Monday 15 June 2015

Challenges in Office 365 development - and ways to address them

Over the last 2 years, I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about "cloud-friendly" SharePoint development - approaches and techniques which will work for Office 365, but also on-premises SharePoint deployments which need to be designed with the same principles. With my team now having now done at least 20 or so Office 365/SharePoint Online implementations (and counting), in this time we’ve established certain ways of working with Office 365. A good example is creating multiple tenancies to represent dev/test/production to help with our ALM processes, since Office 365 doesn't have the concept of a test environment. Sure, on the SharePoint side (my focus here) you could just create a special site collection - but that doesn’t give you the isolation needed across any global elements. Examples include things like user profiles, taxonomy and search. And since our clients often ask for minor customizations which interact with these areas, the “test site collection” idea just doesn’t cut it for us. Instead, we go with the multiple tenancy approach, and I’ve advocated this for a while for anyone with similar needs.
As I’ve previously discussed at conferences, our choice for most clients/projects is to create separate dev and test tenancies, and it generally looks something like this:
It’s not the most important point here, but we tend to use different Office 365 plan levels for these environments - most of our clients use the “Office 365 E3” plan in production, and we’ll ensure TEST is on the same plan, but reduce costs by having DEV use “SharePoint P2” (so no Exchange, Lync or Yammer Enterprise). This generally works fine, because most of our development work centers on the SharePoint side. But regardless of what you do with plan levels, it’s also true that some trade-offs come with using multiple Office 365 tenancies (of any kind) – recently I’ve been thinking about options to mitigate this, and these broadly can be categorised as:

  • Making dev/test Office 365 tenancies more like production
  • Finding ways to test safely against the production Office 365 environment
The next few blog posts will detail some techniques which can help here. In this first post I’ll discuss the problem space - some problems I see with current Office 365 development which might lead you to consider these approaches. But in the article series I’ll be discussing things like:
For now, let’s talk about some of the issues you might hit in Office 365 development.

Challenges which come with multiple Office 365 tenancies

When we talk about dev and test environments, implementation teams always have a need to make these as similar to production as possible. The more differences, the more likely you’re going to have a problem - usually related to invalid testing or defects which only become apparent in production. Unfortunately, I notice our Office 365 projects do have certain trade-offs here. We really do want the multiple Office 365 environments for dev/test/prod (with the way Office 365 dev currently works at least), but it can be hard to make those other environments closely reflect production. Here’s a list of things which might be different:
  • Typically, directory integration is configured in production, but NOT for other environments
    • In other words, users sign-in with “” in production, but “” accounts are used in dev/test
    • [N.B. You might know this step as “implementing Azure AD Sync”, or “implementing DirSync” to use its previous name]
  • Lack of SSO to Office 365 for users logged on to the company network (which relates to the point above)
  • Lack of a full directory of users
  • User profiles are not synchronized from AD in dev/test environments
  • Lack of Yammer Enterprise
  • Lack of Yammer SSO
  • Different license types (e.g. E3/E4 in production, but something else in dev/test)

OK, but why should I care about these things?

Depending on what you’re developing, some of these things can definitely cause problems! Some tangible examples from our experience are:
  • It’s not possible to do end-to-end testing – we can’t see the “real” user experience, especially across connected services e.g. Office 365 and Yammer
  • The experience on mobile devices is different
  • Code sometimes has to be written a different way, or use a “mapping” in dev/test - especially anything around user profiles. For example, any kind of user name lookup/e-mail lookup/manager lookups and so on
  • Any integrations with 3rd party/external systems might not work properly if they use the current user’s details in some way (because a different identity is used)
  • Yammer – the lack of SSO means a couple of things:
    • Any standard usage e.g. Yammer web parts or Yammer Embed won’t “just work” - a login button is displayed, and the user has to supply secondary credentials to authenticate/get the cookie
    • Any Yammer API code might need a special “mode” – because you probably have Yammer SSO in production, but not elsewhere

What can we do about these challenges?

So, it would be nice if we could make this situation better. Many of the issues stem from the fact that dev/test environments don’t have identity integration and AAD Sync configured, and what’s generally getting in the way there is that standing up a dedicated URL domain and Active Directory often isn’t trivial. The good news is that the sub-domain/UPN suffix approach I’ll talk about in the next post allows you to get past this – regardless of how many Office 365 environments you have, all you need is one URL domain and one Active Directory. In dev/test for us, this means ONE URL that we registered at GoDaddy for all our clients/projects. We run the on-premises AD simply in a small VM, which runs on developer machines.
Once the domain integration is implemented, the next step is to implement AAD Sync to actually get some users from AD to Office 365.  It will run off a set of users you choose (perhaps you would group some users for each dev/test tenancy into different OUs), and will perform the step of actually creating the users in Office 365. You could then optionally assign them a license if you want this test user to be able to login and use Office 365 functionality, and actual authentication will happen in the cloud if/when the user logs-in. If you want to implement Yammer Enterprise and Yammer SSO, you can now do that too. Directory integration is a pre-requisite for both of these things, but having solved that problem without major platform/infrastructure headaches, these possibilities open up for our dev/test environments.


So that’s a little on the problem space. Ultimately, developing for Office 365 at enterprise level does have some challenges, but many can be overcome and we can still strive for robust engineering practices. The next few blog posts will cover some of this ground – I’ll add links to the list below as the articles get published:
Thanks for reading!

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