Sunday, 25 November 2007

Part 2 : Blending publishing/collaboration functionality in SharePoint

A couple of months ago I wrote an article on some of the issues around building sites which are not pure publishing or collaboration solutions, but which mix features of the two. I mentioned at the time that I would follow up on these issues and any others we came across at the end of the project, so here it is.

As a quick recap, we said that characteristics of a site which blends publishing/collab features could be:

  • site has completely bespoke look and feel/navigation
  • users will work with document libraries, discussions, calendars etc.
  • site templates or definitions are used to create several sites with the same content/functionality
  • custom workflow is used to support a business process (other than standard content publishing), perhaps with InfoPath forms

    So let's cover some of the issues you may face in projects like this:

    Look and feel of system pages

    This refers to the fact that whilst pages you create will happily use your custom master page, any 'system' pages in the '_layouts' directory will not share this look and feel by default since they reference a separate master page, 'application.master', which is also stored on the filesystem in '_layouts'. Such pages are often seen due to the use of collaboration functionality in our site, examples being when a user uploads or edits metadata for a file, starts a workflow etc.

    In fact this turned out to be less of an issue than I anticipated because:

    • a quick test showed that the use of a HTTP module to switch the master page of these pages works fine. Several people have documented this approach, and I note that Ted Pattison has provided a Codeplex feature for those who would prefer not to write their own code for this. (N.B. though not strictly supported, the idea behind the HTTP module approach is that it is better than modifying files installed with SharePoint such as 'application.master', and can be disabled with a switch if we need to fall back in line with official support.)
    • our client decided this was a low priority item, that we may or may not deal with further down the line

    On this subject, I see that Microsoft have themselves released KB article How to customize application pages in the Layouts folder in SharePoint Server 2007 and in Windows SharePoint Services 3.0. Bizarrely, the proposed solutions are modifying the standard files but taking backups of the originals, or duplicating the 'layouts' virtual directory in IIS - the HTTP module idea is not mentioned. Without dwelling on this too much, this seems crazy to me and I'm not the only one. I still much prefer the HTTP module solution and will use this on my projects where it is required, though will be sure to regression test thoroughly.


    Use of InfoPath with forms authentication

    This is an interesting illustration of blending the two types of functionality - collaboration solutions may well use InfoPath for forms, but publishing sites typically use forms auth for a customized/branded login experience. Straight away we ran into problems using InfoPath with forms auth - essentially the link to create a new instance of an InfoPath form in a forms library would disappear (example link shown below [Windows auth enabled here]):



  • It took a while for me to track down that this is related to the 'Client Integration' switch in Central Admin. For a forms auth site, this gets set to 'off' by default, but defaults to 'on' for windows auth sites. Unfortunately, resolving the problem isn't as simple as flicking the switch back, since what the switch does is remove certain links and disable ActiveX controls which integrate with the browser for link-handling. With the switch enabled again, the InfoPath link reappears on the content type, but when a link to say, a Word document is followed, the browser now shows the basic prompt to download or save the file. This means the more sophisticated 'do you want to check out or open as read-only' prompt is lost and users must work with documents offline and upload to SharePoint at the end of editing, rather than being able to save back directly to the SharePoint repository. In other words, unacceptable to most for a SharePoint 2007 collaboration solution.

    In the end I found others in the same position, but didn't find a solution in a short timeframe. Microsoft support tells me "they were unaware of any instances of of these two features working together in this way", so the disappointing conclusion is that these two bits of functionality don't play well together. Our client thus decided to accept windows authentication (our authentication store was always going to be AD rather than SQL anyhow). However, I'm actually convinced it would be possible to get this working given more time - I think the way forward would be to amend the site design to have a link to the InfoPath form in the standard content of a page rather than relying on SharePoint to supply the link. The information supplied in How to: Use Query Parameters to Invoke Browser-Enabled InfoPath Forms would be used here. I'm sure this must be possible and others have done it, I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has.


    Overidden control not appearing on standard collaboration pages

    Our client had requested some customizations to the search box, and going through our bug list towards the end of development, I realised that our customized version was present on pages we had created, but not existing list pages such as [MyList]/Forms/AllItems.aspx or similar. This seemed strange given that all pages were using our custom master and shared the same header! Digging deeper, this is caused by the fact that SharePoint uses a delegate control to load the search box .ascx file, and to properly override the control across the site, we needed to create a Feature to specify that our .ascx file should be used in preference to the standard control. If we had directly replaced the existing control on the filesystem this would not be required, but when adding custom files in order to avoid modifications to existing files, this extra piece is required. One to look out for when building sites of this nature.


    Summary

    I read some blogs/discussion threads earlier this week which suggest customizing SharePoint in this way is nigh on impossible, but our project (and surely many others) prove this isn't the case. As is often the case with such a functional platform, there's perhaps a greater chance of success if you understand the nuts and bolts of what SharePoint is doing, but extensive customizations to collaboration-focused sites are inherently possible!

    3 comments:

    Will du Preez said...

    Hey Chris

    On the Infopath / Form auth issue:
    If you didn't want to enable windows auth on your main site, you could move all forms and related workflow bits to a seperate site collection (or might have to be web app, can't remember - three months holiday took its toll :-). You keep forms auth on the first and enable windows auth on the second and fire up your forms from the first as per your suggested links with query strings. Not tried myself but sounds like it might work.

    W

    Tim Coalson said...

    Chris,

    Thanks for the 2 articles. The issues you raise are many of the same issues that I have faced or am facing on SharePoint projects.

    One of the features you mentioned was "site templates or definitions are used to create several sites with the same content/functionality". How have you addressed this problem? With custom Site Definitions? Just curious to hear your experience.

    Thanks!
    Tim

    Chris O'Brien said...

    Hi Tim,

    Good question, I didn't detail this fully in the article. I've used both approaches (site definitions and site templates) in the past.

    I think of it like this:-

    - site templates are the best choice when default content is required for the new sites, in addition to functionality
    - site definitions are the best choice when more power is required than that offered by site templates. Examples are when custom customizations need to be applied to the new sites (see Automatically setting custom permissions on new sites for an example) or when working with publishing sites (since site templates are not officially supported with such sites).

    Site templates are certainly simpler to work with, though once you're familiar with the infrastructure of custom site definitions it's not too bad.

    HTH,

    Chris.