Extranets are a pretty common requirement for organisations with a B2B sales model. They allow companies to collaborate more easily with clients, suppliers, and other third parties who are not part of their internal network. Over the last half-decade or so, SharePoint has become a widely-adopted means of delivering extranet capabilities. But is it actually the best solution available, even just within the Microsoft product stack?
This post will discuss the case for delivering extranet capabilities using Yammer, and the trade-offs compared to more traditional, SharePoint-based approaches. It also considers a third option, which is a subset of the SharePoint-based approach available within Office365 called External Sharing. It will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the three options, and suggest the criteria that would cause an organisation to choose one approach over the others.
What is an Extranet?
An extranet is basically an intranet that can also be accessed – at least partially – by authorised external users. It enables businesses to exchange information securely over the internet, and work more closely with one another.
So an extranet can – in theory – be used for anything an intranet is used for. But in my experience, the four most common use cases by far are:
- Document management (creating, editing, reviewing, and sharing documents);
- Discussions (informal, transient conversations);
- ‘Official’ communications (such as announcements); and
- Business Process Management/automation.
SharePoint provides the ability to securely extend an organisation’s private network to provide a subset of the information and functionality available on the rest of the system. Extranet content tends to be hosted within the internal network, and made available through an edge network (or separate environment isolated within a perimeter network) to authenticated, authorised users. In layman’s terms, you can – in theory – do anything with a SharePoint Extranet that you can do with your normal SharePoint platform hosted on the internal network. However, you have the added headache of dealing with a lot of extra infrastructure, network configuration, and user management/authentication requirements. There is a lot of thinking to be done up front about exactly how you architect your information to ensure a suitable “Chinese wall” between different third parties, and how you manage user accounts for external companies.
SharePoint Online External Sharing
SharePoint Online (in Office365) allows you to build a SharePoint Extranet in much the same way as SharePoint Server (though without some of the infrastructure headaches associated with being on-premises or in a private cloud). However in SharePoint Online, you also have the additional option of enabling something called ‘External Sharing’. Activating this functionality allows you to invite external users to the system via a simple email notification. Users can share information at the site level, or at an individual item/document level. External people can authenticate to the SharePoint Online instance using either a work account (Office365 user ID stored in Azure AD, be it the third party’s Azure AD or the hosting organisation’s own Azure AD), or using a privately managed, personal Microsoft user ID (such as Hotmail.com or Outlook.com). Additionally, it’s also possible to share a temporary guest link to a piece of content. It’s a pretty convenient way of granting access information, but likely to give your InfoSec team a collective aneurism once they get into the detail about how difficult it is to manage and revoke access that has been granted.
Another Microsoft product to add to the mix when it comes to delivering extranet capabilities is Yammer. Yammer is an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) platform that Microsoft acquired a few years ago, and is gradually becoming more and more tightly integrated with the rest of the Office365 product suite. It provides much better conversational functionality than SharePoint, but – being an ESN – does not provide anything like the same Web Content Management or Enterprise Content Management capability. It also falls way behind SharePoint in terms of personalisation and extensibility, but – in fairness – it’s not trying to compete with SharePoint: it’s a packaged product that you have very little control over, and does what it’s designed to do (i.e. social) very well. In terms of how it can be used to deliver an extranet, it is possible to create ‘external networks’ that act like sub-networks of an organisation’s main ESN. Third parties can then be invited by administrators or network members (depending on how you configure it) to join the external network via an email link.
Assessing the tools
There are a number of criteria by which you can compare and contrast the capabilities of the three options presented above. Each of the approaches has its pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, in relation to the other two. Below, I’ve put together a list of the criteria by which I would judge an extranet tool, and given a Harvey Ball score against each. Naturally, you may have different criteria that are important to you and your organisation, and you may put a different weighting against certain criteria. Additionally, you’ll probably disagree with some of my ratings and comments, or want to include additional options that are a hybrid of the ones discussed above. But this assessment at least provides a starting point!
SharePoint provides richer functionality, greater flexibility and extensibility, and (arguably) better risk mitigation/compliance than Yammer. But Yammer is a good fit if your Extranet is mainly for conversations/discussions (perhaps with a little bit of document sharing thrown in), or if you need to get something live quickly and cheaply.
Personally, I have found Yammer to be an excellent tool for collaborating with clients; getting quick answers to questions and discussing important decisions, risks, issues, and plans. It is poor for document management, but if you are just publishing finished deliverables for the third party to see and discuss, it does the job. SharePoint is the only viable option if you have any desire to automate processes, or you need any form of web content management functionality. It is also a much better fit if you are creating and editing documents collaboratively with third parties.
External Sharing is a nice option to have on the table on top of a standard SharePoint Extranet, but I’m not a fan of the lack of manageability associated with this option. It’s tough to govern how/when users share files (really, they should share on a per site basis, not per file). It’s impossible to manage third party accounts that aren’t hosted in your own organisation’s Azure AD instance, and if a third party doesn’t have an Azure AD instance, they have to use personal Microsoft IDs. If you wish to keep tabs on sharing and ensure compliance, there is management overhead associated with maintaining and revoking shares and guest links. But that said, it is a quick, convenient, accessible way to extend SharePoint to third party organisations and allow them to access your information.
So really, the best option depends on what you want from your Extranet. My recommendation would be to investigate the benefits you are hoping to achieve from increasing collaboration with suppliers, clients, partners and other third parties, and to investigate exactly what your users desire from the tool.
Do you agree with my recommendations and assessment? Do you have a different option that you use to deliver Extranet functionality? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading.