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SharePoint Online: Get Started with SharePoint Online

SharePoint brings its collaboration capabilities to the cloud, which should simplify deployment and management.

Joshua Hoffman

We live in an idea economy. The dawn of the information age has given way to full-blown daylight. Many of the old constructs of the “traditional” industrial economy (9-to-5 jobs that you keep for 20 years, manufacturing physical products and so on) have faded into the background. Data has become the currency of business, and collaboration is the fuel.

Collaboration across different offices, time zones and continents is not always easy. SharePoint has long been the leading platform for enabling this increasingly critical collaborative process. SharePoint facilitates sharing news and information; sharing documents, spreadsheets and other structured business data; and promoting new communication channels with partners, suppliers and customers.

The landscape of IT infrastructure is changing, though, as companies are realizing the benefits of cloud-based services. The cost savings achieved through shared and virtualized resources, the ability to scale on-demand, and the resiliency of physical and geographic redundancy make a compelling statement.

You can now give your user community access to SharePoint 2010 through the cloud with SharePoint Online. SharePoint Online is part of the Microsoft Office 365 suite. You can now enhance and extend your traditional “on-premises” installation with cloud-based services. Managing SharePoint Online is certainly different from an on-premises installation, particularly the deployment considerations and how to create and manage users and sites.

Get Started

Because SharePoint Online is part of the Office 365 suite, all you really need to do to get started is sign up for an account. You can do so by visiting the Office 365 site and purchasing a subscription.

Office 365 offers a number of plans to suit your needs, ranging from the “P Plans” for Professionals and Small Businesses (which support up to 50 users) to “E Plans” more tailored to enterprise needs. These include not only greater capacity, but additional functionality as well. Be sure to visit the SharePoint team blog for guidance on choosing the plan that is right for you.

Once you’re registered, head to the Admin Overview page in the Office 365 portal (see Figure 1).

The Office 365 Admin Overview page in the Office 365 portal

Figure 1 The Office 365 Admin Overview page in the Office 365 portal.

The Admin Overview page is the hub for all of the major administrative tasks related to Office 365. These include managing users and domains, unified communications services including Lync Online and Exchange Online, and your SharePoint Online infrastructure. The Admin Portal also lets you manage your subscriptions and licenses for Office 365 services.

Consider how you plan to deploy SharePoint Online in your organization in the context of your broader infrastructure. Will SharePoint Online replace or extend parts of your on-premises installations? Which of your users will need access to SharePoint Online sites and data? How much existing data will be migrated to the new SharePoint Online installation (from where, and of what type)? Will you be delegating administrative privileges to other users? Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be in a better position to begin deploying SharePoint Online to your users.

To help you make an informed decision about which Office 365 SharePoint will work best for you, see these service descriptions:

Adding Domains

If you already have your own domain name, you can use that name with Office 365 services, including SharePoint Online. To add a custom domain, select Domains in the Management section on the Admin Overview page sidebar. From there, select “Add a Domain.” You’ll be prompted to enter the domain name you wish to use (see Figure 2).

Adding a custom domain to Office 365.

Figure 2 Adding a custom domain to Office 365.

Once you’ve verified that the information is correct, click Next. Then you’ll have to verify your ownership of the domain (by creating either a TXT or MX DNS record with your registrar). The verification process typically only takes 15 to 30 minutes. It could take up to 72 hours, depending on your DNS system. Once your domain ownership is verified, you’ll be given instructions for configuring the rest of your DNS records to point them to Office 365.

Add and Manage Users

SharePoint Online has a full-featured framework for adding and managing user identities and establishing granular administrative models. You’ll find the first option for adding new users in the Users section of the Admin Overview page. You can add new user identities manually (see Figure 3).

SharePoint Online also provides a default set of user attributes, which you can augment to further suit your organization’s needs. See “ Add, Edit or Delete Properties for a User Profile” for further details on how to customize user profile attributes. (Note: You’ll need an “E Plan” subscription to create custom user profile attributes beyond what is included by default.)

Adding a new user to Office 365

Figure 3 Adding a new user to Office 365.

You can also add users in bulk by importing a CSV file populated with all of the user information. There’s a sample CSV file on the Bulk Add page of the Admin Overview page.

If your organization has an enterprise-level “E Plan” subscription, you can use Active Directory Synchronization. This lets you use your existing Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) infrastructure to grant access to SharePoint Online resources.

You can also enable the Single Sign-On (SSO) functionality. This is powered by Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS). SSO lets your users seamlessly access SharePoint Online resources without re-entering their credentials. SSO gives you additional capabilities, as well. You can manage account policies and access restrictions through centralized Active Directory administrative tools.

There are a few requirements for using SSO. You should be aware of these in advance:

With those requirements satisfied, you can configure SSO and Active Directory synchronization via the Admin Overview page. Be sure to read “ Prepare for Single Sign-On” and “ Active Directory Synchronization Roadmap” for detailed, step-by-step instructions. You can view the online presentation, “ Using Active Directory with Office 365,” for additional advanced guidance.

SharePoint Online grants external users access to resources hosted on secured SharePoint Online sites to further facilitate collaboration. This is intended to simplify document and information sharing. It does not fulfill typical enterprise requirements for a full extranet solution.

To allow external users to access a SharePoint Online site, you have to enable access for them by clicking Settings | Manage External Users in the SharePoint Online Administration Center (see Figure 4).

Enabling access for external users in SharePoint Online

Figure 4 Enabling access for external users in SharePoint Online.

Doing this gives every site collection administrator in the environment the option of allowing external sharing on their sites. Site collection administrators can then enable external user invitations for their collections (see Figure 5). After this, site owners and designers can send an e-mail invitation to external users to access their sites.

Enabling external user invitations in SharePoint Online

Figure 5 Enabling external user invitations in SharePoint Online.

Establishing Permission

With your users in place, you also need to consider how you plan to grant permissions within your SharePoint Online infrastructure. In SharePoint Online, just as in an on-premises installation of SharePoint, permission levels represent collections of permissions that let users perform specific tasks. For example, the Read permission level includes the View Items, Open Items, View Pages and View Versions permissions, all of which are needed to view pages, documents and items in SharePoint Online.

Your permissions can be part of more than one permission level. You can also inherit permissions, so it’s important to examine what permissions you’re granting your users and groups of users.

It’s a good idea to avoid assigning permissions directly to individual users. Doing so makes it difficult to track and manage who has access to sites. Assigning permissions to groups is a better strategy. Then assign individual users to the appropriate groups.

SharePoint Online lets you create security groups via the Admin Overview page. If you’re synchronizing with Active Directory, your existing security groups will be available as well. With the necessary security groups in place, you can assign permissions to security groups (see Figure 6) via the SharePoint Online Administration Console (Site Settings | People and Groups).

Granting permissions in SharePoint Online

Figure 6 Granting permissions in SharePoint Online.

Custom Solutions

SharePoint Online also lets you upload custom application solutions, which you can run at the site-collection level using a subset of the Microsoft SharePoint namespace. SharePoint Online supports custom solutions developed with both Visual Studio 2010 and SharePoint Designer 2010.

With your Office 365 subscription in place, your domain configured, and your users and groups populated, you’ll be ready to go with SharePoint Online. You’ll find all the familiar features of SharePoint, including document libraries, calendars, blogs, wikis, discussion groups and so on.

Joshua Hoffman
Joshua Hoffmanis the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of ResearchAccess.com, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City.

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