Microsoft SharePoint is a remarkable success, with more than 70 percent of all enterprises currently using some version of the product. Adoption rates for SharePoint 2010 are equally robust: According to Forrester Research, 57 percent of the companies surveyed had upgraded by the fourth quarter of 2011.
Yet these numbers don’t tell the entire story. While many enterprises have upgraded to SharePoint 2010, a significant number still have not done so – a telling trend, given the performance enhancements, updated feature set, deeper application integration and other obvious advantages to upgrading. These companies have found that the upgrade process is more complex and expensive than expected; IT departments, faced with what Forrester describes as a “tension between fast delivery of abundant applications and maintenance of shared stable environments,” lack the time and resources to implement these complex migrations and upgrades.
With another major SharePoint upgrade coming soon, even companies that have already upgraded to SharePoint 2010 will be forced, yet again, to deal with this problem in the not-too-distant future. These companies have already discovered that a properly implemented SharePoint solution can give them a powerful competitive advantage, and they are eager to maintain that advantage. Yet they are also wary of the cost and complexity associated with a major SharePoint upgrade project.
Migrating a SharePoint environment by leveraging a service provider model – like that offered by Rackspace, for example – could offer a solution to these challenges by shifting some of the infrastructure management and administrative burden to a trusted third party provider. While many enterprises have considered this option, they often reject it due to common misconceptions over security, availability, lack of customization options or other issues.
These are valid concerns, and they represent real obstacles to many SharePoint migration efforts, but these challenges can easily be overcome with the right hosting provider.
Using a trusted hosting provider can truly offer cost-effective alternatives to traditional on-premise environments. But how do you know you’re choosing the right provider? In a recent whitepaper, Rackspace offers seven criteria for selecting a SharePoint Hosting provider.
The first step is to model a complete migration scenario involving your potential service provider-managed SharePoint solution. This model should take into account the following concerns, according to Rackspace:
1. Client-appropriate security
Security is a complex topic; it involves physical security and virtual security, as well as protection against unplanned downtime and other threats. Today, top-tier hosting providers routinely offer a level of security that you find in a typical enterprise data center or colocation environment. For enterprises, though, SharePoint itself creates another set of unique, largely policy- based security challenges. SharePoint administration, including security related tools, are notoriously complex, and basic administrative tools may not go far enough to satisfy security requirements.
With these challenges in mind, a SharePoint hosting provider like Rackspace can offer security features with the right mix of skills and dedicated resources – and help by applying the experience and lessons learned from building large numbers of SharePoint environments. They can also help enterprises create appropriate internal security policies for managing and accessing SharePoint data stores.
2. Uptime and SLA guarantees
Availability and service-level guarantees are another potential source of differentiation for hosting providers. Given the role that SharePoint plays in many enterprises, and the costs associated with unplanned downtime, it is reasonable for an enterprise to demand as-close-to-constant uptime as possible (excluding scheduled maintenance) from a provider’s data center network, data center infrastructure and server hardware components.
3. A formal discovery process for a client’s SharePoint requirements
Hosting providers can’t just assume that a client’s existing SharePoint environment will fit an existing implementation model – and they certainly can’t always impose a one-size-fits-all approach.
The hosting provider’s discovery process should thus reflect three attributes: First, it should involve extensive, direct contact between the provider’s SharePoint migration team and the client’s enterprise IT team. Second, it should be collaborative process that gives the client IT organization the opportunity to explain their current SharePoint environment and their concerns about the migration process.
Finally, the discovery process should be forward-looking – that is, the provider’s migration team should assess future needs to accurately extend and maximize an enterprise’s existing SharePoint environment.
4. A track record of designing and building complex SharePoint environments
Any enterprise that uses SharePoint as a custom-development platform should insist that a provider offer appropriate stand-up capabilities for its migrated and hosted SharePoint environment. This includes turning insights gleaned from the discovery process into specific, detailed technical requirements. It also includes using a design and development staff with proven experience standing up complex, enterprise SharePoint implementations.
5. An established SharePoint migration methodology
The actual process of migrating SharePoint data and other resources between an in-house and hosted environment can be scary. You should make sure your chosen provider can answer these three questions to your satisfaction:
- Do we have the technical and human resources to carry out a migration?
- Does our team have the necessary mix of implementation and integration skills?
- What are the potential problems you foresee, and what are appropriate contingency plans to head off these problems?
A hosting provider’s migration team, and the methodology it employs, should specifically address all three of these questions. As a result, it can provide the client’s IT organization with specific, dedicated resources necessary to migrate data, deploy the new SharePoint environment, and help with any problems that arise during the process. A provider’s migration team should also be capable of working with an enterprise on related legacy data migration initiatives, and if necessary, the provider should be able to consolidate and reorganize a SharePoint environment prior to beginning the migration process. It must also be able to deal with the technology-integration demands associated with a SharePoint environment, including Active Directory, Microsoft SQL, Exchange, and other products.
6. A forward-looking approach to SharePoint implementation
An on-premise SharePoint environment is usually a work in progress; users constantly request, and expect, new features and functionality. This may involve deploying additional, but currently unused, standard SharePoint components; developing new custom-coded features; or integration additional third-party applications.
A hosting provider’s in-house professional services staff like Rackspace’s team can help with implementing new features using any or all of these approaches. The provider should also offer a standard methodology for testing and rolling out new SharePoint functionality or custom-coded components.
7. A strong focus on user adoption and enablement issues
It may sound like a stretch to expect a hosting provider to assume responsibility for motivating, educating and empowering a company’s SharePoint users; but this is an important part of an enterprise’s in-house SharePoint deployment strategy – and as a result, it must play an important role in a hosted or managed environment.
You should ask your chosen provider the following:
- Can you develop custom SharePoint dashboards and business intelligence solutions?
- Can you perform user interface enhancements and customizations?
- Can you provide training and ongoing support for both technical and business users?
- Does your training and support model include both on-site and remote options?
Technical support is an important concern here, and for many enterprises it will be the single most important post-implementation issue. Nevertheless, the more strategic an enterprise’s SharePoint deployment, the more important it is to work with a hosting provider that can deliver a full suite of customized user education, training and empowerment solutions. This includes access to a real-world training curriculum based on established best practices – an absolute necessity for enterprises seeking to turn their SharePoint implementation into a source of competitive advantage.
Many enterprises have considered moving to a hosted SharePoint environment, and quite of few have explored their options with various hosting providers. Unfortunately, a good number of these companies are frustrated and disappointed with what they find – and they decide to stay with an on-premises SharePoint environment as the lesser of two evils. Rackspace, however, is fully prepared to address and resolve any concerns your organization might have (especially, but not limited to, those listed above). So, before you decide to lower your expectations or give up on a hosted SharePoint solution altogether, you should check out Rackspace’s offerings. You may be surprised at what you’ll find.
About the Author: Sharon Florentine is a freelance writer who covers everything from data center technology to holistic veterinary care and occasionally blogs for Rackspace Hosting.