Category: Administration

SharePoint Administration related posts

The Importance of a Content Syndication and Aggregation Plan

One of the keys to managing a successful SharePoint implementation is having a Content Syndication and Aggregation Plan. Address the plan early in the design process to avoid more difficult changes later in the life of the system.

The plan should cover:
Content Locations – Helping users develop a methodology for where to locate content (Centrally / Group Level) and how to aggregate it when needed.

Role of Content – Is the content to be consumed (read) or updated? Content that needs to be modified from remote locations needs to be handled differently.

Content Types – By thinking about the content and content types early on in the process data can be addressed in a consistent way which will make it easier for people to understand and easier to aggregate the data thanks to common structures.

Why is a plan needed?
As Site Collections continue to grow in scope and size it will become clear that different groups need to work with the same data or that the same data has relevance in more than one context. The promise of collaboration tools like SharePoint is that they can deliver targeted information in specific places instead of making users visit dozens of different sources. One of the frequent complaints that I hear is that related data is in too many disparate sites, with another being that files are copied to multiple sites where they are consumed.

What are the methods for syndication and aggregation?
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) – Most people have a good understanding of what RSS is and how it can be used to pull content into the sites, but not all realize that they use it to share data within SharePoint sites.

As the full name suggests it is Really Simple, but that also means there can be some limits to what it can be used for. I tend to use it for communicating simple data like News, Announcements, and of course Blog updates.

Web Parts – With this approach web parts are configured to include data from one or more sources for display somewhere else. This can be done with a DataView configured in SharePoint Designer or with the Content Query Web Part (CQWP) if you have MOSS. One limit with these two options is that data must exist within the Site Collection; it cannot access data outside of that boundary.

Another option is a custom web part or a third party “Rollup” web part that provides similar functionality but offers the ability to access the data via a web service call opening up the data from any accessible SharePoint site.

Document Link Content Type – If the “Document Link” content type is added to the document library, it will enable the sites user’s to put a shortcut/link in the document library that points to the document’s source location. This is a simple, but effective way to list documents in more than one library without the storage overhead or the confusion around which is the correct location to edit the document.

Publishing – The MOSS Publishing features support configuring a Custom Send to Destination within the library’s Advanced Settings. This provides a mechanism for pushing documents from a source to a destination library which really comes in handy with a document control process that separates the Work in Process (WIP) library from the document library users consume information on.

Content Synchronization – There may be instances when you need to be able to synchronize data or files to another farm or site collection. Examples would include pushing content from an internal system to an extranet or visa versa. There are a few third party solutions that can help facilitate this, or a custom solution can be developed.

Examples of where it can be used.
Here are some common examples that I’ve run into:

  • Company Holidays and Calendar
  • Common Company Forms
  • Policies and Procedures
  • Project Information and Summary Status Reports

Summary
SharePoint has a great foundation for content syndication and aggregation. By developing your plan early in your design and communicating it to your community it will help shape design decisions and educate users on how to maximize the effectiveness of the content sharing. All of this will help avoid user frustration and lead to wider end user adoption and satisfaction with content that proves to be much more portable.

Buy versus Build

A discussion broke out on the MSDN/TechNet SharePoint Forums this week that started to approach the subject of build versus buy. It is something I have had to put a fair amount of thought to in the past so I decided it might make for an interesting blog post.

As a developer, I enjoy developing. It is always fun to dig into code and solve a problem or fill a need. Unfortunately I don’t get nearly as much time to develop as I used to or would like. It ends up being something I do between meetings, on weekends, or in support of a project when the other developers are not available. As I’ve moved through the roles of developer, team leader, architect / program manager I have had to look at things from different angles including that of what is best for the company or the users the solution is being deployed for. Sometimes those personal goals and enjoyment have to be set aside in support of the company’s and users’ best interest.

One of the main trends of computing over the past 10+ years is the move towards interchangeable components, services, etc that can be stitched together offering reuse and decreasing the total cost of managing systems. SharePoint is a great example of this as a platform that has a rich market of third-party vendors. There are 100s of available solutions, web parts, etc that are publically available.

Here are some considerations when evaluating whether to Buy or Build solutions.

Requirements – Is there a solution available that meets the requirements? Is there something close enough to consider as an option? If not, and its needed then its clear you would have to develop it.

Initial level of effort – Do you, or does somebody on the team have the skills and know how to develop the solution or is this a learning opportunity? How long do you expect it to take? If it is full of unknowns or if the projected cost based on a standard rate ($50 an hour?) comes to 80% or more of a commercially available solution it probably isn’t something that should be custom built.

Are there other things that are a better use of your time? The last few organizations I’ve worked with I’ve had a running backlog of projects averaging two years. It is normally easier to purchase components than it is to add to the headcount. Purchasing components or solutions makes it that much easier to deliver value quickly.

Ongoing maintenance and support – Do you or does the group have the time to support the solution going forward? You may have time now, but if you squeeze it in what happens when they come back for changes or you need to upgrade? Will you have time to work on it? You can rely on the vendor for this in most cases if you purchase support for the solution.

On the flipside, make sure you take into account the vendor’s stability and history and make sure that they will support the solution going forward and/or still be around. I have made the mistake of purchasing a solution from one company that sold me a dead-end product that was replaced.

Quality / Grade – Do you, or your team have the skills to meet the needed quality and grade of the solution? In most cases the commercially available solution has a team supporting the development effort to include qualified quality assurance professionals.

Budget – Do you have funds available for the purchase. In some cases there just is not money available, we are in a recession after all, but smart businesses will find the funds if the solution does add value and save time. Mature organizations probably understand this a little better, and therefore tend to have larger budgets to support the purchase of technology.

Summary
By taking these considerations into account it will help you make decisions that add value to the organization and its end users.

Finding Success with SharePoint Deployments

Finding success with SharePoint or any other collaboration software can be a difficult thing. It has less to do with the technology than it does the people and the way its implemented. Its not that people have bad ideas, they may just underestimate the amount of effort it takes to reach the promised land. There is no silver bullet or application that you deploy and it just magically solves all of the organization’s problems. In many cases the software is deployed as part of an formal or informal effort to breakdown longstanding silos within the organization. Breaking down those silos is difficult and that road is filled with hazards.

A good first step is to clear identify and validate the goals of the implementation and get an understanding of what the expected level of effort is to reach those goals.

Easy Win or Easy Implementation?
The best way to get an easy win or have an easy implementation is to install SharePoint as a workgroup solution. Its very easy to do, and if based on Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) it can be done with existing equipment. Each department or workgroup can then do whatever they want and get as little or as much localized value out of it as they want. The people may seem to be happy with that, but there is a real limit to the amount of success and productivity. Also, it does nothing to promote sharing and collaboration throughout the entire organization. In fact it further reinforces those silos.

Enterprise Needs Governance
If you talk to any long time SharePoint architect or evangelist one of the primary topics is Governance. Its not just a buzzword, it is the single most important determining factor for success in a large organization. It is the glue that holds everything together and gives you the ability to manage the environment without it breaking down into petty fiefdoms. Getting agreement is never as easy as making an independent decision and then acting.

In an enterprise deployment it should support localized management in support of global standards. Just because Governance is in place does not mean that everything must be managed centrally.

Here are some suggestions
– Get executive sponsorship. Organizational change cannot happen without executive sponsorship. State the case with realistic benefits and get buy in.

– Involve as many stakeholders as possible. Like any change people are more likely to adopt it when they have a say in what is done. Not everyone will like every decision, but hopefully they will feel good enough about their involvement that they will participate.

– Address Governance from the start. You cannot easily retrofit these ideas or policies into an established system. The change would be costly and the need to retrain everyone pretty severe.

Benefits to Enterprise versus Workgroup Solutions?
Enterprise deployments benefit organizations by supporting cross-functional collaboration. It also provides a platform for some of the social enterprise capabilities such as central profiles fed with data from sources like Active Directory, HRIS Employee Data, and other data sources particular to the organization. These tools can help make people more productive, but also help to find internal resources and subject matter experts.

Another benefit is that you are more likely to see funding for integration efforts into other enterprise systems such as Business Intelligence (BI), Enterprise Content Management (ECM) or Business Process Management (BPM) solutions. Being able to leverage these other integrations should more than make up for the lack of control the individual organizations’ are asked to give up.

SharePoint Customization Policies and Change Control

This post will cover different forms of customization, discuss the need for IT policies that support customization, and then provide a recommendation for how to manage the customization through change control processes.

What is considered customization?
There are different types of customizations and different ways to apply them. They can include custom styles, MasterPages, Web Parts, Custom Forms, Site Definition or even applications built on top of the API.

Bad customizations are applied manually by adding to or altering system files on the server. These changes are not saved into the configuration database which can cause problems when applying system patches or upgrades. It can also make it much more difficult to add an additional server to the farm as those changes have to be manually applied again. Therefore this should never be done in a production environment.

Well built customizations are deployed using SharePoint’s robust deployment framework for Web Parts and Solutions. This not only produces repeatable results, but it also helps keep multi-server farms in sync and allows those customizations to be pushed out automatically to new servers joined to the farm. This method is also much less likely to produce problems when applying patches, updates or even upgrades.


SharePoint Success without Customizations?

While I believe strongly that there is a lot of value in the base solution, I think that SharePoint is set apart by the expandability and integration options. This is what can take it from an ad-hoc workgroup solution to an enterprise platform.

Too many IT shops have taken a No Customization stance when it comes to Enterprise Software. They will quote ballooning implementation costs, reliability of the changes or the difficulty that exists in performing normal version upgrades. Many of these are valid issues to some degree with packaged software, but it is not an irrefutable law. SharePoint is a platform that is intended to be molded to meet an organization’s needs, and customizing it is not the same as rewriting core sections of an ERP system.

In more than on instance I’ve seen SharePoint workflow projects move forward with the decision that no “code” can be written, which means they cannot use Visual Studio or create custom actions. The alternative is for them to use SharePoint Designer to create those workflows. While that may be a good idea for small or simple workflows, there are limitations, but even worse there is no reusability in their work. If something similar is needed somewhere else it has to be recreated.

By making a unilateral decision that no customizations can be made, you are handicapping the system and limiting the value it can deliver. Business and IT leaders need to consider this before making any policy changes.

What about Change Control?
In organizations where there is a Change Control policy in place, it is important to categorize the types of changes. I would advocate grouping changes into the following groups Content and Site Configuration, Packaged Code, and System Level Changes.
Content and Site Configuration – This includes using the toolset to add and update content in lists and libraries along with the creation and design of Sites, Lists, and Libraries. These tasks should not require approval.

Packaged Code – This includes the installation of custom or third party web parts, solutions, workflow actions and templates. Since these packages can possibly cause harm, and should be part of the system’s documentation, it should pass through the Change Control process.

System Level Changes – This includes adding an additional server to the farm, changing a servers’ role, reconfiguring personalization features or rebuilding the Shared Service Provider. These changes can possibly have a huge impact on the entire system. It is important to capture the details of those changes in the documentation, and also make sure that all stakeholders are aware of the changes being made.

UserProfileServices Web Service and Adding Links to SharePoint Profile

I really like the MyLinks feature in MOSS. Its one of the Personalization features that really comes in handy for me as I sign into different computers around campus giving demos or presentations. A few weeks ago I posted an article about a t-sql query I have for listing out all of the MyLinks stored in the Shared Service Provider’s database. [Blog Post – Sharepoint MyLinks Listing.html] Up until very recently I hadn’t found a way to programatically add links, but that changed while I was doing some work developing a custom web part that interacts with the User Profiles. One little web service call opened up a whole new group of possabilities.

Userprofileservice – http:///_vti_bin/userprofileservice.asmx

On top of all of the regular methods available for interacting with the user’s profile, it also includes a simple method for adding a link.

UserProfiles.AddLink(AccountName, Title, URL, Group, Privacy Level)

This would make it possible to move links from one SSP to another in the case where you need to rebuild it, or in large deployments with multiple SSPs this can be used for synchronizing links between SSPs.

Another interesting use would be to develop a web part or user control that would let users add links from within a page. Many don’t think about the feature since the MyLinks menu is in the upper right corner of the screen. The user control would let users also link to items from other applications outside of the SharePoint farm. While this isn’t as feature rich as a tool like Delicious, it is useful and secure for internal data.

Planning for Separate Site Collections

When planning out the site structure of a new SharePoint system, here are five things I take into consideration. Taking these into account during your planning phase will hopefully reduce the amount of rework needed as your system evolves.

Amount of data

If you are expecting a large data set, perhaps you are scanning all supplier invoices and using SharePoint for Content Management, its important to consider the size of a Site Collection and the underlying Content Database from an Administration standpoint. Larger Site Collections and Content DBs require more care and attention along with a more advanced skill set. There have been a number of discussions on what the guidelines are, but I aim to keep Content DBs under 40Gb unless there is a real exception. In this case, the size of the data over rules any of the other answers.

For site collections I expect to grow large, I set them up in a dedicated Content DB right from the start. This saves the trouble having to move it to a different content DB later which can take some time with large sites.

Type and Purpose of the Sites

In a small to mid-sized organization I typically treat sites that support Intranet or department level collaboration a little different than cross-functional or project type sites. Its easy to define the groups around the functional areas and you can reuse those groups in other sites where there is overlap.

In larger organizations sites typically require more isolation. There may be a some interaction between the groups, but not within divisions. In this case the Site collections can be structured to support the organizational boundaries.

Groups Definition and Membership

Groups are defined within the site collection container. If you setup a group called “Management” in Site Collection A, it wouldn’t be available to Site Collection B unless its setup separately. It may not sound like a big deal, but it gets very tedious when you have to manage the same group in multiple places. To make matters worse administrators often take for granted who is in the group based on the name. When setting Site Permissions a group’s members is not directly visible.


Navigation

WSS and MOSS have some good out of the box navigation systems. They are limited though when it comes to trying to tie together multiple Site Collections. There are solutions like defining custom providers but then you are introducing sophisticated customizations that not every company can support. A last ditch option is to manually link to sites and resources but then everything becomes much more difficult to manage.

If it is important to have a consistent horizontal navigation scheme, look to keep as much as possible within a limited number of site collections.

Aggregating or Reusing Data

One of SharePoint’s greatest values is in its ability to support syndication and aggregation of content to deliver it where the users need it. You can aggregate the content using tools like the Content Query Web Part or DataViews. These techniques get a little more complicated when content is in different site collections. Custom code or third party tools are then required to accomplish bring things together.

Feedback?
Agree? Disagree? Let me know, I would love to hear your feedback.

SharePoint MyLinks Listing

MyLinks is an important MOSS feature that is well used in many organizations. Unfortuantely many administrators incorrectly believe that the data is stored in the MySite collections when its actually stored in the Shared Service Provider as part of the user’s shared profile. That is what allows the data to be shared between the different site collections and web apps.

I have on occassion, more than I would care to admit, had to recreate the Shared Service Provider to repair search related issues. Creating a new SSP means that this profile data will be wiped out. In this case I think its a good proactive step to pull a list of the links that are being used. Reviewing the list not only gives the administrator a good idea of how the feature is being used, but it would then be possible to supply the users with a list of the links that need to be setup when the maintenance is complete.

The following script can be used to gather the data. The UserLinks and UserProfile_Full tables are in the Shared Service Provider database.

Select Prof.NTName, Prof.PreferredName, Prof.Email, Link.GroupTitle, Link.Title, Link.URL
From UserLinks Link inner join UserProfile_Full Prof on UL.recordId = Prof.recordID
order by Prof.ntname

Generally speaking it is a bad idea to accomplish something by directly accessing the database. Any changes should definitely be made by the API or through the Web Services supplied. There are a few special cases though where the API doesn’t really help you. One such exception is reviewing this MyLinks data.

%d bloggers like this: