SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online – a comparison

SharePoint offers you the instruments to design a coherent and solid strategy for content storage, collaboration, and consumption. From content management to process workflows and intranet sites, SharePoint holds the answer. However, when choosing between SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online, you must consider what benefits your business the most. 

What can SharePoint do for your business?

Microsoft SharePoint is a platform which helps you manage the content, files, and information you share within and outside your organization. Therefore, SharePoint is the perfect ecosystem which pushes and pulls your content cross-device, providing automatic permission-based visibility and optional approval-based editing and publication. 

How many SharePoint versions are there?

You can choose between SharePoint Server, SharePoint Online, or a combination of the two.

SharePoint Server is the organization-driven, server-based, on premise version of SharePoint.

SharePoint Online is the Microsoft-driven, cloud-based, online version of SharePoint. 

How is SharePoint Server different from SharePoint Online?


Both SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online serve the same content management purpose. However, there are differences and limitations when choosing and using one option in favor of the other. 

Infrastructure and maintenance

SharePoint Server infrastructure and maintenance (updates, migration) fall under your organization’s responsibilities. You must decide how you set up your server farm and how many servers you need, meaning that this initiative must also be backed up by specialized staff you have, pay and train.

SharePoint Online infrastructure and maintenance (updates) fall under Microsoft’s responsibility. The service is generally available in the browser alongside the latest updates, patches or deployments. SharePoint Online is hosted on Microsoft Data Centers, meaning that you need to allot minimum to no infrastructure costs. 

Which one is more scalable?

SharePoint Server is less scalable since physical servers and planning are prerequisites for deployment.  

How does licensing work?

SharePoint Server uses the CAL (Client Access License) model, which means that each software instance requires a server license. Each device or user which accesses the server consumes a CAL. Licenses are paid once, and, if you add more servers to your infrastructure, you purchase additional licenses. SharePoint Online does not use a license model, as the online environment is accessed based on subscriptions.  

Can you switch from the server version to the online one?

Yes, you can, but server data migration can be difficult and additional cost may be involved. Moreover, even if you do not switch to SharePoint Online, in the case of SharePoint Server, before any updates, you must perform a general check about the state of the environment, the current customizations and their portability, the number of available servers, the testing, and the update process itself.  For this type of data migration process, you can contact us, and we will do an analysis of your situation and help you to do the migration. 

Which one is suitable for you?

You should choose SharePoint Server if you already have an extensive IT infrastructure, a planned budget, and the know-how to perform the implementation. In this scenario, you most likely have quite a large organization and a business volume which requires heavy-duty effort. By contrast, you should choose SharePoint Online if you want to get started quickly, if you do not have a local server infrastructure, and if you want your staff to start working collaboratively with minimal training. 

Control and security

SharePoint Server offers your organization more control over data, since you set up and customize the backup system, and the information recovery mechanism. Data is within your grasp at all times and you can encrypt it, access it, and send it according to your standards and protocols. You can make security as strict as you need.

SharePoint Online keeps your data in the cloud. Microsoft is responsible for implementing failover mechanisms in its data centers, and for solving downtimes and data persistence issues. Security follows international standards and you cannot make it stricter. Three basic levels of protection are available: baseline, sensitive, confidential.

How much data can you store?

With SharePoint Online you can store data within the limits of your subscription (up to 100GB for Site Collection, content size limits per account or tenant). With SharePoint Server you can store data within the limits of your local server.

Which one is suitable for you?

SharePoint Server works better if you want to have direct control over security protocols, over your data, and if your files are very large. SharePoint Server allows for faster upload/download of large files. On the other hand, SharePoint Online gives you less to no control over how your data is stored, which means that, in the case of a downtime, you are not able to access it. 

Features and complexity

Both versions enable you to manage content and publish it to a site or an intranet. However, the available features and complexity of functions depends on the update frequency, on how administration works, on how collaboration is managed.

SharePoint Online provides the following additional features:

  • Embedded file version control    
  • Internal and external file sharing    
  • Team and site collaboration when organizing content         
  • Extensive predefined libraries and metadata lists   
  • Mobile app portability    
  • File process automation with Microsoft Flow     
  • Automatic user synchronization (Microsoft 365 account and Active Directory) ·        
  • SharePoint Spaces

Also you can check this to read more about SharePoint features you must know in 2020.

Which one is suitable for you?

SharePoint Online gives you access to the latest functions before these are deployed as an update package for SharePoint Server. In the case of SharePoint Server, you are responsible for the update in order to integrate the latest available functions. Choose SharePoint Online if you want the latest of the greatest deployed automatically.

With SharePoint Server, you must implement collaboration mechanisms, while in SharePoint Online collaboration is an out-of-the-box feature you start using straight away. SharePoint Online also benefits from the seamless integration with Microsoft Teams which brings users, files, tasks, and meetings in one place. Choose SharePoint Online if your organization requires intensive collaboration and file exchange. 

Customization and integration

SharePoint Server is better suited for customization since your organization controls the code and the way you implement the webpage collection, the web applications, or the whole farm.

SharePoint Online does not allow a high level of customization, and extended control cannot be assigned to control clients. However, applications can be created easily and rich APIs ensure enhanced productivity. Data storage in the cloud allows for quick access to intelligent insight. 

Which SharePoint application should I choose?


Choose SharePoint Server if you:

  • Want an on premise solution you have full control of in terms of data, security, updates, standards 
  • Need a high-degree of customization for programs which penetrate deep into the system   
  • Encounter bandwidth issues 

Choose SharePoint Online if you:         

  • Do not own a server-farm and want to rely on Microsoft Data Centers 
  • Want to start collaborating quickly (internally and externally) on the basis of your Microsoft 365 subscription
  • Need a state-of-the-art content solution with automatic deployment of new functionalities