SharePoint 2016 beta is solid, but don't expect fireworks

SharePoint 2016 beta makes some solid improvements for the user experience, but feels more like an update than a major new release, said one expert.

For months we've heard that SharePoint 2016 will improve mobile support, hybrid cloud and the overall user experience for the on-premises version of Microsoft's collaboration platform. Now users can download a preview and judge for themselves.

I sampled SharePoint 2016 beta and put it through some paces for the better part of a day. It offers solid improvements, but it has the feel of an update, rather than a major re-launch. The improvements are largely incremental, with many of the flashy new features still available exclusively through hybrid deployments that tap into Office 365 cloud services. That said, SharePoint 2016 delivers easier installation, improved hybrid experience and, overall, a more polished product.

Getting started

Installing SharePoint 2016 is simpler than previous versions. The new role-based SharePoint Products Configuration Wizard makes deploying a new server or farm more straightforward.  Specifically, there's a Specify Server Role feature that kicks in about halfway through the process and condenses deployment white papers into a simple wizard that makes all of the right choices. You can choose from front end, application, distributed cache, search, specialized load, or single server farms; and then a few settings later that configuration is deployed. These configurations are specifically optimized for each scenario, with settings and code paths preconfigured for best results, depending on what you pick. I picked the single-server-farm option and have a virtual server ready in about 15 minutes in a moderately loaded Hyper-V host.

Fit, finish and mobile

From a user experience point of view, the look and feel for the SharePoint default document library view is similar to Office 365 or Exchange Server 2013 and 2016. You even get the app launcher in the top left corner, and developers can use it to run applications right from within that menu. It doesn't look too different from SharePoint 2013, but you can easily see where the Office 365 DNA is alive and well within this product.

SharePoint 2016 makes it a lot easier to interact with document libraries, especially from a mobile perspective. Responsive design comes standard with SharePoint 2016, so it adapts the display for different screen sizes, with no mobile app required. I could create new files and folders, navigate around the library, share content, and generally manage most library activities from my smartphone. There was also a tile for OneDrive for Business, so I could easily access personal files.

I was impressed with the sharing feature, which is now prominently available on every page of the site. Just click Share, enter email addresses of your targets, and it's done. The permissions and groups are handled automatically, so your users don’t have to spend time trying to figure it out or, worse yet, call you.

Manageability improvements

Zero downtime updating supposedly reduces the overhead and complexity of installing patches and allows software updates on a "hot" basis—meaning the system can stay up during the process, without requiring a reboot afterward. This is great for availability. The patches will be simpler—down from multiple MSI and MSP files (as many as 18 in the past) to a single MSI and MSP that works across all servers, and one file per language patch.

There is also a new compliance feature. SharePoint Central Administration lets you see whether your server and role is in compliance with recommended configurations and best practices. It will also suggest how to remediate issues it finds.

Hybrid cloud search service

It's hard to ignore a sense that the sexy, cool new features revolve around the hybrid cloud story.
Jonathan Hassell

SharePoint 2016 includes a hybrid cloud search service, which basically bubbles up metadata from on-premises document libraries into your Office 365 tenant. This metadata, once it exists within the cloud service, can be accessed using Microsoft Delve and the online FAST Search component, so metadata indexing and querying can use cloud resources without bogging down your on-premises installation. It also results in a single view of search results for users, regardless of where the content actually lives, along with an intelligent relevancy ranking. This feature will also be available for SharePoint 2013, through an update.

I will try this feature in September, when the Office 365 side of things is ready to hook up, and report back on my findings.

About that preview …

One more note on downloading SharePoint 2016: Users can't integrate the preview into the final release to manufacturing (RTM) version of SharePoint 2016, when it arrives in the second quarter of next year. So you'll need to scrap whatever you put into the preview when you deploy the RTM version.

Final thoughts

My overarching impression of SharePoint 2016 beta was,  "Is this it?" There were no surprises here.

Don't get me wrong: The SharePoint 2016 preview suggests a solid release that offers some value. There are noticeable improvements, but they seem to be mostly engineering related. Performance throughout the product has improved, as have patching, updates and hybrid integration with Office 365. Overall fit and finish is better and more unified.

But it's hard to ignore a sense that the sexy, cool new features revolve around the hybrid cloud story. So for companies eschewing Office 365, my overall impression is that newest on-premises version of the collaboration platform is very much a service pack-like release for SharePoint 2013.

There is a similar perception with Exchange Server 2016, that the new release is largely a service pack update for the on-premises Exchange codebase, without many new features to highlight a major version change. We may be seeing the last of the great version changes on the server side -- we already know Windows 10 is the "last" version of Windows and that it will be serviced regularly going forward. Perhaps on-premises, SharePoint will be the same way: serviced regularly but without SharePoint 2019 or 2020. Or perhaps infused with a packaged version of Office 365 features every 24 months or so. It will be an interesting future to watch, for sure.

But in the end, SharePoint 2016 should solve a lot of problems that dogged SharePoint 2013 and should end up being a reasonable long-term resting place for on-premises deployments well into the next five years.

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