Social Business, SharePoint 2013, This Old House Style - Moving In and Living Together
"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.” -- Yogi Berra

In many ways, this sums up SharePoint’s problem in its second decade -- we take it for granted.

Now, don’t feel bad for Microsoft. SharePoint has an enviable track record of sustained double digit growth, with hundreds of millions of users on premises and in the cloud. Now on its fifth major release, SharePoint 2013, SharePoint offers peerless document-centric storage and collaboration on a platform most enterprises already own.

It hasn’t been a seamless rise, though. The first version of SharePoint Portal Server 2001 offered web-based document storage, but it was primitive and low capacity. It wasn’t until SharePoint 2003 that enterprises began moving substantial content from legacy file shares into SharePoint.

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SharePoint 2003, from msdn.microsoft.com

However, while the platform has continued to grow and evolve over the past decade, many business user expectations haven’t moved on from the days when Kid Rock ruled the music charts:

  • All documents on a site had the same permissions
  • One library per site
  • A different site for each kind of content
  • Documents described with naming and titles, not metadata
  • Maximum of 2 million documents

But that’s not SharePoint today.

My question -- have we missed the core of why we all started using SharePoint in the first place -- document-centric collaboration? If your operations, training and user expectations are still based on SharePoint 2003, you’re likely missing the SharePoint.

So try REALLY hard to imagine how you’d approach SharePoint today, for the first time, if you hadn’t spent years with it. Not that easy, right?

This series will review some of the key newer features you might otherwise overlook.

Information Architecture at Scale

Ten years ago, most SharePoint farms were organized as hierarchies, limited to Active Directory logins. You had a corporate home page, a few departmental sites and most “Team Sites” were temporary collaborative spaces, set up as children of a parent department.

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SharePoint 2013, on the other hand, has the capacity to handle vastly increased amounts of content, and to have multiple libraries on the same site -- with granular permissions possible for each document. In addition, multiple hybrid authentication schemes leveraging “claims” make it possible to unify internal Active Directory users and external stakeholders on the same sites. These collaboration areas are likely to be independent site collections, so sharing there doesn’t require giving permission to child or parent sites. It also allows for a “flatter” information architecture.

Finally, SharePoint 2010 and 2013 introduced a new site template -- the Document Center. Microsoft designed Document Centers to be large scale, common document repositories for 250,000 documents or more. Whereas SharePoint 2003 required a new site for each library, leading to lots of small libraries, with Document Centers you can store thousands of documents in the same place, and use security and filters to generate focused views of the content.

One Version of the Truth

SharePoint 2013 is a high capacity platform. Expansions in SQL and storage optimization, along with tools like Remote BLOB Storage, create nearly limitless capacity for enterprise documents -- up to four terabytes under the right conditions. But that’s no reason to allow SharePoint to proliferate with redundant or obsolete content.

Have you ever seen a file share or a library with files named:

  • 2009 Proposal
  • 2009 Proposal_AKedits
  • 2009 Proposal_Final

If you add those files to SharePoint, all three would be edited independently. It’s far better to keep all three linked as part of one logical document. Versioning can be enabled for any library in SharePoint, allowing you to see who edited the file, what changed and when. Once enabled, the context menu can bring you to the version history inside the browser.

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And once enabled, the versions are also surfaced inside Office 2013’s "Backstage” controls (the colored left-most tab in the user interface):

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From Office or the browser, you can review, compare or rollback older versions. In more advanced use cases, you can also require documents to be “checked out” before editing -- ensuring only one person can make changes at a time. You can still maintain a clean interface because you’re not showing redundant copies of the same thing -- but they’re all still there, stacked “behind” the current file in Version History.

Sharing and Sending

Redundant content proliferates when copying files is simpler than moving them. As a result, in 2003 when users had documents to share with a broader audience, they would copy them to places those users had access, leaving behind older versions each time.

There’s a better way in 2013. When you save a document -- to your Personal Site or a team site -- you now have a simple way to share it with everyone: a Share menu item. Share allows users to keep one version of the document, introducing it to new, selected users instead of shipping the document to the users. And if users don’t have authorization to change permissions, Share requests are routed to administrators for approval.

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Figure 2 -- Share options

In the instances when you do need to move a document to a different location, SharePoint lets you predefine target locations from Central Administration, allowing for one-click document movement. Given their high capacity, Document Centers are great targets!

Information Lifecycle Management (ILM)

ILM is one of those fancy buzzwords to describe what happens to a document over time. Face it, a lot of old information builds up in SharePoint. Although you can also define enterprise-wide policies for particular content types, you can get started by defining actions on libraries or folders inside Library Settings. ILM allows users to define rules based on document properties or metadata (such as document type or last modified date). After a certain time has passed, the ILM functions will automatically allow you to specify the following actions for each document:

  • Move to recycle bin
  • Permanently delete
  • Transfer to another location (move, copy, move and leave a link)
  • Start a workflow
  • Skip to next retention stage
  • Trigger in place records management
  • Delete previous drafts
  • Delete previous versions

There’s a lot of flexibility in those ranges. For some enterprises, they might want to wait until a year after the last edit date to delete prior versions and drafts, and mark the document as a permanent, read only “record.” Others might choose to move it to an archive or delete it.

Shredded Storage

Ten years ago, SQL-based storage was new, and many organizations limited the number of versions -- or turned versioning off completely -- to throttle the growth of storage. Until 2013, SharePoint saved a new version of each file for every change, no matter how small. A one megabyte file, edited 1000 times, would use one gigabyte of space -- much of it unchanged from version to version.

SharePoint 2013 introduced a new featured, Shredded Storage, that breaks up file storage into much smaller chunks (invisible to end users) This means only the parts of a file that change need to be saved, leading to much more scalable content growth that lets you keep all versions of a file over time.

Shredded storage is ON by default in SharePoint 2013. Although engineering tips for SQL, Remote BLOB Storage and shredded storage is beyond the scope of this post, the bottlenecks that limited collaboration 10 years ago are mostly a thing of the past.

Conclusion

SharePoint 2013 is not what it was 10 years ago. Its expanded capacity and security capabilities mean that your layout of sites and libraries -- information architecture -- can match actual usage patterns more closely, bringing content and stakeholders more closely together than before. Advances in sharing and publishing helps assure that your documents start out life in the right place, and minimize the degree of redundant or obsolete copies of the same document being randomly distributed around the farm. The introduction of user-friendly document lifecycle management helps assure the documents are automatically curated, retaining what’s essential and purging or archiving old information. Lastly, performance engineering for SQL back-end systems has all but eliminated performance or storage bottlenecks that inhibited effective collaboration.

Can’t wait to see what the next 10 years bring! Maybe even a Kid Rock comeback tour ...

Title image courtesy of Piotr Wawrzyniuk (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three part series: SharePoint: This Old House. Check back next month for the second installment by Chris: Interior Design and Decorating: SharePoint infrastructure and precision organization.