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Finding Value in a Sea of Clouds: A Look at Office 365 and SharePoint Online

A hot topic throughout the SharePoint Conference 2011 earlier this month was the evolution of Microsoft’s cloud-based offering, Office 365, and more importantly, it’s successful adoption within large enterprises and small and medium-sized businesses. Within only 12 weeks since it’s release, millions of customers have taken advantage of the enterprise-class capabilities offered by Office 365.

Strategic Benefits of Moving to the Cloud

In a struggling economy, organizations big and small are aggressively searching for ways to cut costs. A compelling proposition of “going cloud” is just that – cut your IT costs by reducing infrastructure expenses and the total cost of ownership (TCO) of maintaining on-premise solutions. It’s a proposition that not only factors in capital and operating expenditures, cost predictability, implementation and IT support costs, but also things like compliance, security, high availability and disaster recovery.

It’s not all about the hard costs however. Think productivity and work efficiency. When a CIO builds out a five-year strategic plan for their enterprise, they look for a solution with enterprise-class capabilities which not only reduces costs but also ensures a more productive work environment. From an information worker perspective, you want the flexibility of having the information you need, when and where you need it, to be as productive as you possibly can – whether that means you’re collaborating remotely with an offshore team or updating your tasks through your mobile device. The more productive your employees are, the more efficient and competitive your organization becomes.

Office 365 Business Value Proposition

If you’re an organization where the majority of your employees spend their time in Microsoft Office, there’s definitely a lot of value to be realized from Office 365 – regardless of whether you’re a large enterprise or small business. The end goal Office 365 is to deliver productivity. Focus on running your business and let Microsoft worry about maintaining servers. With hosted applications including Lync Online, Exchange Online and SharePoint Online, information workers are empowered with the tools and technologies they’re already familiar with to collaborate and communicate anywhere, anytime and from any device – coupled with a guaranteed uptime of 99.9% or your money back!

Office 365 has certainly set it’s foot within small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). According to a study conducted by Forrester Consulting, Office 365 delivered an ROI of 321% with a payback period of 2 months for the composite midsize organization. To put that into numbers, that’s a little over $890,000 in Net Present Value (NPV) over a three-year ROI period for an organization with fewer than 250 employees.

How Does SharePoint Online fair against an On-Premise SharePoint environment?

When discussing Office 365 with my customers, there always seems to be some vagueness of where SharePoint fits in. Yes, it’s the collaboration piece of Office 365 – whereas Lync Online and Exchange Online are focused on communication and messaging – but is the SharePoint Online offering compelling enough to move away from the traditional on-premise deployment?

While SharePoint Online doesn’t offer all the features and capabilities of an on-premise SharePoint 2010 environment (yet), it does provide some compelling capabilities worthy of being considered when you start planning your move into the cloud. There are three workloads in particular which Microsoft has invested a great deal of effort in making available from a functionality perspective within SharePoint Online. This doesn’t go to say that the other workloads aren’t included in the current offering of SharePoint Online, but they do carry some limitations. image

Looking at the workloads in SharePoint 2010, Sites, Communities and Content are amongst the three that provide a strong presence in SharePoint Online. When it comes down to pure collaboration and building a social experience, SharePoint Online is an excellent host. You’ll find that you can build and utilize the features of Team Sites almost identically to how you would in an on-premise environment. With the exception of Records Management, the majority of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) features are also available, including Managed Metadata.

Detailing the exact features and limitations of each workload is another post for another day. Stay tuned on a series of blog posts specifically around SharePoint Online.

Integrating SharePoint Online with Windows Azure

A common concern among customers has been around the ability to build custom applications on SharePoint Online. While SharePoint Online still provides the ability to leverage SharePoint Designer to build certain types of composite solutions, a lot has been left to desire in terms of the flexibility provided from Sandbox Solutions.

This is where integrating SharePoint Online with Windows Azure can help address issues around developing outside the sandbox. An example of this is leveraging Windows Azure as a host for writing business logic, connecting to back-end data sources, performing advanced authentication, and even integrating with on-premise applications. That output of the work done in Windows Azure can then be surfaced to SharePoint Online for a seamless experience.

Conclusion

While it’s clear that both Office 365 and Windows Azure are paving their own ways in the world of cloud computing, it’s now clearer than ever that Microsoft is truly going “all-in” with the cloud. The notion of delivering more for less is becoming extremely apparent in the way organizations are doing business today and cloud services such as Office 365 will be the cornerstone in which IT strategies are built around in the future.

Is your organization planning on going cloud? Have you done so already? Leave your thoughts and comments below and let me know!

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