I expect to see Microsoft announce the official release of SharePoint 2013 any day now. It’s an interesting time for organizations on the business collaboration platform, and many of you may be considering the move to SharePoint 2013 sooner rather than later to take advantage of some new capabilities. But what’s the best approach to upgrade to the new platform? Let’s check out the options.

Upgrading From An Earlier SharePoint

You have options when you decide to upgrade from an older version of SharePoint. But those options depend on the version you are upgrading to.

In-place Upgrade

In-place upgrades offer a simple way to upgrade from one version of SharePoint to the next version (for example, from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2010). In this instance, both the database and the sites are upgraded in a particular order to run on the new version.

While an in-place upgrade is free and seems relatively simple, it likely works best for simple sites, not large farms, especially when a failure of a single site collection can cause the entire upgrade to fail. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, an in-place upgrade is not supported to move to SharePoint 2013, so scratch that option off your list.

What Microsoft will support is the database attach.

Database Attach

You will find more flexibility with the database attach approach. Basically you copy your content and services databases over to your newly created SharePoint 2013 farm and then upgrade the data and the sites. The nice thing here if you have multiple content databases is that you can upgrade them in any order you want and update more than one at a time if you need to complete the upgrade as quickly as possible.

Once the database is attached to the new version and the upgrade completed, site owners can upgrade their individual site collections. Here’s a quick diagram that shows the process overall:

spog.png
 

    From Microsoft

Note that the My Sites host is upgraded by the administrator, who can then upgrade the individual My Sites or allow users to upgrade their own.

To help individual site collection owners with their upgrades, Microsoft offers a couple of tools:

  1. The Health Check: Site collection owners can run a health check against their site collection to determine if there are any issues that might cause an upgrade to fail. Some issues can be repaired automatically during the upgrade, but others require manual intervention and need to be completed before the upgrade is run. The health check is always run at the start of the upgrade process.
  2. Upgrade Evaluation Sites: Thanks to the separation of the content and software from the site itself, site collection owners are not forced to automatically take on the new version of SharePoint. They can request an evaluation site that, for a limited time, will allow them to see the new interface and how their data looks/works within it. This enables them to identify any issues and get a better feel for what they will be getting before they do the actual upgrade.

Microsoft has definitely provided new upgrade functionality that can make the upgrade process easier. But here’s the kicker that you need to clearly understand: a database attach upgrades your content as-is. Everything stays the same: same libraries, versions of content, metadata.

For those who have carefully planned and managed their SharePoint 2010 environment, this will not be a problem. But it’s more likely you find yourself in the majority that didn't plan appropriately, allowed divisions/departments to do whatever they wanted and as a result, your SharePoint implementation is simply a mess.

Add to that, if you are one of the many organizations working with SharePoint 2007, or even SharePoint 2003 (and we know there are many of you out there), this database attach is not an option. You would first have to upgrade to SharePoint 2010 to take advantage of this approach.

Use a Migration Solution

If you happen to be in one of those camps where you either have a real messy SharePoint data environment or you want to move from an older version of SharePoint, then using a migration tool may be your best option.

Migration tools can allow you to clean your content as you move it over. They can also allow you to re-build site collections and sites based on a new plan. In addition, if you have a number of versions per documents, you are able to only migrate a certain number of version, thus allowing you to eliminate older copies that are simply taking up space.

Shredded Storage in SharePoint 2013

Migration also enables you to take advantage of SharePoint 2013 Shredded Storage feature. Consider that in SharePoint 2010 you upload a document to SharePoint that is around 1 MB. Then you open it again in SharePoint and edit it. SharePoint creates a new copy of the document, changing the metadata. This can lead to having a lot of copies of a document in SharePoint’s BLOB storage for what can be really minor edits (note that we aren't talking about versions here).

With Shredded Storage, introduced in SharePoint 2013, when documents are uploaded, they can be stored as a single BLOB, but as a collection of BLOBs. So when a document is edited, only the selected BLOB that’s changed is updated, decreasing the storage space required for that document. This is a simplified description of Shredded Storage, so I recommend you read more about it to understand how it works.

The reason I mention Shredded Storage is that when you upload content via a migration solution, you can take advantage of this capability. When doing a database attach you are simply bringing over all the content you already have in the form that already exists, multiple copies and all. With a migration process, you only need to bring the most recent copy of the document (plus any versions you are required to have).

The advantages for upgrading to SharePoint 2013 via a migration solution should be fairly obvious. The biggest disadvantage is that you have to pay for that solution and potentially for support from the vendor to use the tool, and there are a number of options to choose from.

Additional Upgrade Considerations

I've outlined the options you have for upgrading to SharePoint 2013, but there are a couple of additional items that need to be pointed out:

  1. Hardware constraints: Depending on the version of SharePoint you have, you may be working on older hardware (32 bit for SP2007 versus 64 bit for SP2010 and SP2013), so you’ll need to think about how an upgrade will work in instances where the hardware is different.
  2. Older SharePoint Versions: As I pointed out above, there are still a lot of organizations on older versions of SharePoint, including SP2003 and SP2007. In these cases, you can do a direct upgrade to SP2013, and the steps required to move through the versions to make that happen may be more work than you really want to do.

And what about those of you on Office365? Currently on SP2010, Office365 will also be upgraded to SP2013 in the February/March timeframe. Fortunately, thanks to the way Microsoft is doing the upgrade, you aren’t forced to automatically flip to the new SP2013 UI right away.

Yes, you will be on SP2013 under the covers, but I expect that many will stay with the current SP2010 interface for a while -- at least until they understand what SP2013 will offer them. For new organizations signing up for Office365, you aren’t likely to have the option of a SP2010 interface, but since it’s a brand new implementation, that likely doesn’t really matter.

What is driving organizations to want to move to SharePoint 2013? The new social capabilities and Windows 8 integration are two features I know are getting much attention. But the plan to upgrade must be thought out carefully, and planned very well. Along with documenting the best approach, running tests on test environments and staged upgrades of site collections should also be considered.

Whether you upgrade via Microsoft’s database attach method or utilize a migration solution, the fact is you will do it sooner or later. Now you have some of the information to get you started thinking on the best approach.

Editor's Note: To read more of Steven's thoughts on SharePoint 2013, check out SharePoint 2013: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things