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How to sort through redundancies between SharePoint and Office 365

Trying to decide between SharePoint Online and Office 365, but confused by the redundant features? Expert Scott Robinson offers insight into which is best for different use cases.

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Last year was a big year for enterprise application features at Microsoft. All (or, at least, most) of the kinks in Office 365 appeared to be worked out, the artificial intelligence functionality of Azure was worked in and each of the core desktop products was taken to a new level -- so much so, in fact, that the same functionality can be found across multiple Office 365 products.

That's not a bad thing, in itself; redundancy in functionality is often a good thing -- especially in an environment like Office 365, which has more applications than many of its competitors combined. It can become confusing, however, when you are migrating not just data, but also business processes to Office 365.

It's SharePoint that sits at the center of the myriad choices. SharePoint is a meaningful improvement over its on-premises predecessors, but even so, its deep functionality is still monolithically deployed -- at least compared with other Office 365 applications.

Microsoft's solution when it comes to deciding between SharePoint and Office 365? Have your cake and eat it, too. Here's a look at the seemingly redundant features between the two products, and how to choose which is best for your organization.

Enabling collaborations big and small

The first of the core SharePoint features is its role as an enterprise collaboration platform, which earned it a place in many organizations before social media became ubiquitous. The standard team site has surely been one of the platform's most popular templates, enabling document sharing, team tasking, communication, scheduling, project tracking and notification functionality in a single location.

Social media, however, has boosted user expectations and lowered user patience for SharePoint's often burdensome administration and security requirements for such working sites. These things go untended in many organizations, leading to sprawl, wasted resources and general confusion.

Slack is an example of a technology which has, lately, received much more welcoming receptions from users for its ease of use, friendly interface, low cost and simpler security and administration. Microsoft's Teams application, upon which it has placed high hopes, is being leveraged to compete with Slack. Teams facilitates the creation of ad hoc workgroups in the enterprise, cloud-based communications for project or task discussion, planning, and record keeping. Documents, links and other useful artifacts can be appended to chats and tagged, as well. And everything can be saved for later reference.

The question emerges: When should we use Teams, and when should we use SharePoint? And that question becomes all the more complicated if the enterprise is teaming users through Office 365 Groups, which, by default, provisions a new group with a Team, Yammer and a SharePoint team site.

The general rule of thumb is simple: If your collaboration is lean and mean, spontaneous, and simple, go with Teams; if it's complex and in need of careful tending and tight security, go with SharePoint.

More often than not, this rule will do the job. But there will be times when choosing between SharePoint and Office 365 is more nuanced.

  • Is the project gathering together a significant amount of content that will later be needed elsewhere? Go with SharePoint (the creation of a new Team passively provisions a team site for document storage anyway, so Microsoft is leveraging its tried-and-true SharePoint document libraries in any case).
  • Are multiple user platforms required? Go with Teams; it works well on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android.
  • Will APIs be required to tie project activity to external apps? Teams can't do that; go with SharePoint.
  • Need real-time chat? Choose Teams; SharePoint Newsfeed has been deprecated (though Yammer can be embedded in SharePoint).

Content management made simple, or not

SharePoint's other core feature is content management, which is its main strength. But though versatile and scalable, SharePoint's content management features are, nonetheless, somewhat cumbersome, even in its online version.

The Office 365 environment now has OneDrive for Business as its content storage standard. The offering enables office-friendly, file-based storage that's easy to use and ubiquitous throughout the platform -- so ubiquitous, in fact, that it's easily accessible from within SharePoint, blurring the app lines even further.

SharePoint's content management features are deep and mature; OneDrive's features are simple, fast and friendly. When is one better than the other when deciding between SharePoint and Office 365's OneDrive?

The simple rule of thumb: For structured or custom content, go with SharePoint; for simple, Office-compatible content, go with OneDrive.

Beyond that top rule of thumb, the more nuanced discriminators include the following:

  • Does the content need to be customized? For custom views, metadata and configurable data types, go with SharePoint.
  • Is there a need for personal file management across devices? OneDrive is built for that.
  • Does management of the content require a custom workflow? Go with SharePoint.
  • Will larger files need to be readily emailed? Go with OneDrive.
  • Does the content have complex security requirements? Go with SharePoint.

Next Steps

More on Office 365 vs. OneDrive for Business

Guide to navigating SharePoint and Office 365 choice

OneDrive for Business vs. SharePoint Online: Expert tips

This was last published in March 2017

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