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SharePoint 2019 keeps government on-prem fires burning -- for now

While Google, Oracle and Microsoft rightly tout the benefits of total cloud migrations, business use cases demand support for on-premises versions of certain applications.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "You can have my on-prem SharePoint Server when you pry it from my cold, dead hands," customers from government and regulated industries told Microsoft at the power-user SharePoint Fest conference here this week.

Of course, they worded it more delicately, but the message was clear: As Microsoft pushes customers toward total cloud migration, the company seemed to tacitly acknowledge in last year's announcement of SharePoint 2019 that some businesses may never put every single element of their enterprise IT into the cloud. SharePoint 2019 is set to be released later this year; few details are publicly available about what will change from the current SharePoint 2016 on-premises version.

Customers can keep their on-premises version, for now, even though Microsoft continues to slice off features and put them into other cloud applications. One example of this is former SharePoint forms and workflow development capabilities that recently showed up in PowerApps, noted speaker Wes Preston, an independent consultant based in Minnesota. PowerApps' development environment soon will be cloud-only, he added.

"Will SharePoint stay relevant? It's hard to say yes, which is why so many of us are branching out into other technologies," Preston said. "My personal experience is [that] I'm sliding more into the PowerApps side, because my focus in SharePoint has been on business solutions -- not enterprise, but sitting down with a team that's trying to do something easier. For a long time, that was in SharePoint."

At the end of the first day of the three-day conference, 217 attendees -- weighted toward federal government users -- had participated in a poll on the conference's mobile app; 46% indicated they used on-premises editions of SharePoint, versus 48% that are using SharePoint Online.

Most politics is on premises

Former Massachusetts representative Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill was famous for saying, "All politics is local." In terms of SharePoint 2019 adoption, that sentiment could be updated to say that many federal agencies will keep their data local, probably for years to come for various reasons (see sidebar).

SharePoint, released in 2001, remains one of those on-premises apps because enough of its 170 million users need it to stay on premises. A few of their justifications: Proprietary internal documents can't leave the building; regulatory concerns prevent certain data sets from moving off-site; and processes built around on-premises SharePoint are too costly to migrate to the cloud. One SharePoint user who was ready to migrate bemoaned the fact that his company leadership didn't trust the cloud, and probably never would.

Christian Buckley, a member of the Microsoft team that launched SharePoint Online in 2013 and who currently conducts independent research for his firm CollabTalk LLC, announced findings of a new study to be published next month of 188 federal, state and local government IT leader respondents who have some responsibility for Microsoft admin or budget spend.

His team augmented the survey with about 30 one-on-one interviews of government IT leaders and retrospective reviews of other industry studies. It delved into reasons government entities struggle with cloud adoption, despite a federal Obama-era "cloud-first" directive issued seven years ago.

In a nutshell, they don't have the budget, expertise, bandwidth or trust in the cloud to make the leap from on premises -- as well as their own abilities to manage the technology and end-user training once their systems are migrated.

While some agencies have already made the cloud leap, Buckley said, "The majority of agencies that are not using cloud services are looking at doing something within the next year, but the largest portion of the respondents say [cloud migrations are] going to take two to five years, at least."

Microsoft's Brian Levenson speaks at SharePoint Fest 2018
Brian Levenson, product marketing manager for Microsoft Office 365, previews new features in various collaboration tools in a presentation at SharePoint Fest 2018 this week.

Box, Google not yet wooing Microsoft shops

From the stage, Microsoft's Office 365 product marketing manager Brian Levenson touted collaboration workflows and analytics capabilities across Office 365, especially new data-access controls in email, such as letting the author of an email forbidding recipients forwarding or reply-all. Those met with approval from an audience charged with controlling the flow of sensitive data in their organizations. But there was little official talk about SharePoint 2019 or other versions from the stage.

Top 10 barriers to government cloud IT adoption

Federal, state and local government IT respondents could pick more than one response in this CollabTalk March 2018 survey regarding challenges to cloud migration:

  1. Perceived security concerns (75%)
  2. Need to support legacy applications (63%)
  3. Work required to migrate existing infrastructure too great for ROI (52%)
  4. Budget limitations/must recoup sunken costs of current systems (45%)
  5. Convincing business leaders of value (43%)
  6. Concerns about complexity of managing multi-vendor cloud or worse, single- or multi-vendor hybrid cloud/on-prem environment (43%)
  7. Disruption to business or users (42%)
  8. Inability to prove ROI in hard numbers (32%)
  9. Lack of available implementation skill (27%)
  10. Don't want/can't afford to join continuous-testing "DevOps culture" (20%)

Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) -- mainly superusers and consultants -- who spoke with SearchContentManagement said they were convinced SharePoint will live on, despite its age and serious competition from challengers like Box, Google, and even Salesforce, whose online document collaboration tools also are popular among some business users.

Tight integration among Microsoft products, from email to documents and spreadsheets and other tools, make them easier to manage and secure than a buffet of applications from multiple vendors, MVPs said. SharePoint -- whether online or on premises -- will continue to be the intranet backbone for Microsoft shops, working more in the background as time passes, the MVPs said, but it probably won't go away for good for a long time, even if Microsoft eventually rebrands it under a new name.

Users tempted to use Box or Google stay with Microsoft for a number of reasons, including the company's commitment to earning security standards certifications those clients need to satisfy regulatory compliance. The MVPs we spoke with agree that because Microsoft proactively pursues those certifications when asked, its customers stay.

Speaker and MVP Adam Levithan, a group program manager at security consultancy Exostar, pointed out that Box isn't as well-established as Microsoft among government and regulated industries.

"They haven't made a dime yet," Levithan said. "I say that not as a Microsoft shill but as a businessperson. Microsoft has time. The slow progression of OneDrive for Business has shown that they're determined to catch up."

Microsoft's Levenson said that although competitors like Box might have interesting products, no one vendor has a suite of collaboration features integrated like Microsoft's -- with analytics tools to run on top of it to help frontline office workers and their management teams create new efficiencies and staffing models.

But as we await SharePoint 2019, don't bet on the death of on-premises SharePoint anytime soon.

"Microsoft wants -- that's my opinion, and is gently persuading, forcing -- people to go to the cloud," said Brian Alderman, Microsoft MVP, author and trainer. "They don't want to maintain another product, SharePoint on prem. But they have no choice, because enough large customers in government [are saying] 'I'm not going into the cloud. It's not going to happen. I can't do it. There are laws that don't allow me to do it.' I don't see SharePoint going away, but I see less new features and functionality."

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