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Apps are great for many things but hosting a service for a one-off customization of a host web seem a little overkill. I want to use a sandboxed solution for things like branding and data structure since most of these things can be done in CAML.

What I want to avoid is to having to setup a SharePoint farm. Can I deploy a sandboxed solution with Visual Studio to a site in SharePoint Online the same way as with apps?

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Yes and no. First off, in order to develop a SharePoint solution without SharePoint installed, you would have to get a copy of the ISAPI folder from the 15 hive, and you might have to make a registry change. You will not be able to debug, however. You cannot deploy it directly, but you can publish the wsp to your SharePoint Online site, and then activate it there.

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