Wednesday 19 March 2014

An implementer’s summary of the SharePoint Conference 2014

Quite a few SharePoint community folks have already published their round-up posts on the recent SharePoint Conference 2014 held in Las Vegas. I’ll SPC keynote smaller point to some good ones at the end of this article, but regardless of other posts I wanted to go ahead and publish mine because:

  • I notice I have some different items compared to other people – obviously everyone has their view of what is important to them :)
  • I think some colleagues and others in circles near me have similar views and focus areas, and might find my interpretation useful

I break my thoughts down into two sections – The Big Things, and a Dev-Focused Summary. If you feel you already understand The Big Things from SPC2014, you might want to skip ahead to my dev-focused summary:

The Big Things

  • There will be at least one more on-premises version of SharePoint, but it’s unclear how many more after that (I sense Microsoft may take a “wait and see” approach). The next version will be “SharePoint 2015” (or at least it will be released in 2015).
  • Some big changes to Office 365 which will open doors for many clients/scenarios:
  • Go Yammer!
    • The social capabilities in SharePoint 2013 will NOT be developed further
    • However in Yammer, there’s a lot of integration in the pipeline – this will mainly be on the Office 365 side until the SP2015 release though. Includes things like:
      • Groups - create a group, and automatically get a site/inbox/OneDrive library for docs etc.
      • Conversations around documents (i.e. comments displayed next to document) – in Office Online (new name for Office Web Apps), rather than Office clients on your desktop however
      • Integrated profile/identity (no longer separate Yammer and SharePoint profiles) – this will unlock other scenarios going forward
  • Forms - InfoPath is deprecated (although supported until 2023)
    • Microsoft will move away from a “one size fits all” approach to forms, and several options (some available now) will be recommended – Excel Surveys, list forms (to be enhanced), a Word-based option for “structured documents”, and “App Forms” (Access-based)
    • Microsoft are listening at
    • Nik Patel has a great write-up here
  • The Office Graph, and Oslo app
    • This is a big new concept, about users finding content that matters to them. The Office Graph is the framework/API, and Oslo is the codename for a new app which presents this stuff. The Office Graph  “uses signals from email, social conversations, documents, sites, instant messages, meetings, and more to map the relationships between the people and things that make your business go”
    • There are lots of views such as “Shared with me”, “Modified by me”, “Presented to me” etc. – things that really make it easier for me to find “that file I was looking at last week”. The sentence that brought it home for me was “The Office Graph knows which meetings you’re in, when someone is presenting, and where the presentation is stored. Oslo just connects the dots to show what’s been presented to you.”
    • See Introducing codename Oslo and the Office Graph for more details
  • SharePoint 2013 Service Pack 1 smoothes some hybrid scenarios:
    • This goes some way to helping out with a couple of the issues I listed in Office 365/SharePoint hybrid – what you DO and DO NOT get, mainly by providing an OOTB way to swap out some links in the top navigation bar (aka “the suite bar”) displayed in your on-premises sites. Specifically: clip_image001
      • Replace "Newsfeed" with "Yammer" (if you have selected Yammer as the social option)
      • Replace link to “Sites” page – here, an admin can provide the URL to the “Sites” page in Office 365. This facilitates having ONE Sites page (in the cloud) across SharePoint Online and SharePoint on-premises – this has two benefits as far as I can see:
        • Users have one place to go to for their saved navigation links (sites/documents), rather than a very confusing situation of having them split across two Sites pages. (BUT, I’m fairly sure that “following a document” in an on-premises site does NOT magically save it to the O365 Sites page – so you may still prefer a custom approach)
        • The “Start a site..” link only exists in the cloud, so new site collections get created there
      • Replace "Skydrive Pro/OneDrive For Business" link with link to OneDrive in cloud

My dev-focused summary

  • Full-trust code (farm solutions) will continue in “SharePoint 2015”
  • New Office 365 APIs NOTE: Microsoft are starting to move away from SharePoint/Exchange/whatever-specific APIs, and more towards general “Office 365 APIs”
    • People/Contacts
    • Files (OneDrive API)
    • Mail
    • Calendar
    • [Apps which need to call into the above endpoints get registered with Windows Azure Active Directory, and use the Common Consent Framework to access Office 365 data]
  • That said, there are also new SharePoint client APIs (also usable in on-premises SharePoint with SP1/updated Client Redistributable)
    • CSOM API for creating site collections (finally!)
    • CSOM API for creating a content type with a specified ID (finally!)
    • Also being able to set things like AlternateCSSUrl, SiteLogoUrl for a site
    • Also a new SDK for creating Office 365 apps on Android. Apparently this is big news (lots of hoohaa at the conference) – no idea why, but it IS refreshing that Microsoft now talk about executives with iPads and the popularity of Android..
  • There are new JS/HTML-based controls for use in provider-hosted apps
    • The first controls available are ListView and People Picker (e.g. show a SharePoint list, with sorting/filtering etc. in your plain ASP.NET page in your app)
    • These are badged as Office.Widgets.Experimental for now
  • Auto-hosted apps are (likely to be) deprecated baby! (Microsoft have some challenges around making this production-scale ready, in terms of scalability/backup/DR etc. The long-term prognosis is being reviewed, but the recommendation is to use auto-hosted for prototyping only)    UPDATE: looks like this isn't the case (although several MSFT speakers mentioned it at SPC14) - Brian Jones (MSFT PM) chimed in on Twitter, and he's the guy who would know
    • [For me, this is a good validation of what I said in July 2013 about auto-hosted apps and why they should be avoided (in the “What about building my app/RER as an auto-hosted app?” section of this article)]  UPDATE - I guess we reserve judgement on this one for now!
  • There are GREAT new dev samples on many real-life cloud development scenarios
    • I highly recommend checking these out – see Office App Model Samples
    • Scenarios include:
      • Branding personal sites
      • Provisioning Yammer groups as part of site collection provisioning
      • Setting a theme on the host web
      • And LOTS of others
  • Some misc stuff:
    • JSON light support in Office 365 APIs
    • New apps in Excel
      • People Graph
      • Bing maps
    • New mail app in Office 365/mail
      • DocuSign!
    • New “file extension handler” - can register an app for opening/previewing files by document extension
      • e.g. CAD viewer in preview pane for CAD files
      • I think this is similar to a CustomAction – i.e. there is new Feature XML for this
  • Other news I found relevant:
    • No Microsoft solution is planned around sync’ing custom data to SharePoint Online user profiles right now
      • Microsoft do not have anything in the pipeline to facilitate sync’ing custom directory data to the user profile in SharePoint Online (a commonly-requested thing). I asked at the post-conference session on hybrid, led by Bill Baer and Steve Peschka. So, the workarounds using the old user profile ASMX web service continues to be needed if you have to do something here.
    • Microsoft plan to improve the “in SharePoint hybrid, search results are displayed in separate blocks (for on-premises and Office 365 sites)” experience (shown in my post here)
      • This was mentioned in Bill Baer’s IT Pro keynote – some sort of “remote index” solution is planned

Summary and more info

I am sure there’s lots of other stuff too, but those were probably the most relevant things for me. Some other recommended posts are:

Wednesday 12 March 2014

First Release and NDA Preview for Office 365 – early access to Microsoft’s changes for testing

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at SPC 2014 was around change management in Office 365. For those of us who have worked on Office 365 (i.e. SharePoint Online) or hybrid projects, it’s been a challenging time recently – Microsoft have made various updates and patches to Office 365, which have subsequently caused lots of customizations to break and ultimately made it hard to support organizations on Office 365. And I think it’s normal to have *some* level of customization in an Office 365 project – for some it might just be branding, but since the SharePoint user experience is still not ideal in places, our clients are often requesting enhancements around search, user profiles, sites, OneDrive for Business (the new name for My Sites) and so on. Some examples of unannounced Microsoft changes which have caused valid customizations to break are:

Of course, a big part of this is that Microsoft have taken a leaf from the Facebook/Yammer book, and have shifted their “release cadence” – updates are deployed to Office 365 in small batches very frequently(every month), which is very different to the on-premises world with a big release every 3 years and service packs and cumulative updates within that.

Taking a step back – lack of Office 365 test environments

Clearly, Microsoft are always going to need to update Office 365/SharePoint Online. And in many cases, all we need is a way of testing the change (and any impact on our customizations) before it’s in production. I recently had a meeting with some Microsoft UK folks about this, and I summarized this aspect as:

  • Lack of test environments in Office 365
    • Whilst we can (and do) create and pay for multiple O365 tenancies/environments to simulate non-production environments, we have no control of the *sequence* that tenants are patched in – in other words, a Microsoft update can hit our “production” tenant before our dev/test tenants
  • No notice/awareness of the date that an update will occur on (for our tenants)

Announced at SPC 2014 - “First Release” and “NDA Preview” options

The good news is that Microsoft are taking big steps to improve this situation – it’s a topic close to my heart, so I wanted to provide my interpretation here (as well as publicize the initiative), but will also link to official TechNet pages when they arrive. In a slightly “under the radar” session on the schedule, a few changes were announced by Jake Zborowski (Group Product Manager, Office 365) at the conference:

  1. Improved communication about updates
  2. A more structured approach to releasing updates
  3. “First Release” for Office 365
  4. “Office 365 NDA Preview”

The next sections go into some more detail on each one.

Improved communication about updates

This includes:

  • A published *public* roadmap – used to communicate some types of upcoming updates
    • This is targeted for April 2014
  • Use of the Office 365 updates blog to communicate changes
  • Use of the Office 365 System Requirements page to communicate changes
  • Changes to the Message Center
    • Ability to display messages/warnings specific to the tenant (currently cannot)
    • Will show near-term warnings, recommended actions etc.
    • New API, so that developers can write notification apps
    • Enhancements to the existing Office 365 Admin mobile app

A more structured approach to releasing updates

Changes will be classified into different types, and each given a different communication and release plan. The slide below summarizes the communication aspect - but note that at a lower level, communications will actually appear at different times in the different communication vehicles (e.g. an upcoming change will be announced on the public roadmap before it shows up in Message Center etc.):


“First Release” for Office 365 

This is the ability to switch mode for a certain Office 365 tenant – effectively you are signing-up to be “first in the queue” for many types of changes/updates, before they get made generally available in Office 365. The scope of this is for changes to SharePoint Online and Exchange Online. This is AWESOME news, and should go a long way to solving some of the issues for us. Some more details:

  • Opt-in switch (off by default):
    • The switch will appear in the Office 365 admin center around early April 2014, and then changes will start to be rolled through it around 4 weeks after that
    • Changes to the switch will be respected within 24 hours – you can switch First Release on/off for your tenancy as you like
    • If you opt-out, any changes already deployed will not be pulled back but future updates will no longer be applied early to your tenant
  • Types of updates:
    • Updates which do get pushed through will be supported/vetted/documented and end-user facing
    • Not all updates will be pushed through First Release – I wasn’t 100% clear on what is/isn’t, but I believe something like storage increases (e.g. for OneDrive, or general site collections) would not be
  • Timing:
    • You’ll get a warning of at least 7 days alerting you that a change is going be rolled out to First Release
    • An update will be in First Release for a minimum of 2 weeks before standard rollout – however, for most tenants it could work out to be around 1 month until the update lands
    • N.B. at the time of writing, the Product Group are currently working on the ability to know for sure when an update will hit a specific tenant (and consider that for some updates this could actually be different for individual site collections and/or users!). Obviously this is crucial to implementers (like us), because sometimes we may need to deploy a code change to "match up" with a change in Office 365 (otherwise there will be a period where something is not working properly

Here’s a mock-up of how the First Release switch might appear (apologies for the low-quality image):

First Release switch - mockup

A note on how I expect WE will use First Release
As I discuss in my Office 365 developer decisions, tips and tricks presentation, we long ago decided to use multiple tenants for each client we work with (representing dev, test and production at least). With the introduction of First Release, I expect we will enable First Release on dev and/or test but leave it off for our “production” tenants. I have some thoughts on whether *both* dev/test should be enabled

“NDA Preview” for Office 365

NDA preview is another useful option for early access to changes – here, Microsoft’s changes are rolled out to a subset of users in your tenant. So whereas First Release affects an entire tenancy, NDA Preview affects only nominated users. There is more involved than just flicking a switch here – I don’t yet know for sure whether it will be open to everyone, but it is a TAP-like program where the organization needs to be able to dedicate time to providing good information to MSFT engineering and working together on issues. Just like a TAP, contracts have to be signed etc. 

Some more details:

  • Up to 100 users (TBC) can be nominated
  • All changes going through  First Release will also go through NDA Preview
    • BUT, some new changes will go through NDA Preview only, and NOT First Release – an example could be the storage increase change I mentioned earlier
  • Sign up at
    • Microsoft will then be in touch at a later date – as I say, contracts need to be signed (possibly because of the different nature of some changes pushed through NDA Preview)
A note on how I expect WE will use NDA Preview:
Even with First Release, I think the NDA Preview option will be very valuable. and I expect we WILL enable it for each of our production tenants and nominate some users from at least the implementation team. The production tenant is sometimes the only environment which truly “has everything” – directory synchronization, federated authentication, Yammer SSO/integration to the Yammer Enterprise network, two-way hybrid config (for hybrid deployments) are all examples of things which may not be in place elsewhere if you run multiple tenants. As such, the option of testing Microsoft’s updates in production before full rollout is a very good thing.

Timelines and NDA Preview/First Release

The following diagram gives a sense of how the two programs will work in terms of the timeline for updates:

Office 365 updates process - small


I’m really happy to see Microsoft start addressing the issue of Office 365 change management. My fear had been that the platform had not been engineered to release updates to tenants in different ways (and you get a sense of that when the Product Manager mentions that big back-end changes are required for Microsoft to predict when a patch will hit a certain tenant). However, it seems Microsoft *do* appreciate that there is a huge need for a better process around Office 365 patches and updates – and indeed Microsoft’s message these days is “we do expect you to build customizations on Office 365” (but no doubt the usual caveats about what is sensible apply). This is positive for organizations using Office 365 and partners who support them.