What’s new in SharePoint 2016

SharePoint 2016 is finally here and we wanted to share some of the highlights. There are a few major improvements over SharePoint 2013, and some caveats to watch out for.

General Direction:

Microsoft has good reason to want everyone to get on the Office365 cloud bandwagon:

  • No more upgrade cycle
  • Ongoing fixes and improvements
  • Integration with other Microsoft tools
  • And of course, per user monthly subscription revenue

In reality, we see two hurdles for a large number of companies waiting to get onto the cloud version – the ability to control your environment, and having your data  at someone else’s mercy – not everyone is comfortable with either of these.

SharePoint 2016 is aimed at exactly this audience and provides 3 major areas of improvement:

  1. Catch-up with many platform improvements released to the cloud in the last 3 years
  2. Improvements in hybrid environment support, allowing companies that have some cloud footprint and legacy on-prem farm a way to provide a more seamless user experience
  3. Mobile friendly user interface
  4. Improved encryption standards

The full list of new features from Microsoft

Key features worth highlighting:

Hybrid environment support:

hybrid

While the Hybrid option does officially exist in SP2013 it has quite a few limitations that made it difficult to use. SharePoint 2016 adds the ability to follow SharePoint Server and SharePoint Online sites, and see them consolidated in a single list. Users will now have a single profile in Office 365, where all of their profile information is stored (although it is not a 2 way sync).

Most importantly, search can now include both on-prem and Office 365 sites.

Microsoft’s view is still assuming Office 365 is your primary environment and the on-prem is legacy that has to be supported for now, but these new features make a hybrid solution much better for users.

Mobile user interface:

mobile

A new and improved mobile interface is a very welcome upgrade. While it is not a completely responsive experience, the OOTB use is much better and can be more easily customized using Bootstrap to be responsive.

Improved Security

SharePoint 2016 now supports TLS 1.2 by default. SP13 required TLS1.0 to work properly and we have many customers who wanted to turn that off but could not. https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/mt346121(v=office.16).aspx#encrypted

 Deprecated features

A few important notes about deprecated features:

  • There is no longer a free version. The WSS/Foundation free version has been around for a very long time and enabled small companies or teams to use SharePoint for free. There will not be an equivalent for SP16 so companies that currently use SP Foundation will need to migrate either to a Standard version of SP16 or to office 365.
  • Some 3rd party integrations will no longer be available. The SAP module (Duet) will not be supported. SalesForce also has shared with us that they have no intention of upgrading their SP2013 integration. They clearly see the direction Microsoft is taking in moving everyone to the cloud and do not see a future in supporting future on-prem installs.
  • Excel services will require an online office server in order to work.
  • Lastly, the seldom used Notes and Tags are formally gone.

Final thoughts

Microsoft is very clear about SP16 being a transitional product in the path towards cloud. It will support customers who are not yet ready to make the leap but will emphasize the hybrid options. More and more capabilities will start to depend on the cloud (like Excel services) and 3rd parties will stop supporting the on-prem installation. The future is clearly in the cloud so if you are on an older on-prem version and thinking about an upgrade, check the cloud version first and only if it is not a viable option for your organization consider the on-prem/hybrid options.

Making sense of SharePoint’s Workflow and BPM capabilities

Workflow and BPM often get lumped together but it is important to understand the difference between them if you are to pick the right tool for your enterprise. While it is generally agreed that workflow is for modeling simple sequential processes and BPM solutions are more capable of handling complex tasks the distinction between the two needs to be further sharpened. According to David McCoy of Gartner BPM can be defined as “… a structured approach employing methods, policies, metrics, management practices and software tools to manage and continuously optimize an organization’s activities and processes.” Workflow on the other hand is concerned with tasks and application-specific sequencing of activities through a series of predefined steps, involving a small group of people and/or closely related applications. The distinction between the two is far from crisp and in fact it can be argued that both are part of the same continuum. However, there is a distinct difference in focus and complexity between the two. Here is a chart that attempts to further define the two based on capabilities and task suitability.

According to a recent survey by Forrester, Microsoft and SharePoint came in as #1 among the IT decision makers for use as BPM platform followed by Oracle, SAP, IBM, and a host of other BPM centric companies. Forrester report further notes that despite Microsoft’s best efforts to not position SharePoint as a BPM solution (rather as a collaborative workflow solution); the message does not seem to come across clearly. This confusion seems to thrive due to lack of clear and well-defined goals for business process automation and understanding of capabilities of SharePoint and BPM suites (BPMS).  The Forrester report outlines that SharePoint’s features for supporting true BPM are limited. Most of SharePoint’s capabilities in this arena are founded on Windows workflow foundation (WF). While a custom solution can be developed based on SharePoint and WF API to support BPM like capabilities, such an endeavor is bound to be expensive and brittle. SharePoint shines best when OTB capabilities are leveraged to the maximum and customizations are managed carefully. SharePoint’s workflow, document management and collaboration features can be used to develop robust workflow applications that can simplify and automate document & form centric business processes. SharePoint can also serve as a hub of cross-department and cross-application integration but only at the user interface level. SharePoint does not pretend to act as middleware or an enterprise service bus (ESB) and therefore does not provide any standards based application integration features – tasks best left to dedicated integration platforms or BPM solutions.

The limitations of SharePoint’s built-in workflow and underlying Windows Workflow surface quickly when tested against complexities of true enterprise business process automation scenarios. SharePoint’s workflow processes are constrained by the Site Collection boundaries. Therefore any workflow that needs to span organizational boundaries and as results site collections becomes difficult to manage and brittle. For example if a budget approval process needs to go through the finance department, corporate office and local approvals and if any of these structures use their own Site Collections the workflow process will require custom coding or manual workarounds. This constraint limits SharePoint’s workflow scope to department or local application level. WF processes are also limited to either sequence or state machine patterns. There is also no support for a user who makes a mistake and needs to go back to the previous step during a workflow. Multi-level approvals are also not supported a document needs to be routed back to one of the earlier approvers rather than the author. SharePoint workflows are executable programs and therefore cannot adopt easily at runtime (after instantiation) to changes in the rules that may result from changes in business process environment (e.g. regulation changes, corporate policy change, etc.)

While SharePoint is not ideal for complex business process automation it can certainly be used to get started. If all you organization needs is automation of simple and commonly used business tasks (approvals, document management, simple HR applications, financial approvals, etc.)  that do not require tight integration with other data systems and do not require complex exception processing, modeling, optimization, monitoring, etc., then it is a good candidate for SharePoint workflow. However, if your organization is truly looking into business process automation and business process improvement (BPI) then there are many 3rd party solutions (AgilePoint, Global360, K2, Nintex etc.) that can be layered on top of SharePoint to create a more robust solution. The advantage of a layered solution is that 3rd party vendors are able to leverage Microsoft’s significant investment in ease of use, collaboration and user interface integration capabilities of SharePoint while adding core BPM functionality. Such solutions are also typically less expensive and deploy more quickly than a traditional full-blown BPM solution (depending on the situation).

There two basic flavors of the layered BPM solutions (products that leverage SharePoint’s platform & interface for most interactions). The first flavor of these solutions relies on the underlying WF as their workflow engine. Using WF as the base they have built capabilities that are more advanced than out of the box capabilities of SharePoint. Furthermore they are able to maintain a light footprint by leveraging SharePoint and WF infrastructure. However, they naturally suffer from some of the same shortcomings as WF. The second group of solutions relies on proprietary workflow engines that are not built on top of WF. Such solutions typically have larger footprints since they create their own parallel infrastructure for workflow processing and data storage. Their independent foundation allows them to provide capabilities that are not limited by WF but typically at the cost of additional infrastructure complexity. There is a place for either kind of solution and picking the right tool (SharePoint workflow vs. SP layered BPM vs. dedicated BPM) is a vital cog in any business process automation or improvement endeavor.

However, the story does not end at picking the right tool; in fact it is just getting started. Edgewater recently conducted a case study on the effectiveness of such efforts and found that there is a significant disconnect between popular BPM messaging and the companies deploying such technologies. While ROI is considered to be the holy grail of most IT projects the respondents in the survey noted that “ROI was not the most important factor … “, other areas such as customer satisfaction were more important. Survey also found that while BPM tools are more than capable of modeling complex processes organizations implementing BPM preferred to “start with well-defined process that involved fewer people to get a quick win and buy-in first”. Perhaps the most important finding was that the success or failure or an implementation depends on “solid understanding of the business AND the necessary technical skills to implement BPM; just one won’t work.” Business Process Improvement (BPI) needs to be a continuous learning and optimizing cycle. Picking the right tool is only half the battle, having a clear vision of goals and objectives and how BPM may or may not help achieve those is just as essential.

 

SharePoint 2010 Migration: Options & Planning

Many organizations that are running SharePoint 2003/2007 or other CMS are either actively considering or in the midst of upgrading to SharePoint 2010. In this blog we will look at what is involved in upgrading to SharePoint 2010, various options available for the upgrade, and initial planning that needs to precede the migration.

 There are two basic methods of upgrading/migrating from an older version of SharePoint to SharePoint 2010 that are provided by Microsoft: in-place upgrade and database attach upgrade. In addition, there are numerous third-party tools that can help you migrate content and upgrade to SharePoint 2010 not only from an older version of SharePoint but also from other CMS’. Each method has its own set of benefits depending on the objectives of the migration and specifics of the environment. When selecting a migration path, some of the aspects you may need to consider include:

  • Ability to take the production system offline during the migration
  • Amount of change involved in content and its organization during migration
  • Number of customizations (web parts, themes, meta-data, workflows, etc.)
  • Amount of content being migrated
  • Need to upgrade hardware
  • Need to preserve server farm settings

It is much easier to migrate a clean and lean environment than an environment that is full of obsolete content, unused features and broken customization. Start with cleaning up your existing sites and check for the orphaned sites, lists, web parts, etc. Remove any content that is no longer in use, remove unused features and ensure used features are present and working. Once your existing SharePoint site is in tiptop shape you are ready to plan your migration steps.

Before you put your migration/upgrade in motion you need to understand what migration aspects you can compromise on and hard constraints you have. For example:

  • Can you afford to put your environment in read-only mode for the duration of the upgrade?
  • Does the amount of content you have make it prohibitive to copy it over the network?
  • Do you have a lot of customization that you have to deal with?
  • Are you planning to reorganize or selectively migrate your content?

The answers to these kinds of questions will direct your choice of migration tools. Here is a check list that will help you get organized.


Customizations can have a big impact on how quickly and smoothly your migration goes. Therefore it is important to identify and account for as many of them as possible. PreUpgradeCheck can help but here is a list to help you identify and uncover customizations that can add complexity to your migration efforts.