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Which version to choose between SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online?

Microsoft’s content management system, SharePoint serves as a centralized repository for a company’s digital assets that employees interact with, all through a web-based interface.

Microsoft is shipping SharePoint in two major flavors: as SharePoint 2016 nears its end of life, professionals may consider upgrading to SharePoint 2019 (server version) and/or SharePoint Online (SaaS version) to replace it.

SharePoint 2019 is on-premises software, while SharePoint Online is a cloud service available in Microsoft 365 subscriptions. The two differ in key areas like system requirements, security, and payment models.

Historical reminder on SharePoint

SharePoint is a professional content management system (an ECM) and automation of business and document processes launched by Microsoft in 2001.

It can store different types of content: documents, lists, images and videos. It allows users to collaborate, search and share content with each other. It can also use InfoPath or HTML forms to collect information from employees.

Originally, Microsoft only offered SharePoint as an on-premises version. In 2013, Microsoft launched a second fully cloud version: SharePoint Online.

As its ECM evolved, Microsoft replaced some important components of SharePoint with online services. For example, Power Apps replaced InfoPath, Power BI replaced PerformancePoint, and Power Automate replaced SharePoint Workflows.

But even if Microsoft has replaced certain bricks of SharePoint, it still offers two versions: SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online for Microsoft 365.

Differences between SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online

As on-premises software, SharePoint 2019 differs from SharePoint Online in several ways. These differences should determine which version of SharePoint best suits your needs.

System requirements and infrastructure

Implementing SharePoint 2019 requires installing and managing a farm of SharePoint servers, including web front-ends, SQL databases, and application servers. Organizations may need more servers if they require SQL database redundancy and/or other SharePoint services.

Conversely, SharePoint Online does not require any server or hardware, Microsoft hosts the software in its data centers for its customers. The main technical requirement of SharePoint Online is to have a browser that supports HTML5.

Maintenance and version upgrades

An IT department may find that hosting SharePoint 2019 on its own infrastructure, such as on-premises or in a co-located data center, is too heavy a burden because many of its components require maintenance and support. For example, application and database servers often need patches and updates. While IT can perform some fixes with ease, they must ensure adequate system backups and access to Microsoft support when needed.

Additionally, features are available on SharePoint Online before to release in the on-premises version, which can leave on-premises users behind in terms of what’s new.

SharePoint Online users don’t have to worry about maintenance (patches, updates, version upgrades). But on the other hand, Microsoft manages and programs these actions as it sees fit, which can lead to compatibility problems with customizations made by customers.

Data security

Securing SharePoint data is a top concern for any organization, whether it has a platform in-house or in Microsoft’s cloud.

SharePoint 2019 customers can implement restrictions that completely isolate the system from the outside. Organizations with an on-premises version of Microsoft’s ECM have great flexibility in choosing their security solutions (software, hardware, or both).

Since SharePoint Online is a SaaS tool, Microsoft requires user authentication to access data. This release benefits from many Microsoft cloud security features, such as Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) and Azure Active Directory (AD). ATP can detect sign-in anomalies based on user location, and Azure AD Premium can generate reports that identify potential bad actors.

Pricing methods

SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online have very different business models, which is often a deal breaker for buyers.

SharePoint 2019 is marketed in the form of licenses (Capex type investment).

SharePoint Online is marketed “for use” (“as a service”), in short: on subscription. The price of the monthly subscription (Opex type expense) depends on the type of the “plan” and the number of users. The barrier to entry is therefore greatly reduced compared to the purchase of several Sharepoint licenses, even if the long-term cost is to be assessed.

Differences between SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online

How to choose the right version of SharePoint

Before purchasing a version of SharePoint, there are several key factors to consider such as customization and compliance needs, budget, and existing infrastructure investments.

SharePoint 2019 or later can help organizations that:

  • must support applications that cannot run in cloud environments;
  • must adhere to compliance requirements that require their databases to reside on private networks;
  • want to own their own licenses;
  • plan to use existing infrastructure investments;
  • need to have a high degree of ECM controls and customization.

SharePoint Online may be suitable for organizations that:

  • want to avoid managing on-premises environments;
  • have constraints that require them to adopt a subscription model;
  • plan to bundle SharePoint with other Microsoft 365 subscriptions;
  • want to integrate SharePoint with other services, like Power Apps;
  • lack SharePoint and SQL database management skills;
  • need access to the latest features as Microsoft releases them;
  • already use online file storage and synchronization tools.

In addition to SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Online, there is a third possibility: a mixture of the two, in a hybrid approach that combines the best of both worlds depending on the type of data to be managed (criticality, etc.).

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