Microsoft’s current Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) is a SharePoint cloud offering mainly targeted to small businesses who want an instant SharePoint collaboration environment without the need to host on premise.  It costs $10 / user / month at a minimum of 5 users.  It provides you an out of the box SharePoint environment that your users can collaborate in, share documents, etc.

Microsoft currently provides the ability to customize your BPOS environment using SharePoint Designer.    This provides the ability for customers to deploy simple configuration based changes to their environment such as:

  • Use Office SharePoint Designer 2007 to create and deploy no-code workflows, customize content types, taxonomy, and branding via master pages and layouts. You can also create and deploy site templates.
  • Use the Data Form Web Part to create applications to mash up, filter, roll up, and render SharePoint data or data consumed from a Web service such as RSS feeds in new ways.
  • Use Microsoft Office InfoPath® to design forms for workflows, provided the forms contain no custom code.
  • Use the Office SharePoint Server Web services to access and manipulate SharePoint data remotely.

Microsoft has supplied a guide on how to use SharePoint Designer to customize BPOS.  One of the key limitations with BPOS is the inability to deploy custom code or third party web parts.

However, in the new Office 365, the ability to deploy custom built solutions will be supported using the SharePoint 2010 Sandbox.  Developers either internally to your organization or externally through partners could build you custom solutions that can be then deployed to a Sandbox running in the cloud.  These solutions could include:

  • Deployable site templates
  • Custom web parts
  • List definitions
  • Event receivers

There are some limitations with Sandbox solutions that will apply also to Office 365 assuming they comply with the existing SharePoint 2010 Sandbox model.  These include:

  • Security Limitations
  • No Email Support
  • Limitations on using existing SharePoint visual controls
  • No ability to call external web services
  • Sandboxes are contained with site collections
  • No business connectivity services (e.g. ability to integrate with external systems or databases)
  • No ability to run Powershell scripts for automated maintenance or administration tasks

While the SharePoint sandbox is an improvement over BPOS (which has no deployment model at all), it still puts significant limitations on custom code development.  In addition, its not clear how third party products will be supported in the model – if I see a Bamboo web part that I want to use, can I deploy it to Office365?  The current answer is no.

From a planning perspective, these technical limitations mean that you need to really understand your present and future requirements before committing to Office 365 instead of on-premise SharePoint based implementation.    If you need a lightly customizable, easy to maintain SharePoint environment then it might be the right fit for your organization.  However, if you are a larger enterprise with visions of integration with back end systems, custom developed solutions, or third party products then Office 365 may simply not be the right fit for your enterprise needs, even if it is a significant improvement from BPOS.