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Should users eagerly await SharePoint 2016?

SharePoint 2016 is expected to improve hybrid scenarios. There's also room for upgrades with ECM, cloud configuration and data integration.

As we look to the next version of SharePoint, one thing is clear: Microsoft wants users in the cloud.

SharePoint 2016 -- due out in beta in Q4 of 2015 and will likely be generally available in Q1 of 2016 -- will continue an ongoing trend: Microsoft will place a premium on development of its cloud-based software, not its on-premises versions. While Microsoft has "confirmed its commitment to delivering on-premises releases of SharePoint for the foreseeable future," in its announcement about SharePoint 2016, there has also been speculation about whether SharePoint 2016 could be the last release of SharePoint on-premises.

And certainly, some areas of the on-premises version of SharePoint are lacking. Even as Microsoft goes to the cloud, it is duty-bound to address some of these shortcomings, because the reality is that most organizations with installed SharePoint farms will have to maintain a hybrid scenario for several years into the future. Part of what we'll address in this piece is how the on-premises version can be enhanced.

From the information available about SharePoint 2016 today, here are three key areas that the company will focus on:

  • Improved user experiences. They want to improve how SharePoint looks and is used on mobile devices, and probably across iOS and Android as well. In addition, SharePoint Online focuses on showing documents and discussions relevant to a user versus the whole experience being document- or object-centric.
  • Cloud-inspired infrastructure. Microsoft plans on bringing some elements of SharePoint Online to the on-premises version. Some of the focus of SharePoint 2016 is integrating application programming interfaces, refining the runtimes, and moving some of the components that make SharePoint Online work into the on premises release. Microsoft wants to put the cloud in the corporate data center, in much the same way Windows Server contains Azure-related technologies.
  • Compliance and reporting. The release should include new monitoring tools, data loss protection (DLP), improved analytics and better reporting.

If you were underwhelmed by this, you were not alone. What should SharePoint Server 2016 really look like? Does this affect your organization? What plans should you make in preparation for SharePoint 2016? I’ll riff on all of these points below.

Today's SharePoint gaps

To my mind, there are three really important stories that could use work in the on-premises version of SharePoint Server 2016.

  • Enterprise content management (ECM). Many organizations are tempted to use SharePoint as an ECM system, and understandably so: It stores documents, has workflow features, and is naturally integrated with identity and directory systems. But these features are not fully baked. The workflows are basic and not extensible. Site collections do not always make it easy to assign and retain document types. Search is not great, and hybrid search is even more limited. There is a lot of room for improvement.
  • Hybrid configuration. It is a bear to set up a hybrid deployment -- and that is putting it charitably. You have to have so many things set up before you can even begin to get SharePoint functionality in the mix. There are multiple directories and security tools to configure and if you change your administrator password, you have to manually sync everything again. It is a beast.
  • Integration of external data. It seems like SharePoint would be the panacea of dashboard lovers anywhere, but Business Connectivity Services features (BCS) were in their infancy with SharePoint 2013. It can expose lists and simple queries, but can't return results from BCS sources through search -- you have to browse and look yourself. Limited to OData sources, other systems have to support OData endpoints. And there are confusing Azure-based data services options that all seem to want to do things a different way. This gap should certainly be closed in the 2016 release.

Does SharePoint Server 2016 even matter right now?

The biggest sticking point in all of this is that many organizations are still putting pencil to paper on migrations from SharePoint 2010 to on-premises SharePoint 2013. Various consultants who specialize in SharePoint deployment and migration have indicated to me that the move off SharePoint 2010 was not to the cloud in any substantial sense. Small workgroups and projects might live in an Office 365 tenant, but the core SharePoint deployment for most companies is remaining on-premises. The migration from 2010 to 2013 is complex enough, and many companies would rather get up to the 2013 version and remain in a supported state for as long as possible before considering how a cloud approach might work for them.

The cloud piece is also muddied because far too many organizations do not actually know what types of documents, information, and data are stored within their SharePoint deployments, so they cannot accurately state they are in compliance with data protection or privacy laws. This is an issue that has to be worked out over time, and not in the midst of a giant platform migration.

Finally, Microsoft has decoupled development of SharePoint Server 2016 from SharePoint Online, so lots of features that make it into the cloud won't necessarily be in the on-premises release -- and perhaps vice versa. They have become two different products, unlike Exchange Server, which is still married to Exchange Online.

The last word

Currently we expect SharePoint Server 2016 to become generally available for licensing sometime between March and June 2016, so it will take a full year to see what is happening in this release and get more details about what scenarios and features have been added, subtracted, and changed. But at this juncture, it's fair to expect that most of the investment will be in supported hybrid environments and better support for migrating data and users to and from SharePoint Online; whether you care about that or not boils down to how prominent the cloud is in your short- to medium-term IT plans.

Next Steps

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