Sunday, 12 June 2016

Develop a client web part in the SharePoint Framework - a walk-through

I covered an intro to the SharePoint Framework in my previous article The new SharePoint development model – JavaScript frameworks, npm, Gulp, TypeScript, client web parts etc., so now let’s now take a closer look at developing a client web part (something most developers will do commonly). We’ll walk through the web part creation process and start to look at the various config files, and also cover things like bringing in a JavaScript library such as jQuery, incorporating CSOM code, and dealing with async operations such as fetching data and so on. I’ll link to separate articles for many of those, since they deserve some decent coverage. We’ll also consider the “what now?” moment, when you have the default code running and need to start adding your own.

Remember – this is simply *sample guidance* at this point to help you prepare. Some details WILL change before release!

I can’t emphasize enough that you shouldn’t take anything in this post as gospel. At this time (May/June 2016), the framework is still not in official preview and things WILL change before most folks get their hands on things. The Framework pieces shown here come from working with the product group at a private “dev kitchen” event. Still, I think there is benefit of having a heads-up of what the development process looks like – most developers I know like to see the moving parts to understand a technology stack, so hopefully this helps folks prepare. Even if only mentally!

Getting started - creating a client web part “project”

Seasoned SharePoint developers are used to opening Visual Studio and doing File > New > Project > and selecting one of the SharePoint templates, even if just an empty SharePoint project, or adding an item to an existing project using Add > New item > SharePoint > Empty element or similar. However, in the SharePoint framework we don’t need to use Visual Studio and the Yeoman Generator is used to get us started with the right files. This works from the command-line, and isn’t tied to a particular code editor such as Visual Studio. So, we need the following installed:

  • The Yeoman Generator itself
  • A template for a SharePoint client web part – this will become available when the tools are released

We open a command line in the directory we want to use, and we will run the Yeoman Generator to drop the right files into this directory. We tell it the name of the generator to use – I have one called “@ms/sharepoint” (from the preview bits I have access to – final names might change). This is effectively a “templated set of files”, and these templates will be supplied by Microsoft (but the community will add additional ones no doubt):

Yo1

The generator will ask me some questions in order to provide the right scaffolding (and note the dev kitchen references illustrating that these are preview tools), and then starts unpacking some files into the directory – especially the “node_modules” folder used for JS dependencies:

Yo3_1

I am then asked if I want to create a client-side web part or full page application  – I’ll select the first option here:

SNAGHTML1afe09d9

After some further information gathering on my web part name and description (highlighted with red box below), some core files are created in the directory (see yellow box):

Yo5_1

The generator completes, and now I have some boilerplate files in my folder, including some “Hello World” code in the main web part file. I can now open these in a code editor, examine them, and start implementing some real code. To open this folder in Visual Studio code (and remember it’s just a folder, not a VS project or anything), I can type “code .” – the dot tells VS Code to open in the current folder:

SNAGHTML378acf80

Now we see our files. The main sub-folders to be interested in are the “config” and “src” folders, highlighted below:

Client web part - initial code - 1_1x

Usefully, this is a working sample and as shown in the last post, I can run this in the local “workbench” environment which has no dependency on SharePoint. To do this, I run “gulp serve” from the command-line:

SNAGHTML378c3a8a

This will execute the Gulp task named “serve”. This is defined in the tooling, and it’s job is to spin up node.js on your local machine to allow the files to be served (as an alternative to IIS) – the default URL is based off http://localhost:4321. A browser window is also opened onto the workbench page, and all this is logged in the console:

SNAGHTML37902c8c

In the browser window which opened, you should see an instance of your web part added to one of the the new style pages. The content displayed will match the boilerplate HTML code which was shown earlier:

SNAGHTML379207b5

If we go to edit the web part properties, we see the single property which the boilerplate code defines to help us get started:

SNAGHTML37947e91

Here's what the boilerplate code looks like for the web part:

** N.B. There is a code sample here but it will not show in RSS Readers - click here for full article **

Early challenges when adding your code

So we now have some boilerplate code and we’ve tested that in the browser. But now the fun starts, and we really need two things:

  • To understand how to start adding code, to implement the specific functionality we plan to build in this web part
  • To understand the various folders and files provided by the SharePoint Framework – in other words, understanding the SharePoint Framework  development model
Adding code

Looking at the boilerplate code, you can see the main entry point to a client web part is the public render() method provided by the SharePoint Framework. A DOM element representing the web part’s container on the page is passed as a parameter, and it’s up to you to output your content in there – using whatever approach you choose. You can see then, that this is a massive formalization of the “JavaScript embed” approach that many of us have been using via a Content Editor web part or Script Editor web part – where basically the web part emits a DIV onto the page, and some companion JavaScript then populates that DIV. The big difference, of course, is that things are baked-in and we now have proper framework support. We get all the things long-time SharePoint developers would expect from a web part framework – support for web part properties, a web part manager object to help manage web parts on a page, context data such as whether the page is in edit or display mode and so on. But we also get other things - support for loading resources such as CSS, a logging framework, and various helpers for common needs (such as making a GET/POST request).

So, it comes down to whatever we build around that render() method. For non-trivial web parts, usually you’ll create additional TypeScript modules so that your core implementation of fetching data (or whatever) isn’t in presentation code, and if you’re new to TypeScript even that can be “fun” the first time! As I was creating my first client web parts, I hit challenges such as these as I was building out my code:

  • How to add additional TypeScript modules to better structure your code (and consuming this code in your web part class)
  • How to add jQuery or other JavaScript libraries to your web part (including TypeScript typings for code completion)
  • How to add CSOM to your web part (again, with TypeScript typings so that CSOM is easier to write)

I plan to cover all those in future articles.

Understanding the SharePoint Framework files and folders – an overview

At this point it’s worth thinking about the files and folders we are working with:

SNAGHTML1997d549

Here’s a cut-down version of a table from my next post – I’ll go into more detail there, but here’s an overview of the folder structure used:

Folder

Purpose

src The place where you add/edit code files
lib Contains “processed” code files which are ready to move into the bundle which is distributed with the app.
dist Contains the final code files which are distributed with your application.

The most important file is the final JavaScript bundle file  [MyWebPart].bundle.js
config Contains a set of JSON files used by the tooling for the build process. In particular to control how your app is packaged - in terms of the .spapp file, JavaScript/CSS bundling and so on.
node_modules Contains JavaScript modules used by your code or the SharePoint Framework. Some may be loaded at run time, but others may be used at design time only (e.g. by TypeScript code).
typings Contains TypeScript typings files – these are used to give you auto-complete (IntelliSense) against JavaScript libraries you are using (e.g. jQuery).

 

Summary

There are a few things to get used to when developing in the new SharePoint Framework. The process to create custom code is different (and doesn’t even need to involve Visual Studio!), and the files and folders SharePoint developers will work with are different. I’ll continue digging into things in my next post Understanding the web part manifest, bundle.json and other key files and folders in the SharePoint Framework (published soon!)

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The new SharePoint development model – client web parts, JavaScript frameworks, npm, Gulp, TypeScript etc.

In my end-user focused companion post Overview of the new SharePoint – modern team sites, pages, web parts and applications, I talked about the overall set of changes coming to SharePoint, but here I’m focusing on the new development model. I spent time with Microsoft engineers building the framework at a fantastic “dev kitchen” event earlier in the year, and have been playing with bits and forming thoughts since. I’ll cover an overview of the framework, and talk specifically about new building blocks – we’ll focus on client web parts, but will also touch on full page client applications that are also coming. To get started, even developers are visual people so take a look at what you’ll be working with in code terms in the editor (and note this is Visual Studio Code, the lightweight/free code tool that Microsoft now have):

SNAGHTML23253fb7

Whoah, that looks pretty different to SharePoint development as you’ve seen it before! A couple of quick observations before delving deeper:

  • That code is TypeScript code – these files have a .ts extension, and get compiled down to JavaScript by a tool.
  • The project structure is different – the “src” directory is where you edit your files, the “config” directory holds a bunch of config files (that we’ll walk through later) and so on.
  • We have lots of new files. There’s a new web part manifest file (the new equivalent of a .webpart file), new config files to control how bundling works, what happens in the build process, how the solution gets packaged and more.

This is SharePoint development, but not as you’ve known it before!

Key aspects for developers

I’m condensing a lot of information into this list, but I think these are the key takeaways:

  • Client web parts and client-side applications are the new building blocks. As discussed in the last post, these go along with the new page model.
  • It’s a JavaScript world baby! Config files are in JSON, and code is implemented in JavaScript on the client-side.
  • The packaging of artifacts is different! There are new manifest files to learn about (e.g. a web part manifest), and other files such as bundle.json, package-solution.json, upload-cdn.json and more. Gulp tasks are used for packaging.
  • Files for your web part or app can live anywhere (e.g. a CDN, or a website you host) - they don’t have to live in SharePoint. Anywhere that can be accessed on a URL by the end-user basically.
  • The “local development” model is very different – Gulp and node.js are used to host files locally, so you don’t need to use IIS on your local machine. A special “workbench.aspx” page is used to support this.
  • No particular JavaScript framework is mandated – you can use Angular, React, Knockout, Handlebars or whatever you like. The one thing to consider is that React will already be on the page as it’s used by some SharePoint components, so that’s one less file to download the first time users hit your site or customization – useful, but probably not a massive factor for intranets though.
  • You should consider learning TypeScript – at least the key parts such as modules, the type system and so on.
  • You no longer NEED to work in Visual Studio - if you prefer another tool (e.g. because you’re not a “career” SharePoint developer), that’s fine. Other lightweight code editors such as Visual Studio Code or Sublime are now 100% viable options because the packaging of artifacts is different. Even I (as a 10 year SharePoint developer) have started to prefer using VS Code, even if some bits are slightly painful initially.
  • SharePoint Webhooks – these are the new “event receivers”. This is a move towards a more standards-based approach to responding to changes in SharePoint/Office 365.
  • The App Catalog is used as a packaging and registration method – both client web parts and client-side applications are packaged in this way (moving away from the web part gallery we’re used to)
  • Page security needs some consideration – because anything on the page can theoretically access anything else (e.g. by scraping the DOM), that could raise some interesting questions when the user’s mail is shown (for example) and web parts from different sources/vendors are present. To counter this, some operations are blocked in the new framework but other governance may be required. More on this in the future.
Whoah, why all these changes? Do I have to use this new model?

The driver for the changes on the dev side is the new page and web part model. As discussed in Overview of the new SharePoint– modern team sites, pages, web parts and applications, the user experience of working with SharePoint pages and web parts has never been the slickest, and there was a lot of baggage from earlier SharePoint versions. So, since Microsoft were making big changes to the page model it also makes sense to move to modern web development approaches too. Yep, it’s interesting that things aren’t wholly based on MVC, but I’d argue most developers are choosing client-side approaches instead these days.

Do I have to use this new model?
 

No. This evolution of the development model doesn’t replace existing options (e.g. provider-hosted apps, use of JavaScript embed approaches etc.). However, if you choose to implement your solution using the new building blocks (especially the new pages and web parts), then you *do* need to adapt your skills and approaches.

What about TypeScript? Do I have to use that?
 

No, but at this stage I recommend it. The version of the dev tools used by those of us in the preview *is* oriented around TypeScript, and frankly things are just easier if you write TS code and allow it to be compiled down to JavaScript. There may be other options at the time of general availability, but there’s a lot of love about TypeScript once you get used to it. There is a learning curve, but I recommend getting into it personally.

Client web parts – a simple example

Let’s take an overview of a new web part solution. In my example here, I’ve created a client web part which displays the last 5 documents you have created or modified. It runs a search query using the Office Graph extensions (actors and edges) to do this. To keep things (relatively) simple, I’m choosing NOT to use React, Angular or another framework to build on for this first example. – I do use TypeScript though, and I also use TypeScript’s ability to do simple “JavaScript templating” with string literals and parameters though. Here’s the structure of my core files – the main bit to focus on is the “src” directory, since these are the files that get edited:

SNAGHTML17b59b5

I’ll provide a detailed walkthrough of files outside of the “src” directory and their purpose in a post coming very soon. The main code files in my example are:

File Purpose
CobRecentDocsWebPart.ts The core web part implementation (in TypeScript). Has a “render” method which is called by the page framework.
Search.ts Encapsulates the code needed to call the search REST API with the right parameters.
SearchResult.ts A simple class to represent the core properties of a search result that I’m interested in here – Title, Description, URL and file icon.

These files all get compiled down to JavaScript by a Gulp task provided by the developer tooling – this is the equivalent of MSBuild tasks used by Visual Studio to compile DLLs or build WSPs. Here’s what the core code looks like for my web part – from this you can get a heads-up of things like:

  • The TypeScript side of things
  • Referencing other TypeScript modules
  • The web part framework – interfaces and methods, how rendering can work etc.
  • Understanding context – whether the code is executing in the test workbench page or a real environment
  • How to define web part properties

But remember! This is preview code only, and some of these files and the surrounding “dev toolchain” may change between now and when the framework becomes generally available – all discussion at this point is partly just for illustrative purposes!

Once I’m ready to test/debug my code (and usually you’d do this WAY before you’ve added so much of your own code), you can see what things look like on your own machine by running “gulp serve” at the command line in the folder where your files are:

 gulp serve

This does a couple of things, all taken care of by the developer “toolchain” that Microsoft give you (so long as you have the prerequisites such as node.js installed):

  • Runs build tasks to package up your files for runtime – this includes pre-processing any TypeScript and/or React if you’re using those, processing web part manifests, running any JavaScript tests you have, and finally combining your JS and CSS files into one bundle.
  • Starts an instance of node.js to run the JavaScript files in a browser – no SharePoint or IIS needed for this, and there’s a “live reload” facility so that you can edit code and immediately see changes reflected in the browser (the page is automatically refreshed when you save a code file).

This launches a “workbench” page which hosts all your client-side files. So long as Gulp and Node are serving your JavaScript files, you’ll be able to add your custom web part to this page:

SP workbench - add client web part

Your web part will then appear on the page and you can use browser tools for debugging etc:

SP workbench - add client web part 2

You can edit web part properties in the new property pane (I’ve added some custom ones for my web part here):

COB client web part - recent docs - wp props

But I need “real” SharePoint!

Of course, the local workbench page helps you get up and running and build presentation code, but sooner or later you’re probably going to need to see your web part in the context of a real SharePoint environment (e.g. so you can access data, call search/user profiles/taxonomy, or whatever). As you might have noticed, it’s possible to write code to detect the host environment and use dummy data if you’re running on localhost. The Workbench.aspx file provided by the toolchain can simply be uploaded to an Office 365 tenancy though, and again, so long as your files are being served you can add your web part to that page. This time, you can interface with real SharePoint things such as search and test your web part with real data – now my web part finds files in my Office 365 sites:

COB client web part - recent docs

Deploying to production (e.g. deploy to CDN)

Once we’re ready to have our web part used in test or production, we need to move away from the locally-hosted model. Now the JavaScript, CSS and any other files needed at runtime need to live in a location which can be accessed by all users – this can be a CDN, a simple website such as an Azure web app, or any other location of your choosing. You *can* continue to deploy to SharePoint libraries (e.g. Site Assets) if you choose, but now we have an option which moves us away from needing key files deployed (and duplicated) in each site collection – woohoo! You are responsible for providing this location (unless you’re choosing SharePoint)

The preview developer tooling I’ve been playing provides some support for deploying to CDN – this is in the form of a Gulp task, which deploys to Azure BLOB storage/CDN based on a config file. Your manifest files need to be updated to point to your CDN URLs, but things basically are straightforward in terms of deploying assets to a production-ready location.

I’ll delve deeper in other blog posts, but remember that the framework isn’t available yet. You’ll be able to get your hands on things later this summer. 

Client applications 

As well as client web parts, let’s touch briefly on client applications. These are coming later in the year, and in the same way that client web parts offer a JavaScript-only version of web parts, client applications do a similar thing for full page apps. I summarized the flavors in my previous post like this:

  • Page-based apps – an alternative to provider-hosted apps (which remember, are implemented with server-side code).
  • List-based apps – think of these as an alternative to JSLink for transforming the display/edit/new experience around list items

Client applications are implemented purely in JavaScript, but have benefits such as having full “context” and using the Office 365 suite bar etc. There is a framework or scaffolding page in your SharePoint site/Office 365 tenancy, but the main page body is implemented in your JavaScript/HTML/CSS. It’s pretty easy to understand the page-based apps, but the list-based flavor is interesting too. Recently I’ve worked on several mini-applications which provide a custom interface, but store their data as items in a SharePoint list. We built a page which takes a URL parameter for the item ID, and then issued a REST call to fetch the data and build the page around that. One example was a “office locations directory”, where the locations were stored in the list but we provided a nice presentation with an embedded map, particular layout of the data elements and so on. You can consider list-based client applications as a formalisation of that – it will be quicker and easier to build such solutions, almost in a “JSLink on steroids but without the proprietary display template framework”-kinda way. Nice.

Summary and other resources

So, we now have a page and web part model that’s fast, lightweight, simple for end users, and nice to develop on. There are also new ways of solving common requirements around building mini-applications, but in a way which moves away from the very SharePoint-y building blocks such as JSLink and display templates that we had in the past, to a way where the implementer can choose how to build the UI using the approaches of their choice. Additionally, we now have an open development model more in line with the rest of the world, and great support for quick development without the need for Visual Studio and where much can be done without even having access to a SharePoint environment. Kudos Microsoft!

In future posts I’ll provide a more detailed walk-through of the framework and it’s key files.

Other resources:

Overview of the new SharePoint – modern team sites, pages, web parts and applications

We’re heading into a new era with SharePoint at the moment, with BIG changes coming that will bring a new user experience and also a radically different development model. Team sites and publishing sites get the biggest update I’ve seen in years, and pages and web parts work differently - there’s a new web part framework based on JavaScript. These updates will come first to SharePoint Online but eventually to on-premises SharePoint too. You might have seen the “Future of SharePoint” announcements on May 4 2016 - in this post I want to go over the new things and add some thoughts, having been fortunate enough to be looking at this stuff for a while now. I’ll do this over the following posts in this series, with MANY more to come:

Modern team sites – new home page, list and library UI and “SharePoint home”

If you run SharePoint team sites (i.e. most organizations using the platform), you’ll soon have the option of using a pretty attractive new home page provided by Microsoft. Here are some screenshots of what things might look like (click to enlarge):

New SharePoint team site-800

As you’d expect, the mobile view looks good too:

New SharePoint team site - mobile

A more branded site might look something like this:

New SharePoint team site 2 - small

New SharePoint team site - mobile - small

It’s great to see innovation happening in team sites (arguably the core of SharePoint), and this is fairly sexy compared to what we’re used to! The home page has the following features:

  • An area for curated/highlighted content
  • Activity on the site (powered by the Office Graph). This consists of:
    • Conversations
    • Other activity e.g. activity around files in the site
  • Responsive design so the experience on a mobile device works well

The new home page design won’t be forced on you – after all, you may have invested in a tailored experience when users land in a site (either with customizations or just content). Instead, administrators will have the ability to opt-in to using this as the default landing page for the site or not.

The Site Contents page gets a makeover too, now providing quick access to the most active content and showing some high level stats:

Site contents page - activity and stats-800

New document library and list UI

In addition to the new home page, lists and libraries get an update too. We’ve already seen the new document library interface (if you’re on First Release), and a similar experience will be rolled out to lists. There are some nice features, like the ability to drag and drop between groups in a “grouped” view, and this will automatically update metadata. For example, you could drag an item from “In progress” to “Complete”, and the corresponding metadata will be updated. This makes it possible to use a SharePoint list as something more like Trello, or perhaps a sprint planning board in TFS or similar.

More information on the changes to the user interface of lists will come soon.

SharePoint home

This one is nice too. I’ve previously complained about how SharePoint doesn’t really have a “top-level” – you might have lots of team sites and a publishing intranet, but you have to deal with the top-level thing yourself. This is even more fun if you actually don’t have a publishing intranet, but do have lots of team sites. So, Microsoft have acknowledged this by giving a big update to the “Sites” page. This is now renamed “SharePoint” and shows activity across sites you might be interested in (via Office Graph), recommended sites and so on. You can continue to create new sites from here (though as before, these are site collections based on the stock OOTB team site template, and created in a certain place - which might not be what you need), but one big difference is that these now also get an Office 365 Group! The next section describes this in more detail.

HOWEVER – it’s good to put “SharePoint home” in perspective. I can’t imagine many organizations being happy to actually use this as the browser default page across all their users. Most will already have some kind of intranet, and whether the home page shows company news, a social feed, key links or whatever – I can’t imagine SharePoint home replacing that. “SharePoint home replace not the intranet!”, as Yoda might say. Still, I see it as a massive improvement over what was there before and might work great in a smaller firm (click to enlarge):

SharePoint-home-small

Team sites are now Office 365 Groups, and vice-versa!

We’ve known for a while that there would be more harmonization between Office 365 Groups and team sites, and this is what it looks like. Later in 2016, when a site is created from the “SharePoint home” page you’ll actually be creating an Office 365 Group *and* a team site together. This is a big step forward for Office 365 Groups, since previously all you got before was the cut-down OneDrive library which didn’t have full capabilities such as metadata.  So that definitely helps on that particular “what to use when” question. Additionally, any existing Office 365 Groups you have will gain a team site. Clearly some planning work will usually still be required to establish policies and governance on how Groups are used, but at least now things are a lot more enterprise-ready.

Modern pages and web parts – a new page model

At the heart of these changes to team sites (and publishing sites – updates coming to those too!) is the new page model. To support some of the other changes such as the new web part framework, a new type of pages were needed too. Although us SharePoint folks often saw past it, if you sit with an end-user who is completely new you start to realise how clunky the current page edit experience is. Challenges included using the ribbon, editing web part properties and some aspects of adding content into the rich text editor. ALL that has been replaced in modern pages, with the goal being to provide a simplified experience closer to WIX or Medium.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • New “client” web parts – with a completely new development model
  • A new page “canvas” – this is the page framework which provides a simplified editing experience for end-users. There is no ribbon, and the whole process of adding/editing web parts is streamlined.
  • New “client applications”
    • Page-based apps – an alternative to provider-hosted apps (which remember, are implemented with server-side code). Client applications are implemented purely in JavaScript, but have benefits such as having full “context” and using the Office 365 suite bar etc. 
    • List-based apps – think of these as an alternative to JSLink for transforming the display/edit/new experience around list items

These images don’t show the final version of the new page/canvas, but we will have a radically simplified text editor (similar to the Delve blogs UI you might have noticed):

New page canvas 5

The interface to add a new web part to the page is also much simpler:

New page canvas 2

A new publishing infrastructure

In addition to team sites, publishing sites also become much simpler for end-users. As you’d expect, the new page and web part model is used there too, meaning pages should be more lightweight. New web parts will be available, and there will continue to be a method of implementing a custom look and feel on such a site: 

New publishing framework

What all this means for implementers

The introduction of new pages and web parts means that some choices are needed – should you implement your solution with the new building blocks, or stick to what’s out there already? What about solutions that are in use already? Should you migrate to the new page/web part model?

Some of the factors to consider include:

  • New pages exist in a new pages library – they cannot simply be added to the existing ‘Site Pages’ library in a team site for example. This means navigation, roll-ups and so on need to be thought about if you’re considering some kind of migration or “mixed” solution.
  • New web parts can be used in “classic” pages, but not vice-versa. So you can’t expect to use existing web parts (even existing out-of-the-box web parts) in new pages. To ensure new pages can do the things we need, Microsoft will provide a new set of web parts, equivalent to commonly used ones such as the content search web part, content editor web part and so on. These will most likely be simplified versions to align with the overall aim of making things easier for page authors. The aim is to have around 5-10 common OOTB web parts available in the new model at launch time, and then others will come later (including the ability to purchase web parts in the store).

    Note that when a new client web part is used in a classic page, there’s some “joining-up” of the edit experience for web part properties. There’s a single “Edit properties” button in the place where settings usually appear, and the user must click this to show the new style property pane and change settings there. It’s a bit clunky, but it works.
  • The edit experience will be different between new pages/web parts and other page types. That’s the whole idea, but worth remembering if you’re considering a migration or mixed model.
  • The page and development model will be different between new pages/web parts and other page types. As above.

So, it might be sub-optimal to mix the models too much within one site/solution. A simpler approach might be to consider the new building blocks for new sites and development projects, but to leave existing investments as they are. Your mileage may vary though.

What it means for developers (high-level)

I cover this in MUCH more detail in the next post The new SharePoint development model – client web parts, JavaScript frameworks, npm, Gulp, TypeScript etc., but let’s include a high-level view here:

  • If you want to build new style client web parts and/or client applications, you’ve probably got some new skills to learn! The general framework and tooling are new, but web development and JavaScript are at the core and this brings things much more in line with the rest of the dev world.
  • Core technologies include npm, Gulp, a little node.js, the Yeoman generator, and TypeScript. But the good news is you don’t have to be an expert in all these, and when you get your hands on the tooling you’ll see that it takes care of lots of things for you. As ever though, the more you know, the more you’ll be able to resolve any little quirks you hit if/when you need to do something a bit different.
  • There are new config and manifest files to learn about, for example the web part manifest which describes a web part, it’s dependencies on other JavaScript libraries and so on..
  • The “local development” model is very different – you don’t need to use IIS to host files on your local machine, since Gulp and nodel.js are used to serve files instead
  • This “evolution” of the development model doesn’t *necessarily* replace existing options (e.g. provider-hosted apps, use of JavaScript embed approaches etc.). However, if you choose to implement your solution using the new building blocks, then you do need to adapt your skills and approaches

Other bits – SharePoint mobile app and PowerApps/Flow:

But that’s not all. I’ve tried to summarize the key changes for how SharePoint sites will be used (and built) above, but other things that will have an impact are the new mobile app and a new options for integrating your SharePoint sites/data with other tools. Let’s look at both of those briefly:

SharePoint mobile app

The new app looks great – one key pillar I really like is that you’ll have quick access to recently used sites and documents, in a way that will actually work. We’ve already had the OneDrive app, but the SharePoint app will cover team sites and publishing sites too. Additionally there are areas to help with finding people and and key links for your environment as defined by administrators. The iOS app will come first (early summer), followed by Windows Phone and Android:

SharePoint-mobile-app-2

PowerApps/Flow

You might already be familiar with PowerApps, Microsoft’s no-code platform for creating simple business apps which can also work on mobile devices. If not, my article PowerApps – no-code Azure apps which talk to Office 365, SharePoint, SQL and more may help. In a similar vein, Microsoft also recently announced a new service called “Flow” – this helps you take simple actions across common services under certain circumstances e.g. when something changes in SharePoint. It’s commonly described as being a bit like If This Then That (IFTTT) for the enterprise, and can talk to popular service such Salesforce, CRM, SharePoint/OneDrive, Dropbox, Twitter and so on:

Flow templates - 1

I guess I’m particularly interested in some of the ones that can act as simple “event receivers” in SharePoint:

Flow templates

To add a flow related to something in SharePoint, a new “Add flow” button will take you into the simple designer where you can define the steps:

Microsoft Flow inside SharePoint

Clearly this isn’t a heavyweight workflow or forms tool, but it’s quite a nice option for taking simple actions related to things stored in SharePoint (and elsewhere).

Summary

So, big changes all round then! Like many others, I’m hugely excited about the future of SharePoint and it’s great to see the innovation that’s happening. I think the proposition for organizations using SharePoint and Office 365 is getting even stronger, and many of the the gripes and gaps are being addressed. My next post on the SharePoint framework, The new SharePoint development model – client web parts, JavaScript frameworks, npm, Gulp, TypeScript etc., looks at things from a developer perspective.

Other reading:

For developers:

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Office 365 changes - new document libraries, Groups enhancements and new APIs

Microsoft recently made some changes to Office 365 which I think are particularly interesting. Of course, being an “evergreen” service things are evolving all the time, but these particular cases are interesting either because they have a big impact, or perhaps because of what they indicate for the future. I’m not sure it’s all good news, but there you go! I’ve previously talked about some the things which are now being rolled out back in December 2015 in Enhancements to SharePoint collaboration, Office 365 groups, user profiles, PowerApps and more on the way! (end 2015) but now they’re here. The ones I’m focusing on in this article are:

  • The new experience for SharePoint document libraries
  • Office 365 Groups – now with “full” SharePoint document library
  • A new approach to synchronizing user data to Office 365
These changes are now available in “First Release” tenants, and will be made generally available soon.

Modern SharePoint document libraries

Many of us knew changes in this area were coming, but the impact is pretty big in my view. At it’s core, the new doc lib experience is very similar to the user interface previously rolled-out to OneDrive for Business sites. The new experience may not be enabled by default (we’ll see), but when it is enabled the ‘All Documents’ view has the option of a ‘Grid’ view to give document libraries a much more visual experience:

Modern doc lib - grid view - small

Note that up to 3 documents can be pinned to the top area of the screen – I really like this, it’s a nice way to highlight key content in a library. When the ‘All Documents’ view is set to ‘list’ instead of grid, the pinned documents continue to be shown but the view is more appropriate to larger numbers of items:

Modern doc lib - list view - small

A big thing for me is that it’s now easy to move or copy a document within SharePoint. It was *hugely* annoying to have to download a document just to do this, but now there’s a simple interface to facilitate this:

Modern doc lib - move and copy
Unfortunately this only seems to support move/copy operations *within* the document library at the moment. I’m really hoping this gets extended, including the ability to copy a document to the same location (e.g. suffixed with “_copy” or similar) as part of a copy/modify kind of flow.
Other notable aspects include a new ‘details’ pane on the right-hand side. This is used for:
  • Viewing/editing properties of an item
  • Seeing recent activity
  • Seeing sharing details (including sharing to new people)
Here’s what it looks like when details are being edited – note the new controls, including a new taxonomy picker:

Modern doc lib - new taxonomy picker

Something else I really like is the view of ‘Recent activity’ across all documents in the library. That should be *very* useful in identifying changes as you land in a doc lib:

Modern doc lib - recent activity

As you’d expect, the user interface is quick and looks good on a mobile device too (shown here in ‘PC’ mode rather than ‘mobile’ mode):

Modern-doc-lib---mobile-vie

Other bits and pieces include a new toolbar:

Modern doc lib - toolbar
..and a new experience for sorting and filtering:

Modern doc lib - sorting and filtering
And finally, another thing to love is that document libraries can now have *links* to other things (anything):

Modern doc lib - add link 1 Modern doc lib - add link 2 Modern doc lib - add link 3
So, all good right? Well no, I wouldn’t say that..

Modern SharePoint document libraries – the downside

Whilst the new experience is great in many ways, I note the following things which, depending on your circumstances, may not be good:
  • No JavaScript or CSS customization (aside from some JSLink scenarios I believe). Basically there is no way to get your custom JavaScript to execute on this page.
  • No ribbon customizations – so in addition to any you might have implemented, any 3rd party products you’re using (including things like Nintex as far as I can tell?) will not be surfaced.
  • No branding – if the site uses a custom master page, any document libraries using the new experience will not respect this. This means you may lose branding colors and so on (aside from Office 365 themes), but also any custom global navigation your site might be using - which might be pretty vital cross-site navigation
On this last point, here’s a screenshot showing the confusing user experience – when I navigate from the Site Contents page (on the left) into the doc lib (on the right):

Modern doc lib - no custom master page - UX - small

Overall, one of the things that’s the most frustrating to clients about this is the lack of communication around this change. Sure, it’s only in First Release tenants at the moment, but the big question is why was this item not conveyed in the Office 365 roadmap? I have no answer on that one unfortunately, but I’d love to hear the Microsoft thinking on that personally. Let’s hope that the final rollout of this change happens in a way which at least gives some choice and control to how things happen.

Anyway, on to the next change I want to talk about today..

Office 365 Groups enhancements – steps towards “full” document libraries:

We all know that Office 365 Groups are the future in many ways. They tie many aspects of Office 365 together – providing conversations, file storage, calendars, a notebook, projects and tasks in Planner and so on. But one of the things holding me back from recommending their usage has been the limitations around files stored there. So far it’s been a cut-down document library (a OneDrive for Business library), and it wasn’t possible to apply content types, change versioning and content approval settings and so on. The content type thing is particularly limiting, because if you’re tagging documents in SharePoint in other locations, that wasn’t possible here. And that can screw up the search experience, because if you have search refiners to help filter results down – well, these won’t work across your files in Groups because they’re not tagged in that way.

The good news is that things are gradually being unlocked, and Microsoft are taking the first steps to allow content types in the doc lib behind a Group:

Content types in Office 365 group libraries
Unfortunately I notice it’s not all there yet. It’s not actually possible to add a custom content type at this time, because you can’t get to the site settings in order to create one, and furthermore you can’t add a list content type directly. You *can* add custom columns to the out-of-the-box ‘Document’ content type though, so that’s something:

SNAGHTML1eee5fd2

Wait! Full support for content types not there yet..

However, overall the real enterprise support is not there yet – it’s not possible to deploy content types through the content type hub, and I can’t find API coverage which would allow me to deploy content types through code (because it’s not possible to get a reference to the “site” behind an Office 365 Group). So, we still have gaps that prevent using this across many sites/libraries. Let’s hope real support for content types is coming soon, along with the ability to deploy content types in an enterprise way to these libraries.

On that note, what I really hope is coming soon is more than a document library. I’d like to see a full team site become available behind an Office 365 Group (something Microsoft have alluded to) – AND, I want to be able to easily make simple customizations to that site. For example, maybe I’ve got some specific document libraries I want to add, or any number of other tweaks which help my users in their use of the platform. It would be nice if there’s some kind of web hook that fires so I can plug in some code which adds these bits as the site behind the group is created.

We’ll see!

And the final item I wanted to highlight is..

User profile properties – bulk import API in CSOM

The other thing that caught my eye is that Microsoft have made available their Office365Tenant.QueueImportProfileProperties API which I talked about back in December (introduced in CSOM version 16.1.4727). This allows you to update user profiles in SharePoint Online with attributes that aren’t synchronized by the existing native tools such as AAD sync. So if you have some custom user properties such as Division, Department, Country, Favorite Pasta or whatever, you can now sync values into these fields from some existing data you have. It works by reading a JSON file you provide (by uploading somewhere into your tenant) – this gives you the flexibility to *get* the data from anywhere you like, so long as you can generate that file. So, whether your data is in AD, on-premises SharePoint user profiles, SAP or some other HR system, you can implement the code to run on a scheduler every night and sync from the source to the target.

This is useful because it was a gap we previously had to deal with ourselves – we implemented a custom solution to tackle this gap with some of our clients (see Improving the Office 365 SharePoint hybrid experience). However, it’s nice to know there’s now a Microsoft approach. It’s still just building blocks of code (which you need to implement) rather than a simple configuration switch, but it’s still nice to have. And since it does bulk updates, this should work better in larger organizations with many profiles to update.

For more details, start with Vesa’s very nice article here:

Summary

So that’s a quick run down of some recent changes that Office 365 practitioners should be aware of. Of course, there are many more things going on that I’m not covering here – don’t forget the rollout of Delve analytics (which I covered with screenshots in Enhancements to SharePoint collaboration, Office 365 groups, user profiles, PowerApps and more on the way! (end 2015)), the rollout of PowerApps to quickly build simple apps which work on mobile devices, and also more things that will be announced on May 4 at the Future of SharePoint event!

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Office 365 performance – our Azure CDN image renditions solution

In the last post image renditions causing slow page loads in SharePoint Online, I talked about how Office 365/SharePoint Online has some sub-optimal performance around images and image renditions, at least at the present time. Numerous people got in touch to say they also see the same issue. However, we are implementers - and we bring solutions, not problems! So in this post I’ll go into a bit more detail on our way of working around this challenge, and how it can improve page load times.

To recap, the problem is related to the image renditions functionality of SharePoint. This is a useful feature which automatically creates additional versions (sizes) of images in a publishing site such as an intranet. However, when a user hits a page which has these images - often a home page or section page – and they need to be downloaded, we see a big delay of up to 3 seconds. Clearly if a page is taking say, 5 or 7 seconds to download in total, this is a big chunk of this time. Surprisingly, the delay is NOT the actual image being sent over the wire to the user. Instead, analysis shows the 3 seconds or so pause happens on the server in SharePoint Online – most likely because of “cache misses” due to the fact that the renditions framework wasn’t originally designed for architectures used in Office 365. So, performance of this bit of the platform isn’t optimal - our solution was to roll our own renditions framework, and this post describes what we did.

Using Azure to implement renditions

Before delving into the implementation, here’s how I described the process last week:

  1. An intranet author adds or changes an image in SharePoint
  2. A remote event receiver executes, and adds an item to a queue in Azure (NOTE – RERs are not failsafe, so we supplement this approach with a fall-back mechanism which ensures broken images never happen. More on this below).
  3. An Azure WebJob processes the queue item, taking the following steps:
    1. Fetches the image from SharePoint (using CSOM)
    2. Creates different rendition sizes (using the sizes defined in SharePoint)
    3. Stores all the resulting files in Azure BLOB storage
  4. The Azure CDN infrastructure then propagates the image file to different Azure data centers around the world.
  5. When images are displayed in SharePoint, the link to the Azure CDN is used (courtesy of a small tweak to our display template code). Since CDNs work by supplying one URL, the routing automatically happens so that the nearest copy of the image to the user is fetched.

For those interested, let’s go into the major elements:

The Remote Event Receiver and associated SharePoint app/add-in

There are two elements here:

  • A SharePoint add-in used for our remote code (hosted in Azure) to authenticate back to SharePoint
    • We register this add-in using AppRegNew.aspx, specifying a Client ID and client secret which will be used for SharePoint authentication
  • A remote event receiver used to detect when new images are added

The two are related because we implement the RER code as a provider-hosted add-in using the Visual Studio template (which gives 2 projects, one for the app package and one for the app web). In actual fact, this particular RER doesn’t need to communicate back to SharePoint – when it fires, it simply adds an item to a queue in Azure which we created ahead of time. The object added to the queue contains the URL of the image which was just added or modified, and we use the Azure SDK to make the call.

We apply this RER to all the image libraries in the site which needs the solution. We do this simply as a one-off setup task with a PowerShell/CSOM script that iterates through all the subsites, and for each image library it finds it binds the RER. My post Using CSOM in PowerShell scripts with Office 365 shows some similar snippets of code which we extended to do this. The script can be run on a scheduled basis if needed, so that any new image libraries automatically “inherit” the event receiver.

The Azure WebJob

The main work is done here. The job is implemented as a “continuous” job in Azure, and we use an Azure QueueTrigger to poll the queue for new items. This is a piece of infrastructure in Azure that means that a function in our WebJob code is executed as soon as a new item is added to the queue – it’s effectively a monitor. We initially looked at using a BlobTrigger instead (and having the RER itself upload the image to Azure BLOB storage to facilitate this), but we didn’t like the fact that BlobTrigger can have a bigger delay in processing – we want things to be as immediate as possible. Additionally, remote event receivers work best when they do minimal processing work – and since a quick async REST call is much more lightweight than copying file bytes around, we preferred this pattern. When a new item is detected, the core steps are:

  1. Fetch details of the default rendition sizes defined in SharePoint for this site. This tends to not change too much, so we do some caching here.
  2. Fetch details of the *specific* rendition sizes for this image, using a REST call to SharePoint. We need to do this to support the cool renditions functionality which allows an author to specifically zoom-in/crop on a portion of the image for a specific rendition – y’know, this thing:

    Image renditions - crop image

    If an author uses this feature to override the default cropping for a rendition, these co-ordinates get stored in the *file-level* property bag for the item, so that’s where we fetch them from.
  3. Fetch the actual image from the SharePoint image library. We use CSOM and SharePoint add-in authentication to make this call – our WebJob knows the Client ID and client secret to use. We obtain the file bytes i.e. effectively downloading the file from Office 365 to where our code is running (Azure), because of course we’re going to need the file to be able to create different versions of it.
  4. For each rendition size needed:
    1. Resize the image to these dimensions, respecting any X and Y start co-ordinates we found (if the author did override the cropping for this image). There are many ways to deal with image resizing, but after evaluating a couple we chose to use the popular ImageProcessor library to do this.
    2. Upload each file to Azure BLOB storage. We upload using methods in the Azure SDK, and ensure the file has a filename according to a URL convention we use – this is important, because our display templates need to align with this.

Once the files have been uploaded to Azure BLOB storage, that’s actually all we need to worry about. The use of Azure CDN comes automatically from files stored there, if you’ve configured Azure CDN in a certain way. I’ll cover this briefly later on.

Authentication for the Azure WebJob

I thought long and hard about authentication. In the end, we went with SharePoint app-only authentication, but we also considered using Office 365/Azure AD authentication for our remote code. Frankly that’s my “default” these days for any kind of remote code which talks to SharePoint (assuming we’re talking about Office 365) – as discussed in Comparing Office 365 apps with SharePoint add-ins, there are numerous advantages in most cases, including the fact that there is no “installation” of an add-in, and the authentication flow can be started outside of SharePoint.

However, one advantage of using SharePoint authentication is that we aren’t tied to using the same Azure subscription/directory as the one behind the Office 365 tenant. Our clients may not always be able to support that, and that was important for us in this case – using this approach means we don’t have that dependency.

Display templates

As mentioned previously, a big part of the solution is ensuring SharePoint display templates align with file URLs in the CDN. So if we’re using roll-up controls such as Content Search web parts around the site and these reference rendition images, these also need to “know the arrangement”. Effectively it’s a question of ensuring the thing that puts the file there and the thing that requests the file are both in on the deal (in terms of knowing the naming convention for URLs). It’s here that we also implement the fall-back mechanism (more on this later) to deal with any cases where a requested image isn’t found on the CDN. In terms of the swapping out the default behaviour of fetching images from SharePoint to fetching them from the CDN instead, it just comes down to how the value used within the <img src> attribute is obtained:

<img src="_#= imgSrc =#_" />

Simply implement a function to get that value according to your URL convention, and you’re good. Although not shown in the snippet above, it’s here that our fall-back mechanism is called, courtesy of the ‘onerror’ handler on the <img> tag.

WebAPI

Since we’re talking about architecture pieces, there’s some WebAPI thrown in there too – this is part of the fall-back mechanism, described later.

Azure CDN configuration

As mentioned earlier, the CDN part is easy with Azure. When a file gets uploaded to Azure BLOB storage, it gets a URL in the form:

https://[MyAzureContainer].blob.core.windows.net/MyImage.jpg

..but if you configure the CDN, it can also be accessed on something like:

https://[MyCDNEndPoint].azureedge.net/MyImage.jpg 

When the latter URL is used, in fact the file will be requested from the nearest Azure CDN data center to the user. If the file hasn’t propagated to that location yet, then the first user to be routed through that location will force the file to be cached there for other users in that geographical region. Our testing found this additional delay is minimal. There are a few more CDN things to consider than I’ll go into detail on here, but initial configuration is easy – simply create a CDN configuration in Azure, and then specify it is backed by Azure storage and select the container where you’re putting your files. The images below show this process:

image

Create CDN endpoint from BLOB storage

The fall-back mechanism

So I mentioned a few times what we call “the fall-back mechanism”. I was always worried about our solution causing a broken image at some point – I could just imagine this would be on some critical news article about the CEO, on a big day for one of our clients. Fortunately, we were able to implement a layer of protection which seems to work well. In short, we “intercept” a broken image using the HTML 5 ‘onError’ callback for the <img> tag. This fires if an image isn’t found on the CDN for any reason, and this kicks off our mechanism which does two things:

  1. Substitutes the original rendition image from SharePoint - this means we’re “back to the original situation”, and we haven’t made anything worse.
  2. Makes a background async call to our WebAPI service – this adds an item to our queue in Azure, meaning the image gets processed for next time. This is the same as if the RER fired against this particular file.

The image below shows what happens (click to enlarge):

CDN image renditions - fallback mechanism 2

One nice thing about this mechanism is it works for existing images in a site. So if the mechanism is implemented in an existing site with lots of images, there’s no need to go round “touching” each image to trigger the remote event receiver. Instead, all that needs to happen is for someone to browse around the site, and the images will be migrated to the CDN as they are requested.

Challenges we encountered

Along the way we faced a couple of challenges, or at least things to think about. A quick list here would include:

  • Thinking about cache headers from Azure CDN, cache expiration and so on – this relates to scenarios where an author may update an image in SharePoint but not change the filename. Clearly end-user browsers may cache this image (and an end-user can’t be expected to press CTRL F5 to do a hard refresh just because you’ve updated a file!). My colleague Paul Ryan wrote a great post on this at Azure CDN integration with SharePoint, cache control headers max-age, s-maxage
  • Parallel uploads to Azure (e.g. if we’re creating 8 different sizes for image found, may as well upload them in parallel!)
  • Ensuring we understand how to handle different environments (dev/test/production tenants with different Azure subscriptions)
  • Implementing a nice logging solution
  • Testing

Summary

As I summarized last time, it would be great if the original performance issue in Office 365 didn’t occur. But CDNs have always been useful in optimizing website performance, and in many ways all we’re doing is broadening Microsoft’s existing use of CDNs behind Office 365. The building blocks of Azure WebJobs, Azure file storage, CDN, SharePoint add-ins, remote event receivers, WebAPI and so on mean that the Office 365/SharePoint Online platform can be extended in all sorts of ways where appropriate. This was a solution developed for clients of Content and Code so it’s not something I can provide the source code for, but hopefully these couple of articles help awareness of the issue and architectural details of one way of working around it.