Last summer, I wrote an article discussing SharePoint in the cloud and what it actually means. The article {} was a response to the common question I hear all the time about what it means to put SharePoint in the cloud. The basic summary is that “cloud” comes in different flavors, and each one presents different pros and cons. If you’re still exploring the decision of going to the cloud, that article is a good starting point.

But there’s another side to the discussion. You’ll often hear talk of SharePoint in the cloud compared to keeping SharePoint on-prem, which is short for on-premises. What exactly does on-prem mean these days? You might be surprised to learn that it doesn’t always refer to a location; in other words, you can have “on-prem” SharePoint that lives “off-prem” in the cloud.

What is SharePoint on-prem?
For the longest time, when we all thought of SharePoint, we assumed it’d be installed in a data center, whether that was your own or a hosting provider’s. As SharePoint evolved, Microsoft’s SharePoint Online in Office 365 has grown in popularity. This cloud-based, Software-as-a-Service version of SharePoint is managed by Microsoft and has some features that are different from the version that gets installed on a server. To make a distinction between the two variants of SharePoint, the traditional version is commonly referred to as “on-prem.” Basically anything that isn’t the SharePoint Online version of the software is referred to as “on-prem.”

The topic can get very confusing because as businesses evaluate SharePoint in the cloud, they’re often trying to make a decision between putting SharePoint on-prem (in their local data center) or moving to the cloud. This is precisely the topic of my previous article. The reality is that if your company decides to move SharePoint to another data center, you still might want or need SharePoint on-prem.

If that last sentence is confusing, stick with me. I’m about to explain.

How can my SharePoint be both in the cloud and on-prem? Unless you’re using SharePoint Online in Office 365, then you’re using the on-prem version of SharePoint Server. I’m going to avoid the temptation to borrow from Jeff Foxworthy and go on a “You might be on-prem” discussion. Instead, here’s a list of a few common scenarios that would utilize the on-prem version of SharePoint. Pay close attention—you’ll notice there are plenty of cloud options here:
• SharePoint is installed on servers in your data center.
• SharePoint is installed on servers at a hosting provider.
• SharePoint is installed on virtual servers in a cloud such as Amazon. Even SharePoint installed in Microsoft’s Azure uses the on-prem build!

As you can see, it is absolutely possible to have SharePoint in the cloud and to use the on-prem version of the product.
#!Let’s try to simplify
When you’re evaluating the decision of whether to move to the cloud, there are a number of different questions to answer. But at a high level, there are two big questions:
• Do you want someone else to host your SharePoint environment? (Where should your SharePoint environment physically live?)
• If the answer to the previous question is that you would like someone else to host and maintain your SharePoint environment (i.e., you chose to move to the cloud), will you use SharePoint Online or a different option?

The moral of the story is that you’re using the on-prem version of SharePoint in all of these cases, even cloud scenarios, unless you’re using SharePoint Online.

Why does this even matter?
This is an important distinction because as we get closer to Microsoft’s SharePoint Conference 2014, you’ll begin to hear about things like the “road map for on-prem” or other topics that make reference to on-prem. The terminology is very confusing, and it is possible that, depending on the context of the conversation or presentation, the meaning could be different.

Bottom line
Moving SharePoint to the cloud is something that I think every customer should be investigating. The terminology can be very confusing, the terms “cloud” and “on-prem” get thrown around a lot and can make you dizzy if you’re not careful. But at the end of the day, the decision comes down to whether you want to host SharePoint locally or with another provider. Once you figure that out, just remember that even if you decide to move SharePoint to the cloud, you might still be using the on-prem version of SharePoint.

John Ross is a Microsoft SharePoint Server MVP and Technical Product Manager with Rackspace. Visit his blog at or follow his SharePoint adventures on Twitter at