How Does Microsoft SharePoint Server Work? (Hint: Not On Unicorns & Rainbows)

Want to learn more about SharePoint Server? Check out our SharePoint 2019 ebook!

This blog was updated in May 2020 with additional information on SharePoint 2019.

Some users ask, “How does SharePoint work?” Microsoft SharePoint, a solution for enabling collaboration, enterprise content management, productivity and a wide range of business processes, has developed a wide following in its more than a decade on the market, yet user understanding on how SharePoint actually works remains low.

For them, SharePoint is a wondrous treasure chest of business-enabling functions and features that magically appeared one day to make their lives easier – running on fairy dust, unicorn songs, and rainbows.

Further your SharePoint knowledge with these more in-depth articles:

  1. What Is SharePoint? A Guide For Beginners
  2. Learn SharePoint Basics
  3. How to Master SharePoint Management
  4. 7 Helpful Office 365, SharePoint Customization Best Practices
  5. 4 Essential Content Management Tips for SharePoint Online

If only it was that simple.

In truth, from licensing to rollout, SharePoint admins go through an exhaustive process of: defining performance requirements → designing the farm’s server architecture (see below) → building the farm out and installing SharePoint → testing → outlining and creating the information architecture → more testing → content migration → EVEN MORE testing → and then, finally, nervously granting users access and declaring SharePoint open for business.

It’s then that the daily tasks of performance monitoring, content and farm assurance, settings and configuration management (developing service applications in SharePoint designer, permissions, provisioning, and so on), and governance and compliance enforcement begin.

No unicorns in sight. That’s OK for business users, because they need to know how does SharePoint work as much as they need to know how Active Directory is configured (which is not at all).

But if you’re not a user and are instead on the administrative side – tasked with architecting/setting up/managing SharePoint – understanding the basics is critical. While an entire SharePoint deployment is beyond the scope of this post, let’s take a look at one of the most important fairy-free SharePoint concepts: farm roles and how they interact.

How Does SharePoint Work: SharePoint farm

Simply defined, a SharePoint farm is the collection of servers that work together to fill the SharePoint roles, to make SharePoint work. If you’re not familiar with that term, think of roles as different jobs that each require particular skills. Once you’re ready to set up SharePoint, you configure each server in your farm to perform one or more roles.

A fitting analogy for roles is a team working together toward a common goal (yay collaboration!). For example: a restaurant crew. In a restaurant, you have the host to seat patrons, the waiter who takes the patron’s order and ultimately brings them their meal, and the kitchen staff who prepare the meal. Eliminate the host and the patron never gets a seat. Lose the server and the patron never gets to place an order, eat, or even get a lousy glass of water.

You get the idea. Of course, one person could fill all of those roles – like in a small coffee shop where the person behind the counter takes your order, tells you to sit anywhere, and then butters and brings you your bagel. This only works if the place isn’t flooded with customers, though, as that one person would get overwhelmed quickly. Your farm servers work the same way, where a single server can play all the roles, or you can spread the roles out across multiple servers for better performance.

In SharePoint, there are three roles (formally defined in the SharePoint installation wizard alongside a few new roles in SharePoint Server 2016). These roles are the Web Front End (WFE), Application Server, and Database Server.

How Does SharePoint Work: Web Front Ends (WFEs)

The job of the WFE is to be the connection point for users into SharePoint. When a user opens a browser and visits a SharePoint URL, it’s a WFE they’re hitting. User requests and request responses always go through a WFE, and never directly to/from an application server or database server.

WFEs host the web applications (IIS web sites) that serve as the top-level sites for users, and other SharePoint components. The SharePoint application is installed on your WFEs, which should be optimized to receive and process user requests.

How Does SharePoint Work: Application Servers

Application servers host service applications. So what’s a service application?

To understand SharePoint service applications, think of an automobile. What’s the purpose of an automobile? To get you from Point A to Point B, of course. But consider this: Do you need a radio in the car to get from Point A to B? Answer: No, you don’t. You need the engine to run, the transmission to work, steering, inflated tires, brakes, and so on, but not the radio. But is it nice to have a radio? Does the radio provide functionality you want that makes your trip easier and more enjoyable? Yes? That’s what SharePoint service applications do: they deliver specific kinds of functionality to get SharePoint to work for users or the farm. Enterprise search is an example. You can run SharePoint without search if you want to, but having search is great!

SharePoint is installed on your application servers, which are optimized to best deliver the services configured on them. Service applications can even be set up across multiple servers for performance. This is often done for search, creating what is commonly called a search farm. Users do not directly connect to application servers. Application servers are “talked to” by WFEs.

How Does SharePoint Work: Database Servers

Microsoft SharePoint is a browser-based collaboration platform upon which users upload tons of stuff – including Office documents, PDFs, images, videos, exported email messages, calendar entries, tasks, contracts, and project info. They do this to take advantage of all the great functionality SharePoint provides, which is kind of the point. But it begs the question: Where does all that stuff actually go? To answer the question, the first thing to understand is where you don’t want it to go.

You don’t want user content on your WFEs. They’re busy being WFEs – receiving, processing, and responding to user requests. The resources (memory and storage) are not there for managing user content in addition to their normal load.

You don’t want user content on your application servers, either. They’re busy hosting and replying to requests for locally running service applications. Like WFEs, they don’t have the resources.

So where does user content go? Ladies and gentlemen, tonight (and every night) the role of database server will be played by Microsoft SQL Server!

That’s right, all that user content (and some other stuff, too), go into SQL Server databases – specifically ones called SharePoint content databases. These databases are almost always on a dedicated machine, because SQL Server is a demanding application that requires a lot of resources and minimum latency to perform optimally SharePoint to Work. For that reason, SharePoint is typically not installed on your database servers, which is fine because it doesn’t need to be. Your WFEs and application servers only need to know where the databases go, which you configure when installing SharePoint (or later).

SharePoint users never connect directly to the database server. They don’t need to since every request they make goes through the WFEs.

How Does SharePoint Work: Roles in Action

Now, if that’s all a little fuzzy, here are a few images to illustrate some logical server interactions for SharePoint to work. For the purpose of this post, these illustrations show separate servers. But remember, roles can be performed by a single server if need be (though that’s not recommended for production farms).

Figure 1: How Does SharePoint Work: Communication between a WFE and application server (Search).
Figure 1: How Does SharePoint Work: Communication between a WFE and application server (Search).
Figure 2: How Does SharePoint Work: Communication between a WFE and database server (SQL Server).
Figure 2: How Does SharePoint Work: Communication between a WFE and database server (SQL Server).

What About SharePoint Online in Microsoft 365?

Now, everything discussed above is for SharePoint Server (also called SharePoint on-premises or simply on-prem). So what about this SharePoint Online you keep hearing about?

SharePoint Online is a version of SharePoint hosted in the cloud by Microsoft as a service they offer in Office 365 (now known as Microsoft 365). What that means, in relation to this post, is you and your organization are not responsible for farm architecture – Microsoft is. You don’t need to take weeks defining performance requirements.

No need to worry about defining which server will perform which role(s) and then install SharePoint and load balance service applications. You don’t need to plan for scaling down the road. You tell Microsoft how many 365 user subscriptions you need, and you’re ready to go. There are also great improvements such as communication sites, hub sites and the SharePoint mobile app.

What you still need to do is set up the information architecture, but what you do there is determined by how your organization is working with SharePoint vs. OneDrive for Business.

That’s a whole other post, “Which Tool When: SharePoint or OneDrive?

What’s Next? SharePoint 2019 vs SharePoint Online

Now that we’ve answered some of your questions around “How does SharePoint work?” you may be wondering about the latest server features, what you can do to manage it well, or whether you should move to Microsoft SharePoint in Office 365.

You’re not alone. It’s difficult to gain complete visibility and control of on-premises SharePoint deployments, and the stress of adding hybrid management to the mix can cause you to get lost pretty fast. Here is an excerpt from our latest SharePoint 2019 ebook.

What’s new in SharePoint 2019

In today’s modern workplace, employees have high expectations and demand the latest collaboration features. SharePoint 2019 responds to this demand by featuring enhanced Team and Site Pages as well as making messaging and sharing information with teammates easier than ever.

Pages work with modern web parts, allowing users to easily customize their page by embedding videos, incorporating feeds from Yammer, adding documents and including images

Lists and libraries have a modern look and feel with faster interaction, easy column management, better displays for mobile browsers and informative insights. Excitingly, they can also calculate and highlight what’s most important for the user. For example, if you are putting together a list on the total addressable market of different regions, the list may highlight the outliers at the top and bottom in different colors.

There are also some cool new communication tools, like the Team News and Communication sites. Communication sites are a place to share news, showcase a story, or broadcast a message to other people. Users can easily create communication sites for themselves from SharePoint Home without needing to contact IT.

Of course, allowing all users to easily create sites in an ungoverned fashion can also create sprawl and information issues. Admins will want to carefully consider how to deploy this feature and examine third party tools such as AvePoint’s Governance Automation that can help them retain control while also empowering their users.

AvePoint, for example, uses this feature for its GTM Central site where we have consolidated all the collateral our sales teams need to effectively communicate and advise customers. It is a well-designed, one-stop-shop also containing features like an internal product release blog, event calendar, library of market research, and more. AvePoint can easily feature the latest blogs or updated content in the site news, so our sales team is always up to date.

Now sharing documents and links with teammates and contacts within your organization is easier than ever, especially in Collaboration Sites. And, with the upgraded experience, you are automatically notified if you are:

  • Sharing to a big group;
  • Including lots of items or;
  • If you may be sharing beyond your intended audience.

With three straightforward permission levels to choose from, SharePoint 2019 is a great on-premises alternative to companies seeking the effortless sharing taking place in cloud office solutions.

Streamlined experience across mobile and desktop

It might seem obvious to say that empowering mobile workers is becoming more important than ever, but this trend has only been increasing over the past few years. With SharePoint Server 2019, users can more easily access and engage with the organization’s intranet thanks to improvements to the SharePoint mobile app experience.

There are also improved sync clients for OneDrive for Business, ensuring users can access the documents they need from anywhere, on any device. This opens up solutions for organizations to sync files from Office 365 and SharePoint on-premises to a laptop, pushing collaboration to the next level for office and mobile workers.

Expanded opportunities for customization

One of the things we’re most excited to see—and expect most customers will be excited to see, too—is the expanded customization available in SharePoint Server 2019.

The new platform can integrate with PowerApps and Flow, so creating custom workflows and adding new solutions to the environment is a cinch. (Note: PowerApps/PowerPlatform licenses are required for this functionality).

Flow and PowerApps (now PowerPlatform) empower end users to discover and implement customizations as they need them, whereas previously they needed to submit a ticket and wait for the customization to be coded. For example, with Flow and PowerApps you can build an Expense Approval using a point-and-click app design that leverages modern lists and libraries within SharePoint. From there you can easily publish to the web, iOS, Android and Windows 10.

SharePoint admins will be excited to hear this new integration is a great option for transforming existing InfoPath forms into a more modern environment. This allows you to better prepare for the inevitable InfoPath depreciation.

Just deploy the Microsoft on-premises data gateway to use Flow and PowerApps for your SharePoint 2019 deployment. And if that’s not exciting enough, you can also use this gateway to empower your FileShares, SQL and other data sources with modern capabilities delivered form the cloud. Additional information on how to deploy the on-premises data gateway can be found here:

What’s more, customers using legacy versions of SharePoint might find there are apps available to address whatever custom-coded solutions their organization may need.

Previously, an admin might build or deploy a code-based solution into SharePoint. Now, the admin can leverage SharePoint Add-Ins.

Ultimately, this means the SharePoint environment will be easier to customize, less cluttered with code and more stable when updates are installed. However, this requires the removal of Sandbox Solutions to align developers with any future-focused SharePoint Framework.

Enhanced hybrid solutions

When it comes to using a hybrid solution with SharePoint Online, SharePoint Server 2019 makes the integration between the two systems even more seamless. For example, the search function has an improved layout in SharePoint Server 2019, with intuitive filters and real-time search results as users type their query, and results are grouped for easier navigation.

Another example for a seamless hybrid integration is the user redirection to their OneDrive storage in Office 365—which was introduced in earlier versions—and the custom tiles under the so-called waffle icon in the upper left corner.

SharePoint 2019 will continue to provide the hybrid Taxonomy feature, which was introduced in SharePoint 2016 Feature Pack 1. This will help administrators maintain only one central Managed Metadata term store for use across cloud and on-premises deployments.

Extended Compliance Capabilities

If you used the SharePoint 2016 data loss prevention (DLP) and Compliance Center features, you were immediately confronted with a gap between what you saw in Office 365 and what you had in your environment.

Sensitive content types seemed to be small in comparison with what was found in Office 365, depending on the advanced keyword query language (KQL) in eDiscovery. This made it very difficult to apply policies to new sites or gain visibility over any detected sensitive content. With the hybrid capabilities in 2019, administrators can finally benefit from the automatic content detection, central reporting for incidents, and sensitive content types.

Administrators will now be able to search for sensitive information in real-time and apply policy templates to control and monitor their content and align with regulatory standards from different industry segments and geographies.

The tip of the iceberg

The aforementioned updates are just the tip of the iceberg with SharePoint Server 2019. For example:

  • Files up to 15 GB in size can be uploaded
  • Files names can now include the special characters “#” and “%” and their entire allowed URL character limit is increased to 400
  • End users will love the new PDF viewer or the recycle bin improvements that enable them to restore personal files other colleagues have deleted

These are only a few examples decisionmakers, admins and end users can be thrilled about and why they will love the next SharePoint on-premises version.


  1. Great explanation, even for someone with some extensive experience working with SharePoint. Your article puts a lot of things into perspective.


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