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SharePoint 2016: Refined for the cloud

With the release just around the corner, Chris Grosberg, Senior Bespoke Consultant, takes a look at the key new features of SharePoint 2016

Microsoft is currently hard at work on the next version of their successful SharePoint product. This version will be known as SharePoint 2016 and its public release is planned for Q2 in 2016. It certainly feels like this release is low key compared to previous releases of SharePoint and that is mostly due to the big elephant in the room when it comes to SharePoint: Office 365.

Office 365

As with each release prior, the new version has been updated with emphasis on certain specific areas and less in others. SharePoint 2010's focus was around enterprise content management; 2013 looked at social and search. This time the theme is quite clearly ‘Cloud’.

Whilst Office 365 has been a brilliant growth area for Microsoft and will continue to be so, there are a large number of customers who have not moved to Office 365 from SharePoint. For some of these businesses, moving to Office 365 may present regulatory issues, or they may have a heavy investment in customisations that require an ‘on-premises’ version of SharePoint. These businesses are likely to benefit the most from upgrading to SharePoint 2016.

Whilst there have been provisions for SharePoint and Office 365 integration before, this release brings closer integration, giving more companies the opportunity to leverage Office 365 in their businesses through ‘hybrid’ solutions – having an on-premises SharePoint environment connected to Office 365.

Microsoft have produced a number of new features to allow easier hybrid solutions, both in terms of setup and user experience:

Search

The key new feature is called hybrid search. This means you can setup SharePoint to search its own content (and other content such as on-premises file shares). This is then uploaded to Office 365 and search results are displayed in a single view. The user no longer needs to worry about where content is held and, for the SharePoint administrator, the process of setting this up is significantly simpler than previous solutions. A big benefit of this feature is that once you have connected your on-premises SharePoint to Office 365 it will be become available in new Office 365 only tools such as Delve, which can greatly increase visibility of what is being worked on in an enterprise.

It's worth noting that this feature will also be available for SharePoint 2013 at some point in the future.

User experience

SharePoint 2016 has brought the current Office 365 user experience to on-premises SharePoint installations. The benefit for users is that it doesn’t matter whether the content they are viewing is held on-premises or in Office 365, the experience is the same.

Key to this is the App Launcher which is now available in SharePoint 2016. This replaces the suite bar from SharePoint 2013 and it means users can jump from their on-premises SharePoint sites to their Office 365 OneDrive for Business, Delve and Office 365 Video quickly and easily. They have also ensured that ‘following’ (Microsoft's version of ‘favouriting’) a site works regardless of whether that site is on-premises or in Office 365.

Other improvements

Other new or improved features include better compliance and data loss prevention features, support for special characters in files, an updated mobile navigation interface, support for Open Document format and more.

There are a number of other technical improvements such as Encrypted SMTP connection support, the concept of MinRole servers (essentially, defined server roles) and the ability to store files larger than 2 GB. SharePoint 2016 also anticipates zero-downtime patching, which will be a relief to anyone who has had to patch a SharePoint farm in the past!

What does this mean?

So, at this point, it would be fair to say that SharePoint is unlikely to over-excite business users. It is certainly a case of evolution rather than revolution. Microsoft have put a lot of effort into their Office 365 platform with new features like Delve and this innovation is unlikely to cease. The problem is that many new features require access to machine learning – something that would be difficult to implement for on-premises only installations.

Though Microsoft would prefer most clients move to Office 365 this is unlikely to happen for some time, if ever. SharePoint 2016 is therefore designed to bridge the gap rather than provide radical new features. Indeed, new features will almost certainly be implemented in Office 365 and fed down into SharePoint on-premises at a later date.

Therefore, the question remains: is it worth upgrading to SharePoint 2016?

The answer is ultimately based on your longer term strategy for Office 365.

If you are already using Office 365 (or are looking to do so) and have an on-premises SharePoint 2013 installation that you need to keep, then upgrading to SharePoint 2016 should be a serious consideration – provided you have plans to utilise the hybrid functionality.

If you currently have a SharePoint 2010 or 2013 installation then the question has a couple of elements:

  • Can you migrate to Office 365?
  • If not, what are the benefits for your organisation to deploying a hybrid SharePoint 2016 server?

In summary, as the title suggests, currently SharePoint 2016 represents more of a refinement. It tightens up and improves on a few specific areas and it eases Office 365 integration, allowing for more conjoined solutions. For those with no plans to use Office 365 this perhaps makes an upgrade a less compelling option in the immediate future, but for those who do have Office 365 or whose longer term strategy includes Office 365 then it is definitely worth a look.

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