Since Satya Nadella has been CEO, he’s been describing a very clear vision of the direction he wants to take Microsoft, and I must say, we’re living in exciting times. There has been a huge push toward cloud computing (along with some very impressive leaps in artificial intelligence), which tends to make some organizations uneasy.
In order to alleviate some of those gaps in cloud adoption, Microsoft offers what’s known as “hybrid” environments. You may have heard that term thrown around here and there, but it may still be a mystery to what that entails. What does that mean? How can your organization implement it effectively? Is it even worth doing, or should you go fully on-premises, or fully into the cloud? What sorts of challenges will you face during implementation and use? I wrote this post to hopefully answer some of those questions and take a little bit of the mystery out of this new technology that is becoming so prevalent.
What are Hybrid Environments?
Before we get into all the fine details, let’s start by discussing what hybrid environments are. Simply stated, a hybrid environment is a mostly-seamless integration of cloud and on-premises (NOT ON-PREMISE!!) environments. That means that some of your features and data are hosted on hardware that your organization owns, and some are hosted in one or more of Microsoft’s giant pile of data centers. From a user’s perspective, it’s all magic, and they can access whatever they need from wherever you let them.
This can apply to both Azure and Office 365 tenants, but for the sake of this article, we’re going to focus on Office 365 in the cloud, and SharePoint on-premises. There are such things as Exchange and Azure hybrid environments, which plenty of organizations use (though I’d only recommend using Exchange hybrid during a migration).
What features are included in SharePoint Hybrid?
So now that we’ve established what hybrid environments are, let’s discuss what features are available. These features are available in both SharePoint 2013 and 2016, though 2016 is a little easier to configure (and of course has more features in general).
User Profile Service
One of the applications in Office 365 is known as Delve. This is basically your user profile, but it also keeps track of everything you do in every app within Office 365, along with everyone you collaborate with. When using a hybrid environment, your on-premises SharePoint farm will direct users to delve profiles, rather than the standard user profile/MySites. You still need to configure the UPS (sorry), and if some users prefer the old profiles, you can configure audiences to direct them to the on-prem ones.
This one is huge. When you use hybrid, content from both environments is crawled and displayed seamlessly.
In the event that you are using on-premises OneDrive, you can configure hybrid settings to make data available from both the cloud and on-prem. Personally, I use only the cloud for this.
Hybrid Team Sites
Since you probably would have Team Sites in both environments, hybrid team sites allow users to “follow” whatever sites they access often, regardless of where they are stored. When they access their user profile (in Delve), they can see and navigate to any site they follow.
I would LOVE for the Managed Metadata Service to work with hybrid, but unfortunately that is not something that’s currently available. I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed though. Seriously. A content type hub, or metadata navigation that could be used seamlessly would be amazing.
Edit: Feature Pack 1 for SharePoint 2016 does indeed come with Hybrid Taxonomy (in preview as of November). This can be a game changer.
Should your organization use Office 365?
Office 365 has a whole lot of reasons why you should use it. It’s an entire suite of applications designed to enable your users to be more productive, from any location. With the modern workforce being so mobile, this can be a huge asset to your company.
One of the biggest reasons I see organizations using Office 365 is the low barrier to entry. With the low licensing costs (E3 Licenses are ~$20 per user!), and no infrastructure costs whatsoever, small and medium businesses can get enterprise-grade software that fits well within their budgets. With E3 licenses, you get all the following features:
- Exchange online
- The latest version of Microsoft Office
- SharePoint Online
- Skype for Business
- Azure RMS
- Microsoft Teams
- Anything else Microsoft decides to add
As you can see, you get a nice big pile of services for not a whole lot of money. Even better, you don’t have to buy any hardware or additional licenses, and you don’t have to employ any staff to keep it running. It’s constantly updated, so you get new features as it’s rolling out, and it all runs on Microsoft’s huge network of redundant data centers, with a guaranteed availability of 99.9%!
With all the benefits Office 365 offers, it’s almost a non-decision as to why organizations would want to leverage this great service. When it comes to email, it pretty much is a no-brainer. Many organization’s using Office 365 start there, then figure out how to use the other apps.
So why not go all-in with the cloud?
While I can’t recommend Office 365 enough, there are a few reasons why you may not want to put all your eggs in one basket. You may have even thought of a few while you were reading the previous section. We asked some of our industry cohorts (some of which will be sharing their thoughts in later posts), and a lot of the issues stated have been universal.
I'm going to start with the big one. Organizations are afraid of "the cloud" in any form. I get it. It can be scary to entrust your sensitive data to hardware that you've never seen, and will never have any access or ownership to. For the most part, I think some of these fears are unfounded. Microsoft throws a lot of resources into making sure your data is safe.
Whether it's from a security stand point, loss prevention, or any compliance issues you may have, they are fully aware of the complexities of technology in the modern world. Honestly, your biggest concern should be the executive who wrote their password on a sticky note in plain view.
That being said, some data is just too sensitive to risk, and you may need to keep it somewhere that you have physical access. Using hybrid will help you achieve that, while still getting the benefits of Office 365.
Backup and restore
The disaster recovery capabilities as far as infrastructure is concerned are impressive in Office 365. Microsoft uses redundant hot-swappable data centers to store your information. You really don’t need to worry about catastrophic failure. However, granular backups in the case of accidental deletion and the like are lacking.
While it's true that Microsoft guarantees 99.9% uptime in their SLA, that's still over 8 hours per year where users may not have access to their data. In some situations, this is not acceptable. Historically, uptime has been closer to 99.99%, but even then, that may not be enough. In order to ensure you have better uptime than that, you're going to need a whole lot of dedicated infrastructure that you just won't get in the cloud.
Search in Office 365 is quite good, but you really don't get the amount of control you can have with regular ol' SharePoint search. You lose the ability to crawl certain external sources, and more importantly, you lose the ability to control your crawl schedules.
Sometimes crawls in the cloud can take a while before they kick off. I've seen it take up to 24 hours before. This is fine if your content doesn't change that often, but if it does, on-premises is your friend.
SharePoint Online has a hard 5,000 item list view threshold. This means that you can't have a list view that causes more than 5,000 database operations. Microsoft has alleviated this a lot by introducing automatic indexing, and you can create views the limit the amount of data returned as well. Regardless, on-premises SharePoint allows you to raise this threshold, though it will be at the expense of performance.
Office 365 is constantly updating
One of the greatest strengths that Office 365/SharePoint Online has is that it is always up-to-date. New features are added all the time, some of which can be vastly different than previous ones. Some recent examples would be modern SharePoint lists, pages, and the recent integration of Team Sites into Office 365 Groups.
While this is a huge strength, it can also be a big weakness. With so many updates, it can become a daunting task to keep up with everything, as an IT-pro, end-user, or organization leader. On-premises SharePoint typically doesn't have such drastic changes, and if it does, you can choose not to install the applicable updates.
You can use your Office 365 E3 licenses as on-premises CALs
Yes, you read that right. If you have SharePoint online plan 1 or 2 licenses (in Office 365), you can use them for your user CALs with SharePoint on-premises. Plan one acts as a standard CAL, and plan 2 acts as an enterprise CAL, essentially. If you have an E3 license, you have plan 2. You still must purchase the applicable server licenses, but this is a huge bonus.
Many organizations that have leveraged SharePoint for a long time rely heavily on custom server-side solutions. It's fairly simple to create a .wsp file, install it in your farm, and apply it wherever you need it. You can even create them as sandboxed solutions to avoid any danger to your farm. This is just not possible with SharePoint Online. You have no server access, so server-side solutions can't be deployed. You used to be able to use sandbox solutions, but as of a few months ago, those are all gone too (with little warning, by the way).
You can still create custom solutions for Office 365, but even that can prove difficult, based on the recommended methods. The add-in model still exists, but the new SharePoint Framework is going to become prevalent in the very near future. This is actually a good thing for developers, but it can be a real problem when you have legacy solutions that you would either need to build from the ground up, or get rid of completely. They definitely aren't going to migrate from your on-premises environment.
Migrations are hard
I'm not talking about the technical side of migrations. With all of the great third-party migration tools, a child can perform them in some situations. I'm talking about the actual strategy surrounding your migration. When you decide you want to move your data into the cloud, you should definitely perform a clean-up first, which can take a long time, and is iterative.
I would strongly recommend migrating your data into the cloud in chunks, and going live piece by piece, testing along the way in order to ensure adequate user adoption. Not to mention the previous point that your custom solutions may not be available in the cloud. Leveraging SharePoint's hybrid capabilities can go a long way toward making your migration successful, even if you do eventually go cloud-only.
What about SharePoint on-premises?
Maybe your organization has been using SharePoint since the old days, and still has a 2007 or 2010 farm sitting around. Maybe you are using 2013 and are thinking about upgrading, or maybe you’re new to the game, and are trying to decide between 2016 on-prem, and SharePoint Online (if you’re using 2007 or 2010, I’d recommend a cleanup, then decide to what sort of infrastructure you want to migrate). Regardless of your situation, there are a few reasons you may want to have SharePoint in your own data centers.
With SharePoint on-premises, everything is hosted on hardware you own and manage. A lot of organizations feel more comfortable knowing where their data is physically stored.
SharePoint online hasn't offered the ability to create public-facing websites for some time now. If you want to host a SharePoint site that is accessible by anyone on the internet, you must use on-Prem.
It is likely that SharePoint is going to handle a lot of data and users going through it. Because of this, performance can be affected. While SharePoint Online handles this decently, you may want to turbo-charge your SharePoint farm for some impressive performance. You'll have no control over this in the cloud, but you can throw some serious hardware at an on-prem farm, and tweak your SQL instances, network, caching, BI stack, etc.
Another benefit to controlling your hardware and network infrastructure is that you can build out your farm for extreme redundancy, getting even better than a 99.9% uptime.
Backup and restore
As part of your high availability/disaster recovery plan, you can back up your SharePoint farm via SQL backups, as well as every level from your entire farm, all the way down to individual lists.
Other than performance, having SQL as part of your SharePoint infrastructure can be a huge benefit. You can create external databases, and easily connect them to SharePoint using the Business Connectivity Service. SharePoint Online does have BCS capabilities, and you can use Azure SQL, it's not as easy to configure as a local SQL server.
As I mentioned earlier, with SharePoint on-prem, you can use server-side solutions, even though it's no longer the recommended way of doing things.
The main takeaway here should be that you get a lot more control with SharePoint on-premises than online.
Why not on-prem only?
There are obviously plenty of benefits to using SharePoint on-premises, so why shouldn’t you just keep everything within your organization? There are a few reasons why you may want to add Office 365 into the mix.
Hardware, licensing, and maintenance costs
One of the main drawing points to Office 365 is how cheap it is. When you decide to use SharePoint on-premises, there are going to be quite a few costs, that will increase with the size of your organization.
The more your SharePoint farm grows, the more hardware you are going to have to throw at it, and the more time you will have to spend on maintenance. Not to mention, you’ll need a SharePoint license, along with applicable dependencies (Server, SQL), for each server you add to your farm. Highly-available farms can cost quite a bit.
If you decide to go with a hybrid environment, you can maintain a smaller farm to reap the benefits of an on-premises environment, but use the cloud to help with some of that growth.
You should already be using O365 for email
The benefits of using Office 365 to host your email over on-premises exchange are immediately noticeable. You do have the same data sovereignty issues you would have with SharePoint, but they are mostly unfounded, and you shouldn't use email to share your important files. One of the nice things about Office 365 is that you can leverage Azure RMS to protect the data in your emails and your SharePoint lists and libraries. Most of the organizations I've worked with used email as their first foray into the cloud.
Office 365 gets new features first
Microsoft is going all-in with the cloud, and I think they put their eggs in the right basket. Using their huge infrastructure, over which they have control, they can roll out new features at an alarming rate. While they have re-affirmed their commitment to on-premises, patches just can't be rolled out that fast. You pretty much have to wait for hotfixes and feature packs to come out.
O365 offers more than just SharePoint
There's no denying it; you can do a whole lot with SharePoint. However, Office 365 offers capabilities far beyond SharePoint's already impressive set of features. Integrating your on-premises environment with the cloud will enable your users to accomplish much more using applications like:
- Delve: With Delve, your users can benefit from all of their content being available in one place.
- O365 Groups: Using Office 365 Groups, your teams can collaborate in a multitude of ways.
- MSTeams: Microsoft's new offering allows your groups to chat and collaborate in real time
- PowerBI: Connect to your data (including SharePoint), and analyze it in any way you can imagine.
Challenges you may face
Whether you decide to stay on-premises, go all-in with the cloud, or aim for a healthy mix of both, you’re going to face some challenges. If you plan accordingly, you’ll be ok.
SharePoint Search can be kind of a pain to get working just right. Configuring hybrid Search adds another layer of complexity. When you set up your hybrid environment, you will get your on-premises results in the cloud with very little effort. Getting your cloud results to show up on-prem is another story. Having someone good with Search is a must.
The hardest part of any IT project is getting the users to actually adopt the technology you're trying to implement. It doesn't matter what sort of architecture you have if the users don't like it. I found that the best way to introduce users to new technology is to do it in pieces. For example, if you already have a SharePoint 2013 environment and want to go the cloud, consider configuring hybrid features, and only migrating certain sites (or creating new ones) into SharePoint Online at first.
How do you deal with your users? Do you have an on-prem environment where you wish to use Active Directory, or do you want to go fancier, using ADFS or some other provider? If you are going with a cloud or hybrid scenario, you have to get your on-prem user accounts into the cloud. Do you want to use same sign-on, or single sign-on? Identity management is a universal hurdle we must face when configuring any application.
The closer you can get to one main "source of truth" for your authentication and authorization, the less work you’ll need to do in order to maintain your users. I'm a pretty strong proponent for using Azure AD with ADFS to enable SSO for your environments (though you can now do SSO without ADFS). Whatever decisions you make, I recommend looking at your identity management from a "big picture" perspective.
What will it all cost? This is all going to depend on the number of users, the amount of data they're using, and what kind of infrastructure you are using. If you go fully on-premises, you will probably incur the most cost. The cloud can be much cheaper, but may not offer all you need. Hybrid would offer you the most bang for your buck, since you would get the benefits of using on-prem, as well as all the ones in the cloud. Since the SharePoint Online licenses can be used as CALs, you'll even save money on your licensing overall.
There are a lot of talented SharePoint and Office 365 professionals floating around, but finding one in your area could be an issue. You'll need a stronger infrastructure person for you on-premises environment than the cloud. More importantly, you're going to need help with your overall strategy. If you are unable to find or afford a high-level employee, there are a couple things you can do.
First, if you have talented employees within your organization, leverage them. A lot of organizations believe they are doing this, but are not providing adequate training to the employees they identify, and the projects fail. Just throwing someone to the wolves can lead to big problems. Do everything you can to provide your employees with training.
Second, bring in a consultant (I might know some people). It is the cheapest, fastest way to augment and enhance your staff. While you’ll have to contend with high hourly rates, a good consultant will help you with your overall strategy while training your existing staff. You're going to end up with a cheaper bill in the long run, with better user adoption.
Every project is going to have its own set of challenges, but organizations need to remember to focus on the big picture. No matter what solution you choose, you need to understand where you are, and where you want to be. How do the users use your system now? How do you want them to use it? How do they want to use it? How does this project fit in with your organization's overall IT strategy? How is this project going to grow with your company?
You get the point. Make sure there is a clear vision, and everyone involved understands what it is, and how you plan on getting there.
Making the right IT choices can be a daunting task for any leader. If you’re considering moving forward with any SharePoint projects, make sure you cover all your bases. SharePoint is very versatile regardless of your infrastructure choices. If you need data sovereignty, want to use existing server-side solutions, or are just afraid of the cloud, you’re going to need some sort of on-premises component. Smaller companies might be better off going all-in on the cloud, but then you’ll lose all the benefits on-prem offers.
In order to get the best of what Microsoft has to offer, you’re going to want to go with a hybrid scenario, like a lot of organizations are doing. Regardless of your decision, make sure you know your vision, and that you have the right people to help you accomplish it.
Is there anything we missed, or do you have other questions about hybrid environments? Let us know what you think in the comments!