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):


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:


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):


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:



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).


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: