One of the more common discussions that I keep hearing over and over is around SharePoint in the cloud. This is a great topic, but there seems to still be a lot of confusion and misconceptions about what it means for SharePoint to be in the cloud. In this article, I’m going to try to clarify some of these more common issues.

Let’s take a step back. A number of very large companies (including Microsoft) are using the terms “cloud” and “cloud computing” frequently these days. But what do they mean? Here’s a basic definition I found on Wikipedia that sums it up succinctly:

Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet).

To simplify that even more, by this definition cloud computing would include anything where your hardware and software are not hosted in your own data center; instead, they’re made available by a service provider. This definition is a bit more broad than most of the ones that I’ve heard from organizations that are considering moving SharePoint to the cloud.

There are actually a few different types of clouds. As companies look to move to the cloud, it is important to be aware of the various options to make sure that they are choosing the option that is right for them:
Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS): A provider manages the hardware. Very similar options and flexibility to hosting SharePoint on premise, but the provider takes over the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the hardware. Remote access and the ability to develop and create custom solutions against this type of farm are typically the same as on-premise. Examples of IaaS would include Fpweb, Peer 1, Rackspace and other managed hosting providers.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): In this case, all an organization needs to do is sign up to get access to the application. All hardware and software are managed by the provider. From a SharePoint perspective, SaaS would include Microsoft’s Office 365 and any other vendors who provide SharePoint in a multi-tenant configuration. This option tends to be less expensive, but also has less flexibility for customizations.
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS): “Platform” refers to the cloud platform itself. There are several options for this, such as Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Windows Azure and Rackspace’s OpenStack. With this option, an organization would pay for the amount of the cloud platform it consumes. For example, instead of installing Windows, SQL and SharePoint on physical servers, they’d be installed on virtualized infrastructure running in the cloud. Typically, companies would still manage their own environment, and the provider would just provide and manage the cloud platform itself.

Which option is the right fit for your organization? The answer is the dreaded “It depends.” There’s significant value in leveraging the cloud, but it’s important to remember that cloud comes in a number of different flavors, and some combinations of cloud options make the most sense. These are referred to as Hybrid Cloud.

If someone were to ask me, “Should we be looking to move our SharePoint to the cloud?” my answer would be a very enthusiastic “Yes!” While I think all organizations should explore moving their SharePoint to the cloud, I also recognize that the cloud isn’t going to be a great fit for everyone. Certain organizations have security or regulatory constraints that make going to the cloud impossible.

It is important to weigh all of the various cloud options, and to consider the security, flexibility, total cost and functionality you get from each option. My advice is to take your time and do your homework. Happy SharePointing!!

John Ross is a Microsoft SharePoint Server MVP and Senior Consultant with Rackspace.