This content is part of the Essential Guide: A guide to SharePoint migration
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SharePoint migration: To the cloud we go?

Migrating SharePoint on-premises or a legacy CMS to SharePoint Online can bring serious benefits, so why are some companies reluctant?

Every new SharePoint release sets off a wave of migrations, either from a previous SharePoint version or from a foreign legacy platform. Office 365 and SharePoint Online, however, present the new and interesting challenge of migrating to the cloud.

Migrating to SharePoint Online as compared with SharePoint 2013 on-premises involves some tradeoffs which aren't trivial. SharePoint Online offers easy access to content from anywhere on the Internet, not just the enterprise intranet; maintenance of infrastructure ceases to be a concern or resource drain. On the other hand, companies sacrifice control when they rent rather than buy SharePoint infrastructure: patches and upgrades made by Microsoft farm maintenance personnel can break site customizations and other tweaks a company may have made.

My friend Rob, who works for a company that offers business management consulting services, told me the benefits of cloud migration far outweigh the drawbacks. A long-standing SharePoint deployment at his company had sprawled badly over time, and the challenge was to tidy up the content while creating new utility.

SharePoint Online has not evolved to the point where the environment tolerates customized SharePoint sites without modification.

Because employees are spread far and wide geographically, the access-from-anywhere aspect of SharePoint Online is attractive to users. Second, the company was relieved of the cumbersome maintenance of farm infrastructure by turning that burden over to Microsoft. And the cost savings were substantial.

Planning for tradeoffs

There are other reasons to shift to the cloud when migrating to SharePoint 2013. Making content accessible to customers and enterprise users is a strong justification; re-platforming the storage of Office documents to Office 365 and leveraging SharePoint to administrate and secure the documents is another.

But once a company decides to migrate to SharePoint Online, concerns can surface.

SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online have much of the updated SharePoint code base in common, but the nature of multi-tenant farms makes feature disparity between the two inevitable. Despite Steve Ballmer's assurances to the contrary, SharePoint Online has not evolved to the point where the environment tolerates customized SharePoint sites without modification. So, custom code in a site is dicey in SharePoint Online. And, as stated previously, routine upgrades may kill custom functionality, with no opportunity to modify in advance.

What seems like a liability can be a good thing, though. SharePoint's mobile user interface is undercooked, and it's beneficial to make SharePoint sites more generic in the field anyway, for this reason (more agnostic enterprise content on mobile hardware is the user trend, anyway).

In other words, when it comes to SharePoint content from the cloud, simpler is better, across the board.

Foreign aid

SharePoint Online's virtues can make it an attractive upgrade path from non-Microsoft CMS platforms. Most legacy content management systems share the disadvantages of pre-2013 SharePoint: sprawl, difficulty in accessing the repository from beyond the enterprise intranet, inaccessibility to customers and other third parties and so on. It may make sense in various scenarios to migrate a non-SharePoint legacy CMS into the cloud.

Ironically, this can make some of the tradeoffs mentioned previously an even simpler proposition. Previous SharePoint site customizations are not an issue, and more generic content for mobile devices becomes the default.

No skimping should be allowed in metadata. In many legacy content storage platforms, old-school hierarchical schemes often prevail. Nested folders are the heritage of computer file storage, so a kind of metadata is attached to files: a particular file's location in a hierarchy has important meaning. For instance, if a "2012" folder has subfolders of "January," "February," "March," and so on, and the files within have no other metadata fixing these dates, the folders must be migrated as they are, into SharePoint. This isn't a good practice, because nested folders make SharePoint increasingly inefficient, and SharePoint Online is an efficiency-juggling act to begin with (multi-tenant environments tend to be, in general).

On balance, SharePoint Online's limitations inspire migration tradeoffs that ultimately better serve users for whom cloud storage is friendliest, encouraging healthy and economical changes and habits in SharePoint usage that serve the enterprise in the long run.

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