On November 18, 2015, Microsoft released SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2. The release builds upon the strengths of the IT Preview to provide organizations a chance to test SharePoint 2016 prior to its release in the first half of next year.
You can read the short Microsoft announcement on Office Blogs.
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SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2: It's About Quality
SharePoint Server 2016 offers significant improvements for the management and administration of SharePoint farms on-premises. Microsoft has incorporated many of the tools, best practices, and lessons learned from running SharePoint Online at scale within Office 365.
So, if there is one core "value proposition" for SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2, it is quality and manageability. SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2 is the first on-premises release of SharePoint based on the code used in Office 365 itself. Previous versions of SharePoint Server were brought into Office 365, but this release represents a truly "cloud first" model of software delivery for Microsoft.
In addition to infrastructure and IT features, SharePoint 2016 Beta 2 brings business-facing functionality and features, and significant improvements for hybrid environments that integrate on-premises farms with Office 365 tenants.
Here's some of what you can expect in SharePoint Server Beta 2:
Hybrid Features and Experiences
There's no doubt that the most impressive advances in business-facing functionality come from cloud-powered experiences for hybrid environments. Microsoft is using cloud innovations to solve long-standing problems with both existing on-premises and hybrid architectures.
These experiences are mostly configured in Central Administration. Many require you to run the hybrid configuration wizard, which will download elements from Office 365 to enable and configure capabilities in the on-premises farm.
Cloud Search Service Application
Released last summer for SharePoint 2013 and incorporated in SharePoint 2016, the Cloud Search Service Application (Cloud SSA) enables "search as a service". On-premises content sources are indexed locally, then the resulting index is shipped to Microsoft's cloud and integrated with the tenant's index of Office 365 content, providing a single authoritative index of on-premises and cloud content.
Users search using Office 365 and receive a unified, integrated list of search results from both on-premises and Office 365 content. Because the Cloud SSA can integrate indices from all valid SharePoint content sources, including file shares, the Cloud SSA moves customers closer to a truly unified enterprise search experience. The Cloud SSA can even proxy SharePoint 2010 search indices, so a SharePoint 2013 (or SharePoint 2016) server or farm can ship SharePoint 2010 indices to Office 365.
Customers with multiple farms--for example, farms in disparate geographic locations--will also benefit from the Cloud SSA, as each farm can send its index to the cloud, allowing the unified search to span multiple on-premises farms, as well as Office 365/on-premises hybrid environments.
And customers who don't wish to send their entire index to the cloud can scope the functionality of the Cloud SSA. Each content source can be included or excluded. So, for example, a sensitive data class that must remain on-premises can be indexed as a separate content source, and excluded from the Cloud SSA. Users will search for that content using on-premises search centers and web parts. All other content will be searchable using the Office 365 unified search experiences.
One of the most interesting benefits of the Cloud SSA is that, by integrating on-premises content sources into the Office 365 search experience, on-premises content will also be included in the Office Graph and Office Graph-powered experiences like Delve. Unfortunately, behavioral signals against on-premises content are not yet sent to Office Graph, but this is a good start.
Introduced in SharePoint 2013 Service Pack 1, SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2 continues to allow an organization to redirect users' OneDrive for Business--their personal document libraries within their My Sites--to Office 365. OneDrive for Business in Office 365 has had major UI and performance improvements over recent months, and the new and significantly improved sync client is currently in preview.
These enhancements should allow organizations to adopt OneDrive for Business fully. If your organization has been holding back on OD4B, or has been using a third-party file store, sync, and share service, it's definitely time to revisit and reconsider OD4B, which fully supports Office 365's security features, e-Discovery, search, and integration with Microsoft's cloud and on-premises experiences and applications. OD4B represents a compelling first step to the cloud which can significantly reduce on-premises storage and cost of ownership.
SharePoint Server 2016 Beta 2 allows the organization to redirect the profiles of selected users to the Office 365-powered Delve About Me page. I've not had the chance to experiment with this new feature, yet, so stay tuned for updates.
Profile Synchronization with Microsoft Identity Manager
Another new capability related to user profiles is bi-directional profile synchronization using Microsoft Identity Manager 2016 (MIM). By making use of the full MIM product as opposed to the restricted bundled version of FIM in previous releases it is now possible to build end to end identity management solutions which include SharePoint aspects without duplication of effort and IT infrastructure. Profile synchronization has been a significant pain point for customers, so I look forward to getting feedback from "real customers" as they begin to test this new capability.
Hybrid Followed Sites
Office 365's "Sites" tile, in the app launcher, links users to a site listing experience hosted within each user's My Site. The site directory includes a list of sites managed by the organization, as well as sites "followed" by the user, and a list of site recommendations driven by search. It's a good way to give users a navigation experience that is both organizationally-driven and personalized.
Now, SharePoint Server 2016 supports a unified hybrid Sites experience. When a user "follows" a site on-premises, that site is added to the cloud-based Sites experience. SharePoint 2016 will expose the Sites tile, and the resulting sites directory will be the same, showing both on-premises and Office 365-based sites.
On-Premises Collaboration and UI Improvements
Not all features require a hybrid, Office 365 / on-premises environment. The Sites experience, mentioned above, will be available on-premises as well.
Office 365's App Launcher--the set of tiles that is provided in the "waffle menu" in the upper-left corner--makes an appearance on-premises in SharePoint Server 2016.
Beta 2 adds the ability to extend the app launcher on-premises, as you are able to do in Office 365.
User Interface Improvements
Like the App Launcher, other user interface improvements that have been made in Office 365--like the Quick Tools menu in document libraries--come to the on-premises environment.
One of the OneDrive for Business improvements is Site Folders. In a user's OneDrive for Business, the user now sees content that comes from SharePoint team site document libraries to which the user has access.
In collaboration environments, it is common for one individual or a team to work on a document in one "container"--a OneDrive for Business folder or a team site document library--then to move the final document into another location. The problem with that is that the URL changes, breaking any links that pointed to the original location.
Now, in conjunction with Office Online Server (the newly renamed Office Web Apps server, which despite the name runs on-premises), SharePoint gets "durable links." A document will get an address that will "follow" it as the document is moved in the environment.
Infrastructure and Performance
As mentioned earlier, one of the most significant areas of improvement to SharePoint 2016 is the back-end, as Microsoft injects learnings from running Office 365 into the on-premises release.
SharePoint Server 2016 makes it easier to configure server roles using a new configuration feature called "MinRole." MinRole allows you to assign server roles to a SharePoint server. It deploys the correct services, and monitors those services within server health interfaces so that you can ensure the correct services--and no more--are running. MinRole finally brings a true “unit of scale” deployment model to SharePoint Server, which also simplifies significantly the scripted deployment of farms. However alongside this key IT benefit it is worth noting that subtle changes are necessary to build approaches commonly used in the past.
Alongside MinRole are a number of small but significant changes to the core topology service and execution of timer jobs which bring operational service management and performance benefits to large farms.
SharePoint Server 2016 still supports a single-server farm, but it no longer includes an installation of SQL Server Express. You can also configure a "custom" role for a server, which allows you to start whatever services you require on a server, including third-party services. However, custom role servers don't benefit from the monitoring insight of the standard roles.
Patches and Updates: "Zero Downtime Patching"
In Office 365, Microsoft has battled the pain associated with patches and updates. It has felt our pain. SharePoint 2016 promises an entirely revised model for patches and updates that will result in significantly smaller update file sizes, faster patching, and "zero downtime" for the farm. Because there have been no major updates for SharePoint Server 2016 IT Preview or Beta 2, the promise of "zero downtime patching" is yet to be seen on-premises, but Microsoft has clearly had to fix the problem in the cloud, so I'm optimistic that our experience with this will be good. “Zero downtime” patching will of course only be available for farms which are highly available —in other words, you will need redundancy of each service to completely avoid downtime as services restart.
Fast Site Creation
In Office 365, Microsoft needs to deploy new site collections quickly. To do that, it established a capability that "copies" a template site, rather than deploying a blank site then configuring it, enabling and disabling features. The result is significantly faster deployment of new site collections. This capability is being brought to the on-premises release.
Insights and Analytics
A very interesting new capability relates to understanding your farm and your users. Analytics are sent to Office 365, scrubbed of PII and other uniquely-identifying information, and collated with analytics from other customers. You can then view reports that help you understand how your farm is being used and how that usage compares to other customers.
This feature brings to on-premises farms much of the "telemetry" that Microsoft builds into its Office 365 service, helping the company understand usage and adoption. After the feature has been enabled for enough time, and enough customers have participated, we will begin to get evidence of the benefits that this capability provides.
As you can imagine, this feature requires a hybrid environment. Reports will be added to the capability regularly, so customers will benefit from frequent improvements.
New Thresholds and Limits
Microsoft is working hard to remove artificial limits to the scalability of SharePoint 2016. For each of these limits and thresholds, Microsoft will release more guidance following the final release of SharePoint 2016.
SharePoint 2016 adds automatic index creation to lists and libraries, which will change the driver of the well-known threshold of 5000 items in a list or library view.
File Upload Sizes
In the past, there was a "hard limit" of 2GB that governed file sizes in SharePoint document libraries and OneDrive for Business. That limit has been removed, but Microsoft is guiding customers to consider 10GB as a maximum file size. But don't forget--file uploads are happening via HTTP or HTTPS, so the real limit will be users' patience and the possibility of connection timeouts.
Compliance, Security and Data Loss Prevention
Microsoft is adding important new compliance, security, and data loss prevention (DLP) features to SharePoint Server 2016. Some of these features will be hybrid, cloud-powered experiences, some will be available to on-premises-only customers. There is a lot to say about these features, so we will detail these in future articles.
SharePoint Server 2016 Final Release
SharePoint Server 2016 will be released in its final form in the first half of next year.