Microsoft SharePoint Online: A New Type of Business Fabric.

In this ever increasingly connected world the internet has come to influence every aspect of our individual lives. Now this influence is spreading to the collections of individuals we call businesses. The next internet revolution it seems will be a private one, the private internal intranets that help a business run will be the difference between a business succeeding or not. The difference between a small nimble business and a large inflexible behemoth.

Leading the charge of these private intranets is SharePoint Online, Microsoft’s all in one solution for creating a flexible and dynamic fabric to share information, collaborate on business processes and keep the wheels of business turning in the smartest way possible. This is SharePoint in the Cloud and it may just be the future of business.

What is SharePoint Online and SharePoint On-Premises?

Traditionally corporations have used what is called SharePoint On-Premises to build out their intranets, their private internal collections of business tools, but with this came substantial infrastructure and management requirements. Servers had to be setup and managed, hardware and software periodically upgraded and teams of hardware and software engineers hired to run it all. If your company out grew your current servers then more servers had to be added. A very old fashioned approach that made many businesses hesitant to take the plunge, SharePoint Online has changed all of that.

SharePoint Online is a part of Microsoft’s Office 365 suite of applications, being a cloud based application getting going is as simple as signing up for an account and start building your business tools. All the tools you build are then instantly available anywhere an internet connection can be established, all are fully mobile compatible and secured by one of the world’s largest corporations. There isn’t even any software to install to manage your SharePoint Online installation (technically called a tenancy), the entire system is managed via a web interface.

Old fashioned SharePoint does still have some advantages with tighter Visual Studio integration and complete control over every aspect of your SharePoint installation. With SharePoint Online there are a number of aspects that Microsoft keeps control of such as server load balancing and a number of limitations on how lists, libraries and how other features are used (see Microsoft boundaries and limitations). Another downside to consider with SharePoint Online is the fact that it is evolving fast which can lead to your support team having to adapt to new features quickly, often involving making decisions on using the technology or not. Generally though these limitations are in place to keep performance high, and as long as the limitations are something you can live with going with Online is a simple choice.

What can SharePoint Online do?

Like any fabric SharePoint Online (SPO) can be tailored into anything you need for your business. Typically, it starts life as an intranet for employees to share information, host news, calendars and provide a central point to access everything your employees need to do their jobs (links generally) in an easy to access way. Then you will find people start wanting to share documents and information, even collaborating together on documents. Continued SharePoint Online evolution will see entire business processes moved online with electronic forms, notifications, workflows and automation making those painful processes easy to access, a breeze to control and natural to contribute to. Once you reach this point the webification of your business is almost complete, with all of your business data and processes centrally managed you can overlay Bing style search engines, knowledge bases and even social media style interaction for all of your employees, no matter where they are in the world.

Flexible fabrics and Development Style.

SharePoint – Out of the Box Style

One of the most flexible aspects of the SharePoint Online fabric is the ability to support a number of different development styles in order to build your business tools . These various styles of development require differing amounts of technical expertise and cost to produce. At its simplest you can produce fast and loose business tools for your business, akin to a loin cloth and simple furs. This is the ‘Out of the Box’ style of development and it’s fast and low tech but it will get the job done and is perfectly workable. At the other end of the scale you can dress your SharePoint Online environment up in designer suits by investing time developing full blown custom web pages and custom interfaces for your employees to jump into, typically this is called a branded SharePoint solution. The amount of time and money you spend developing this wardrobe is entirely up to you. Although it should be obvious that people will be far more willing to adapt to visually pleasing and easy to use interfaces, but even an out of the box interface will bring all of the advantages that SharePoint Online has to offer.

Building a Wardrobe for Your Business.

Turning Microsoft’s fabric into a coherent wardrobe follows a fairly traditional development process of tailoring the technology to your needs. Typically SharePoint Online development starts at the lowest level by building data objects such as lists and libraries to contain the various types of information and files required to manage your business. These objects are then made available by placing them on pages with buttons and other interface features that are constructed using standard web technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Pages and data objects are collected together into sites which also provide security via permission groups. For any business a number of sites will typically be built into site collections to contain distinct data and processes. Voila you have a full suite and the king finally has a new wardrobe that is visible to all.

The Full Office 365 Suite Completes the Wardrobe.

SharePoint Online is only part of the full Office 365 Suite, it is the flexible fabric part that allows you to draw on the entire wardrobe to allow all of your businesses software needs to be addressed easily. Word, Excel, Visio, Outlook, OneDrive, Yammer and all of Microsoft’s other apps are also an important part of the suite. All of the applications your business requires to run efficiently are not only available but they can be integrated together through the custom SharePoint fabric to create a coherent solution. The Microsoft Office 365 strategy starts to make sense.

Microsoft’s Office 365 strategy and the use of SharePoint Online to integrate or leverage all of these technologies is a forward looking and potentially game changing strategy. Can Microsoft avoid shooting itself in the foot as it does from time to time? Will the new fashion of private networks take over the world? For answers to these questions and more stay tuned for future articles in which we will also discuss the core technologies used to develop SharePoint Online solutions, upcoming technologies and many of the tricks of the trade used to make it all work.