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Navigating the Office 365 and SharePoint hybrid roadmap

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OneDrive for Business and SharePoint fill different niches

Microsoft is unveiling new OneDrive for Business features in a bid for enterprise cloud file-sharing turf, while leaving more structured collaboration to SharePoint.

Here's an increasingly common content management dilemma: Your company's IT organization has long encouraged employees...

to use company-sanctioned enterprise content management (ECM) systems, such as EMC Documentum, IBM FileNet or Microsoft SharePoint. But when IT tracks usage patterns, it may realize that some employees have gone rogue. They have installed their own shadow IT systems, such as Box, Dropbox or Google Drive, and use these file-sharing applications to centralize and share files with coworkers (and sometimes, often in violation of IT policy, with people outside the company).

It's not surprising, because company-sanctioned ECM applications are often more difficult to use and are perceived as overkill for basic content-based collaboration needs. But now, with an entrenched shadow system behind the scenes, IT faces an uphill battle to get users to make the transition to its latest approved approach, which is likely to include Office 365 along with on-premises SharePoint.

It's a common corporate content conundrum, with users demonstrating their preference for lightweight file-sharing services over heavier ECM software systems. The problem is that while users may perceive these services as easier to use, these technologies create privacy and control concerns.

Microsoft has recognized users' preference for lightweight systems, and that preference may explain the recent success of OneDrive for Business (ODB), a cloud file-sharing service that is part of the Office 365 suite. But Microsoft also has SharePoint, its heavier, more traditional content/collaboration platform, which also supports integration with a version of ODB. In some ways, ODB is a more compelling and better-integrated content management offering in Office 365, compared to SharePoint Online. There's also a question about the ongoing role for content management-focused Microsoft partners, such as KnowledgeLake.

So the key questions are the following:

  • How do SharePoint and ODB address content management?
  • Why would users want both ODB and SharePoint?
  • How do ODB and SharePoint overlap, and why is this potentially confusing to users?
  • What are the likely future directions for ODB and SharePoint, and how should IT plan accordingly?

How do SharePoint and ODB address content management?

Traditionally, SharePoint has been Microsoft's document sharing and collaboration platform. It has added a variety of content management-related capabilities over the course of several major releases since 2001, but the latest version, SharePoint 2013, does not handle all traditional ECM scenarios. SharePoint's ECM limitations have created market opportunities for several Microsoft ECM- and workflow-focused partners.

In terms of general content management capabilities, SharePoint enables users to share documents, mark them up and track the number of edits and versions in a log. File permissions and access have also been key to the application, though configuring permissions has historically been cumbersome. SharePoint has also been integrated with other applications in the Microsoft stack, such as Outlook and Exchange, which can be important for projects and in the event of e-discovery, where a company needs to be able to produce all relevant files in the event of a lawsuit. Privacy, security, permissions and auditable workflow have traditionally been SharePoint's sweet spot.

ODB is much younger than SharePoint. Its lineage begins with the consumer-oriented OneDrive service, which was originally known as Windows Live folders, then Windows Live SkyDrive, later simplified to SkyDrive and ultimately renamed OneDrive in 2007. ODB is essentially a business-focused version of OneDrive, with the requisite business-focused infrastructure services for enterprise identity, authorization and audit. ODB's lineage is an important consideration, as it started with planetary-scale consumer Internet services rather than, in the case of SharePoint, an on-premises, largely intra-organization platform. This makes ODB a natural fit for a cloud platform such as Office 365.

ODB first appeared in early 2013 (as SkyDrive for Business; the name was changed about a year later). Its initial role in SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online was as the default document library in a user's My Sites, but its scope is now rapidly expanding. ODB also has a close relationship with Microsoft Office apps and services, including:

  • The collaborative authoring and review features in Office Online (and announced for Office 2016), which greatly simplify the user experience for many content-related workflow and versioning scenarios.
  • The new modern attachment model, replacing traditional file attachments with ODB-managed files and links. This will be pervasively available throughout Office, simplifying file sharing and creating strong incentives to stop using email messages with file attachments to facilitate document review and workflow.

An Ignite 2015 session, A File's Future with OneDrive for Business, highlighted the following new features for ODB (with some of the features planned to roll out later in 2015):

  • Auditing and reporting
  • Digital loss prevention and e-discovery
  • Mobile device management
  • Information rights management
  • Sync controls
  • Data retention policies
  • Encryption at rest
  • Compliance

Comparing this list with the summary of ECM customer priorities described in a recent SearchContentManagement article "ECM market trends to watch in 2015," it's clear that ODB is going to be useful for much more than simply managing personal My Sites content. The trend list includes:

  • Focus on information rights management
  • Consolidation of file storage in the cloud
  • Commoditization of capabilities
  • Unified identity
  • Device security

All of the above will be either directly addressed by ODB in Office 365 or by related underlying Azure infrastructure services.

ODB's content management capabilities are also extended through integration with other Office 365 tools/services including:

  • Office 365 Groups is a new part of the Office 365 family that garnered a lot of attendee enthusiasm at Ignite and is an important content management consideration. It simplifies many scenarios for ODB, such as having content repositories that are associated with a project or topic context, rather than being exclusively associated with a single Office 365 user's personal credentials
  • Delve dramatically simplifies content search and discovery for resources indexed in Office Graph. The Office Graph tracks interaction between people and content across integrated Microsoft products, while Delve provides a data visualization layer of those interactions to help workers keep abreast of organizational activity.

Why would users want both ODB and SharePoint?

ODB is more compelling for lightweight content management and collaboration needs. It's much simpler to get started with, especially for users familiar with consumer-oriented file sharing/sync services such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive (the consumer-focused/non-business version). That's a user community that probably includes a majority of all employees, at least in the United States. On-premises versions of SharePoint, while currently more feature-rich, also require more tool knowledge and administration, making it more cumbersome for lightweight ECM needs.

For more advanced ECM requirements, including custom metadata management, taxonomies and customizable content types and views, SharePoint offers services that are complementary to ODB, but it doesn't offer all of the capabilities available from content-management Microsoft partner offerings such as KnowledgeLake. That leaves SharePoint awkwardly positioned as being more complex than ODB for simple needs but insufficient for the full spectrum of more advanced ECM requirements.

Where do ODB and SharePoint overlap?

The easiest way to clarify the distinctions between ODB and SharePoint, as the scope of their overlap continues to expand, is to simply proclaim that ODB is an integral part of SharePoint. That may suffice for on-premises SharePoint fans, but the Office 365 picture is more complex because it's possible to use ODB in Office 365 without wrestling with SharePoint configuration or administration tasks. ODB in Office 365 is also evolving much faster than SharePoint, because ODB is a relatively focused service that relies extensively on Azure infrastructure services, whereas SharePoint is a collaboration and content platform that has accumulated substantial complexity over the past 14 years.

For on-premises SharePoint users, OneDrive for Business may be a simpler and more flexible SharePoint- based means of sharing and syncing files.

In terms of customer confusion, the potential is likely to vary depending on configuration type. For on-premises SharePoint and OneDrive users, ODB may be a simpler and more flexible SharePoint-based means of sharing/syncing files. For Office 365 users, ODB will likely be a primary tool, especially when used with Groups and Delve, while SharePoint is likely to be considered something of a legacy application, perhaps hosting content and apps migrated from an earlier on-premises SharePoint deployment. For hybrid deployments that combine Office 365 and on-premises SharePoint, the on-premises tools and services will be more complex (e.g., in terms of configuration and administration) and less feature-rich than their Office 365 cloud counterparts.

What are the likely future directions for ODB and SharePoint?

It's probably safe to assume that Office 365 is the new Microsoft standard for collaboration and content needs, with ODB playing a primary and rapidly expanding role, even if many people in the traditional on-premises SharePoint community may prefer to view ODB as simply a new SharePoint feature.

On-premises SharePoint will continue to evolve, albeit less rapidly than its Office 365 counterpart, and third-party specialists will continue to extend its content management-related capabilities. A SharePoint 2013 update later this year will make resources managed there accessible to the Office Graph, and thus accessible for search, discovery and collaboration via Delve (although Microsoft does not plan to offer exclusively on-premises options for Office Graph and Delve).

Office 365 will evolve much faster and will gain key content management-related capabilities through its exploitation of Microsoft's Azure infrastructure services. It's also likely that future Microsoft content management capabilities will appear on Office 365 first (and perhaps exclusively). Going beyond a migrated version of SharePoint 2013, for example, Office 365 makes it easier to engage external participants in document collaboration and workflow activities and to seamlessly leverage very powerful digital loss prevention services.

Looking beyond the short-term confusion about the ODB/SharePoint relationship and differences between on-premises SharePoint and Office 365, IT planners may want to think about  how to get all of their business content -- both on-premises and across other cloud services -- into Office 365, so that it can be fully used with tools such as Delve. While Office 365 may not include the most feature-rich image management or document workflow capabilities at this point, and thus not yet address the full spectrum of traditional ECM needs, it represents a significant step forward for mainstream content management needs, and migrating content resources to Office 365 can amplify their business value.

Next Steps

Migrating to SharePoint Online can be agonizing or easy

SharePoint usefulness trumps features

Should you blame SharePoint for usability issues -- or blame users?

This was last published in June 2015

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Essential Guide

Navigating the Office 365 and SharePoint hybrid roadmap

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