint

October 12, 2015 | Views: 1764

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One of the most frequent questions I get when working with clients who are currently using SharePoint Server is what the advantages and disadvantages of moving to the cloud, or mainly SharePoint Online/Office 365. SharePoint Online has been a technological forefront when it comes to web content management, and for good reason, too.

I’ve seen a lot of improvements over just the past few years that I’ve used SharePoint, and have also seen some changes that are not so good. But, one thing’s for sure: SharePoint is a versatile technology that will be around for ages. Not just because it is innovative, but because it’s accessible in many ways.

Yet, the one question that still remains: Is SharePoint Online better than SharePoint On-Premise (Or SharePoint Server, as I’ll call it)? Is SharePoint Server going to be “phased out” over time because of the growing community of cloud based software? I’ll go over a few key points that will pertain to both parties, and you can decide what’s best for your needs.

 

INFRASTRUCTURE

SharePoint Server

Of course, one of the main questions is going to be the infrastructure. What does it take for SharePoint Server to be effective? For starters, let’s focus on SharePoint Server 2013, which I’ll shorten even more and call SharePoint 2013.

For SharePoint 2013, the main focus when starting out is going to be the hardware. You can’t have a server-based application without the hardware to support it. A small SharePoint 2013 farm would consist of the following servers to be applicable: Domain Controller, SQL Server, Application Server and Web Server. Mainly, we’re looking at a server to host your domain, a data center, an application server to run the services and a web server to handle the web traffic. The good news is that you can have a single server as your host, and have the SharePoint farm be virtual using software like VM Ware or Hyper V (Hyper V can be installed as a feature with Windows Server). This will cut down on the amount of hardware that needs to be purchased to get the farm ready to roll. Not everyone does it that way, and it really depends on how much hardware you want to have out there to be maintained.

As far as resources, the following article (Hardware and Software Requirements for SharePoint 2013) will show what the minimum requirements for what each server will need. Also, another article that goes along with this is Plan Enterprise Search Architecture,, which shows what the servers should have for a successful search farm (if that’s what you’re planning on running).

Lastly, what type of team is needed to manage this setup? At the very minimum, an effective team would consist of a Systems Administrator (Sys Admin), Database Administrator (DBA) and a SharePoint Admin (SP Admin). Some larger businesses would have a networking team, security/identity team and maybe even some developers in house (smaller firms may outsource only when needed).

Considering the information above, there’s a nice chunk of money that comes into play to get started. Additionally, most SharePoint 2013 licensing is done on a two or three year basis, which means paying for it up front in a lump sum.

 

SharePoint Online

With SharePoint Online, it gets a little less stressful when planning out infrastructure. There are no physical servers to worry about, no hardware to maintain and no applications to install and configure. Mainly, you sign up with a subscription, set up your environment, update the domain that you bought and then start setting up your users and sites. Most companies will have a server in place where they have their Single Sign-On (SSO) set up already with Active Directory (or whichever LDAP tool they used), so adding users is usually fairly simple.

When it comes to maintaining the environment, you won’t really be needing a Sys Admin or DBA, since the farm will not include multiple servers or a database server. An IT Director, Network Engineer and SP Admin could handle a SharePoint Online environment for a small company (under 250 users). For medium sized or larger, more may be necessary to handle the load, depending on how many tickets get created for issues or questions.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the cost. SharePoint Online is normally a monthly subscription, and is fairly inexpensive per user. However, larger companies may see a different picture (ex: 15,000 users at $20/user for Enterprise E3 plans = $300,000/mo).

 

STORAGE

SharePoint Server

After seeing how easy SharePoint Online seems to be when it comes to getting set up, and maybe even the cost, this is where things get interesting. With SharePoint 2013, the end user experience can be tailored to however the users are going to be using the environment daily. For large environments, there may be a lot of information that will be uploaded to the sites, and there isn’t much in the way of limitations when it comes to how much data can be held. If your database infrastructure is set to handle terabytes worth of data, then you’re set to have millions of documents and items deposited into the sites. Once search is set up and running, it’s easily searchable.

Extensive testing has been done with SharePoint 2013 in order to ensure that the thresholds outlined here are going to provide the best possible performance at that time. However, thresholds are not limits, so exceeding them is quite easy. One thing to keep in mind are the list/library views (5000 items in view at a time) and database sizes (200GB is recommended limit for best performance). That being said, having 15 million items in a search index is not out of the ordinary. Also, multiple databases can be used for a single web application, so evening the load is also feasible.

If the environment starts running out of space, the easiest thing to do is add more space. Since you would have control over the servers, it makes it a lot easier to ask your Sys Admin for a bump in resources (depending on your change management guidelines of course).

 

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online becomes a little more limited at this point. Since SharePoint Online is a system that shares a data center with other clients, there are going to be more strict guidelines in place which prevent some users from using up too much of the resources available. This could eventually bring the other tenants on that data center to a screeching halt. The main difference? Storage.

Storage in SharePoint Online is handled differently than SharePoint 2013. The combined use of SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business (ODB) is what brings the experience of a server based infrastructure to the cloud. Allowing users to store documents on the SharePoint site, while also providing 1 TB of storage personally through ODB, ensures there’s plenty of space available.

However, this is where the limitations set in. Just because there’s a lot of space, doesn’t mean it won’t ever run out. The SharePoint sites themselves are limited to be certain sizes based on the SharePoint Online Service Description, which includes a link to the SharePoint Online Software Boundaries and Limits. There, it takes about a 500MB limit for each user. However, since SharePoint Online is subscription based, adding more storage is just a click away (and a little extra out of the budget as well).

 

CUSTOMIZATIONS

SharePoint Server

SharePoint 2013 allows for more broad range of customization that can be applied at not only the site level, but the farm level as well. Since administrators will have access to the back end, uploading solution packages can be done fairly easily through the Central Administration site and the SharePoint 2013 Management Shell. These solutions can be created in Visual Studio, or be provided by a third party to be installed into the SharePoint environment, then deployed to web applications where the sites are hosted. At that point, it just takes an admin going into the site to activate a feature. Voila, a new fancy custom feature is running on the site.

The only downside to having this open availability for customization, is the risk that’s involved. Sometimes, custom solutions can cause the application to behave differently than what was intended, which can lead to unwanted outcomes when completing simple tasks.

 

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online is a little more restricted when it comes to the customization aspect. There’s no option for “Farm Wide” solutions as the back end is controlled and maintained by Microsoft. The amount of customization is limited to sandbox solutions or using the CSOM (Client Side Object Model) to perform anything that is going to be custom within SharePoint Online.

The good news: this helps prevent any unwanted code from causing any unexpected behavior within the SharePoint application.

Some examples of areas that are universally modifiable between both SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online are: master pages, style sheets, workflows, page layouts, site templates and content types. SharePoint Server has a little more availability being that solution packages can be uploaded to the environment directly.

 

SUMMARY

Depending on the type of infrastructure you’re looking for, what your budget looks like and what type of custom content you’d like displayed on the pages when users are accessing the information, this post should serve as a good starting point to discover which environment is best for your setting. As mentioned earlier, there’s a lot more that SharePoint has to offer besides infrastructure, storage and custom applications. Don’t be afraid to take a deeper look into the realm of SharePoint and see what it’s all about. You may be surprised at what you turn uncover.

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8 Comments
  1. Thank you!

  2. Excellent, and really educative.

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