The Role of SharePoint Online in Microsoft 365

Document Management Par Excellence

Browsing through Twitter (as some still do), I came across a “What is SharePoint” article. Given that I’ve used SharePoint since the initial release of SharePoint Portal Server in 2001, I opened and read the content. (Fun fact: SharePoint originally used the Exchange ESE database engine. The move to SQL happened with SharePoint 2003. Around the same time, the Exchange “Kodiak” project dabbled with the idea of moving to SQL. That project never proceeded).

In any case, the article sets out to explain what SharePoint is and how people use it, which is a worthy purpose. Some good points are made, especially about the transition from the old-style SharePoint to the new UX and architecture. Inevitably, a couple of points of contention exist, so here’s what I think about the role played by SharePoint Online today inside the Microsoft 365 ecosystem.

SharePoint Online Has Always Been Part of Office 365

First, the article asserts that SharePoint Online joined Office 365 in 2012 following the release of SharePoint 2013 Server. This is inaccurate. SharePoint Online has always been part of Office 365 and was included in the beta released in April 2011 and the initial version released on June 28, 2011. Microsoft based the initial release of SharePoint Online on SharePoint 2010 Server. There’s no doubt that the subsequent upgrade to the Wave 14 servers (Exchange 2013 and SharePoint 2013) helped Office 365 enormously, but that came later.

SharePoint’s Toolbox

The article covers the attempts of SharePoint to be all things to all customers by providing features like task management and conversations. One undoubted truth for SharePoint is that it failed to be the “Swiss army knife of collaboration.” That’s a good thing because we learn through failures, and I think SharePoint learned that its strengths are in content management and not collaboration or workflow.

Then again, you can argue a good case that other developments in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem left the capabilities available in SharePoint behind. The big difference between on-premises and the cloud is that on-premises servers are often the fulcrum of a complete ecosystem. Once servers like SharePoint and Exchange become part of a cloud solution, they are no longer at the center and must instead function as a productive part of the ecosystem. Teams, Yammer, and Outlook are better points for collaboration (each with its own strengths). Planner and Project are better at task management, and Power Automate offers better workflow capabilities. A common point is that all these apps contribute to and use services from other apps and Azure, including SharePoint Online. All contribute to the ecosystem, as does SharePoint Online.

Once Teams gathered speed, there was no stopping it, especially after the acceleration in demand for its services during the pandemic. SharePoint Online wisely dropped working on solutions that were never going anywhere and concentrated on what it does best, which is to deliver an enterprise-class document management service to Microsoft 365. After SharePoint focused, its developers were able to exploit other areas based on existing capabilities, like what is now Microsoft Lists.

SharePoint and Teams

I fundamentally disagree with the article’s assertion that SharePoint is the backbone of Microsoft Teams. You could say the same about Azure (Teams uses many Azure services, including Azure Cosmos DB for its message stores), or Exchange (Teams uses Exchange Online for its calendar and to store compliance records). It’s true that every new team comes complete with a new SharePoint Online site. The same is true for private and shared channels, each of which has a site associated with the site belonging to the host team. But this simply reflects an app’s use of SharePoint Online for document management. It’s just like the way Yammer stores documents for its communities.

This brings me to the true backbone of Teams: Microsoft 365 groups. Without the identity management, membership model, and resource provisioning of Groups, Teams wouldn’t work the way the app does today.

In December 2017, I wrote an opinion piece saying that Office 365 Groups saved SharePoint Online. I was wrong: although Outlook groups demonstrated how users could have easy access to SharePoint without having to navigate SharePoint’s browser interface, it was Teams saved SharePoint Online by providing users with a reason to use SharePoint Online. I said “People don’t think about using SharePoint. They think about using Teams, or Planner, or Yammer, or Outlook” and “if they have a file to store, they put it wherever the application dictates, like in the Files section of Teams. It is a natural and easy way for people to use document management and it is the engine driving SharePoint usage. That assertion is truer now than it was in 2017. Accessing SharePoint Online files through the Teams Files channel tab (Figure 1) is an area that Microsoft has improved over the years and is now as functional as the SharePoint browser interface in practical terms.

The Teams Files channel tab allows easy access to documents stored in SharePoint Online
Figure 1: The Teams Files channel tab allows easy access to documents stored in SharePoint Online

The growth in Teams to 270 million monthly active users (likely higher now because Microsoft hasn’t updated the figure since January 2022) propelled SharePoint usage to new heights. When Microsoft announced the new Syntex backup solution at Ignite 2022, they said that “Every workday, on average, our customers add over 1.6 billion documents to Microsoft 365.” Those documents go into SharePoint Online sites and OneDrive for Business accounts, and users create many of those files using the connection between Teams and SharePoint Online (here’s Microsoft’s description of that connection).

OneDrive for Business

SharePoint Online deals with business users. OneDrive for Business is the personal side of SharePoint Online. Microsoft uses the consumer version of OneDrive as the document management solution for consumer apps, including Teams Personal.

Microsoft didn’t break out the percentage of the 1.6 billion documents added daily so we don’t know how many ended up in OneDrive for Business. I suspect that the proportion is roughly half and half. OneDrive for Business stores files shared in Teams chat and Outlook messages, including Loop components. It stores user files created in the Documents folder on Windows desktops, and so on. OneDrive for Business is everywhere.

One of the reasons why OneDrive for Business does so well is its excellent sync client. I would not have said that some years ago because the original OneDrive sync client was awful. Synchronization challenges have been encountered and overcome since and the current sync client does a wonderful job of keeping files synchronized across devices. The addition od differential synchronization in 2020 was an important step in this process. I depend on OneDrive synchronization and document auto-save to preserve my work.

SharePoint is a Basic Microsoft 365 Workload

Microsoft considers three workloads to be the foundation of Microsoft 365: Exchange, SharePoint, and Teams. SharePoint Online is the critical document management service for Microsoft 365 and it fulfils that role extremely well. As time passes, the connections and dependencies between the base workloads grow and deepen, something that never happened in the on-premises world.

It’s been interesting to observe the development of SharePoint from a small department-level server to a massive worldwide service for hundreds of millions of users. Many people never realize that they use SharePoint Online because they interact through other apps. That’s just fine. No application is the center of anything these days. Services are what’s important and SharePoint Online delivers a great service, and that’s what’s important.

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