Microsoft Ignite 2015 Round-Up

In early May I attended Microsoft Ignite 2015 in Chicago – with over 22,000 attendees probably Microsoft’s biggest conference ever. This was the inaugural edition of the conference, which combines and replaces a number of other big events such as TechEd and the SharePoint Conference. It reflects Microsoft’s ambition to emphasize how their products integrate and the shared vision behind all of them. Ignite directly followed the Build conference (for Developers) which remains separate and had important announcements of its own. To name just a few important ones:

  • Windows 10 is the Operating System that will provide a common foundation across all devices. It’s not just for PC’s but also for servers, phones, tablets and even the Xbox.
  • Apps for iOS and Android can also be ported to Windows 10, without the need for modifications to the source code.
  • More impressive scenarios using the new HoloLens
  • The successor of the Internet Explorer browser will be called Microsoft Edge.

The Build conference was followed by even more announcements at the much larger Microsoft Ignite. I definitely have not captured all announcements for each product (with nearly 700 sessions that would be quite a challenge), so this is just my take on the major news presented in Chicago, focusing mostly on Office 365 and SharePoint.

The keynote was a confirmation that in a cloud-first and mobile-first world, Microsoft will be all about devices, cloud and hybrid scenarios. Satya Nadella’s key message was that Microsoft sees IT as being at the intersection of three areas that will get all of Microsoft’s attention in the near future:

  • Create more personal computing Think devices and the Internet of Things.
  • Build the Intelligent Cloud Taking advantage of what the cloud is good at, while also making cloud services very easy to use in real-life scenarios.
  • Reinvent Productivity & Business Processes New ways of collaborating, using of course the new Office, Skype for Business, and things like Office 365 Groups.


Overall no major shockers during the keynote, but there were several cool demos on collaboration and productivity using Windows 10 and Skype for Business (formerly known as Lync) amongst other things.

Windows Nano server
Although already announced before Ignite, the number of sessions around Nano server revealed the importance: a GUI-less version of Windows server with an incredibly small footprint (500 MB deployment running with on just 128 MB RAM), born to run in the cloud and to be controlled remote only.

Windows Azure Pack
You want your own Microsoft cloud? Well rejoice, you can have your own Azure now: Azure Pack lets you run an on premise version of Azure in your data center, with the exact same admin interface as the Microsoft cloud version. This of courses eases any future step to migrate to Microsoft Azure, so it’s a way for Microsoft to meet customer’s need to stay on premise, while still getting ready for the cloud. It should of course also be pointed out that this is not intended to run on a few servers, so you will still need some substantial hardware to run Azure Pack. The licensing model is still to be announced.

It will be interesting to see what this means for Microsoft’s existing Cloud Platform System (CPS) offering, which is only sold as a combination of hardware (Dell) and software. I was told by a Microsoft product manager at Ignite that at some point in time existing CPS deployments would also run using Azure Pack, but no details or concrete timeline could be given at this time.

SharePoint 2016
Ignite was also the long awaited moment for the first real announcements around SharePoint 2016, the newest on premise version of the product. Many people were expecting a release date around end of 2015, but as it turns out this will only be a public beta, with the actual RTM release planned for Q2 2016. As the Microsoft Product Managers kept emphasizing, there is still plenty of work to be done, even though some key changes of the new SharePoint version have now been announced.

Those announcements were even more concrete than many had expected. The openness around new features that weren’t even built in the new product yet is unprecedented for Microsoft, who tend to keep their cards close to their chest and only disclose this kind of detail to a small selected group of people in a Technology Adoption Program (TAP).

So what can we expect from SharePoint 2016? First of all, it is being built based on an actual code base of SharePoint Online (proving the point that it’s cloud-first for Microsoft). The key differentiators that you get in the on premise version are being back-ported into the product only after creating that baseline from SharePoint Online.

These are the major new features in SharePoint 2016 that have been announced so far:

  • Zero-downtime patching
    Not-intrusive patching seemed to be a major theme at Ignite, not only for SharePoint. For SharePoint 2016, the number of MSI’s and MSP’s deployed below the surface for a patch goes down dramatically (the example given at Ignite was from 37 to 4, which even includes the language pack updates).
  • Improved User Profile Sync
    No more built-in unstable User Profile Sync, which was probably one of the most disliked functions of SharePoint with all kinds of gotchas and seemingly unpredictable behavior. The built-in User Profile Sync service (FIM based) is replaced by either talking directly to Active Directory from SharePoint or using a full-blown external FIM service.
  • Durable Links
    I was really pleased with this one: finally we get hyperlinks that always keep working after you move a document. There was already a non-default and not very elegant way of doing this with unique Document ID’s, but this promises to make Document Management in SharePoint a lot easier.
  • Insights
    Insight into user behavior on the sites will greatly improve. For any decent statistics you had to rely on third party tooling, but the out of the box offering in SharePoint 2016 looks very promising. It provides you the information you need for adjusting the system, or getting better adoption (what features do people use, what works and what doesn’t). Insights are also provided around performance, trends and availability. All this is based on logging concepts from SharePoint Online, which will now be in SharePoint 2016 on premise.
  • Higher thresholds
    The infamous 5,000 item limit for SharePoint lists (which was never a hard limit, but performance would suffer beyond that) will change to a much higher number, although the new number wasn’t announced yet. Also the maximum file size to be uploaded and stored goes up from 2 GB to 10 GB per file (you might want to invest in a black fiber network though if you’re serious about using many 10 GB files, which is something I still don’t recommend). Perhaps even more important: no more character restrictions in the file name.
  • Office 365 Groups
    This is actually an Office 365 announcement, but an important one for SharePoint. It’s being presented as the new alternative to Team Sites. With Office 365 Groups you can do quick ad-hoc collaboration with a group of people, without the need to set up a whole new site.
  • Delve for SharePoint 2013
    One of the nicest new capabilities in SharePoint Online was the Delve functionality integrated in your personal site. This is evolving to be the new starting page of anyone’s workplace. It allows you to find people through content, and content through people. This is exactly the kind of functionality that Satya Nadella means when he talks about the “intelligent cloud”. To use Delve you need the cloud (and Office Graph to be precise), so it was long thought that this functionality would never become available for on premise SharePoint installations. Well guess what, Microsoft has decided to release an update later this year that will allow on premise deployments of SharePoint 2013 to use Delve as a service from the cloud. Clever move, because this seems like a very compelling reason for on-prem customers to move to a hybrid scenario.
  • System requirements
    The system requirements are similar to SharePoint 2013, only the versions of the OS and SQL Server to be used go up. It’s Windows Server 2012 or Windows Server 10, with SQL Server 2014 or higher. Note that a standalone installation with SQL Express is no longer possible, even for a development machine. You need a full version of SQL Server.
  • Servers and roles
    SharePoint 2016 introduces the concept of ‘MinRole’ that gives you a set of predefined server configuration during set-up of a multi-server farm. This role choice has a much more profound impact than in SharePoint 2013. It will set up each machine so it’s optimized (throughput, cache, request handling) for this role. Examples are the Search role and the Distributed Cache role. The new Health Analyzer will check if each server is still compliant compared to the role chosen during set-up. Note that typically 4 roles are needed in a multi-server farm (the 5th available role is for Special Loads), and each server can only have 1 role if it wants to be compliant according to the Health Analyzer. So what this means is that a default SharePoint 2016 farm will need at least 4 servers even for small deployments.
  • Hybrid scenario picker
    This one got a nice cheer from the crowd, as it will greatly help people implementing SharePoint. Configuring a hybrid scenario at the moment is quite a bit of work, involving lots of manual configuration of files and a whole lot of PowerShell scripting. SharePoint 2016 will come with a very user-friendly wizard-like interface to select from a number of predefined hybrid scenarios.
  • Migration
    You cannot go straight from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2016, you need to go through SharePoint 2013 first. Unless of course you use a third party tool that lets you go from 2010 to 2016 directly though. An important recommendation here: I’ve spoken to several product specialists and the message is that you should not stay on SharePoint 2010 and try to skip SharePoint 2013. Microsoft sees SharePoint 2013 as their inspiration for SharePoint 2016, meaning the step from 2013 to 2016 is a lot smaller than from 2010. Also, the release of SP 2016 is still one year away, so before you will likely use it in any production environment it will be Q1 2017. And that’s quite long to still be on SharePoint 2010, for which support will end in Q3 2015.
  • Authentication
    SAML is now the default. It’s also interesting to note that Microsoft sees the Active Directory domain-based authentication as something which will be deprecated at some point in time.
  • Performance and Reliability
    A lot of different improvements were made to performance and reliability. Examples are much faster Site Collection creation (which now uses a copy-paste mechanism at database level below the surface), support for the BITS protocol in SharePoint file handling, request isolation and intelligent routing of requests, improved distributed cache, support for 4×9 (so 99,99%) availability.
  • InfoPath
    A new solution for electronic forms is still in the making (a planned session at Ignite revealing the first outline of this was even pulled from the schedule, because Microsoft only wants to show this once it’s almost ready for release). It was been confirmed that (the existing) InfoPath Form Services are also in SharePoint 2016, and InfoPath will be supported through 2023. So as I already mentioned in an earlier blog post, the recommendation for now is to keep on using InfoPath for your forms in SharePoint.
  • And much more…
    Just a few of the many other SharePoint related announcements: Document Libraries will now support the ODF format, new classification ID types can be linked to content to improve eDiscovery, the Project Server database will now be consolidated in the regular SharePoint content database.

If you still need more information I suggest you read this blog post by Bill Baer who presented most of the new features at Ignite.

Even though I didn’t hear any major new announcements, what was clear is that Yammer is here to stay. It still feels somewhat separate from the other Microsoft products at the moment, but Microsoft and the Yammer team are working hard on better integration into Office 365 / SharePoint. One key recommendation I heard was to use the Yammer Embed app whenever you can, this app is a first class citizen which also has Single Sign-On capability (but only if you have Yammer Enterprise).

Microsoft is all about being open to other technologies these days. They have always been involved in open source development, but currently I dare say that Microsoft has suddenly become the most open / cross-platform of the technology giants. It was good to see that the Ignite conference app was available not only for Windows Phone, but also for Android and iOS.

The cross-platform mind-set is very visible in OneDrive for Business as well. This is supported on many operating systems already, and one announcement at Ignite was the PDF support to be added for Android and iOS in Q2 2015. Also the soon to be released mobile offline file capability will be available for Android and iOS (although read-only for Android and iOS, while editing is possible for Windows Phone). In Q3 2015 all the look & feel bells and whistles from the consumer version of OneDrive will be brought to the business version. This is an important sign that Microsoft gets the consumerization of IT; instead of dismissing the consumer tools it’s much better to embrace them, since in the end business users are just consumers as well.

Then in Q4 2015 we will see the long awaited new sync client for OneDrive for Business (the preview for both PC and Mac will arrive in Q3 2015). The current one is not really known for its reliability, especially when you start synching larger amounts of files. The new sync client will be a Windows 10 Universal App which promises to fix all of this and at the same time removes the sync limit of 20,000 files.

I think Microsoft did a pretty good job of organizing and aligning the content, which can’t be easy for a conference of this size, especially with so many different product teams involved. The majority of sessions were quite interesting, there were important announcements and there was definitely a good vibe around the whole conference. As I’ve heard several people say already: Microsoft is becoming cool again.
Most sessions aligned in some way to the shared vision expressed in the keynote. If I compare the three focus areas (Personal Computing, Intelligent Cloud, Reinvent Productivity) with the content I’ve seen during Ignite, it’s probably the Intelligent Cloud where Microsoft is currently at its strongest with developments like Delve and Machine Learning.

So do I miss the old SharePoint Conference? There was of course less time available for in-depth sessions on each different product, so there is a small void to be filled here. Still this was a powerful inaugural edition of Ignite, which sounds promising for next year when Ignite will hit Chicago again in May.


This article was originally posted on the Capgemini “Capping IT Off” blog.