This 7-part series consists of the following:
Part 3 - If we make the leap, what do we lose? What do we gain?
Part 4 - What questions should we be asking potential providers?
Part 5 - Who are the leading providers?
Part 6 - How do we select the right provider for our unique needs?
Part 7 - How do we make the business case internally?
Part 3 – If we make the leap, what do we lose? What do we gain?
This post is all about the trade-offs you should be mindful of when you are contemplating moving to a hosting provider as opposed to deploying in an on-premise scenario.
Unfortunately, hosting providers are forced to deal with the fact that there is a fairly entrenched misconception on the part of many people considering such options that anything other than on-premise must involve some form of loss of… something. Maybe they fear a loss of performance, maybe a loss of features or functionality, maybe a loss of someone’s job. Fortunately, the reality is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Making the right choices in selecting a provider and a specific hosting arrangement can actually provide a better solution than an on-premise solution ever could, and can enable existing IT staff to be even more valuable to their organizations.
So, when we talk about what do we lose, let’s start by talking about what you’re already missing out on by deploying your solution on-premise.
Perhaps the most obvious issue in this scenario is that by deploying on-premise you are inherently limited to Internal IT’s:
capabilities It’s one thing to install SharePoint, it’s another thing to keep SharePoint running smoothly over time. You have to consider whether your internal IT staff is really up to the challenge technically and administratively.
focus Sure, in theory, Internal IT should be able to take on yet another major enterprise application, but what happens when someone’s out on vacation, just as those financial reports are due at the end of the quarter, and your IT folks are tied up dealing with the Oracle Financials solution and can’t make the changes you need to the SharePoint farm until next week?
resources Here I’m referring not only to people, but to money and time as well. There is only so much of each to go around, and it’s entirely possible that your SharePoint farm is getting starved for such precious resources. The impact of a poorly implemented SharePoint solution can be substantial. SharePoint’s well-documented potential to transform your business can hardly be realized if no one is in a position to get things done.
standards This might be a touchy subject for some, but let’s face it, many, many internal IT organizations suffer from a lack of well-defined standards. Often, even standards that are well-defined are poorly and/or inconsistently implemented. Either way, the effect is the same. Middling results at best.
Often sub-optimal for widely geo-distributed users When I speak to geographically distributed companies and organizations, it is fascinating to find that many of them have very small IT groups, only a subset of which can perform effectively in a support role for SharePoint, and generally, that one or two person pool is confined to a single time zone. This is the way organizations are evolving these days. They don’t get huge and then go global, they go global and it is their global nature that drives their growth. This usually happens via merger and acquisition, but there are any number of evolutionary paths (e.g., offshoring the manufacturing arm) organizations go through to get to this point. On the technical side, many times the connectivity between the various branch offices is lacking, and one or more remote departments are suffering significant productivity losses due to the slow speed of data retrieval over the wire.
Can be difficult to scale dynamically This is really what the “cloud” is all about. The perfect world scenario is that you utilize computing resources and therefore pay for them in direct proportion to consumption. In other words, your solution is always perfectly sized for your needs at any given moment, and you are charged more or less as your needs fluctuate naturally, and of course, the security model is flawless and your compliance officer loves the cloud. Not only is this ideal challenging if not literally impossible to truly achieve with today’s technology and business climate, it is a matter of fact that some providers don’t even attempt to approach this ideal scenario. Meanwhile, architects of on-premise solutions or unmanaged solutions such as traditional co-lo are obliged to oversize the infrastructure and servers in the solution in anticipation of the scale that is needed at peak usage times.
But, the reality is, that is generally substantially more than is actually needed most of the time.
So, those are a few of the potential risks or down sides of on-premise deployments. Next, let’s look at hosted multi-tenant models. Then, we’ll wrap up this post talking about hosted dedicated models and hybrid models.
No LAN connectivity speeds Whereas an on-premise deployment may supply high speed LAN connectivity to at least all of the users in the location where the servers are strategically located, with a hosted scenario, odds are you will have no LAN connectivity for any users. That said, by leveraging a provider with solid networking capabilities, you can arrive at a very effective scenario regarding connectivity. Some of your users may actually benefit from the use of a hosting provider in that an on-premise scenario may be limited by bandwidth and other networking constraints the organization enforces or has not the budget to alleviate. If you’re outsourcing your MPLS network, for example, ask your network provider if they can also manage your SharePoint application in their data center and yet connect it directly to your network.
Typically, significantly reduced feature set The double-edged sword of multi-tenancy is that you are likely to see a seductively low number of zeroes after the dollar sign relative to other models. However, don’t kid yourself. This benefit inevitably comes at some cost. In all or virtually all cases, any form of public multi-tenancy is going to impose inherent constraints that your organization can either choose to live with or not. I can’t emphasize enough that you need to get a full understanding of the feature and function gaps between SharePoint’s advertised capabilities and the limited feature set available in a public multi-tenant model. Depending on the way you intend to utilize SharePoint and the ways you could benefit from features not available in your provider’s multi-tenant model, not having these features could drastically reduce the overall value your organization ultimately derives from your investment in SharePoint. To put it simply, proceed with caution, and keep your eyes wide open.
Typically, constraints on growth in data, capacity available to you. A public multi-tenant environment is a virtual slice of a physical pie, if you will. When you cut larger and larger slices of that pie, you eventually run out. At that point, the “pie” or host machine(s) needs to be augmented by more capacity and/or physical infrastructure, which on some level requires procurement, deployment, etc. Therefore, a hosting provider offering slices of such a pie is generally going to want to put in some preventative measures against sudden spikes in capacity requirements, because such issues could at worst, threaten the health of the overall “pie,” and at best, could put unintended constraints on the other “slices.” So, when you opt for multi-tenant, you are likely to face some degree of limitation in the amount to which your environment can burst or grow dynamically. Make sure you understand these limitations and their implications on how your users will be leveraging SharePoint in business processes to ensure that you won’t put yourself in a situation where you are limited unacceptably.
Typically offers very limited customization options And, especially relevant to SharePoint, it is critical to understand in what ways your ability to deploy 3rd party web parts, add-on utilities, and/or your own team’s custom code may be limited. In public multi-tenant scenarios, it can be painful to work through the process of getting these software pieces deployed. If that’s what you are hoping to do, starting asking your vendor all about this process.
No LAN connectivity speeds Same consideration here as with hosted multi-tenant solutions.
With some provider solutions, it can be difficult to scale dynamically Just as an on-premise solution involving physical hardware can be tough to scale quickly due to the non-technical need to secure more funding to add more hardware capacity, etc., so can a hosted dedicated solution, especially if that solution is hosted on physical servers without easy expansion capability. In some cases, this lack of ability to scale can take another form – a lack of data center capacity. Look instead for a provider who can offer a fully or partially virtualized platform that can assure you easy, dynamic scaling and growth.
With some provider solutions, the customer’s infrastructure is typically designed for peak times, but rarely utilized at or even near capacity This means you are wasting money on computing power you are not actually utilizing. This can be especially maddening in charge back scenarios, where you want to have departments fund their portion of the IT budget based on usage. The added cost of unitilized capacity has to be paid for by the business units or by IT, and the business units are likely to complain loudly if they are paying for an environment that IT has oversized for their needs. (They reserve the right to gripe, of course, when their use of the solution reaches a point where the system is now undersized.)
Alternately, some provider solutions are undersized, and offer limited ability to scale dynamically, and performance begins to suffer when it is needed most.
If at this point you are thinking that all of these ideas are bad ones, stay tuned… They each have their positives, too.
What do we gain?
Governance? Who wants governance? Let’s face it, not every organization is a government agency, a compliance-driven, or otherwise highly risk averse organization. If you want to be able to do what you want with your SharePoint solution without any process or procedure to go through first, and you’re willing to take the risks that this approach exposes your organization to, then on-premise may be for you for this reason alone.
Full-featured SharePoint to the degree infrastructure and IT can support The reality is that SharePoint, especially versions prior to SharePoint 2010, was designed for use in an on-premise fashion. That’s why Microsoft Online Services’ SharePoint Online Standard still wasn’t nearly feature-complete, at least as of this writing. While some providers were able to provide essentially co-lo services for full-featured SharePoint, many weren’t able to offer it as a fully managed service, because it just didn’t lend itself to such scenarios. Since Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 was released, SharePoint as a hosted solution has become a much more sensible option.
LAN connectivity speeds in your key location(s) Again, if your people are all or nearly all in a single location, then an on-premise solution may make sense from the perspective of a speedy connection.
The “SharePoint guy” (or gal) is right down the hall If you have a need to know that you can literally walk over and talk to the person who controls your SharePoint solution, well, on-premise offers that.
Cheap If Richard Dawson asked “Why would you buy a public multi-tenant SharePoint solution?” I guarantee you both contestants would slap the buzzer immediately, and Richard would turn with a flourish and yell, “Survey Says!” DING! # 1 Answer! Of course! The primary reason people want mulit-tenant is that it is cheap. Why is it cheap? For the very same reason that a high rise apartment building would be prohibitively expensive for just one person to live in, but with every apartment occupied, the rent for each individual tenant can be very affordable.
Convenient It’s easy! You don’t have to procure hardware. You don’t have to rack and cable servers, you don’t have to install software. It is much more convenient to simply tap an existing public multi-tenant infrastructure.
… And, as with all things in life, cheap+convenient=best, right? Right?
Offers the fundamental features of SharePoint This is a slippery slope in my opinion. While it’s true that this model does offer the fundamental features of SharePoint, my observation is that the organizations that really see big productivity gains and business process optimizations through the use of SharePoint are those that go beyond the fundamental features. This is why, for example, Microsoft Online Services points out that they are working toward “full feature parity” with on-premise solutions. It’s a way of saying that right now they are feature-limited without sounding like it.
The SharePoint application is shared with your provider’s other customers This is one of those things that either is a problem for your organization or is not. If you can live with your application data being shared with other of your provider’s customers, fine. Most of my customers categorically do not accept this kind of arrangement.
Clear separation of admin duties A great reason to choose a provider is that it gives you a simple way to enforce a separation of duties when it comes to the management and governance of your solution. The more the provider can adapt to your organization’s specific needs, the better this will work for your organization.
Great for project-based purposes with limited duration By now, you’ve probably figured out that I am not a huge fan of public multi-tenant environments for SharePoint. But, this is one particular use case for which I really like it, as long as you don’t have other options at the ready. If you have a short-term project that you need to do and you want to quickly spin up a SharePoint solution, this is a very simple way to get that done. And, since it’s of limited duration, you know you don’t have to sink costs in that you won’t have time to work off. You can literally pay as you go, and stop paying when you’re all done.
Typically priced per user This is an interesting issue. Presumably because they’ve seen Microsoft Online’s pricing, many of my customers come to me initially wanting to see a SharePoint solution priced per user. Certainly per user pricing is more convenient. Everyone can understand it. But, the reality is that at certain scale points, you’re paying more when you’re paying per user than if you were paying for your actual needs, of which the number of users is only one measure. For example, certain users may need different levels of functionality, different amount of storage, or have other needs that greatly influence price. By designing the right solution, your provider can optimize your total cost of ownership, instead of focusing on a simplistic pricing model. If you really need it broken out by user, then you can do the math yourself.
Typically offers call center support …And everyone loves a call center when they have a problem, right? Right? Sure, it’s great that you can eventually get someone on the phone, but it’s a very impersonal experience. Just one more way that public multi-tenant scenarios remain efficient – by passing the long wait times on to you.
Governance baked into the support model If you’re going with a dedicated hosting solution, and you’ve picked a top tier provider, you have the leverage to get your support protocol tailored to work the way your organization works, rather than the other way around. Take advantage of this tremendous benefit of a dedicated model.
Clear separation of admin duties The concept here is the same as with public multi-tenant, except in a dedicated solution you have the ability to go even further with delineating specific duties that the provider has and that your administrative personnel have. Take the time to define a detailed RACI matrix of tasks, and make sure that you retain the flexibility to adjust this somewhat as your solution and relationship with your provider evolves. The best providers offer terrific, tailored support models that make the provider act as an extension of your own team.
No sharing of application with your provider’s other customers If you can’t share the application and its data with other customers of the same provider, and you can’t be successful hosting on-premise, then a dedicated hosting solution is the best bet for you.
Full-featured SharePoint to the degree infrastructure can support Unlike on-premise, where the capabilities of SharePoint were essentially limited only by the skills and resources available to the IT department, hosted dedicated models generally remove that challenge, such that SharePoint’s features are limited only by the infrastructure on which the solution is built. As with on-premises solutions, there is still the need to contemplate how to handle the sudden need for added capacity.
More flexibility to customize than with Multi-Tenant Public multi-tenant solutions are not very flexible and don’t typically allow for much in the way of customization. The reason for this is obvious. If you were to do something unusual, and screw something up, it could affect the Provider’s other customers negatively. A dedicated solution all but eliminates that risk, because you are not sharing the application with the provider’s other customers. If you are using a hosted dedicated solution, you have every right to expect a lot of freedom to customize your solution.
Generally the provider offers a support team that is well aware of your unique solution This is the “with great power comes great responsibility” item… Going hand in hand with added customization flexibility is the need for a very consistent support team. Once you go off in your own direction, a call center loses the ability to follow the typical script in order to help you. Therefore, it is critical that you have a consistent set of designated people who are specifically charged with helping to ensure your success with SharePoint.
Next up: Part 4 - What questions should we be asking potential providers?