Managing SharePoint Solutions and Extensions

One of the great things about SharePoint today is the incredible traction that the platform has gained. The depth and range of solutions now offered by vendors along with open source solutions offered by the community really is amazing. It was a different place when I first installed SharePoint Portal Server 2001 back in early 2002.

Browsing the CodePlex I often feel like a kid in a candy store. So many great solutions, I cannot wait to install them all! Well not so fast, it might be a good idea to take a step back and consider the consequences.

Deciding What to Install
One key to maintaining a well run environment is to have a process in place to review, approve, and manage customizations. This should be part of your formal governance plan, but if you do not have one do not let that stop you from looking at this particular topic and working out some plans.

Special care should be given to non-commercial solutions. They should always be tested in a non-production environment before being deployed to your production environment. When downloading community code, be sure to take notice of who is contributing it and what the official release is. CodePlex for example does a great job of showing build info and release notes. If an item is marked as Alpha or Beta it probably has not been put through rigorous testing yet. If you want to use it then make sure you are comfortable with the risks and test it in your environment.

Testing Environment
Your test environment should be as similar to your production environment as possible. You do not necessarily have to put it on the same quality of hardware, but the configuration should be similar. It is critical that the patch levels are the same. On this note, you should be testing any KB Patches, MS Cumulative Updates, or Service Packs anyway.

Make sure that the test environment also includes the full catalog of Solutions, Web Parts, and other customizations. This is important because it is possible that one might conflict with another. Unit Testing is not enough, you will want to see how it will react and interact with your environment.

Potential Problems or Conflicts
Depending on what functionality the solution provides, the problems or conflicts can range quite a bit. Knowing what is installed is a good start.

While there is a chance that something could break independently, most of the issues I have seen came from trying to migrate, patch, or upgrade a site.

Site Migration – When migrating a site from one environment to another, it can be a pain to find out half way through that you need to install additional site templates or web parts on the target server.

Patch – When completing the installation of a Patch, Cumulative Update, or Service Pack you normally have to finish the upgrade by running either the Configuration Wizard or the PSConfig command line app. This can be a pretty stressful exercise, and no fun comes from seeing it fail along the way. I have had customizations cause problems here, particularly when changes were made directly to the web.config file as some solutions require. Having your documentation on hand will help you get through the mess and cut down on the time it takes to complete the upgrade.

Future Versions – You also need to consider the likelihood that the solution will be maintained going forward. When I made the jump from WSS 2.0 and SPS 2003 to the current version WSS 3.0 and MOSS many of the solutions I had been using did not make the jump. Some of it was because of the code base changing from .NET version 1.1 to 2.0 and some of it was because Microsoft added parts of the functionality to the platform so vendor no longer wanted to support the products. End users are not necessarily going to care why they do what they used to do, they will only care that they cannot do it. Mitigate the risk by communicating to the stakeholders the potential problems.

It has already been noted that Service Pack 2 will include an upgrade readiness check to help identify any potential problems upgrade to the next version. I would recommend taking the time to go through this check after SP2 is installed, and then checking it again after you install any new solutions before making the jump to the new release.

Summary
By putting together a plan to review, test, and approve add-on solutions you will decrease the likelihood of problems in your environment and decrease the time it will take to respond to issues when they do come up.

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