In this interview, Mary Leigh Mackie, Vice President of Product Marketing at AvePoint, gives her thoughts on how the cloud can benefit a SharePoint deployment, and how cloud functionalities will affect governance policies and business priorities.

How do businesses use the cloud to maximise SharePoint’s potential?

When an organisation is looking to incorporate cloud computing into their existing SharePoint deployment, there are many different routes that can be taken. One option is to subscribe to SharePoint as a service, through Microsoft Office 365, providing a SharePoint environment that is easier to manage but with less flexibility for customisation.

Another way is to enlist a cloud provider such as Amazon Web Services or Windows Azure to set up a virtual machine and run the entire deployment from the cloud. Alternatively, a business could choose to run SharePoint on-premise, but store data with a cloud vendor – using a third-party solution to link the two.

Businesses like the cloud as it has the flexibility to match IT requirements that can change over time. If an organisation needs to quickly provision resources for a SharePoint site expansion, or wants to create a sealed-off, secure environment to test new SharePoint capabilities before expanding company-wide, a cloud environment can provide those capabilities in a far shorter timeframe than the usual on-premise deployment.

Whereas traditionally organisations have to think about server, storage and networking capacity, cloud vendors replace these concerns with a simple costing structure. Instead of procuring limited space on an internal server for a virtualised SharePoint environment, a business can simply request the storage expansion from a cloud vendor and gain immediate access to the space.

Ultimately, it comes down to the individual business need. The cloud is useful for provisioning resources, but it also potentially complicates information management by spreading content across multiple systems and sites. It is important for a business to manage expectations and clearly define what it wants to achieve from the cloud.

How can SharePoint in the cloud benefit governance?

A governance policy mitigates risk, improving the way overall business aims translate into actions by the IT department. IT staff usually handle SharePoint infrastructure and operational management, which typically includes the balancing of storage, networking and administrative costs. By using a cloud provider, the business removes this internal management headache, relying on an external provider to deliver reliable service level agreements, flexibility and availability.

By replacing hardware server and storage management with a simple structure that can scale up and down to reflect business needs, a governance policy should change to reflect the difference in priorities. Instead of prioritising server and storage management (which is now covered by the cloud vendor), organisations should give greater priority to managing data security, service availability and cost, considering that some part of SharePoint (if not all) is now based in an area that is outside the company’s control.

What additional policies would AvePoint recommend a business implement?

A move to the cloud effectively transforms infrastructure management into operational expenditure, which could entirely change the way IT manages its budget. Unlike an on-premise storage model, where there is a definite ‘limit’ to how much information can be stored on a certain server, cloud vendors provide a more flexible approach.

Most providers set out a standard, baseline charge which provides a certain amount of storage. When a user goes over that set amount, instead of hitting a ‘brick wall’, more data can be stored at an additional cost. The task for the business, then, is to monitor storage and make sure that costs are under control. To do this, it is recommended that a business develops clear policies to manage data expansion and react appropriately when storage limits are reached.

How should businesses deal with the regulatory and compliance issues from storing data off site?

For compliance and governance officers, data protection ranks as one of the major challenges when looking to use the cloud. Businesses are typically very wary to trust cloud vendors as it is usually the first time that data will be stored off-premise.

While it is the cloud provider’s responsibility to make sure that data is not lost or stolen, officers feel that a data breach is still their responsibility. Holding responsibility for an on-premise deployment is traditional and feels safer.

However, cloud providers have taken steps to comply with certain federal and international regulations on data privacy, and offer to work with customers to define how data should be protected. For small businesses that have overlooked data security, a cloud vendor could provide a more secure hosting environment for sensitive business information. As with all other parts of a cloud deployment, it is crucial that organisations research different cloud providers to determine which solution works best for them.

What are the benefits of a hybrid solution from a governance perspective and how would it affect a policy that has previously been ‘in-house’?

As we know, cloud computing can be more cost effective and has the flexibility to adjust as a business evolves. However, organisations have a real issue with storing data online. A hybrid model allows for the best of both worlds by letting companies choose how they use cloud and on-premise capabilities, which can vary from business to business.

While one company may choose to use the cloud to supply critical information to a mobile workforce, another may look at the cloud as the simplest way to host an extranet site and securely separate information silos for internal and external users. Most companies see a hybrid solution as a good stepping stone towards a complete, cloud-only deployment of SharePoint.

Even for businesses in vertical markets that have strict regulations on data management, such as financial service providers and government departments, a hybrid deployment can make sense, allowing organisations to follow regulations while keeping level with advances in the industry.

A hybrid solution allows a business to work side-by-side with existing governance policies while IT management defines specific roles for the cloud. With third-party solutions such as AvePoint’s DocAve Software Platform, businesses can integrate and manage cloud computing using the same tools that have previously been used for on-premise deployments, allowing for a natural evolution of SharePoint capabilities across both environments.

In reality, the individual business case determines whether a cloud deployment is needed, affordable and manageable. If a business is looking to deploy SharePoint on-premise, through a cloud service, or any combination of the two, it is imperative to understand why the specific medium will be used, how data will be managed and what benefits it will generate for the organisation. A strong governance policy will answer all of these questions, and ultimately, ensures that high-level corporate targets for SharePoint deployments will be adhered to through controlled, managed actions by the IT staff.