Friday, April 18, 2014

SharePoint Extranet on Office 365 – Part 1

So you want to use SharePoint for an Extranet.  First, let’s briefly consider reasons you would want an extranet in case you are still on the fence.  Simply put, if you have a need to collaborate with people external to your company, such as clients, vendors, and/or customers, you need an extranet.  A surprising number of businesses still “collaborate” and share documents by emailing back and forth.  
I recently purchased a new home and the number of documents that had to be shared (and re-shared) via email was astounding.  What if they had a website we could just post the documents to, and track what was left for me to send, and have a calendar of all the important dates?  You get the idea.  SharePoint works great for collaborating and sharing information with non-employees of any kind.  It’s not just documents, it’s tasks, calendars, and so many more of those out of the box SharePoint features you can take for granted.

Now you understand why you need one, and that SharePoint is a great solution for an extranet, so where do you build it?  You can do on-premise, hosted, or Office 365.  Your first inclination is probably to investigate Office 365 for an extranet solution.  This is the direction Microsoft would want you to go, you can get a site up and running quickly, and you aren’t responsible for the hardware.  It’s a logical first place to explore (if your company is willing to have all the information stored externally somewhere). 

Once deep diving into Office 365 as an extranet solution, you will most likely find its feature set to be pretty lacking if you want any real control over your extranet.  As Microsoft’s Senior Product Marketing Manager for SharePoint Bill Baer puts it, “For customers seeking only to share limited content and/or collaborate short-term without the need for a seamless logon experience or whose extranet environment is not subject to corporate or governmental policies, Office 365 provides an external sharing experience that can be leveraged to make data available over the Internet to remote employees, customers, and partners.”  

If that is all you are looking for, why not just use Google Docs for free, or drop box, or other similar service?  Simply put, most corporations needing to have a robust extranet require much more.  The customers we work with that need an extranet solution are not looking to share just limited content, collaborate for just a short term, and are subject to corporate and/or governmental policies.  They also require a seamless login experience, a way to manage and track external users, and an easier way to manage the sites without adding extra overhead to employees.  

You might once again say, but Office 365 is so easy to get going, maybe we can compromise some features.  It's not a small amount of features you'd be compromising, and I'll detail that in later posts.  If your real goal is trying to move everything to the cloud to get rid of the server overhead, and need to get a solid extranet up and running quickly, stay tuned for Part 2 in this series for a solution that’ll do just that, but also give you the extranet solution you really need.  

So who is a good candidate to use Office 365 for an extranet.  If you are a very small company, with little to no IT department, needing to share a few documents here or there with external people, and don't need any real control or view into who your external users are, then Office 365 is possibly a decent way to go for your extranet.  Other than that scenario, Office 365 doesn't provide you with the management, security, and control, that most companies would have as requirements for a solid extranet solution.

Part 2 - Building an Extranet with Azure
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