Many people who have researched Microsoft SharePoint on the Internet have found a variety different definitions associated with the service. This is because SharePoint is capable of serving a range of purposes for individuals and businesses alike.

When you look up the purpose of Microsoft SharePoint on the Internet, you will most likely find many different descriptions of the service.  Some resources will define SharePoint as a content management system used for collaboration where others will describe the service as a cloud application used for document management.

SharePoint is also explained on some websites as an Intranet that provides a web-based platform for data access.  It is also described as an information portal that can be configured as a server to fulfill a variety of information and collaboration needs for businesses.

The many different descriptions of SharePoint you find online leads to a lot of confusion for those that are unfamiliar with the service.  In this article we will clarify exactly what SharePoint is, how it works, and the different ways it can be used to enhance small business operations.

What is SharePoint?

As a basic definition, SharePoint is Microsoft’s web-based application service that provides a way for businesses to increase productivity using a collaborative and shared platform.  SharePoint allows end users to share and access data, documents, and other information regardless of their location.

The main reason many people are confused by the purpose of SharePoint is because Microsoft offers a variety of different SharePoint products.  Each product serves a specific purpose and unique collection of benefits for businesses of all sizes. In order to fully understand SharePoint, it helps to have a general understanding of the different products that are available, how they work, and the primary features that are used to help businesses in many areas.

You can find the official Microsoft SharePoint website here

What are some of the SharePoint Products and How Do They Work?

To help you understand how SharePoint works, we will identify the three primary types of products that are offered for businesses, along with some of the main features that serve specific purposes.

An Introduction To Microsoft SharePoint

SharePoint Online

SharePoint Online integrates with Microsoft’s Office 365 to provide a cloud-based collaboration platform for developers to create business solutions using development tools. SharePoint Online provides a way to simplify IT deployment and management by eliminating the need to implement a server infrastructure on the premises.

In place of an in-house infrastructure, a small business can subscribe to one of the Office 365 plans or the standalone service for SharePoint Online.  IT professionals can then access the Microsoft Online Services Administration area to create SharePoint Online collaboration sites, install a variety of solutions, and establish permissions for access by specific users.

The availability of SharePoint Online features across Office 365 plans are quite broad in range and vary according to the specific version of Office 365 including Small Business, Small Business Premium, Midsize Business, Enterprise E1, E3, E4, and K1, in addition to Education A2, A3, A4, and Government G1, G3, and G4.  There is also SharePoint Online Enterprise for External Users.

According to the plan you choose, there is a wide variety of features for developers such as app deployment, access services, profile pages, business data web parts, browser-based customizations, sandboxed solutions, design managers, and many other developer tools. From the standpoint of IT professionals and IT managers there is access to a host of features some of which include patch management, active directory synchronization, configuration wizards, anti-malware protection, usage reports and logs, site health checks, site collection compliance, shredded storage, and much more.

In terms of content features, the offerings will vary according to the plan you choose. Some of the content features include auditing, content organizers, document sets, document translation in MS Word Online, Office ProPlus, eDiscovery, rich media management, site mailboxes, surveys, quick edits, shared content types, unique document IDs, and more.  Additionally, there is a large library of subcategories of features under team sites, search functions, business intelligence and insights, social networking, and add-ons.

The number of features you can implement depends upon the specific plan you choose such as Small Business, Small Business Premium, or Midsize Business, etc.

You can find out more about SharePoint Online on the official Microsoft page.

SharePoint Foundation

SharePoint Foundation is as the name implies and is the foundation upon which SharePoint applications are built. SharePoint Foundation is available for free and offers basic collaboration tools for enterprises and small businesses.  The basic features include workflows, team websites, workbooks, calendars, and document libraries.

Up until 2013, Microsoft SharePoint Foundation was commonly referred to as Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and is downloadable on the Microsoft Office website. Once you download SharePoint Foundation it serves as the base for creating collaborative tools such as:

  • Team Websites: Multiple team sites can be created for the purpose of holding a business meeting, collaboration on one or more documents, or convenient communication across multiple departments from one centralized location.  Team websites can also be used for daily business processes with the ability to customize the site for any task at hand.
  • Document Libraries: SharePoint Foundation provides document libraries that can be used as a standalone feature or integrated with a team site.  A document library stores files and documents that can be accessed and edited by the end user.  This feature offers the capability to check out documents for editing before you check them back in for others to view and edit.
  • Workbooks:  The workbook feature in SharePoint is commonly referred to as a List because it allows users to organize data in columns similar to a spreadsheet application such as Microsoft Excel.  You can configure the workbook features to display data in a variety of ways, in addition to using standard spreadsheet functions such as sorting, filtering, and other tools.  Workbooks can be used as a standalone feature or it can be integrated with a team site.
  • Calendars: This feature is used to for collaborative access to business meeting times, specific events, appointments and more.  Calendars can be integrated with a team site and Microsoft Outlook to combine calendars for improved organization.
  • Workflows:  The Workflows tool allows you to notify other users when there has been an update to a workbook or document library.  Notifications can include a single task or it can involve a specific business process that involves a series of steps.  Workflows integrates with document libraries, workbooks, and team sites.

These are a few of the basic features in SharePoint Foundation that assist with increasing work productivity.  Microsoft also offers a series of add-ons that you can use to further customize SharePoint to meet specific business needs.

You can download SharePoint foundation from the Microsoft Download centre here

SharePoint Server

SharePoint Server is for businesses that opt to manage a server infrastructure in-house.  SharePoint Server is available with a license fee and offers all of the features that are offered in SharePoint Foundation, in addition to advanced features such as electronic forms, social computing, business intelligence tools, search functions, content management systems, and more.

The purpose of SharePoint Server is to add more functionality to the basic features in SharePoint Foundation.  Some of the functions include but are not limited to:

  • Search:  The search function that is integrated with SharePoint Server allows you to search for business documents according to ID number, apply search functions to social computing to locate clients based on their interests, and use global search to locate a wide variety of information based on metadata or content, search content in external databases, and more. The search function also provides a way to index different types of content including websites, SharePoint sites, shared files and other content to make it easier to locate.
  • Social Computing: If you are using the 2013 version of SharePoint Server, there are social tools that allow you to tag, bookmark, and rate content.  Tagging also includes the ability to use hashtags like you would on the social networking site Twitter. The social computing feature also provides a way to network with others via user profiles and My Sites.
  • Business Intelligence: SharePoint Server offers a way to extend business intelligence functions by integrating with Office 365.  SharePoint Server is designed to integrate with a number of packaged services to allow you to create dashboards with key performance indicators (KPI), reports, and scorecards.  Some of the services include MySQL reporting, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and more.
  • Content Management:  The web content management feature allows the end user to create their own website for public or private use using the included templates.  This means web content can easily maintained and updated without intervention from the IT staff.  SharePoint Server also supports creation of multilingual websites.
  • Forms: Microsoft InfoPath integrates with SharePoint Server to allow you to create electronic forms and then host them with a web client such as a browser using the Forms service.  You can save the data as an XML (Extensible Markup Language) file which enables you to access data from a wider variety of sources using an array of different methods. Or, you can opt to save the data within a SharePoint List or Workbook included in SharePoint Foundation.

The above features in SharePoint Server cover functions that are not offered with SharePoint Foundation.  The main difference between SharePoint Foundation and SharePoint Server is the former does not require a server on the premises where the latter is setup in-house and as an add-on package to provide more advanced functionality.  Additionally, you cannot install SharePoint Server as a standalone infrastructure since it automatically includes SharePoint Foundation in the installation.

Should You Use SharePoint from the Cloud or Install a Local Version?

The answer to this question depends upon your individual business requirements and your budget. If you only need some or all of the features in the cloud version we discussed earlier, then an Office 365 plan or standalone SharePoint Online service may provide you with exactly what you need.

On the other hand, if your business requires some of the more advanced functions that are possible with SharePoint Server, you can opt to get a standard license that provides you with access to search functions, content management, and social networking features.  For the more advanced features, you must add an enterprise license to a standard license to expand on the content management, search functions, and social computing features. Our IT Department in London helped us with our enterprise licensing. You can find their website here, or speak to your own SharePoint specialist for more help and advice.

Is There a Model I Can Use to Help Me Decide?

The best way to decide whether to use SharePoint in the cloud or install a local version is to approach it from the basics and then work your way from there.  SharePoint in the cloud offers a generous amount of features even when you use SharePoint Foundation.

Become familiar with how SharePoint works and the different ways the basic features can serve your business.  This will help you to determine whether or not you require customization to meet specific business requirements.  If so, then identify what those requirements are and learn more about some of the advanced functions and how they can best be implemented.

SharePoint offers a great set of tools that allow you to mix and match to come up with a customized solution.  In many cases, you can create team sites, apps, and pages for a customized solution that works right within a web browser.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that SharePoint provides the infrastructure in which to build robust business solutions. And the nice part is, you can accomplish it without the cost prohibitive price tag.

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Danielle is a Microsoft SharePoint consultant with over 7 years’ experience helping businesses introduce SharePoint to the workplace. Danielle enjoys guest blogging in her spare time.