Is Microsoft Azure the right choice for your SharePoint implementation?


 Blair Hainsworth, Technical Solutions Professional, AvePoint

Historically, Microsoft SharePoint has not typically been a lightweight solution. Designed as an enterprise platform, businesses could deploy SharePoint on-premises with the confidence that it delivered the most multifaceted collaboration experience as well as excellent flexibility and scalability for future business needs.

However, some businesses looking to limit their IT investments have been unable or unwilling to use SharePoint. The introduction of SharePoint Online (now part of Microsoft Office 365) changed this. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) SharePoint offering was embraced by the small-to-medium size business market from day one. For the first time, enterprise level capabilities were available to organizations without prohibitive capital and knowledge investments.

Yet to look at implementing SharePoint as either an on-premises or SaaS offering is to create a false dichotomy. If Office 365 is like a train – with unprecedented power and a defined direction – SharePoint on-premises is more like a car – offering less innate power but providing the ability to dictate the direction. Unfortunately, deciding between these two options is often not as clear as we would like.

Many businesses have organizational policies and compliance restrictions which dictate that not all content is “cloud ready”. Other organizations have significant investment or integration points to other technology within their business. These situations, along with many others, can pose unique challenges and concerns. Microsoft Azure has the ability to bridge the gap for those who may not be able or willing to move to a full SaaS setup but would still like to take advantage of cloud technology.

Azure is a very appealing option for many organizations for a number of reasons:

Knowledge barrier to entry is low: Although moving to the cloud and using Azure can sound complex, deploying SharePoint in Azure is faster and easier than most would imagine. From preconfigured SharePoint Virtual Machine and Farm Templates, through to the excellent technical documentationand support provided by Microsoft, IT staff can easily augment their knowledge of on-premises solutions to be ready for the cloud.

You can still achieve more customizable solutions:With tools such as the app model, Client Side Object Model (CSOM), and Representational State Transfer (REST) interface, Office 365 offers many customization options. However, for those with more complex requirements or existing customization investments, Azure gives you the ability to deliver these features on a cloud-based SharePoint environment just as you would on-premises.

Less capital expense: For those without SharePoint or those who need to scale up their environment quickly and easily, you can avoid the lead times and capital expenses of on-premises deployments. Microsoft suggests these savings could be as much as 30 to 40 percent over three years. The most basic example of this savings is that the acquisition of new resources (such as servers and disk space) has no physical procurement constraints on your organization, and thus can happen near instantly. From a growth and scalability perspective, if you purchase more physical storage for an on-premises deployment, even if you do not use it, you must pay for the object and its maintenance. In Azure, if you add an additional one terabyte of new storage but only use 500 megabytes, you only pay for the 500 megabytes you use.

Migration considerations:For businesses with large amounts of data in SharePoint or those that are looking to move a significant amount of content into an environment, Azure can present a simpler migration option. Office 365 has no database access and no out-of-the-box migration method, so all migration must be done through the SharePoint’s Application Program Interface (API). SharePoint in Azure gives access to SharePoint at the database level, which can make for easier migration into or out of your SharePoint or cloud implementation.

Ability to stand up and decommission machines quickly:Azure offers templates for virtual machines that enable you to stand up SharePoint environments in a matter of minutes. This can be exceptionally handy for development and testing situations where custom components need to be worked on outside of your current environment or need to be isolated. When developing, the ability to access server-side SharePoint log information unavailable in Office 365 is a big advantage. Once finished, the machines can easily be removed.

Long term cost proposition is low:There is no debate that the total cost of ownership of an Office 365 SharePoint solution is the lowest available. The Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) nature of Azure, however, still offers substantial cost reductions regarding ongoing management in comparison to on-premises deployments.

Standard cloud advantages:The standard scalability, flexibility, availability, and disaster recovery features discussed in all conversations around the cloud also apply to SharePoint implementations on Azure.

Single vendor with a unifying ecosystem:For those already invested in Microsoft technologies, Azure makes sense as the next step in an IT strategy. Microsoft has a unified vision for its on-premises, public cloud, and private cloud offerings. For those looking to move toward a seamless user experience, Azure has an advantage over merging disparate vendor offerings.

Technical use cases and hybrid scenarios: The preceding items on this list relate to why Azure can be a good choice for SharePoint implementations. Separate to these drivers, Microsoft has listed a number of specific use casesfor SharePoint on Azure. Also, hybrid setups involving on-premises and private or public cloud environments can often provide benefits by using SharePoint in Azure. The use of Azure storage to create low cost and virtually limitless storage containers for archived and rarely accessed content or data backups has provided management benefits and savings for a number of businesses across all industry sectors.

Hosting SharePoint in Azure should appeal to many organizations not only because of the technical value it can deliver, but because of its place within the spectrum of solutions available within the new cloud landscape. Azure can offer a bridge for businesses that are looking to leverage the benefits of SharePoint and the cloud, but are not in a place to move directly to Office 365 and SharePoint Online.

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