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SharePoint Server 2016 Released

Both SharePoint Server 2016 and Office Online Servers were released to the public on Wednesday.

With those releases, it's possible for organizations to start deploying Microsoft's newest collaboration and document file-sharing server. Microsoft is hosting a "Future of SharePoint" event in San Francisco on Wednesday to announce the commercial availability of those products, as well as to lay out its SharePoint vision. Jeff Teper, Microsoft's corporate vice president for OneDrive and SharePoint, that will speak on that topic at 9:30 a.m. Pacific Time.

In the interim leading up to its release, Microsoft has typically emphasized the "hybrid" capabilities coming with SharePoint Server 2016. The hybrid aspect refers to capabilities powered by the use of Office 365 cloud-based services and SharePoint server farms on premises. Last year, this idea was described as being based on Microsoft's FAST enterprise search technology, which powers the Office 365 Delve service with its underlying Office 365 Graph technology, according to a talk by Mark Kashman, a Microsoft senior product manager on the SharePoint team. This week, Microsoft is continuing this emphasis, stressing collaboration improvements enabled by a hybrid approach using SharePoint Server 2016.

It's true that SharePoint Server 2016 will have some basic product improvements over its predecessor, SharePoint Server 2013, although the products are somewhat similar. The new server will have more relaxed limits for lists, file sizes and site collections. There are some topology improvements, including a new MinRole option that promises more simplified SharePoint farm deployments. A new "durable links" feature promises to make it easier to move files without losing connections to them. There's also a coming Fast Site Collection Creation feature and hybrid search, among others. These SharePoint Server 2016 features were outlined in a recent talk by Microsoft MVP Vlad Catrinesu.

Microsoft's announcement this week stressed its collaboration vision with SharePoint Server 2016 and Office 365. It also provided a roadmap for the capabilities available today, as well as future improvements. The themes included "intelligent discovery," Office application collaborations and mobile access to SharePoint and Office 365 services.

Many of the new capabilities coming for SharePoint Server users may require having Office 365 subscriptions in place, as well as the use of Office Online Server.

"The new capabilities in SharePoint Online will be available to all Office 365 commercial customers," a Microsoft spokesperson explained via e-mail. "Certain document collaboration capabilities are available to SharePoint Server customers only if they have Office Online Server installed."

Office Online Server, now at general availability, is the successor to Office Web Apps Server 2013 and lets organizations host Office applications that are designed to run in Web browsers. Office Online Server can support organizations ranging from 100 employees to 100,000 employees, according to Microsoft, and it also works with Exchange Server 2016 and Skype for Business Server 2016, with backward compatibility to 2013-branded servers.

Mobile and Intranet Announcements
There were some new product announcements this week. Microsoft has been developing a new SharePoint mobile app for Android, iOS and Windows devices. Microsoft is promising that the new SharePoint mobile app will have "full fidelity" with an organization's sites, even premises-based ones. The SharePoint mobile app for iOS will be arriving sometime this quarter. SharePoint mobile apps for the Android and Windows platforms are expected to arrive sometime this year.

Microsoft plans to roll out a new SharePoint home page for Office 365 users. That's happening sometime this month. It will allow user access to sites located both online and on premises, including intranet sites.

SharePoint Team Sites will be coming together with Office 365 Groups, which is expected to happen sometime this year. Users create a Team Site from the SharePoint home page. They can then provision an Office 365 Group "in just seconds," Microsoft's announcement explained. The enabling technology behind it is the Office Graph. Microsoft describes Office Graph as its "intelligent fabric" that tracks content and activity associated with the use of Office products in organizations.

Microsoft plans to integrate PowerApps into SharePoint Team Sites "so that you can create cross-platform PowerApps that utilize SharePoint lists and libraries as a data source." In addition, Microsoft Flow is getting integrated into SharePoint, "which allows you to create and launch Flows directly from a SharePoint list." The integration of PowerApps and Microsoft Flow into SharePoint Team Sites is expected happen sometime this year. Last month, Microsoft indicated that both PowerApps and Microsoft Flow were at the preview stage. PowerApps is conceived as a set of developer tools and templates that are simplified for ordinary business users to create business applications. Microsoft Flow is part of PowerApps. It allows users to mash up data from various services, and set up certain actions.

Security and Compliance Improvements
Microsoft announced "dynamic conditional access polices in SharePoint," without providing much detail. Microsoft has had a conditional access capability that's typically associated with Office 365 application use and its mobile management solutions. For instance, device compliance can get checked automatically before providing network access to a mobile device user. Dynamic conditional access in SharePoint may be somewhat different as it has more "granular" control. It will "intelligently define access based on who you are, the app or device you are using, and your network location," according to Microsoft's announcement. The dynamic conditional access capability will be available sometime this quarter.

Microsoft's data loss prevention scheme is currently available with SharePoint Server 2016 and Office 365. It blocks the sharing of text using untrusted applications and it screens out the use of sensitive information, such as credit card numbers in e-mails. While the data loss prevention feature isn't new, Microsoft plans to permit organizations to "classify a SharePoint site" under this scheme, applying policies across the content of that site. That capability will be available "later this year."

IT pros will see a new SharePoint Insights service later this year. It's a reporting service that combines "usage and compliance data from on-premises and cloud into the Office 365 Reporting Center," according to the announcement. IT pros can use this service to see actions that SharePoint users are taking and perform advanced analytics, according to a September talk by Bill Baer, a senior technical product manager on the SharePoint team. A preview of the SharePoint Insights service is expected by year's end.

Microsoft's Customer Lockbox feature, which enables Microsoft to have maintenance access to Office 365 tenants, will get additional protection. Microsoft plans to let organizations manage their own keys to encrypt data stored on SharePoint. That capability is expected by year's end.

Microsoft also promised the appearance of new datacenters in Canada and Germany by year's end.

New SharePoint Framework
Underlying it all is a new SharePoint Framework for developers, which "enables fully supported client-side development, easy integration with the Microsoft Graph, and support for open source tooling."

The focus with the SharePoint Framework is the use of open source JavaScript and "web templating frameworks across cloud and on-premises SharePoint," according to Microsoft's announcement. The templates are designed to be "mobile by default" and developers can design for the new SharePoint mobile app. SharePoint Web Parts built using the new framework can be added to existing SharePoint pages, Microsoft is promising.

The roadmap timeline for the arrival of the new SharePoint Framework will be this summer for "first release" testers. Appearing in Q3 2016 will be a Files API for Microsoft Graph, a preview of SharePoint Webhooks and a preview of "client-side Web Parts."

Here's what's expected by year's end, per Microsoft's announcement:

  • The Sites API on Microsoft Graph
  • SharePoint Webhooks (GA)
  • Custom sites on the SharePoint Framework

For a perspective on the importance of the new SharePoint Framework, see partner reactions in this Redmond Channel Partner story by Scott Bekker.

Intelligent Discovery and OneDrive Integration
Microsoft is promising easier access to Office 365 files. They'll be easier to find, which Microsoft is calling "intelligent discovery." File collaborations are getting enhanced with "real-time" coauthoring. Some of these enhancements will be arriving because of Microsoft's coming SharePoint and OneDrive improvements.

This quarter, Microsoft will enable its intelligent discovery capability to work across both SharePoint and OneDrive. Microsoft announced a few other related improvements.

For instance, also coming this quarter will be the ability to access the document libraries of SharePoint Online using the OneDrive mobile app. It will be possible for the OneDrive Web app client to copy files to SharePoint. Lastly, Microsoft plans to roll out a "OneDrive Universal Windows Platform application" sometime this quarter.

Here's what's expected by year's end:

  • Document analytics surfaced in OneDrive to provide insight into document usage, reach and impact.
  • Synchronization of SharePoint Online document libraries with the new OneDrive sync client.
  • Synchronization of shared folders with the new OneDrive sync client.
  • Mobile access to SharePoint document libraries in on-premises farms.
  • Move and copy files between OneDrive and SharePoint in web experiences.

Feature Packs
Microsoft also announced plans to release so-called "Feature Packs" for SharePoint Server 2016 customers that have Software Assurance annuity protection. Apparently, these Feature Packs will bring SharePoint Online capabilities to SharePoint Server 2016 environments. Here's how the spokesperson characterized the Feature Packs:

Feature Packs refer to a process through which value is delivered from SharePoint Online to SharePoint Server 2016 based on our existing Public Update model. Public Updates are shipped monthly and contain a set of features accrued from SharePoint Online. As those features mature, we'll enable Software Assurance customers to deploy them, selectively through SharePoint Central Administration.

At this point, Microsoft isn't saying what cloud functionality will be enabled by Feature Packs, but the idea is that server users will be able get "the same set of innovation" that's available through the SharePoint Online service, with some limitations.

"Some innovation cannot be packaged and delivered to on-premises, such as the Office Graph," the spokesperson explained. "For those scenarios, we bring them to our on-premises customers through hybrid experiences."

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