BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
The general release of SharePoint 2016 won't happen until the first half of 2016, but a second preview version out now allows users to sample some of the new features in the meantime.
Perhaps it's best to start with a word on expectations. SharePoint 2016 will offer on-premises users an opportunity to upgrade, but Microsoft's focus remains on developing for the cloud and Office 365, and that means there are lots of smaller, incremental changes to review with SharePoint 2016, rather than one big-bang series of changes.
Announced in mid-November, the SharePoint 2016 Beta 2 demonstrates additional hybrid cloud functionality. There's more glue that binds an existing on-premises SharePoint farm with Office 365 and SharePoint Online, along with new data loss prevention technologies, additional deployment options and a hybrid App Launcher.
That said, SharePoint 2016 Beta 2 is similar to the Beta 1, which was announced in August. Having reviewed that demo, I'll reiterate that not a great deal has changed with the latest on-premises version of Microsoft's collaboration and application platform, but it includes some refinements.
SharePoint 2016 is slated for general availability in the second quarter of 2016. The free demo is available at the Microsoft website.
Now, let's review what's new in SharePoint 2016 Beta 2.
Data loss prevention
Information is increasingly outside the organization perimeter in today's world, and responsibility for protecting sensitive information falls on the IT department. Microsoft has recognized this and is increasingly adding data loss prevention (DLP) tools to its roster of workplace offerings.
Exchange 2013 introduced data loss prevention algorithms that scanned content for sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and phrases that could be tied to corporate trade secrets. Depending on the circumstances, this could prompt users to make changes before sending or prevent sending altogether.
SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2 introduces DLP capabilities into the product, including the ability to search for terms known as "sensitive information types," which allows searching for sensitive information within the eDiscovery Center and provides a single view of all personal information that might reside within document libraries.
In addition, SharePoint 2016 will try to discover sensitive content, such as bank account numbers and the like, by looking at keywords and check sums and evaluating text within in a potentially sensitive document or file. Once the nature of the item is assessed, it will then assign a native confidence level to that information so users don't rely solely on manual tagging to get that private information cataloged and inventoried.
MinRole configures servers to serve specific roles and handle assigned workloads. Users assign a specific role -- such as front end, back end or Web -- and the configuration service will automatically deploy the correct services (and only the required ones) for that instance. A MinRole deployment's health can also be monitored from a central dashboard in Central Administration, the Web-based administration console.
With MinRole you do not lose the ability to configure SharePoint. You can still create a custom role and deploy whichever services you deem necessary. But you cannot monitor that deployment in any real sense with the built-in tools, since your deployment does not match one of the "templates" that the monitoring services knows about. Overall, MinRole is an automated way to deploy SharePoint 2016 with a "best practices" slant, and get the bonus of automated monitoring.
App Launcher for hybrid
In many instances, on-premises SharePoint deployments have line-of-business or custom applications running on top of them, and this creates challenges for hybrid scenarios. (In a hybrid scenario, a company has SharePoint running on premises -- behind its firewall, often for security reasons -- and SharePoint Online or SharePoint in the cloud.)
Previously, on-premises apps might not have been recognized by Office 365 and would be absent from the SharePoint Online App Launcher. SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2 fixes that by adding support for hybrid applications to the App Launcher, so all of the Web apps a user might want to run are accessible from a single menu, regardless of where the app actually resides.
Assessing SharePoint 2016 Beta 2
Coming three short months after the initial SharePoint 2016 beta, this latest demo shows an improvement on the quality of software, with a lot of bugs and known issues repaired. Initial feedback from the earlier preview was taken into account and performance in most scenarios was enhanced.
But make no mistake: This release, at least in terms of the scope and features, was fully baked to begin with, because it's essentially a snapshot of the Office 365 service as it stood at the beginning of the year. That snapshot has some loose ends tied up and some hybrid connectivity features added, but it's still 95% Office 365 and 5% new stuff, in my estimation.
SharePoint on premises is mature and SharePoint 2016 provides some additional polish, but the future of SharePoint innovation is clearly in Office 365, and that's where users will likely need to go for newer features and collaboration tools.
One further note: The SharePoint 2016 Beta 2 cannot run in production, and doesn't allow upgrading from the first demo or the eventual final release. It's stuck in time, which if you look at Redmond's focus on the cloud and the uncertain long-term prospects for on-premises SharePoint, that seems appropriate.
Office 365 features promote SharePoint hybrid scenarios
Office 365 licensing creates unique challenges
Preparing for a SharePoint 2016 migration