The end of life for SharePoint 2016 is fast approaching

SharePoint Server 2016's end of life has arrived. Is it better to go to SharePoint 2019 or SharePoint Online?

The clock has run out on SharePoint Server 2016, whose mainstream support ended in July 2021. However, Microsoft has extended service for another five years.

That leaves organizations currently on SharePoint 2016 one year to decide where to head next: SharePoint 2019 or SharePoint Online.

When SharePoint 2016 arrived after the launch of SharePoint Online -- which was typically slow to absorb the new features of on-premises releases -- it offered updated functionality that made a compelling case for a hybrid SharePoint environment for many organizations. Today, Microsoft continues to add features to its products, many aimed at its cloud systems to encourage customers to leave their on-premises systems behind.

Comparing the features

Many SharePoint 2016 users already work in a hybrid implementation, splitting their time between an on-premises deployment and the cloud. The need to hybridize usually comes down to two often-insurmountable challenges: Some on-premises content is too unconventional to migrate, while some customized sites lose their customizations in migration. If these barriers remain, then those organizations will most likely remain hybridized.

But if it comes down to features, a quick review is in order. In the past, on-premises features in new releases would often be delayed in reaching the cloud; however, SharePoint Online is ideally positioned to deploy new functionality borrowed from other Office 365 infrastructure.

As for feature comparison, SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online both have the following:

  • OneDrive integration;
  • modern sites/pages/lists-libraries/home look-and-feel;
  • large file support and extended character length; and
  • SharePoint Framework.

Owing to its deep integration with other Microsoft Office 365 infrastructure and turnkey connectivity with other cloud apps, SharePoint Online offers additional functionality and add-ons, including the following:

  • Teams for collaboration;
  • Yammer for social media;
  • PowerApps and Flow for codeless or low-code app and workflow implementation;
  • hub sites for single-point branding and content/search roll-up; and
  • Delve for AI-based surfacing of relevant content and colleague profile data.
SharePoint 2019 expands on 2016's administrative features suite, with updated PowerShell and new APIs for internet information services integration.

Comparing administration utility

It should come as no surprise that SharePoint 2019 offers more administrative control features, as SharePoint Online, by its very nature, denies the enterprise full access to the physical servers hosting the deployment. SharePoint 2019 expands on 2016's administrative features suite, with updated PowerShell and new APIs for internet information services integration. There's also an updated health analyzer and hybrid scenarios support.

On the other hand, SharePoint Online provides organizations with less administrative control overall, but what's there is convenient because it's riding the shoulders of Office 365 administrative functionality. This includes the admin center -- where both Office and SharePoint can be tended to at once -- and a security and compliance center for data governance, reporting and threat management.

What about Workflow?

Power Automate is SharePoint Online's new platform for workflow. On-premises SharePoint users on the SharePoint 2016 platform typically have some SharePoint 2010 or 2013 workflows in use. This is a problem for the 2010 users, as SharePoint 2010 workflows were turned off in the new SharePoint Online tenants in August 2020 and then in new tenants the following November. The SharePoint 2013 workflows, executed in Workflow Manager rather than the deprecated SharePoint Workflow Runtime, continue to function.

Organizations heavily dependent on SharePoint 2010 workflows can't migrate to SharePoint Online unless they rewrite all of their workflows in Power Automate. On the other hand, SharePoint 2010 workflows are maintained in SharePoint 2019 for backward compatibility. Those legacy workflows will continue to function as is, but Microsoft recommends nudging them up to SharePoint 2013 or transitioning to Power Automate.

Moving to SharePoint 2019, then, could be entirely decided by dependency on SharePoint 2010 workflows.

Making the decision

When deciding whether to migrate to SharePoint 2019 or SharePoint Online, consider legacy migration barriers and differences in feature sets and functionality. But another consideration looms. What happens after SharePoint 2019?

Migration to SharePoint 2019 will get you to January 2024, when mainstream support ends, with an additional two years of extended support after that. The handwriting is on the wall.

It's no surprise that Microsoft has been relentlessly steering users toward SharePoint Online -- and by extension Office 365 -- for the better part of a decade, with the goal of retiring as many on-premises systems as possible that are less profitable and more difficult to support.

Some see a jump to SharePoint 2019 as a way of buying time to prepare for full migration to the cloud to resolve the issues of data and custom sites that won't migrate. It might also be that it's simply time to bite the bullet and get that migration to the cloud accomplished in the coming year.

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