What is Office 365 SharePoint Online like when you use it for real? And what potential application does it have for helping in learning?
My company has been using Office 365 in anger for a month or so now, here is a review of the SharePoint component from a general business user perspective with a bias to using it for learning. Do things work well (the “Good”), how much of a problem are the documented weaknesses (the “Bad”), what makes a real difference (the “Brilliant”) and what is unexpected (the “Ugly”)?
Some small print: The opinions in this review are mine and do not reflect the views of my employer; note also that we are using the E3 package, and the features of Office 365 do vary by package.
Most of the good points come from standard SharePoint:
- Make site and pages easily. It’s a few minutes work to create a site to store documents on or allow people to collaborate on. You do it all within the UI, and then people can access it, learn from it or collaborate in it.
- Set up lists to track things. For example, I run our annual data security competency tests in my company, and use a SharePoint list to track when people are due for a test (see here for more on this).
- Search. SharePoint 2010 has a great search engine, and the searching within Office 365 seems fast and easy, you can often find what you are looking for.
- Security. If you have confidential data or material you want to hide from learners, it’s easy to do so.
- Workflow is available without coding. It’s easy to add workflow to a list, you just click on one of the ribbon options and you can open up SharePoint Designer to do this. For instance send an email when someone is allocated a task or when someone submits an assignment, send an email or assign a task to a grader.
- It works with Active Directory. You can set up Office 365 to connect to your organization’s Active Directory if you want, which allows your users to login with their usual name and password – we do this and it works great. There also are options for external users, which I’ve not explored.
- You can easily include assessments. See my earlier posts ”Call assessments from Office 365, authenticating via Active Directory” and “Want to use Office 365 for learning- Four ways to use assessments within Office 365” for details or see the screenshot below.
- All the rest of SharePoint is there too. There is an awful lot to explore, for instance there are over 75 web parts to choose from including Excel and Visio web access .
- The other parts of Office 365 are pretty useful too! Lync is a great improvement on Windows Live Messenger on Live Meeting. Having someone host Exchange for you is a boon, and the various Office applications fit in well with SharePoint Online.
There are lots of standard SharePoint 2010 capabilities which are not possible in SharePoint Online. Here are the three I find painful.
- You can’t use Windows Live Writer to write blogs for SharePoint Office 365. You either have to use the inbuilt SharePoint UI or else if you want to write offline, you can use Word. Word is okay for blogging, but I miss some of the capabilities of Windows Live Writer, especially the ways it will make thumbnails of images for you and other ways to manage pictures in blogs.
- Email enabled lists and libraries aren’t permitted. There are all sorts of applications for this as a way of getting in data from outside. See for instance Pushing results into SharePoint from an Assessment System using Email, but this is not permitted in Office 365.
- Third party add-in programs are very restricted. Indeed almost all of those currently available won’t work due to the restrictions. Watch out for this to change, as a lot of vendors are busily writing applications that will fit within what Microsoft allow, but for the moment, it’s a restriction.
Do any kind of search on the web for SharePoint and you will find articles on SharePoint farm organization, setting up search indexing, how to set up SQL Server to run SharePoint and other technical articles on setting up SharePoint. There are thousands of complex articles out there explaining how to install and configure SharePoint effectively.
The great thing about SharePoint Online is that you don’t need to know any setup stuff – Microsoft does it for you!
Yes, I’ll repeat that. The great thing about SharePoint Online is that you don’t need to know any setup stuff – Microsoft does it for you!
If you want to set up a site for a learning project, you wouldn’t want all the hassle of setting up SharePoint on servers, but now you can just pay some money and do it in the Cloud.
And the Ugly
There are a few things which Microsoft don’t document well and which are painful.
- Migration is painful. If you have an existing SharePoint site, moving it to Office 365 is a lot less nice than you’d like. Microsoft don’t provide their own tools to do this, there are external tools which we used, which help, but it takes a long time and the migration isn’t perfect. We still have a lot of URLs within our wiki which point to documents on our old SharePoint site which we have to fix laboriously.
- You are limited in the number of email recipients you can send to. Although more an Exchange feature than a SharePoint one, there is a limit to the number of email recipients that you can send from a single mailbox; this is 500 a day on the more basic Office 365 packages and 1500 a day for enterprises. So if you want to make an announcement or send out a newsletter, you are limited to the number of people you can send it to. [Update Nov 8th: one useful workaround to this is that each distribution group in the group address list counts as just a single recipient.]
- Lists, libraries and wikis with more than 5,000 entries don’t seem to work properly. In theory, SharePoint Online can have millions of entries in a list or library, but in practice in the current release, if you have more than 5,000 you don’t seem to be able to use the library (e.g. cannot set permissions). For instance, we have a wiki library which has close to 5,000 pages and we are having to manage it and delete old pages to ensure we don’t step over the limit. Not a problem for small users, but a problem if you grow. [Update Nov 8th: if you split your library into folders, you can have libraries with more than 5,000 documents, but there is an issue that managing permissions directly in the UI seems blocked once you exceed the 5,000 limit.]
- You can’t open PDFs, you have to download them before opening. Apparently due to security concerns, if you have PDFs that you want people to open on your site, they can’t click and open them directly, you have to save them on your local computer first and then view, you get a dialog like the below:
Like many others, we use PDF files extensively and this is a pain. I can’t believe it’ll be long before Microsoft change this … here’s hoping anyway.
One of the great things about a software service like Office 365 is that it can be updated at the server end and I’m sure we’ll see improvements from service updates.
If you currently run SharePoint On Premise and don’t have a lot of third party web parts, then moving to SharePoint Online seems very viable, but prepare for some effort to do the migration. If you’re looking to run a learning project online, then take a look at Office 365, particularly with assessments, it may be a viable route to set up an effective site quickly.
Feel free to comment below if you have any corrections or your own comments on SharePoint Online.