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The Best Thing about SharePoint 2013: An Architect's Perspective

Mar 18, 2013 Cloud & Managed Services Scott Walsh

SharePoint 2013SharePoint 2010 is a really great platform, but it has one built-in limitation that makes a lot of us architects want to pull our hair out sometimes. Just say the words “Site Segregation” within earshot of a SharePoint developer and you’ll probably hear some grumbling. That’s why we’re all elated that Microsoft has found some pretty ingenious ways to get around this obstacle with SharePoint 2013. Below I’m going to try to give you a taste of the SharePoint geek perspective on why site segregation gave us so many headaches, and then I’ll give you the layman’s version of what the new solutions will mean for you and your business.

Site Segregation and its Discontents

The limitation we developers used to have to work around was that information was trapped in what are called site collections. Each user interface (the page you sign in to when you get to work) had one or more site collections the user could navigate within. What you couldn’t do, however, was publish information from one site collection to another to be consumed in any straightforward way. In other words, site collections were segregated. What this meant for the clients I worked with was that, when they described how they wanted their interfaces to look or explained how they wanted a user to be able to navigate, a lot of times I’d have say, “Sorry, the platform won’t let me do it that way.” I could build something custom for the task, but every time I did that it would drive up the cost of the implementation.

Enter SharePoint 2013

Production vs. Consumption: You can compare segregated platforms to properties with outdoor water pumps fixed atop wells. The water is accessible; you just have to go outside to get it. SharePoint 2013 gives you indoor plumbing. Now you can run pipes to the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room—all the places where the water will actually be used. The well in our case is the department where information is produced; with previous versions, you would have to go to that department to get the information you needed from it. Since the production of any information was always tied to its consumption, site architecture dictated navigation. This was particularly frustrating to anyone who needed data aggregated from multiple departments. As you can imagine, creating an interface for efficient project management was about as fun as trying to rig a contraption for carting buckets from a well in through the window. The Microsoft engineers get around segregation barriers in SharePoint 2013 in two ways:

1. Content by Search: With SharePoint 2013’s content by search feature, we no longer have to worry about finding a way to drive users to where the information is because we have the freedom to put the pieces of information that are important to users in a place where they are already going. Without getting too technical, content by search uses SharePoint’s existing search capabilities to scan various sources and assemble the results for user consumption (similar to how Google Search Alerts work). Essentially, content by search allows us to subscribe to material from various production sites and automatically display it on various user pages. So people no longer have to go to the well where information is produced to get the information they routinely consume.

2. Cross Site Publishing: While content by search relies on a web part that scans the platform for important information, cross site publishing makes it possible for users to create information in one location but have it published in multiple locations. A good example is with functionality like catalogue displays. With previous versions, site segregation meant users had to create separate listings for the same product if they wanted it to appear on different pages. But with cross site publishing the information a user produces can be consumed in several different areas. This means that information can be published across multiple pages without anyone having to enter it in again for each new page. I should point out, though, that all the data getting channeled between departments, whether through content by search or cross site publishing, is security-trimmed, so users can only access the stuff they’re authorized to see, and only certain users can create or manage the information.

What This Means for Your Business

Basically, you’re going to have a huge amount of freedom in choosing how you want your site architecture to look. But let me give you some concrete examples of what the upgrades make possible:

More Efficient Tracking: Let’s say you have an extranet platform with 15 different project site collections. With past versions of SharePoint, if you’re the project manager and you want a certain type of document from each one of them—say, the project charter—you’d have to visit each site individually. And, if you wanted just one specific piece of information from each charter, then finding all those pieces could end up taking you quite a bit of time. With SharePoint 2013, I can set up a content-by-search web part that automatically pulls those pieces from the various project sites and displays them on the project manager’s page.

Greater Accessibility: Now let’s say you’re a manager and you’re looking for a particular expense report. Before, you would have had to go to the people in the finance department to get the report. But you might’ve gone there only to find out the report you need is actually in HR. What ends up happening in these scenarios is that all too often the people looking for information either waste hours trying to find it or give up altogether and go on to make decisions without it. But now SharePoint 2013 lets me provide access to documents company-wide as needed. I can make things like expense reports accessible on a page or in a window for “Commonly Used Documents.” 

Reduced Cost of Implementation: Ultimately, you need the information you need, so despite the limitations of the platform I have often had to find or create ways for users to access information across site collection barriers. It wasn’t that getting around these barriers was impossible, but every time I had to custom-build this type of function into a business’s platform it meant more time and greater expense. Since SharePoint 2013 has this type of functionality right out of the box, I’m going to be able to do more with your implementation in less time, which means that you will have more freedom to choose how you want that platform to be designed, and it will still probably end up costing you less in terms of both time and revenue. 

So the most exciting thing about SharePoint 2013 is that it reflects a strong focus on user experience, and it makes it possible for developers to make far fewer compromises in site architecture. Before, you could either produce the information the way you wanted and force people to consume it as it was, or you could produce it in some way you didn’t want so people could consume it efficiently and conveniently. Clients would say, “Here’s how I want to set up my site,” and all too often I’d have to explain that what they were describing meant running into site collection barriers. Now, I can build a site structure that allows you to produce information the way you’re supposed to while at the same time making it accessible for other people to consume in whatever way works best for them. This means I no longer have to send anyone down the rabbit hole to get the information they need. 


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