Aidan Garnish

Collaboration Not Competition

North East SharePoint user group meeting - Wednesday 16th June

TSG is teaming up with SUGUK to present the next user group session in the north east.

Tony Hughes from Microsoft Partner TSG who will lead us through methods to exploit Sharepoint functionality in the small to medium Sharepoint Enterprise.
This session bridging the technical, development and business audience will be both interactive and enlightening.  It will cover how list enhancements in Sharepoint 2010 can be deployed to allow integrated data solutions,  dip into the exploitation of Excel to create Business Intelligence, show us how to take advantage of Key performance Indicators and dashboards in Sharepoint, delve into how we can use Sharepoint Designer to create valuable data views and step into the critical realm of document management to show the importance of and approaches to document Version Control and Approval Routing.

For more information and to sign up follow this link.

SharePoint Customisation - OOTB vs SPD vs Custom Code

@joyknows has posed an interesting SharePoint question via Twitter -

What would you say are the primary strengths and weaknesses of OOTB customisation vs. SPD vs custom code?

This one is definitely going to take more than 140 characters so here goes...

Out of the box (OOTB) customisation allows any end user familiar with SharePoint to create sites, lists and web parts through the user interface to produce something that meets their specific requirements.

Strengths -

  • Very quick to create customisations
  • Anybody with basic SharePoint knowledge can do it
  • Forces users to create solutions in a "SharePoint way" which encourages consistency

Weaknesses -

  • Doesn't provide much flexibility - compromises have to be made with requirements
  • If you want to repeat the same customisations again then options for recreating the solution are limited - manual repetition of creation steps or templates

SharePoint Designer (SPD) customisation allows power users to get a bit more creative and make use of some of the more advanced options in SharePoint such as custom workflows and connecting to differnt data sources.

Strengths -

  • More options for customisation - will fulfill more of the original requirements
  • Make changes to master pages and page layouts - create a completely new look and feel

Weaknesses -

  • Difficult to deploy customisations made using SPD to other sites - eg. A custom workflow created in SPD is applied to a specific list and cannot be resused on another list. The only option is to manually recreate the workflow again for the next list.
  • It is possible to do a lot of damage very quickly if put into untrained hands
  • Once files are customised by SPD they cannot be changed by custom code

Custom code requires a SharePoint developer to write it but it is the most powerful option that opens up the full SharePoint API, web services and any other code you want to use to customise your solutions.

Strengths -

  • Provides the most options for customisation
  • Customisations can be packaged up as features that are easily deployed and reused in multiple solutions
  • Deployment can be controlled and governed more easily as customisations can only be deployed by people with SharePoint admin permissions

Weaknesses -

  • Requires a SharePoint developer
  • Takes longer to achieve the same results

The above lists are a very brief summary of the pros and cons for each option. In reality it would be possible to have lengthy discussions about each but I think these lists provide a fair summary that should help as a primer for the more important discussion - which option should I choose?

As with most decisions like this the short answer is - it depends. In this case it depends largely on the trade off that you are prepared to make between speed of solution develoment and flexibility/meeting the original requrements exactly.

If you need something fast and are prepared to compromise by not meeting the original requirements 100% perfectly then OOTB is the way to go.

If, on the other hand, you need to have a solution that ticks off every requirement perfectly, that can be easily reproduced across lots of sites and you are prepared to wait a bit longer for delivery then custom code is the answer.

SharePoint Designer is a middle ground that combines the best and worst of all the options. In my opinion it should only be used to quickly prototype something that you later turn into a well packaged custom code solution or where you have to customise to meet a requirement but do not have SharePoint development resources available.

In the interests of full disclosure I am from a SharePoint development background and have also spent a significant amount of time working with SharePoint whilst being constrained to only using OOTB customisations. As a result I am not what I would describe as a typical SharePoint dev - ie. Reach for Visual Studio first and ask questions later!

This may sound like a betrayal of my SharePoint developer brothers and sisters but I would argue that custom code should only be used once you are sure that what is being asked for cannot be achieved using OOTB customisation. That may sound obvious but it is easy to take requirements on face value and assume that what the end user is asking for cannot be compromised on which makes it look as though custom code is the only option. In reality if the end user understands that they can have a solution that meets 80% of the requirements delivered in 2 days using OOTB or a solution that meets 100% of the the requirements in 10 days using custom code those requirements that were previously set in stone suddenly become a bit more flexible.

So in summary, and just to be clear so I don't get flamed by all the SharePoint devs, custom code is great. It provides the most number of customisation options that can be deployed to your SharePoint farm in a repeatable and controlled way. However, I would choose OOTB wherever possible in the interests of speed of delivery and productivity even if that means using your powers of persuasion to talk the end user into settling for a solution that doesn't tick off 100% of the original requirements but does meet the core ones, they will thank you in the end!

WCM SharePoint utilities

I have created a number of small utility console applications and web parts that are useful for quickly completing a few fairly common tasks - well if you are a SharePoint dev anyway. They are all fairly rough and ready but the project code can be downloaded from the link below if you want to make your own additions/improvements.

These applicatons all have the power to make lots of changes to your site collection very quickly so use them at your own risk - backup your site and always test them in a non-production environment first, you have been warned!

Download projects here

Modify Workflows

Update the properties on approval workflows. This is particularly useful for WCM sites where each subsite has it's own Pages library and workflow by default. This means that once you have a decent sized site collection hierarchy it could take a very long time to go through every site and change the workflows. This app allows you to quickly update properties such as whether users can change who the approver is when submitting a page for approval and whether a single task is assigned to a group. This is a console application so settings are changed through the app.config.

Uncustomize Files

Customized files are the plague of any SharePoint developer who wants to be able to update page layouts, master pages or any other file that makes up a SharePoint site. A customized file is a file that has been modified in SharePoint Designer and is therefore different to the original site definition file that was used when the site was created. A customized file stores it's customizations in SQL so the file on disk is no longer used which means your update of the file on disk is ignored. If you are wondering why your updates are not overwriting the files on your site then it is worth checking to see if the file has been customized. If it has then you will probably want to find out why and what the customization is and then maybe revert it to it's uncustomized state. The UncustomizeFiles console application allows you to do just that.

WCM Control Panel

Quite a grand title for something that at the moment only does two things - if anyone has any ideas for what else they would like to see on a WCM control panel please leave a comment. This web part will tell you how many pages there are in a WCM site collection, something I had hoped CQWP would do but unfortunately not (if anyone knows of a better OOB way of getting this information please let me know in the comments). It will also list out the number of pages in each individual subsite if you modify the web part settings.

The second function this web part has is to Update All Pages which simply checks out every page and then checks it back in then publishes and approves the page. This is a bit of a cheat for people who want to make their content look more up to date than it is for Internet sites where a last updated date is displayed on each page. In reality this is actually quite useful for launch day to be able to create the right impression for users - especially if you have had a particularly long content creation cycle before going live.

These projects can be downloaded here

Viewing a SharePoint page layout results in 404 error

Trying to open some pages in a SharePoint WCM site gave a 404 error.

A quick Google search led to this explanation but this was not the exact issue for me. In my case there was a reference to a user control .ascx file in the page layout that had not been deployed to the bin folder of the web application. Once this resource was deployed to the path the page layout expected to see it in the page loaded without a problem.

Update - another reason for this error is if your page layout has become customized. This will happen if you edit the page layout using SharePoint Designer.

Deploying a wsp solution file to MOSS 2007

I recently wrote a post that included a .wsp file. In the comments a reader asked for more information on how to deploy this to their SharePoint environment.

I suppose it is a sign that I have been developing SharePoint solutions for too long when I start to assume that this is basic knowledge that everybody has! To try and make amends for this assumption here is a quick guide to deploying a wsp using stsadm and central admin. The first part is generic to all .wsp solutions and the second part is specific to the deployment of a web part that has been added using a SharePoint solution.

First we need to use STSADM.exe to add the .wsp file to the SharePoint farm.

To find STSADM.exe navigate to the bin folder in the 12 hive - here C:\Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\web server extensions\12\BIN

Open a command window and drag stsadm.exe onto it and use the following command to add the solution to the solution store.

stsadm -o addsolution -filename c:\solution.wsp

You can also use stsadm to deploy the solution but here I am going to describe the point and click method using SharePoint Central Admin which does the same thing.

Open SharePoint Central Admin and select the Operations tab.

Select Solution Management.

Click the link to the .wsp solution you just added.

Click Deploy Solution - If the solution is not globally deployed select the web applications you want to deploy to.

Click OK.

The solution is now deployed to the web applications you selected or to all web applications if it deployed globally. This is not the end of the deployment process though. If the solution contains a web part there are still a few steps to go before it will be displayed on your site. To add the web part to a page on your site do the following:

Navigate to the site collection where you want to place the web part and go to Site Settings and Site Collection Features (this assumes that the feature is scoped at the site collection level, sorry for making more assumptions that you understand scopes but that is another post and something that other people have already written plenty about if you want to find out more).

Activate the feature that contains the web part that has been deployed in the solution.

Next, go to Site Settings and Web Parts and click New.

Select the web part to add it to the wbe aprt gallery for that site collection.

The web part is now ready to be added to a page in the usual way - edit page, add web part to zone, browse to web part.

Hope that helps somebody...

Twitter SharePoint web part - another update!

** Update June 2010 - new Twitter web part using OAuth rather than Basic Auth **

When I mentioned that I was developing a Twitter web part to Mirjam van Olst she asked if it would be possible to work on it with me. So thanks to Mirjam, in the true spirit of international collaboration, we are now able to bring you an updated version of the web part which is more secure and easier to deploy.

Improvements include -

  • The password input now uses a password textbox to protect the Twitter credentials
  • TwitterLib.dll has been added to the wsp for easier deployment

Download the new and improved Dutch/British/Euro version here: TwitterPublicTimeline.wsp (24.25 kb)

Twitter SharePoint web part

** Update June 2010 - new Twitter web part using OAuth rather than Basic Auth **

I thought I would have a go at creating a web part to display a Twitter public timeline within SharePoint. The reason for creating this web part is so that it can be used by project teams that are spread over several offices/countries to stay in touch and feel more connected without having to invest a lot of time emailing each other or talking on the phone. Twitter is ideal for this kind of light weight communication as it restricts the user to sending short, to the point messages.

Before starting I had a quick look on the web to see if I was reinventing the wheel. Michael Gannotti suggests this solution using javascript and the CEWP but I wanted something that we would have a little more control over in terms of html markup and branding and that wasn't limited to the CEWP being available. I also wanted to have the possibility of extending the web part to include other functionality in the future such as not just being able to display tweets but to also send them.

The web part is configurable using two custom attributes - username and password. This allows you to display any users public timeline assuming you have the password. To set it up for use with a project team public timeline you should create a Twitter account for the project and then follow the members of the team to see a timeline that displays tweets from each of the members. 

At the bottom of this post there are links to the .wsp file which can be deployed to SharePoint using stsadm.exe and a .css file so that you can see how I chose to style the web part but obviously you could brand it any way you want.

**Update by request - more detail on deploying solutions

My solution uses Twitterlib.dll which is an open source .Net wrapper for the Twitter API and was created by the developers at Witty. This is a link to the Witty project on Google code. 

Download the wsp for the Twitter web part: TwitterPublicTimeline.wsp (24 kb)

For a styling suggestion try this css: twitter.css (302.00 bytes)

Customising the pages approval for MOSS 2007 web content management

When I first looked at MOSS WCM to assess whether it would meet the needs of my previous employers web content approval processes many moons ago I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much you could achieve out of the box. Recently I needed to revisit this topic for a new client and promptly forgot what I had discovered and charged off looking at custom workflows using SharePoint Designer or Visual Studio. Fortunately before I got too far down that road I reigned myself in and went digging through the workflow settings of a pages library. This is what I found out/reminded myself of:

  • Using the set up screens you can change the lists used to store the workflow tasks and workflow history
  • Start options can be changed although the standard settings - 'Start this workflow to approve publishing a major version of an item.' is the most appropriate for approving a page for an Internet or extranet site
  • It is possible to switch between serial and parallel approval - most useful if a web page has to go to more than one person or department for approval or the page needs to be approved by people in a specific order
  • There are options to allow the following - 'Reassign the task to another person' and 'Request a change before completing the task' - these can be turned on or off as appropriate
  • Default approvers can be entered into the workflow

With all these options available it is possible to accomodate the vast majority of scenarios for approving web pages without having to resort to SharePoint Designer or Visual Studio. Even scenarios that involve several people or departments in the process can easily be catered for and using the 'Request change before completing the task' option even allows the page to be sent back for changes before approval is given. 

The moral of the story here is a common one when developing with SharePoint - don't try to reinvent the wheel, the SharePoint development team got there first!

Naughty SharePoint Designer

SharePoint Designer keeps adding spaces ( ) to my HTML in page layouts. This is particularly annoying as I am working to a web design that has been produced at great expense and the customer quite rightly expects that the developed website will match this exactly.

 Unfortunately when I want:

        <h4><PublishingWebControls:RichLinkField ID="RichLinkField1" FieldName="ByProductType1" runat="server"></PublishingWebControls:RichLinkField></h4>
        <p><SharePointWebControls:TextField ID="TextField4" FieldName="ByProductTypeDesc1"

What I get is:

 <h4>&nbsp;<PublishingWebControls:RichLinkField ID="RichLinkField1" FieldName="ByProductType1" runat="server"></PublishingWebControls:RichLinkField></h4>
 <p>&nbsp;<SharePointWebControls:TextField ID="TextField4" FieldName="ByProductTypeDesc1" runat="server"></SharePointWebControls:TextField></p>

Hopefully this will be fixed in a service pack but for now I am having to edit my page layouts in Visual Studio and then drag and drop the aspx file into the masterpage library within SharePoint designer. The HTML editor in Visual Studio is much better behaved and does not add in the unwanted spaces.

theKid has found another issue, which I have not experienced, with closing tags being lost by SharePoint designer. Read more about that here...