SharePoint Meets Office 365

Microsoft has put the finishing touches on SharePoint Server 2016, which shares more common features and integration with Office 365.

Since it went into beta last year, Microsoft has emphasized “hybrid” SharePoint Server 2016 deployments in which on-premises-based server farms are able to tap Office 365 cloud-based services. That hybrid message has been an important one for Microsoft server customers to hear. The Microsoft “cloud-first” focus, along with some SharePoint-associated product deprecation announcements, perhaps caused some organizations to wonder about the company’s SharePoint Server commitments.

Not surprisingly, the majority of SharePoint deployments still have on-premises components. A recent survey by Rencore, a maker of SharePoint code analysis software for developers, of 1,000 SharePoint professionals worldwide found 49 percent used SharePoint Server on-premises. Just 24 percent indicated they used SharePoint Online and 25 percent reported using “hybrid” configurations, or a mixture of SharePoint Server and Microsoft cloud services, according to the survey. “People weren’t jumping on the cloud bandwagon, so what Microsoft has done is given us onramps to the cloud in the form of hybrid workloads,” said SharePoint MVP Matthew McDermott, founder and principal consultant with Aptilon Inc., in an interview during November’s SharePoint Live! conference in Orlando, Fla. (Like Redmond magazine, the conference is produced by 1105 Media Inc. See the complete interview here.)

Hybrid Search
The so-called “hybrid search” feature in SharePoint Server 2016 is getting the most attention. “The hybrid story for search is really exciting,” McDermott said. “Up until now with SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2010, the hybrid story was disjointed. The team re-architected the Office 365 crawling and indexing process to support this, which is an amazing feat. And then what we now can do is connect our on-premises crawler to our Office 365 tenant. The crawling is done on-premises so we can introduce file shares, SharePoint content and BCS [Business Connectivity Services] content into our Office 365 index, where all of the content from Office 365 is already indexed.

“So now we have one set of results that is relevancy ranked. The relevancy ranking is consistent across the result set. If I’m searching from Office 365, I have secure access to the content. I can see files from on-premises file shares in the cloud. I can get previews for my on-premises environment if I have that connection set up.”

The hybrid search capability works across multiple SharePoint farms, McDermott noted, and it can reduce the number of servers needed for SharePoint search. The cloud-based index that’s used for hybrid search is enabled by the SharePoint Search Server Application, which connects with the Azure Active Directory service.

Jeff Fried, chief technology officer at BA Insight, said Microsoft has gotten the message that organizations will continue to run SharePoint on-premises, and that hybrid is going to stay. The use of the Cloud Search Service Application will address the current problems that are seen with the SharePoint Server 2013 hybrid search experience, said Fried, who gave a presentation on this new feature at SharePoint Live!.

Microsoft has built Cloud Search Service Application natively into SharePoint Server 2016, but it also will be available for SharePoint Server 2013, and the search crawling capability will extend across SharePoint Server 2010 and SharePoint Server 2007 workloads. To use the new SharePoint hybrid search capability will require an Office 365 subscription, SharePoint Server on-premises, the synchronization of user identities to the Azure Active Directory service (using Azure AD Sync), the use of file shares and BCS connectors.

Federated Search
The current hybrid search capability that’s used with SharePoint Server 2013 and Office 365 services is described as a “federated hybrid search” approach. With this approach, a search query will return results from Microsoft datacenters and also from the on-premises servers of the customer, but there will be “no affinity between the two data sets,” according to a description by Bill Baer, a senior product marketing manager for the Microsoft SharePoint Product Group.

The new Microsoft hybrid search capability with the Cloud Search Service Application will centralize the search index in the cloud. Instead of having separate search indices, with one index residing in Microsoft datacenters and one index located in a customer’s on-premises infrastructure, the improved hybrid search capability will use Microsoft Cloud for the index. Other Office 365 services can then tap this same cloud-based index, such as the Microsoft Delve service, which surfaces information about people and activities within an organization. Anything put into the Microsoft Cloud-based index will show up in the Office Graph, which is the search technology underlying the Delve service, Fried noted. Microsoft DLP and e-discovery technologies also will work with the new hybrid search, the company said during a presentation at least year’s Ignite conference in Chicago.

Hybrid Caveats
The need for reverse-proxy servers or a VPN to access on-premises-based server content remotely is the weakest part of the new SharePoint hybrid search experience, according to Fried. He explained that if an organization wants to provide remote access to documents and lists residing inside the organization’s firewall (for so-called “inbound searches”), then it will likely need a reverse-proxy capability, as well as identity solutions. Single sign-on identity capability can be used to ease the access experience for end users, for instance.

In short, organizations will need a synchronized directory such as Active Directory running with some sort of directory synchronization for the new hybrid search capability, Fried noted. He added that Azure Active Directory is associated with every Office 365 tenant, so many organizations likely already have access to this directory synchronization capability. The setup process has improved. The Microsoft DirSync directory synchronization was replaced by Azure AD Sync, so it now takes an hour to set up directory synchronization, instead of days, according to Fried. He added that the Azure AD Sync capability is well-documented by Microsoft, but it’s still hard to test it. He suggested provisioning another tenant to go through that process.

Key considerations for implementing the new hybrid search capability include security and regulatory concerns. Some countries have data export restrictions, which is the No. 1 reason not to put content in the cloud, Fried said.

While the search index resides in Microsoft datacenters, Microsoft claims overall security for the new hybrid search capability. “The content metadata is encrypted when it’s transferred to the search index in Office 365, so the on-premises content remains secure,” Baer has claimed.

There are some features in SharePoint Online that are missing, which constitute reasons to keep some things on-premises, according to Fried. Examples include the translation service and cross-site publishing, he noted. On the other hand, Microsoft likely won’t bring some of its “cloud-first” capa­bilities to its on-premises-based server products. Those essentially are “cloud-only” capabilities, according to Fried. For instance, the Microsoft Yammer enterprise social networking service is only delivered via the Microsoft Cloud. Other examples include the Delve and Power BI solutions. Fried said that Power BI “could perfectly well go on-premises, but Microsoft doesn’t want to do that because it wants these things in the cloud.” Organizations can respond by either migrating everything to the cloud at their own pace or they can coexist via a hybrid model, which are two different strategies, Fried said.

System Requirements
Hardware requirements for SharePoint Server 2016 won’t be different from the preceding product, SharePoint Server 2013. On the software requirements side, organizations will need Windows Server 2012 R2 or Windows Server 2016 in place. They’ll also need SQL Server 2014 SP1 or SQL Server 2016.

These details were described by Vlad Catrinescu, a Microsoft MVP, during a January Crow Canyon Systems Inc. webinar. Catrinescu recommended going with SQL Server 2016, if that’s an option. Upgrading from SharePoint Server 2013 to SharePoint Server 2016 is really fast, Catrinescu said. However, if an organization is using SharePoint Server 2010, then there’s no direct upgrade path to SharePoint Server 2016. It will be necessary to upgrade to SharePoint Server 2013 first before making that hop.

Some Limits Removed
SharePoint Server 2016 is removing some limits seen with Microsoft’s earlier releases. For instance, there was a list item limit of no more than 5,000 items for SharePoint Server 2010 and SharePoint Server 2013. SharePoint Server 2016 now permits more than 5,000 items in a list, with some caveats. Catrinescu said that the maximum he has seen is 120,000 items in the same list view and he said it works, but it’s not fast. The problem isn’t with SharePoint, he explained, but with SQL Server, which can lock if you query a list with more than 5,000 rows in a table.

Microsoft also increased file sizes used with SharePoint Server 2016. The maximum file size previously was 2GB, but now it’s 10GB (which is the recommended limit) or greater. Catrinescu said he’s tried a file that’s 15GB in size and it works. While the file size expansion is a good thing, Catrinescu cautioned IT pros that they should still keep an eye on the growth of their content database sizes.

Site collections per database got a boost with SharePoint Server 2016. The old limit was 5,000 site collections. The new server expands that limit to 100,000 site collections.

Other Benefits
Microsoft is promising that SharePoint Server 2016 will have a greatly improved patching experience for IT pros. This so-called “zero downtime patching” claim for SharePoint Server 2016 is “not a myth,” Catrinescu said. It works, but organizations will need to use the MinRole topology with high availability to have that capability. He explained that to patch SharePoint Server, there are two required steps. The update needs to be installed first and then the PSConfig program needs to be run. With SharePoint Server 2016, the schema update process doesn’t cause server downtime, but MinRole with high availability will be needed to get that benefit.

Another new feature is the ability to create durable links, where URL links don’t break when files get moved. That’s an issue today with SharePoint Server 2010. However, Catrinescu noted that to use the durable links feature with SharePoint Server 2016, organizations likely will need to install Office Online Server. The Office Online Server also brings benefits for business intelligence and search capabilities, he added.

Microsoft has enabled a Fast Site Collection Creation feature for SharePoint Server 2016. It copies a template at the database level to speed up the site collection process.

Microsoft has integrated Project Server, which now functions as a service application in SharePoint Server 2016. This feature eliminates having to oversee two separate patching activities.

SharePoint Server 2016 also is bringing the ability to use SMTP ports other than the default one (Port 25). Other ports now can be used to send e-mails.

The new DLP capability that arrives with SharePoint Server 2016 can be used to find sensitive info before it gets leaked in e-mails. It’ll flag things like credit card numbers, Social Security numbers and bank account numbers, protecting against disclosure, and also advising the end user about the issue. It works with the Microsoft E-Discovery Center, which has a query capability to find sensitive documents.

The Future of SharePoint?
The release of SharePoint Server 2016 has many experts wondering if Microsoft’s emphasis on creating hybrid environments with Office 365 spells a long-term plan to phase out the on-premises version. Organizations will always need to run some components in their datacenters, given security and regulatory compliance requirements, it’s argued. With SharePoint Server 2016, Microsoft seems to be addressing that hybrid need, but how might Microsoft’s emphasis on Office 365 services affect the product’s future? The server could eventually fade into the background, according to Christian Buckley, a longtime SharePoint and Office 365 Microsoft MVP.

“On the current product trajectory I can easily envision that SharePoint within Office 365 will fade into the background, and while it will play a critical infrastructural role, out-of-the-box (OOTB) solutions and ‘experiences’ will displace the way we know and use SharePoint today,” wrote Buckley, who is CMO of Beezy Inc., a provider of tools for both SharePoint and Office 365. Buckley, a onetime architect of the original SharePoint team, recently shared his predictions in a Redmondmag.com article. “I would not be surprised to see the brand become synonymous with on-premises only,” he suspects. “I believe it may take another version or two before it comes to fruition.”

This article first appeared in Redmond Magazine and can be found at Redmond Magazine