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How to get the most out of hosted services

Thinking of using a hosting provider for SharePoint? Ask three important questions before sealing the deal.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: SharePoint Insider: Nailing down SharePoint service-level agreements

For SharePoint, hosted solutions can be particularly beneficial because they deliver a more efficient strategy for IT. But to get the most out of hosting services, SharePoint administrators need to do their homework first so they can figure out what they need for their business and who can offer it at the best price.

SharePoint has many performance and availability issues that systems such as Microsoft Exchange don’t have. Although SharePoint is easy to deploy out of the box, a SharePoint specific hosting provider can help you take advantage of some of the enhancements that can be activated to help customize services specific to SharePoint.

Because hosting SharePoint can be more challenging, extensive knowledge of SharePoint can help extend the functionality a provider brings to an organization. Below are three questions to ask when considering a third party to either host or remotely manage a SharePoint environment:

Should you consider hosting?

Hosting is a cost-effective way of tapping the expertise of providers and their knowledge of best practices when that same knowledge may not be available in your own company. Look for SharePoint hosting providers that adhere to the following best practices:

  • Performance and High-Availability: A hosting provider should implement a plan that will meet the standards of any business requiring the highest level of performance, service level agreements (SLAs) and availability.
  • Data Backup and Restore: Data is one of the most valuable assets that a business retains. A hosting provider should recognize the importance of data to all businesses and should implement a backup and data recovery model that will ensure the quick and reliable recovery of any lost or corrupted data.
  • Security: Although performance, high-availability and data backup/restoration are all important, security should also be a top priority for hosting providers. Security is achieved through the use of protocols in conjunction with processes. If a hosting provider does not specifically lay out its security practices, be sure to ask what measures are in place.
  • Monitoring and Incident Notification: Many data centers lack the proper monitoring and notification systems to ensure quick, decisive action if an incident occurs. Hosting providers should implement a monitoring/notification system that allows visibility into all integral hosting systems at both a high level and an extremely granular level.

In addition to knowledge, you’ll need a solid infrastructure. Any hosting provider you choose should have a high-performing, highly available network and server infrastructure. Hosting providers must monitor environment controls such as power and cooling. Providers will keep an eye on hosted applications as well. If any of these monitored items fall out of normal ranges or service levels, the hosting provider should have assigned employees available for immediate response and remediation.

What cost- related issues should be a concern?

When assessing hosting providers, there are many cost factors to take into consideration. Be smart about the questions asked and make sure to have all the answers before committing. A general rule of thumb is to start with the basics and get to a granular level as your understanding of the offerings progresses.

When it comes to costs, first get a handle on general hosting cost structures, both for the initial installation and on an on-going basis.

Make sure you determine what SLA your business should be considering. Most SLAs should adhere to business needs—for instance, looking into whether your business can withstand a minute as opposed to an hour of downtime. If your hosted SharePoint application supports a business process that is used only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, then be sure you don’t pay extra for 24-hour support.

On the other hand, if your hosted SharePoint application is used across time zones and is publicly accessible, 24/7 support is a much needed investment.

Be sure to ask how the billing cycles work. Will the bill come monthly? Per user? Don’t be surprised by the costs.

Depending on the size of your business, there are different areas to consider when looking at a third-party hosting provider.

Small businesses might be most interested in exploring hosting through a third party because there might not be available resources for a dedicated IT department to handle issues such as database maintenance, user access and account administration—all of which may crop up with SharePoint.

For mid-market businesses, hosting holds the key to scalability and availability. It can help to maximize a business as it grows.

Another consideration is the reliability that will most likely be built into the cost structure. Cost is determined by the sensitivity of the business data at hand.

What else should you ask your hosting provider?

Cost and availability are the big-ticket questions you absolutely need to ask any potential hosting provider. But what about the other details that can really set providers apart? Although some points seem minor, they could have a big impact on your business.

The devil is in the details.

The physical location of the servers for hosting providers is an important question, but oftentimes it goes unasked. For instance, if a hosting provider is located in Los Angeles where earthquakes are a real threat as opposed to a location such as Phoenix, this information could be critical.

Location dovetails into the disaster recovery plans. If a provider is located in a place that could have an effect on the data center—such as inclement weather—ask about a second data center. Most providers will build in a level of redundancy in which they duplicate their data in two secure locations.

A secondary location will need adequate resources to provide service in case the primary location becomes unavailable. If data is replicated to the secondary site, additional configuration steps may be required to restore service in the event of a primary site failure. These additional steps should be documented and tested at regular intervals to be certain full recovery is still viable.

Asking yourself how much data your business is willing to lose should help define a redundancy plan by dictating how often backing up data should occur. Backups can take place daily, weekly or monthly depending on the business need. SharePoint data typically includes financial data, which is more sensitive than data that is hosted on Microsoft Exchange, so ensuring that the data won’t be lost is key.

It can get complicated when deciding whether to have your SharePoint installation hosted by a third party. Before your company takes the plunge, be sure to weigh all the important aspects of your implementation. Get answers to your questions before signing a contract to ensure that the hosting provider can accommodate the needs that are critical to your organization.

About the Author

Paul West is a co-owner and co-founder of SharePoint360 LLC, a SharePoint consulting and hosting provider. West has extensive experience with SharePoint architecture and implementations. He has been working with SharePoint technologies since the Microsoft SharePoint release in 2001.

This was last published in August 2009

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