Using SharePoint Online (Office365) for Extranets

Posted Wednesday, October 5, 2011 3:39 PM by CoreyRoth

This week at SharePoint Conference (#SPC11), I had the pleasure of giving a talk about the benefits of using SharePoint as an Extranet platform.  I discuss the benefits and considerations of using SharePoint for an Extranet when it comes to on-premises solutions.  I know I am likely to get the question, “What about SharePoint Online though?”  It’s a great question and the more you think about it SharePoint Online is a great option for serving up an Extranet to your customers, partners, and vendors.  Why you say?  Well, let’s break it down to the things we have to think about when implementing an Extranet on-premises.

Target audience

The target audience of an extranet is typically, customers, partners, and vendors.  It is also useful for remote employees when you don’t want them to have to log in to a VPN every time they need to view a document.  The types of documents you often see on an extranet are reports, invoices, contracts, and anything else that you might need to collaborate on.  As you will see, SharePoint Online is a great fit for this and quite possibly could be the fastest way to launch an Extranet for you organization.

The Network

In order to make an Extranet happen, one of the things that must occur is that you get that SharePoint environment exposed to the Internet in whatever way works for your organization.  This is a huge consideration.  It involves you getting network architects involved and various other people to find a way to poke a hole through your firewalls to allow SharePoint to work externally.  There are simple solutions to this and extremely advanced solutions.  The more stringent your network requirements are the more you have to consider this.  With SharePoint Online, Microsoft has already made all of the hard decisions about getting SharePoint onto the Internet so you don’t have to.  You just sign up, create your users, put some content out there and you are good to go.


SharePoint provides many different ways to authenticate On-Premises.  You can use Active Directory with NTLM or Kerberos, Forms Based Authentication (FBA) with the ASP.NET membership provider, LDAP provider, Active Directory, or something custom.  You can also use a trusted identity provider with Windows Live or ADFS 2.0  That’s a lot of options and that’s not even close to all of them.  Each one has its own set of considerations.  When I am doing an Extranet, I prefer a solution where we don’t have to manage the users credentials or password resets.  That makes Windows Live ID and other Trusted Identity Providers very attractive.  There are so many options, but why should you have to worry about it.  Office 365 makes it easy.

What does SharePoint Online provide?  Well, it uses a flavor of Windows Live.  You can create users easily using the administration portal.  However, you don’t have to.  Probably the coolest feature in SharePoint Online is the option to share with external users.  I wrote a post a while back on how to configure this that you should check out.  All you have to do is type the users E-mail address in.  When the user receives an E-mail, they click on it and they sign in with their Windows Live account.  You can assign permissions on this users Windows Live account just like they were a regular user.  Out-of-the-box (cloud), SharePoint Online allows you to share with up to 50 external users. If you need more external users, you can purchase more (in 50 packs I believe).

SharePoint Functionality

SharePoint Online probably has most of the functionality you probably need out-of-the-box when it comes to sharing documents with partners.  You can obviously create document libraries, set up content types, use search, and even apply some policies.  Various licenses even include Office Web Apps for read (and optionally write) functionality which makes it really easy for users to view content without even having to download it.  It really is a great platform for sharing documents with people outside your company.

Going “around” your IT department

IT people will hate this.  However, business users who have to deal with slowly reacting IT departments will love it.  A business user can sign up for Office 365 and have a SharePoint Online site in under an hour.  I assure you no IT department out there will be able to match that.  Even if your IT department reacts quickly, more than likely someone in the food chain will want to hold it up to “evaluate it” and make themselves feel important.  I’m not saying to go out and not get IT buy in, but it really is an option for unresponsive IT departments.  Of course, with SharePoint Online you have governance considerations as well and I could see companies making policies stating that all SharePoint Online usage needs to go through IT.  Your business users may do what they need to do though.  I can definitely see this being a challenge.


You’ve seen the considerations for running an Extranet now.  SharePoint Online is a great fit and can be provisioned quickly.  Hopefully this post will help you make the right decision when it comes to provisioning an Extranet. 

I’m also giving two talks at this year’s conference and I would love for you to see them.

  • #SPC348Extending SharePoint 2010 for your customers and partners will cover everything you wanted to know about creating an Extranet with SharePoint 2010. Although, this topic is nothing new, this is a great talk for people just now looking to consider an extranet for his or her organization.
  • #SPC364Making the most of Search in SharePoint Online. I am beyond excited about this talk because I get to talk about Search and SharePoint Online in the same talk. You might just be amazed at what you can do with Search in the cloud. I’ve got some great demos built using Silverlight and the Search API that you will want to see whether you want to extend search off-premises or on-premises.

Enough with the shameless plug. :) Get ready and I’ll see you at the conference. You can follow me on twitter @coreyroth.


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