External sharing with Office 365, part 1: Introduction

Part 1: Introduction <- you are here 🙂
Part 2: How to share SharePoint content with external users?


 In today’s world of dynamic workplaces and dynamic projects, we are faced with a lot of challenges. We are working with various people in various teams, sometimes within our own departments only but most of the time involving people working for other departments and, not so rare, people from different companies, like partners, customers and independent consultants. I was on all of these sides and I can tell you one thing, identity management was always a kind of a trouble. Big companies have identity management processes and procedures in place; however, there are a lot of small or mid-sized companies which had to work around this one way or another. Example would be to build completely independent “extranet” SharePoint farm, supported by completely independent “extranet” Active Directory which would then lead to double accounts for internal users and, sometimes, a real nightmare in a realm of the user account management.
Now, Office 365 offers something that helps sorting out this whole mess – support for the external accounts. External account support isn’t something new – it is around for a while. For instance, we could set up our on-premise SharePoint to support Facebook users or Microsoft Accounts (Live IDs) but this was rather uncommon scenario. Mostly because not much people believed in or trusted those external providers. If this is a valid view, well, I would say that’s a matter of oppinion and everyone will probably have its own so I won’t discuss it here. The fact is – there is a support for allowing external users to access the part of your data and services you choose and in the way you choose… So, let’s crack on…

What is an external user?

So, what is an external user? According to the Office 365 definition, an external user is someone outside of your organization who can access your SharePoint Online sites and documents but does not have a license for your SharePoint Online or Microsoft Office 365 subscription. External users are not employees, onsite contractors, or onsite agents for you or your affiliates. Technically speaking, it is simply the user which does not have an account registered in your Office 365, and therefore Windows Azure Active Directory, tenant. Also, mentioned definition is related to SharePoint Online only. Both Exchange and Lync have mechanisms of sharing data with external users and we will cover them as well.
Now, what types of external access do we have? Let’s see:

SharePoint Online

  • Microsoft Office 365 user (different tenant)
  • Microsoft Account (formerly: Windows Live ID)
  • Anonymous users (accessing individual documents via guest link)

Exchange Online

  • Sharing calendar contents via public URL
  • Exchange federation

Lync Online

  • Guests
  • Federation with external domains
  • Public IM connectivity

What can be shared with external users?

You can share sites and documents with external users in SharePoint Online by sending an invitation link. An invitation link can be sent to the Microsoft Account or Office 365 account e-mail address. Only a Site Owner or the user with full control permissions can share the content with external users.

For Exchange Online, a calender can be shared with external users via public URL. When sharing via public URL, users can decide which level of information should be shared and if any information at all should be published via public URL. Choices are:

  • No sharing
  • Calendar free/busy information with time only
  • Calendar free/busy information with time, subject, and location
  • All calendar appointment information, including time, subject, location, and title

If sharing via public URL is not secure enough, an Exchange federation trust can be built. However, this is a bigger topic and won’t be covered with this article.

Lync Online users can communicate with following type of users:

  • Lync Online users from other Office 365 tenants
  • Lync on-premises users (through federation setup)
  • Guest users via Lync Web Access
  • Skype users

What does not work for external users?

Of course, not everything what works for a full-fledged Office 365 user will work for an external user. Reasons for this have partly technical and infrastructural background and partly licensing background. Functionality limited by the technical background are probably going to be to sorted out in the future. As I don’t want to spread speculations, I won’t differ both of these, if I don’t have to.

SharePoint Online

Following features are not available to the external users:

  • Create their own personal sites (what used to be referred to as My Sites), edit their profile, change their photo, or see aggregated tasks.
  • External users don’t get their own OneDrive for Business document library.
  • Be an administrator for a site collection
  • See the company-wide newsfeed
  • Add storage to the overall tenant storage pool
  • Access the Search Center or execute searches against “everything.”
  • Access site mailboxes
  • Power BI features such as Power View, Power Pivot, Quick Explore, or Timeline Slicer.
  • Use eDiscovery
  • Excel Services features, including Calculated Measures and Calculated Members, decoupled Pivot Tables and PivotCharts, Field List and field support, filter enhancements, search filters.
  • SharePoint Online data connection libraries
  • Visio Services

Exchange Online

Following features are not available for the external users:

  • Personal mailboxes
  • Access shared mailboxes
  • Access public folders
  • Actually, no feature is available except calendar sharing 🙂

Lync Online

  • Following features are not available for the Skype users:
  • Video conversations
  • IM or audio conversations with three or more people
  • Desktop and program sharing

Now, that’s it for the first article in the series. In following articles we will cover configuration steps for sharing the content via SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online.

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