Starting a new intranet? Decide between Classic SharePoint and Modern Communication sites

Over the past year and I half I’ve been privileged to work on work on one of the first modern intranet’s for a fantastic biotech company, Shire. My role is the associate director of collaboration responsible for SharePoint, Yammer, and OneDrive and related technologies. Two companies, Shire and Baxalta were coming together and looking to create a new intranet for the entire company.

As the lead architect for the Intranet and a long term SharePoint guy, I was passionate about being a part of the renaissance that SharePoint was experiencing. Our timing was a bit ahead of the product but we were able to make decisions aligned with our long term goals of modern, mobile, and out of the box even when we needed to build a few temporary solutions to ensure we met the needs of the business.

6 months after the general availability of communication sites, we have launched over 300 communication sites and 3000 modern team sites in our governance first self-service intranet. Being first comes with unique challenges but also some fantastic opportunities to share lessons learned with companies who are redesigning their intranet right now.

I had a great conversation a couple weeks ago with a friend who’s designing right now and was deciding between classic and modern for the root of her intranet. We collaborated on some pros and cons so I wanted to share these with the hopes that it helps others who may be asking the same question.

 What is Classic, What’s Modern?

Classic SharePoint is based on Microsoft’s ASP.NET web technology. The pages are rendered on the server and HTML is sent over the wire to clients. When a user clicks, the page posts back to the server and the server renders the new html. This back and forth can make interaction seen a bit slower as you need to go roundtrip to the server for each edit. This technology was not designed for modern connected devices and works best on desktop browsers.

Modern SharePoint is pages are based on modern web development standards and are written in JavaScript and run on your device for a faster, natively mobile responsive application experience. This new set of experiences was designed for mobility and leverage a number of native iOS and Android applications such as SharePoint, OneDrive, Planner, and Teams.

 Building a Classic SharePoint Online Intranet

Most customized classic intranets in SharePoint rely on master pages for their branding. It is possible but more challenging to customize relying only on css and javascript injection which is more complex and costly but doesn’t have the same supportability challenges.

If you are going to design in classic, please be sure to follow these best practices from Microsoft for the best supportable outcome: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint/dev/solution-guidance/portal-branding


Master Pages

The ultimate in user interface customization.
One can rewrite or customize any aspect of the page chrome giving you the ability to make SharePoint not look like SharePoint.
Customizing Master Pages in SharePoint Online is not recommended by Microsoft.

Avoid customizing master pages. As mentioned above, updates
to the service, may affect the structure of out of the box master pages. If you
have implemented custom master page copying the contents of any out of the box
master page, you will need to further monitor if this out of the box master
page is not updated, and re-implement these changes in your custom master page.

Otherwise, some SharePoint functionality may start behaving
incorrectly, when your custom master page is in use. That’s why customizing
master pages leads to additional risks and maintenance costs, and it’s
recommended to avoid it, when possible.

Mature 3rd Party design
options and templates

A very mature eco-system
of 3rd party options and intranet in a box solutions exist.  These can provide a jump start or cost savings versus developing your
own custom solutions.

Be aware that deep knowledge of SharePoint
development (placeholders, delegate controls, HTML and CSS) required to make
changes to these solutions and they are not generally compatible with Modern
SharePoint.

Mature patterns and
tooling for customization

Even within a responsive template, all content must be designed to be responsive via custom CSS as the native webparts and text editors are not designed for
mobility

Classic webparts and
customization techniques

Some customization techniques such as JSLINK for list customization, Display Templates for search based applications, or Filter WebParts don’t have a modern
equivalent

Classic and Modern
Hybrid UX challenges

Inconsistency between Intranet Home and Modern Team and Communication Sites can be confusing to users

Modern Pages in Classic
Sites

Classic customization
techniques do not apply to modern pages within the site such as the Document
Library, Lists, Site Contents etc.

Doesn’t support Modern
News

Does not support Modern
News (rollup to SharePoint Home or Mobile).

Doesn’t support News
Alerts on Mobile

Doesn’t rollup news to a Hub Site

Limited Hub Site Support

No shared Hub Navigation
or shared theme with other Hub connected
sites

 

Building a Modern SharePoint Intranet with Communication Sites

Microsoft’s fully supported forward direction for Intelligent Intranets. Communication Sites will allow you to quickly create an out of the box responsive intranet and extend where necessary using the SharePoint Framework.

Communication Sites are not supported in the root Site Collection for your tenant so you’ll need to create it under the /sites/ path and use a little JavaScript to redirect to the Intranet. This can be done with no user perceptible impact.

 

Responsive out of the box

Both the site chrome and all webparts are automatically optimized for modern mobile
devices.

3rd Party solutions may be immature

Developers less skilled with modern customization techniques may have a tough learning curve. 


SharePoint developers have traditionally been .NET developers working in Microsoft Visual Studio.  SharePoint Framework is based on open source tools and is written in JavaScript so there is quite a bit of learning required.

Anyone can design a great looking intranet

Easily updated without third party or IT support. 


You need some great pictures and writing skills but significantly lowers the
technical demands for creating a professional responsive intranet.

Consistency between Modern Team and Communication Sites.

Maintains continuity in design and function of rest of the new Intranet and Collaboration Sites. 


If you use SharePoint framework to extend the design, the changes can be easily applied to all modern sites.

Evolving Platform

Continually evolving as Microsoft releases mature the platform.  For
example: Hub Sites, News Alerts, Parallax Scrolling, Image Search and Image Cropping have all shipped since the launch of Communication Sites

Hub Sites

Hub Sites will allow you to connect a number of Site Collections with a common Hub navigation, shared theme, news roll-up and ability to search across all Hub connected
sites.

Unlike sub-sites, one can easily reorganize what Hub a site is connected to to adapt as your organization changes over time.

Extensible with SharePoint Framework

Can extend with 3rd Party or custom webparts or extensions on site pages for customized look and feel or functionality

Safer to customize

Modern Customizations are designed to not break as SharePoint evolves and changes.

As an example built in locations for top and bottom user interface
customization will always be supported vs the developer choosing a location on
the page and hoping that it’s not broken by future changes in
SharePoint

Get started with free PNP samples

Large collection of open source Web Parts available from Microsoft Patterns and
Practices

 

Conclusions

For me this is really about aligning with where the product is going to get the best user experience for my company and reducing the amount of rework we’ll need to do over time.

There were some classic sites we build early on when communication sites weren’t available and it’s been painful to go back and rebuild once users have moved in and settled into their sites. For those who are starting now, I’d encourage you to seriously consider if there are hard constraints that would prevent you from starting modern.

 

I’d love to talk with you about your questions and help as many folks be successful with their SharePoint based intranets as possible. If you’d like to learn more there some great events coming up on the east coast and west coast.   I’ll be at SharePoint Fest DC March 26 – 30, 2018 and SharePoint Conference North America May 21- 23 in Las Vegas

 

To save a little money on these conferences:

Use code FeldmanDC100 for SharePoint Fest DC March 26 – 30, 2018

Use code Feldman for SharePoint Conference North America May 21- 23 in Las Vegas

 

 

Secure Extranets Get Real in SharePoint Online with White Listing!

For quite some time, SharePoint Online has been the easiest way share data securely folks partners from other companies.  For anyone unfortunate enough to have attempted this on-premises there are no firewall ports to open, no custom member and role providers or custom claim augmentation services to tear your hair out with.  Sharing with external folks just works.

 

Until now I’ve always had just a little bit of consternation around the fact that if I enabled Sharing outside my company anyone with sharing rights can share with anyone they like.  As an example, a contractor on your team can share with their personal gmail account or any other account they choose so long as it is associated with a Microsoft Account or a Work and School Account.

 

Recently 2 additional options have appeared (not in all my tenants so still rolling out)

  1. Allow sharing only with the external users that already exist in my organizations directory.  This option leverages Azure B2B when as an admin, you can preload authorized external users into your Azure Active Directory.  The big advantage here is that they are using a federated sign-in.  So if their company terminates them, they can no longer sign into your site as well.
  2. Limit external sharing by domain.  This enables on a site collection by site collection basis to control who this data can be shared with.  For example if i have a site for collaboration with Microsoft i can enable sharing to only take place with Microsoft on this site collection.  This prevents users from accidentally inviting someone who shouldn’t have access to the site.

 

Really excited about this innovation and with it, the ability to prevent a whole class of accidental data leaks

 

Enjoy!

Dave

 

New settings in AAD to control guest users in Office 365 Groups.

Within the old school Azure Portal (http://manage.windowsazure.com) there’s a new section you’ll want to be aware of called user access.

 

The default is that all 3 of these options are enabled.  From my perspective i wouldn’t want a guest user to be able to add additional guests so i flipped that one off.

 

Love the way these controls are surfaced in the Admin center and can’t wait for Guest Users in Groups to finally hit my tenant so i can try it out.

 

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iPhone 7, Win8, & Modern SharePoint : Client Side Rendering as the “headphone jack”

iPhone 7 – No more headphone jack

I’ve been an fan of the iPhone since it was first released in 2007.  I’m still using an iPhone 5s and have been holding off for a while to see what Apple had to announce today about the iPhone 7.  There had been a number of rumors about the removal of the headphone jack leading up to today’s event.  Buzzfeed wrote a solid article after interviewing a few members of the product team about the motivations behind the move, primarily saving space to make way for new innovations removing something they regarded as antiquated.  For me, the math doesn’t add it and it has convinced me to hold off on a new phone and to seriously examine other eco-systems.  Firstly, I’m on my phone more than 8 hours a day.  I have it plugged in our use a battery to charge it so the lightning connector is already in use.  I’m not really a fan of wireless headphones as I have enough devices to keep charged on a daily basis.  Second, I have a nice investment in that old jack, some incredible headphones including the Dunu DN2000J and Logitech Ultimate Ears TripleFi as well as the Bose SoundSports which i use for phone calls pretty much all day Monday-Friday.  Before the announcement today, Apple had plenty of feedback including online petitions with a few hundred thousands signature encouraging them to rethink the decision, but the general messaging was that we’re killing a dinosaur to make way for progress.  They could be correct, but for years wireless headphones have been around and have never caught on, a very different scenario than the floppy disk and cd-rom drive.

 

Windows 8:  change management is critical and evolution can work better than revolution

I finished reading the article and i was thinking about the lead up to the release of Windows 8.  Microsoft had a ton of feedback from users that the new start menu wasn’t intuitive, the touch focus wasn’t aligned with most people PCs, and the development eco-system just wasn’t ready as it was heavily fragmented across the WinRT, real windows and of course the mobile platform.  The community provided a ton of feedback up front and early but sometimes it’s hard to know if the feedback from your most passionate advocates is representative of the broader market.  In the case of Windows 8, it was of course and the past few years Microsoft has turned it around in Windows 10 and the updates that have happened since that point.  One of my favorite changes is not in the operating system, but the openness, transparency, and willingness to listen that has emerged within Microsoft and the product teams.

 

SharePoint – What was new is old and what’s new is almost ready

This brings me to SharePoint.. There’s a whole lot of exciting change happening right now most of which was announced at the Future Of SharePoint event on May 4th.  Basically every user interface in SharePoint is being reimagined and rebuild with a cloud first mobile first spin.    With the level of change happening across the platform I’ve spent a lot of time describing to people the state of the SharePoint ecosystem; both during the day at work and in broader SharePoint community.

 

I’m working on a new website that i hope to have ready in the next month or so to enable folks to interact and have the conversation about best practices and real world usage guidance on a feature by feature basis.  The general format is a matrix with one axis grouping features by the level of complexity (Out of the Box, Configuration Only, Extending SharePoint, or Totally Custom.  Those classifications were taken from a presentation by Dan Kogan from the SharePoint product team at the Ignite conference last year when he was talking about how the team thinks about customizing SharePoint.  I’m a big fan of this classification scheme as it’s easy to group things like lists, libraries, content types under OOB, forms and workflow under Configure, JSLink, Display Templates, and JavaScript Embedding under Extend, and all the APIs and app patterns under the Custom header.

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The second axis is designed to provide transparency and guidance to users.  Things in the stop column either have been deprecated or there’s been guidance that these are not the right way to build solutions.  Examples for me are InfoPath forms and Farm Solutions, you can do them, but really not something I’d recommend to a customer.  Sunset focuses on things that we know are going away, but in many cases there just isn’t another options that’s viable today, some easy examples are SharePoint designer workflows, JSLink, and Display Templates.  Finally the items on the Horizon are the up and coming new investments that have promise but either are not generally available or just haven’t yet had the time to mature to their full potential where you’re ready to roll them out to the whole company yet.    A great example of this is the SharePoint Framework, PowerApp, and Flow.  I grabbed a quick capture of the general concept and would truely appreciate any feedback you have as I work to build out the backend of this project.

Over the past 3 years I’ve spent a huge amount of time working with partners and clients to build solutions that work in SharePoint online or on-premise and helped them move away from farm solutions and master pages to more modern approaches focused on client side rendering with JSLink, DisplayTemplates, and JavaScript Embedding or User Custom Actions.  These are 3 newer development techniques that were introduced in SharePoint 2013 to give developers the ability to customize the user interface of SharePoint in a lightweight client side framework.

 

JSLink enables a user to customize the html and css that SharePoint uses to render list items.  It’s pretty incredible as it doesn’t take a really deep developer to create unique and wonderful experiences such as this news list from a simple list.

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Display templates provides a similar concept for for search results enabling the rapid development of compelling search driven experiances with flexible user interfaces developed entirely client side on top of the wonderful SharePoint search system via the search results webpart and content search web parts.

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A bridge to the future…

As Microsoft is focused on developing the next generation of the development at a furious pace, those of us building solutions today are keenly aware that the technologies available today as on their way out and won’t work in modern pages while the next generation of technologies are still being evolved and just aren’t ready.   The roadmap for the SharePoint framework talks about webparts, full page apps, and list apps each of which provide an ability to engineer custom solutions for SharePoint.  As modern pages and modern webparts begin to replace today’s publishing pages there will be new webparts (real soon) focused on viewing lists and content search but nothing has been shared about a future for these client side rendering technologies.

Think of this as a nice compatible SharePoint “headphone jack”.  Today it feels like there’s a chasm between old and new where investments customers have made in office 365 based portals or customized user experiences made following patterns and practices don’t have a clear transition to the future of modern team sites and modern pages.  The ability to bring forward some of the client side rendering technologies into the next generation of the list view and search results web part could ease the transition and provide customers with a way to take their recent investments forward in the cloud or on-prem.   Over time as the SharePoint Framework matures and evolves they may not be needed.  Today, the ability to build something today that works onprem, in office 365 today, and in the modern experiences of the future is critical.   Just like the headphone jack that may not be as new and shiny as wireless audio, having a  mature, tested approach to bring forward customers investments (just like my awesome headphones i love) would really help us make the transition.

Normally my posts are more focused on a technical snipit rather than commentary.  Let me know what you think and if you want more opinion or if you’d prefer i stick to the code.

 

…Dave

SharePoint Apps Apps Apps : SharePoint, Outlook Groups, and OneDrive

Folks who have seen me speak about Office 365 Groups know what a big fan I am of the new Microsoft cloud first, mobile first strategy.  For years, all my documents were locked up behind a VPN client that killed my battery life when run on my phone and a web user experiance that was conceived long before the the consumerization of IT.

Office 365 Groups and the Outlook Groups App for iOS changed all that.  Office 365 Groups are a brilliant example of what might happen if a security group, a distribution list, and a SharePoint team site got together.  My project teams were always in the loop when i emailed a customer because i simply added the group to the email and knew that everyone on the team today or in the future would be able to follow what was happening on the project.  Planner let me organize the tasks for my team, PowerBI let me share data that was relevant to the team, OneNote kept all my project notes easily accessible, and files as it was called gave me a document library on a private site collection to store my project artifacts.  However, the document library was branded as OneDrive and lacked a number of the enterprise features such as metadata and content types that make SharePoint great.  The SharePoint experiance also lacked any support for lists, or the ability to have more than one library.

On May 4th Microsoft shared a bit of the vision and roadmap for SharePoint including that every Office 365 Group would get a real team site and new team sites can be associated with an Office 365 Group.

It may not seem like a huge deal, but this really changes the game in a huge way as users of SharePoint sites can take advantage all the services across Office 365 and maintain a common definition of who that team is really composed of.  For example, I can share a file from my OneDrive with Group created for a specific project.  In addition to some great web based user interface and native support inside Outlook 2016, Groups have a native iOS application called Outlook Groups that provides me access to conversations, files, members, and my onenote.  With the release of the new SharePoint mobile app and the coming soon integration of team sites and office 365 groups I was excited to explore how groups are supported within the new SharePoint mobile app.

 

IMG_7135

Let’s start with what’s I really love about the new SharePoint mobile app.

Persistent Login

For those who have been attempting to use SharePoint from the web, the persistent login is the first huge win.  Not entering my super secret password with all sorts of crazy characters on my phone is a big deal.

Relevant Suggestions on Sites

I spent this afternoon doing a session at SPTechCon on Office 365 Groups and Office Graph and I did a number of demo’s with a group named engineering.  I bounced back and forth between a few groups, but the majority of my demos were hosted inside Engineering.  When logging into the app whatever new signals Microsoft is watching in the Office Graph to determine relevant sites to present to me really worked well.  The engineering group is right there on the top.  Earlier in the day before doing the demos it wasn’t there but the search did exactly what you’d expect and found it easily.

 

IMG_7136

Activity Feed

This is something I’ve missed since our buddies at NewsGator disapeared around the release of SharePoint 2013.  Not a ton of data for me, but love the concept of being able to see at a glance what’s popular and what’s fresh on a particular site.

 

Enterprise Search

Easily search for Sites, Files, People, and Recomendation from the Graph.

Some stuff I’d love to see evolve a bit

IMG_7137

Integration between Activity and Conversations

Today Microsoft has not yet rolled out groups for each team site so this would be hard to do but I hope these two areas can evolve and maybe merge together at some point in the future.  Conversations in a way represent what’s happening on the team in terms of people communication about the project and activility captures the more interaction based history of what’s happening on a site.    I’d love to see these merge over time.

To make this a litle bit more challenging, clicking on conversations today opens the Outlook Groups App and shifts my context away from the SharePoint app.  Again, this is an area I’d love to see become a more integrated slick experiance.

 

IMG_7138 IMG_7139

Files

For me this is a really big one.  Inside a group (or team site) there is no way to directly get to your files.  Instead you see a list of recent files, popular files, and a link to the OneDrive app if you’d like to be able to browse all your files.  Once you click the OneDrive link you’ll get the OneDrive application which will open, authenicate, and evenutally load up the files in your document library.

Lists

Really neat that i can see all my lists from a mobile device but when you click to edit an item, at this point you get a nice coming soon message.  I’m not sure if this is just a lower priority for the app or if this may somehow tie into powerapps, but either way clearly an area that is still going to need additional love.

Integration

At this end of the day, this is where the fact that the Outlook Groups app has existed for a year really shows.  In a single pane it’s dead simple to navigate between my conversation history, my calendar events, and my files and folders.  All without needing to launch other apps or wait for additional logins.  As the Files compoent inside Groups matures into a full team site I really hope this level of polish and integration comes into the SharePoint app as well.

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Closing Thoughts

The future of SharePoint is really incredible right now.  We have a mobile SharePoint app that makes it dead simple to get to the sites we use everyday from a mobile device.  There is work to be done to realize the great potential of this new app, but we need to acknowlege that Microsoft is working fast and giving us access to see and help influence and shape the product earlier then ever before.  I look forward to many more great things shipping in the next few months and seeing the levels of polish and integration continue to improve.

If you’re a power user or someone who helps manage change in your organization I’d recomend grabbing a copy to play with and get a glance into the future.  If you prefer a more stable complete product, i’d stay with Outlook Groups for now but keep an eye on the SharePoint mobile app as it evolves.