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:


    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.