What You Need To Remember From Microsoft Ignite 2017

The 2017 edition of the Microsoft Ignite (September 25–29) is behind us; all follow-up content has been posted by Microsoft and the dust has settled. After three editions, this has quickly become the go-to event to find out what Microsoft is up to in pretty much every area, ranging from cloud services to operating systems to Office software to even hardware (although I didn’t see any Xbox sessions—apparently, the business application scenarios for this don’t exist or haven’t been worked out).

ignite17recap_lunchThe logistics were impeccable this year, which is no small feat considering the 30,000+ attendees (who all have basic needs such as Wi-Fi and food—in that order), 700+ sessions, shuttle services to dozens of conference hotels, and so on. The city of Orlando luckily was in full working order, which was also uncertain until a few weeks before the conference with the passing of hurricane Irma. Support to hurricane victims in Texas and Florida was also a big theme of the event in general, with plenty of support initiatives around the conference center, including aid kit assembly stations and even a mobile blood donation station (which proved so popular they came back for an extra day).

Below is my summary of Ignite announcements that I think you need to keep in mind, mainly because of their potential impact for your organization or your customers. By no means does this cover everything that was announced—the event was completely packed with good and often new content, I wouldn’t even dare cover all of this in a single blog post.
Several good summaries have already appeared around the web covering different areas of the announcements. I’ve added a list of additional sources at the end of this post, in case you want to read more.

Teams to replace Skype for Business

Microsoft Teams was announced as the future default communication client. In other words, Skype for Business will somehow integrate into Teams and the name Skype for Business is likely to disappear. The timeline for this is unclear though.
When Teams was released, the buzz was that this was Microsoft’s response to the popular Slack. Integrating Skype will make Teams even stronger and put more pressure on Slack. The main question is of course how current Skype for Business users will react who do not necessarily want to use all that Teams has to offer.

Deeper LinkedIn integration

Since Microsoft acquired LinkedIn, everyone saw the potential, but the big question was how closely their respective products would be integrated. The first concrete integration scenarios have now appeared. The Outlook integration is still fairly basic, offering a direct link from your contact information to the LinkedIn information, including a Connect option.

Dynamics 365 is the domain where the integration with LinkedIn (and other Azure services) is really taking off. Take for example the new Dynamics 365 for Talent modules (Attract and Onboard), which combine LinkedIn and CRM data to find the ideal candidate. These modules also make use of the new Dynamics 365 AI Solutions, which promise to deliver automated customer interaction which goes beyond manually scripted dialogues.

Especially for CRM scenarios, the LinkedIn integration will become an important extension and not just for talent recruitment. Note that nearly anyone who is anyone within an enterprise has a LinkedIn profile these days, full of useful information helping you to connect with that customer (what school did they go to, what are their hobbies, etc.). Surfacing that information is relevant is nearly all CRM scenarios.

Adobe partnership

Already announced shortly before Ignite, Adobe now uses Azure as its default cloud services platform, and perhaps even more importantly, Microsoft now promotes Adobe Sign as the preferred solution for digital signatures. This step is not to be underestimated, since electronic signing of documents is an increasingly popular (and probably soon indispensable) part of document workflows.

Azure Stack

The amount of sessions around Azure Stack (25+) was surprisingly high, which means Microsoft clearly sees a substantial market for it. This on-premises, private cloud version of Azure, which is always sold in combination with the appliance it runs on, is now shipping through partners including Dell EMC, HP Enterprise, and Lenovo. It can be purchased as an integrated system or as a fully managed service.

Microsoft positions the combination of Azure + Azure Stack as the only fully consistent hybrid cloud solution, in which Azure Stack is an extension of Azure. Lots of emphasis was placed on the fact that Azure Stack will regularly receive updates to maintain this consistency.
New Azure Stack specific training and certification is coming soon.

ignite17recap_azurestack

Database stuff

As you may gather from this paragraph title this is not really my cup of tea, but even from my point of view there were plenty of important database related announcements at Ignite:

  • SQL Server 2017 is now available on Linux or Docker—a major step for a database platform that has forever been tied to the Windows platform.
  • Not surprisingly, More and more scenarios and services are popping up that help you migrate your on-premises databases to Azure.
  • Microsoft R Server is renamed to Microsoft Machine Learning Server
  • CosmosDB (formerly DocumentDB) events, such as when a new order item is stored in the database, can now be linked to Azure Functions: a web application written with (the serverless) Azure Functions can now respond to such events.This builds on the Azure Event Grid, which as Microsoft puts it “treats events as first-class citizens.”
    ignite17_recap_cosmosdbThe scenarios that are within reach with this combination of technology are impressive. Think global-scale IoT or finance or gaming systems, where huge amounts of events can come flying in from all directions. Storing these in Cosmos DB and responding to the events with Azure Functions allows you to maintain consistency at a global level.

Cognitive Services and Machine Learning

New capabilities to understand human natural methods of communication have been added to Microsoft Cognitive Services. There is a new Text Analytics API that offers things like sentiment analysis, language detection and key phrase extraction. A Bing Custom Search API to help you provide personalized search experiences is expected in October 2017.
Finally, Microsoft’s own Bot Framework (currently still in preview) is expected to be added to Cognitive Services later in 2017.
All this is particularly relevant for customer service scenarios and digital marketing, where bots are becoming more and more commonplace.

In general, Machine Learning got lots of attention this year. Some important new additions to Azure Machine Learning (AML) were announced at Ignite, mainly revolving around ways to help users (well, data scientists really) design their machine learning models. There is a new local AML Workbench for this (runs on Windows and Mac), an AML Experimentation service and an AML Model Management service.

Quantum Computing

A considerable amount of time in the Monday keynote was spent on an on-stage discussion about quantum computing between Satya Nadella and several mathematicians and physicists. This is probably not something that will go to market in the next two years, which makes the amount of attention it got all the more remarkable. The discussion was quite fascinating, a kind of 101 on the practicalities of quantum computing, although it might have been a bit early in the morning for this kind of content for most of the audience.

Without trying to explain this in too much detail (or claiming I fully understand any of this quantum computing stuff—my background is in French literature, so expect no miracles here), the idea revolves around a new kind of storing information: inside topological qubits.
These qubits contain information that cannot be “read” at a lower level, because even reading that information would already alter the state of the particles involved. The information can however be observed globally, on the “braids” that revolve around the particles. Because of the topology of the particles and the braids around them, that quantum state is quite stable: the topology means the information is protected against errors by design.

ignite17recap_quantumcomputerThe qubits (=quantum bits) of information that scientists are now trying to read are stored in Majorana fermions (a.k.a. particles) which were only discovered a few years back. Reading these must be done very carefully, which means having a machine with clever chips composed of semiconductors and superconductors that works at near absolute zero (so not your average home PC). A first prototype of this kind of machine was even shown on the Ignite expo.

The major promise of the topological quantum computer is that:

  • Some types of computational problems can be solved much faster. You can do more work in a single calculation when working with qubits. Any single calculation will take more time than in a classic computer, but you will need a lot less calculations overall.
  • The topology of the qubit means the information is protected against errors by design, so once it works, it should be incredibly robust.

The (im)practicalities of quantum computing mean that this is not for in your home or even for on-premises in a single company. Scaled as a cloud service however, this suddenly becomes a lot more realistic. The timeline for this is unclear, but as the on-stage panel confirmed, what they do know is that this will definitely become a reality in the future. When it does, it will be big.

SharePoint and OneDrive

There were so many SharePoint and OneDrive-related announcements that I have written a separate blog post on these. Looking at those announcements from a helicopter view, Microsoft is putting a lot of effort in developing site types (Modern Team Sites and Communication Sites) that look very attractive out of the box, have lots of graphics, and are responsive. Basically: sites that don’t look like SharePoint. Or at least like the SharePoint we’ve known since 2001 up until the 2013 version.

ignite17recap_SPpanelThe big problem for SharePoint in intranet scenarios has always been that for every feature you want, the answer is “it depends.” Yes, SharePoint is a Swiss army knife that can help you do almost anything, but there are always several options to implement a feature, each requiring different levels of customization or configuration. That’s not always a good thing. Many organizations looking to create a new intranet just want to see what they are getting. Telling them that “it depends” or “you have many options” often just creates a feeling of uncertainty.

With its new focus, Microsoft is filling a gap that is currently filled by ISVs offering intranet-in-a-box solution. After speaking to several Microsoft product managers at Ignite, it’s very clear to me that Microsoft sees the need for SharePoint to also offer an out-of-the-box intranet option, with plenty of built-in features (news, search, surveys, and so on) requiring little configuration. It will be very interesting to see how current 3rd party intranet-in-a-box solutions respond to this.

What else?

Sticking to a 3-year release schedule for Office, Microsoft announced its plans to release the new Office 2019 sometime in the second half of 2018. And yes, there will also be a new on-premises SharePoint version linked to that: SharePoint 2019 will appear around the same time. Microsoft is clearly making good on its promise to continue support and development for on-premises scenarios.
My biggest question now is: which features will be gone (or at least deprecated) in SharePoint 2019? And will there be a replacement that offers SharePoint Designer-like functionality?

Bing for Business is a new search service for internal company use.ignite17recap_bingforbus It still gives you public internet search results, but combines those with company internal results, by applying machine learning to information retrieved through Office 365, SharePoint, Delve, and Azure AD. This is a typical Digital Workplace enabler: by combining information in a clever way, employees can gain new insights and get work done more quickly.

There were several sessions dedicated to GDPR, the new European data protection law that enters into effect on May 25, 2018. To be honest I was slightly underwhelmed by the content of the sessions I saw on this topic. Microsoft clearly understands the importance of GDPR, but at this point seems to mainly offer some tools that help in the analysis of GDPR compliancy. I have yet to see GDPR compliancy measures being built into any product as a feature.

ignite17recap_M365There was lots of talk about Microsoft 365 at Ignite. No, this is not another word for Office 365 and it’s not new technology. It’s just a different way of product bundling and selling Microsoft’s take on the digital workplace for first line workers. First line workers are typically the first ones who directly interact with your customers; think of sectors like retail, government, healthcare, or travel & hospitality. The offering (called Office 365 F1) is basically a bundle of Office 365, Windows 10, Enterprise Mobility, and security. The only new element from a technology point of view is that there are laptops aimed specifically at Microsoft 365. We’re talking low-cost ($300) laptops from HP, Lenovo, and Acer.

Although not new, it was good to see the live-generated closed captions on screen during the sessions, courtesy of Azure Media Services. heavyaccent

English was shown on-screen, but multiple other languages were available on the second screen. These translations are getting better and better, but the service still has trouble with certain accents (in particular Indian accents so I noticed), leading to the rather unfriendly text “INDISCERNIBLE—HEAVY ACCENT” appearing on-screen numerous times.

Want to read more?

 

This is a repost from an article I published earlier on the Capgemini “Capping IT Off” blog.

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Form follows function? Not in modern SharePoint sites

Microsoft is putting a lot of effort in developing site types that look very attractive out of the box, have lots of graphics, and are responsive. Basically: sites that don’t look like SharePoint (or to be precise like the SharePoint we’ve known since 2001 up until the 2013 version). Looking at the SharePoint content presented at Microsoft Ignite 2017 this trend was obvious. A large chunk of those sessions was related to the two newest site types inside SharePoint: Communication Sites and Modern Team Sites.

sharepoint-commsiteThis new direction is greatly supported by the exceptionally strong global SharePoint community, guided by the SharePoint Patterns & Practices (PnP) group. This open source initiative has produced valuable goodies like the PnP Partner Pack which offers (amongst several other things) powerful remote provisioning scenarios, and recently the SharePoint Framework (SPFx). SPFx is so successful is has now been formally adopted by Microsoft as the de facto standard for UI customizations.

SharePoint has so far been a Swiss army knife that could do almost anything, with every possible feature requiring different levels of configuration or even custom coding. It provided the basic plumbing, but the (hard) work to create a full set of compelling features that actually look good on screen was traditionally left for ISVs offering intranet-in-a-box solutions, or to consultancy firms creating custom intranets for mostly enterprise customers.

I’ve spoken to several Microsoft product managers that confirmed SharePoint is going to now eat a piece of that pie itself, by offering plenty of built-in features (news, search, surveys, and so on) requiring very little configuration and with lots of attention for how it looks on-screen. It will be very interesting to see how current 3rd party intranet-in-a-box solutions respond to this. Just basic intranet functionality and proper styling are not going to add enough value anymore. I expect that in the end only feature-rich products that offer a consistent experience across all kinds of site types and for all types of users (including editors!) will survive.

Microsoft’s new-found focus is in itself very positive: there is more to choose for organizations. What worries me though is the lack of attention for the severe limitations that these new site types—especially Communication Sites—still have at the time of writing.

sharepoint-whenusewhatThere is an almost complete lack of personalization options, or any other way to make these sites dynamic. They are just very, very static. It’s not that I mind looking at pretty things, but without any kind of interaction it will eventually get boring.

At the moment Communication Sites are mainly usable for storytelling or showcases, and you should use a regular team site or publishing site for anything with substantial functionality.
Worse still, while we await the arrival of the completely revamped SharePoint admin center (set to arrive early in 2018), the new site types are completely disconnected from the current admin interface. You cannot create the new site types from the admin pages. Also, even after you create a new modern site from the end user UI, it still doesn’t show up in the list of sites in the admin center.

This is something Microsoft could have handled better. As long as the new site types aren’t fully embedded in the admin functionality, they are basically degraded to beta/preview functionality that is not usable for Production scenarios. Which is a shame, because they look great!

I’ve spoken to several customers who expected that the improved look and feel was something they were getting on top of the classic team sites functionality. Instead of form follows function they are hoping for function and form to go hand in hand. That is not the case yet, these are very distinct branches on the SharePoint site type tree. The modern sites have a clear focus on form, the classic site types on function.
Once all site types are connected though, they will become the building blocks for an enhanced intranet where you select the appropriate site type depending on the goal of your sites.

sharepoint-sitetypeweb

Now I would very much be selling Microsoft short if I said there were no other developments outside the new site types. The SharePoint and OneDrive landscape as a whole is on the move. The pace at which features have been added over the last two or three years is just staggering. Below are the most important announcements made during Microsoft Ignite 2017. And I have doubt that all of these improvements will eventually also apply to the stylish modern site types:

  • Sharing improvements
    More options to easily share documents, including a way to auto-generate one-time passcodes. Also, remember those nasty long URLs you get to a specific SharePoint item? These now get shortened to a much more manageable length—it’s not Bitly sized, but still this an important improvement.
  • Flat is the new sexy (for site structures)
    Not an official announcement, but overheard in several SharePoint sessions: move away from sub-sites (unless you have a very specific scenario that requires these). The concept of creating a site hierarchy by nesting sites is fast becoming outdated and unwanted. Hierarchies can easily be simulated with proper navigation and metadata. Flat site structures are the way of the future.
    Also, if you still want to bind sites together in some way, there’s a new site type soon to become available: The Hub site.
  • Hub sites
    sharepoint-hubsite
    The new Hub site type announced at Ignite is a way to group sites together. An administrator will create a Hub site, for example as the hub for HR or for Engineering. Then any other site can optionally be linked to (only) one of these Hub sites. The result is that the sites linked to the hub will inherit the hub’s styling and navigation. Also, the hub will automatically create a search scope that includes the connected sites, enabling it easily generate news overviews across these sites.
    Note that the Hub sites haven’t really arrived yet, this is scheduled for 2018.
  • List improvements
    • Conditional formatting of lists
      There is lots of potential in the conditional formatting of lists. Imagine it: you can now highlight specific items in your list that means certain filter criteria that you configure yourself.
    • Attention views
      A useful addition are the attention views that show overviews of items requiring attention—not necessarily because they’re feeling lonely or weren’t invited to that party the other night, but for example because they have been checked out for a long time, are lacking some required metadata.
  • SharePoint Migration Tool
    A first-party tool for basic migration to SharePoint Online. The big question is of course which scenarios the final tool will actually support, but seeing as it’s a tool by Microsoft and it’s free, expect a lot of companies to investigate this option.
  • Predictive Indexing
    SharePoint could already generate automatic indexes for columns, but the predictive indexing is taking this one step further. The promise here is that we can finally get rid of the 5,000 item limit for views, since SharePoint will automatically create the necessary indexes so you can seamlessly keep working with your lists even as they become larger and larger.
    This is actually a surprising development, because not very long ago the statement on User Voice was that the 5,000 item limit was basically hard-wired, and you just had to work around it.
    It also raises a couple of questions: will these auto-generated indexes count towards the limit of 20 indexes? And what if I want to overrule these indexes? Will this work with multi-value lookup columns? Will this also help if I have (too) many lookup columns?
    Still, the new indexing will remedy the limitations in lots of situations, which is a good thing no matter what. We will just have to keep watching out for those pesky exceptions to the rule (there’s always a few).
  • Metadata Panel in Word 2016
    The Document Information Panel had already disappeared in Word 2016, but now a replacement is coming up, so users can edit both content and metadata from their own Office application again.
  • Multi-Geo capabilities
    Organizations will be able to choose a regional location for storing their SharePoint/OneDrive data and for storing the search index. Better yet, if you are a global company you can choose where data is stored for specific locations but still enjoy the modern productivity experience globally. This may not be important for many organizations, but it’s extremely important to a few very large organizations.
  • Flow and PowerApps
    Lots of new Flow and PowerApps options are arriving soon, such as a Web Part to add PowerApps to SharePoint, custom forms based on PowerApps, Flow-based custom approval and prompting for document reviews.

To stay up-to-date with the latest news about SharePoint and OneDrive, keep an eye on Microsoft’s SharePoint Blog that’s part of the larger Tech Community site.
For more about Microsoft Ignite 2017 take a look at other post about this conference.

This is a repost from an article I published earlier on the Capgemini “Capping IT Off” blog

Developments in Microsoft Azure: report-out from the Azure Red Shirt Dev Tour

Azure is Microsoft’s platform for cloud services and cloud computing and is a core part of Microsoft’s vision for the future. It gets a great deal of attention at Microsoft internally, which isn’t surprising if you consider that Azure sales more than doubled in recent quarters. Just to give you an idea: in Q1 of 2017 the Azure business grew by 93%. The total annual run rate of Microsoft’s commercial cloud business (which includes Office 365) now exceeds $14 billion and is expected to hit $20 billion by the year 2018.
Another illustration of Microsoft’s commitment to Azure is the recent Azure Red Shirt Dev Tour (there’s a short and rather funny introduction video of the event on YouTube), in which long-time Microsoft evangelist Scott Guthrie, one of Microsoft’s top speakers for the developer community, toured Europe for day-long presentations about all things Azure, hitting cities like London, Dublin, Oslo and Amsterdam. Registration was free of charge, and the Amsterdam venue that I attended was fully booked with around 1200 attendees.

redshirtams

Guthrie, famous for his red polo shirt (hence the “Red Shirt” tour – it would have been interesting if he had worn a shirt combining red and azure for the occasion, covered a number of capabilities recently added to Azure in an impressive three hour keynote full of hands-on live demos, followed by an afternoon session of tips & tricks. It was a good showcase of the many capabilities any cloud platform has to offer nowadays, and a glimpse of what is coming in the near future. These are some of the highlights:

A different VM type for each purpose

Probably the most used feature in Azure is still the capability to run a Virtual Machine in the cloud. There is a considerable number of standard VM types suited for different purposes, going from basic low-cost VM’s to high-performance monsters. Some of the latest additions are VMs that include a GPU, and a very impressive VM type that was created specifically to host big SAP databases (like SAP HANA) on Azure. This new M-series VM has some impressive specs, running up to 128 CPU cores with 3.5 TB of RAM (going up to 20 TB RAM is also an option).

128cores
128 CPU cores in action in a single M-series VM

The more powerful VM’s can also run Hyper-V, which enables them to run other VMs inside the main VM. And since things like a Linux VM are also an option in Azure, you can now for example run a Windows Server VM in the cloud which in turn hosts a number Linux VM’s.
Another new feature is an interesting way to help customers save money on licenses (which is at the same time an incentive for customers to not hesitate about creating more VM’s of course): on the VM creation screen there is now a “Save money” option at the bottom. If a customer already has a Windows Server license with Software Assurance, you are entitled to a 40% price reduction as part of the ‘Hybrid Use Benefit’ that’s part of the Software Assurance.

Cross-platform

A striking element of nearly each demo in this event was the omni-presence of non-Microsoft technology: several demos were given from an iPhone or a MacBook using a Chrome browser, there was lots of open-source scripting, Linux, and databases other than SQL Server (like MySQL, Progress).
Also noteworthy was the complete absence of Windows Phones – the same thing happened at the recent Microsoft Build conference. I’m clearly not the only one who recently abandoned the Windows Phone platform (see my earlier blog post). Even Microsoft employees now openly use Android or iOS phones.

Azure App development and monitoring

Microsoft’s development tooling has always been a very strong part of its technology stack. The integration with Azure is also there. If there is a failure inside an Azure app, you can see it from the App monitoring functionality. Then, from the detail screen for that failure, you can directly create a new work item inside Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS).

A money-saver is the auto-scale option for Web Apps in Azure. This allows an admin to define rules that say something like:  if CPU usage is more than 70% for x amount of time, then scale up.
An option often overlooked is that you can of course also scale down (below your usual minimal spec) at the hours of the day when your app is hardly being used.

Another demo showed the option to do continuous delivery: update the code for an Azure App in GitHub, which automatically triggers a build, test and (optionally) deploy cycle. This kind of Continuous Integration & Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipeline can be configured from Azure portal.
Note that the build servers used for this – which you previously had to set up yourself – are included as part of the service. Azure handles this internally, so you do need to spend any time on the build server infrastructure.
Deploying apps in self-supporting containers is another fast-rising trend. Visual Studio 2017 now has integrated Docker support and tooling. You can even include ‘dockerization’ as part of your CI/CD pipeline.

Deployment slots are also a powerful feature, which allows you to deploy the new version of your app to an alternative URL so you can check the result. This second location functions as a staging slot. At a time of your choosing you can then simply swap the production slot with the staging slot. The production URL now has the app version that was in the staging slot and vice versa.

Native mobile apps

Xamarin, the development tool to create native mobile apps (purchased by Microsoft a few years back) has now been fully integrated into Visual Studio 2017. It’s also suited for iOS app development, you do not even need a MacBook for proper testing, Xamarin’s Live Player allows you to view how your app will look on a certain device. In the Azure mobile center you can test the deployment of your app on actual devices that are racked up in the cloud. This is especially useful for Android devices since there are so many different Android versions.

Databases

There are of course also important developments for databases.  SQL Server can be run as a VM but also as a service: no machine to log onto, you just get the connection string to your database. A large instance of such a database can now hold up to 4 TB of data.
Next to SQL Server, you can now also get PostgreSQL and MySQL as a service.

Microsoft recently announced the Azure Database Migration Service, which provides a Lift & Shift service for any current (on-premises) SQL Server database to the Azure database service. The migration service promises that there will no (or hardly any) need to change any code related to your database.

Azure also contains a Performance Recommendation option, which works based on machine learning. It is an easy way to tune your database. According to Guthrie, proper tuning can often prevent the need for a larger (and more expensive) database.

If you want to go beyond relational data, and store any kind of data (like key-data, documents, graphs) on a global scale, Azure now offers Cosmos DB (formerly known as DocumentDB). This is a rather impressive, globally distributed database service. In a nutshell: any data you want, synchronized across any region in the world where you need it.
Cosmos DB supports many kinds of data and you can use multiple open source API’s against it. It can scale to millions of transactions p/sec and petabytes of data. The Cosmos DB service offers a comprehensive SLA on four dimensions: there are 99.99% guarantees for availability, throughput, latency, and consistency.

Serverless computing

Why pay for a VM or even a service that is always on, when you actually just need a certain function when a customer asks for it? One of the biggest trends for the coming years is serverless computing, allowing you to trigger a piece of serverless code only when you need it, paying for only the clock cycles your are actually using. This dramatically lowers the cost to only a fraction of an average Azure Compute scenario.
The serverless code can be defined as part of Azure Functions, or you can define a serverless workflow as part of an Azure Logic App. There is already a large number of predefined event sources available that can trigger an Azure Function or a step in an Azure Logic App.

Cognitive Services

The Azure Cognitive Services are accessible quite easily through a proper API. An app was shown for example where you could upload cat images. The cognitive service determined on the fly if the image actually contained a cat, otherwise the image was rejected and moved to a separate folder.
A final demo was the Kiosk Realtime Crowd Insight (this demo is available on GitHub) that shows the estimated age, gender and mood of the person in front of the webcam.
We talk a lot about Machine Learning these days, but I still found it almost staggering how easy it has become to apply this kind of functionality in your own application at very low cost.

This article was originally posted on the Capgemini ‘Capping IT Off’ blog.

Task List types in SharePoint Online and how to use them in SharePoint Designer workflows

If you are still working with SharePoint Designer workflows, you will be familiar with a setting that has to be made for each workflow: the associated Task list.
Strangely, you need to set this even if your workflow isn’t creating any tasks.

If you open the Task list drop-down, SharePoint Designer will propose the available task list – if any are available – and an option to create a new Task list.

tasklistdropdown

As you will probably know, there are two platform types available in SharePoint Designer 2013: you can create SharePoint 2013 workflows and you can still create SharePoint 2010 workflows. The latter option is still very relevant, because several useful functions like creating a copy of a document only exist in SP2010 workflows.

While working on a SharePoint Online site which has both SP2010 and SP2013 workflows, I noticed a difference in the Task lists that were being offered in the dropdown, which I couldn’t explain at first.

Then it dawned on me: SharePoint 2010 workflows come from the age of SharePoint 2010 (obviously). If you would create a Task list through the browser in SharePoint 2010, you get a different Task list compared to the one that you create through the browser in SharePoint 2013!
As a result, if you create a SharePoint 2010 workflow (in SharePoint Designer 2013) and a SP2010-style Task list is available, that is the one the dropdown will offer you.
A SharePoint 2013 workflow on the other hand will offer you both the SP2010 and SP2013-style Task lists.

You can use a SP2010 workflow with a SP2013-style Task list, but that has another nasty side-effect: the Task list is then automatically populated with a number of old-school content types, like “SharePoint Server Workflow Task” (yes, even in SharePoint Online), and all of the fields that come with it.

Another unpleasant side-effect: the SP2013 version of the Task list has several additional options, like displaying a timeline and a strikethrough option for completed tasks. But if you associate a SP2010 workflow with a SP2013-style Task list, some of those options will not work anymore (found this out the hard way).

So how do you handle this? If you have both SP2010 and SP2013 SharePoint Designer workflows on your site, my recommendation is that you create two Task lists:

  1. a SP2010-style Task list for the SP2010 workflow tasks
  2. a SP2013-style Task list for the SP2013 workflow tasks

That way each workflow gets the appropriate Task list capabilities.

Now here’s the trick: if you create a Task list through the browser in SharePoint 2013 or above – so also in SharePoint Online – you will always get the SP2013-style Task list.
The SP2010-style Task list is still available though, but you will need to create the list through script.
The main distinction to remember:

  • SP2010 Task list = TemplateType 107
  • SP2013 Task list = TemplateType 171

So now you can do something like this in CSOM:

#get the context (request the site, user and password parameters from the user)
$context = New-Object Microsoft.SharePoint.Client.ClientContext($site)
$credentials = New-Object Microsoft.SharePoint.Client.SharePointOnlineCredentials($user, $password)
$context.Credentials = $credentials

#now we can prepare the new list object
$listCreationInformation = New-Object Microsoft.SharePoint.Client.ListCreationInformation
$listCreationInformation.Title = “My Old School SP2010 Task List”
$listCreationInformation.Description = “My Old School SP2010 Task List”
$listCreationInformation.TemplateType = 107

#then we create the list in our web site context
$list = $context.Web.Lists.Add($listCreationInformation)
$context.Load($list)
$context.executeQuery()

And voila, you have a custom-made SP2010-style list in your SharePoint Online site.
The SP2013-style list can obviously be created in the same way, or through the browser if you like.

Why I abandoned the best mobile operating system

This is a story about how I abandoned my old mobile phone last year, even though it had the best mobile user experience available. Or actually, it’s a story about the digital workplace. Because let’s face it: considering the amount of time we spend on our phones, the smartphone is an important part of that digital workplace.

So what phone did I have you ask? It was a Windows Phone (yes, you can stop snickering now), the Lumia 830 if you want specifics; the last one branded as Nokia. It runs the Windows Phone mobile client OS that was originally released in 2010, as follow-up to Windows Mobile (formerly PocketPC). While Windows Mobile was very Microsoft-oriented in terms of connections and user interface, the new Windows Phone OS was developed from the ground up with the capabilities of modern smartphones in mind and a more universal (think cross-platform) look onto the world. This new OS arrived very late in the game, because competitors Android and iOS already had well developed operating systems for modern smartphones at the time. The advantage of arriving late though, was that Microsoft had a chance to take all lessons learned from existing mobile operating systems, and develop a whole new user interface taking all this into account.

I have always found the iOS user interface to be cluttered, with a plethora of different looking icons on your start screen. The Android interface has the same issue and was still rather clumsy around 2010 (although much improved since then). In comparison, the Windows Phone’s interface of tiles is clean, structured, intuitive, and you can get to any setting or application really fast. Also the so-called live-tiles are far superior to any widget I’ve seen on an Android phone, because of the way they fit and blend into the overall appearance. Add to that the flawless Exchange, OneDrive and Skype integration, and you get an almost unbeatable mobile digital workplace in terms of productivity.

mylumia830

Why abandon my phone then? That had everything to do with available apps and app support. So how did this happen? Well, do you remember the VHS vs. Betamax format war in the 80s? Or more recently HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray? SD-card vs. Memory Stick? Super Audio CD vs. regular CD? My point is: the best platform doesn’t always win. If another product gets better marketing, a better image, better distribution channels, more resellers, then an objective comparison of features and usability doesn’t have to be all-decisive. And at some point if you drop below a certain market share, the battle is lost. This is exactly what happened with the Windows Phone – for a large part I should say because Microsoft was so late in the game, and the competition had already cornered the market.

As a result nearly every company or event organizer that was building a new mobile app, made the decision to only create a version for Android and iOS, because the limited Windows Phone user base didn’t justify the cost of an additional version. There still were many Windows Phone apps of course for key applications (mobile banking, Facebook, Twitter), sometimes sponsored or even created by Microsoft, but often these were updated less frequently and had less capabilities than their (better looking) Android/iOS versions. And then over the last few years, when Microsoft basically stopped investing in phones and the Windows Phone OS altogether, focusing more on Windows 10 and the Universal Windows Platform Apps, many companies even dropped support for their existing Windows Phone apps. It was a hopeless downward spiral.

So what does this tell us about digital customer experience in general? Most of all, although user experience is important, it’s not the whole story. You may have an app or a site with a slick look & feel and the best usability around, but that’s just the storefront. Important as that is, if you don’t back it up with proper marketing, image-building, good distribution channels and continuous updates, you are unlikely to succeed. In a market that is becoming more and more digital and global, keeping both the storefront and all surrounding processes in shape takes considerable effort and attention.
And as the Windows Phone example shows us, you also need to act in time. A great digital user experience is important, but that by itself is not the killer feature that will lure customers away from one of your competitors. Gaining market share (or preventing market share loss) if you arrive late in the digital game is going to be tough.

This post was originally published on the Capgemini ‘Capping IT Off’ blog.

Permissions required to start a SharePoint Designer workflow

I’ve read in multiple blog posts that you need Contribute permission to start a SharePoint Designer workflow on a List item. That makes sense, because the workflow also generates a workflow status field on the List. And starting the workflow on an item typically alters the value of that field, which automatically means you need permission to change that item.

What I’ve found is that Contribute permission on the List itself is not enough. There are two other permissions required:

  • Contribute permission on the hidden Workflow History list
    The actions taken by a workflow are recorded in a workflow history list. By default this is the hidden List ‘Workflow History’ (URL: {site}/Lists/Workflow%20History) which is always present.
    If the user account that started the workflow cannot write anything to this history list, then the workflow will fail rightaway.
    By default the Workflow History list inherits its permissions from the site root. What typically happens is: someone needs to start a workflow from a Document Library but has only Read permission on the site root. The Workflow History list inherits that Read permission, which is not enough for a workflow to start/run properly.
    If your users who start workflows are already regular Members of the site and therefore have Contribute permission from the root, then you will not notice this problem since you automatically have the correct permission on the Workflow History list.
  • Contribute permission on the Tasks list
    Almost the exact same logic applies to the Tasks list. If (and only if) you have a workflow that creates Tasks, then obviously the user needs Contribute permission on the Tasks list configured for that workflow as well.
  • Read permission on the site root
    Please note: I am less certain about this one, but I found that the permissions on the site root also play a role. My theory is this: you need Read permission on the site root so the user can ‘see’ the available workflows and the lists (Tasks and History) attached to those workflows. Somehow that information is stored at site level, which is why you need Read permission there.

Note that the above permission requirements also apply to workflows at site level, not just for List workflows.
Get these permissions in place, and your users should have no trouble starting SharePoint Designer workflows (either manually, or automatically OnCreate/OnChange).

Limitations for external users in SharePoint Online

You can share a SharePoint Online site (or a list or document, etc.) with external users, if your global setting for the site collection allows this. Although you need to select a specific permission group for these external users (from the list of available permission groups in that site), those external user do not have the same capabilities as a ‘normal’ user of the site.

The reason for this is that external users do not have an Office 365 license linked to them, at least not unless you choose to assign that to them.
As a result there are a number of things you cannot do as an external user. Microsoft has some documentation on those limitations:

Manage external sharing for your SharePoint Online environment

I recently found that there is at least one other thing that external users cannot do, which is not documented: An external user cannot share something with another external user by inviting them.

On the one hand that makes sense, because that could potentially allow an endless string of external users in the site. On the other hand it is strange: if I am allowed into the site as an important user with broad permissions, then why can’t I share anything with another (new) external user?

What I haven’t tried yet is to see if an external user can share with new external users once an Office 365 / SharePoint Online license is assigned to his account. Will update this post if I find out.