Application Settings in SharePoint

One of the most commonly neglected features in SharePoint I find across a number of different projects is the manner in which application settings are managed. Far too often it is left to manually modifying the <AppSettings> section of the web.config file for the relevant web application. Perhaps this is due to legacy behaviour of ASP.NET developers moving into the SharePoint sphere, perhaps its due to environments being small and the risks of manually modifying the file not being exposed. It may be due to organisational process or procedure, or (most likely) it may be because on face value it appears to be the most simple, quick and easy option to maintain some configuration values.

It’s ironic that in projects laced with features and solutions to deploy resources ‘the right way’ that configuration is overlooked and remains a manual process. Aside from wanting to avoid any manual modification of files directly on the server by principle, dangers exist in terms of ensuring the web.config files are the same on all web front end servers. Maintaining application settings this way also requires access to the web.config file (and hence server) itself which wouldn’t be considered best practice, and the act of changing a variable in the web.config directly would cause the application pool to refresh and cause the site to load slowly on the next hit.

I write this post with a tinge of regret – I too have been guilty on multiple occassions of maintaining the status quo and leaving (and even adding to) configuration values maintained manually in a web.config file. So not only should this post serve as a source of information regarding the best practice methods to maintain application settings, but it should also serve as a motivator to myself and others to practice what I/we preach on all future greenfield projects.

Anyone who has studied for or taken the application development exam (70-576) would have noticed that 4 main options consistently get presented for application configuration: web.config, lists, property bags and the hierarchical object store. I’ll discuss each option briefly and provide some situations where the method would be appropriate.

Web.config

Now it may seem like i’m beginning to contradict myself here – I previously mentioned that manually maintaining application settings in the web.config was a BAD idea. It is. The beauty of SharePoint though is that it provides a mechanism to maintain application settings in the web.config file automatically via the SPWebConfigModification class. If you’re wanting to store them in the web.config, then a feature should be created which on activation uses the SPWebConfigModification class to modify the web.config for you. This ensures that the same values are written to the web.config files on all front-end web servers and even ensures they’re consistent amongst new servers added to the farm.

You’re likely to want to use this option if you just can’t pull yourself away from the web.config for variable configuration. At least its a safer method. There are some valid reasons however – it’s reasonably simple to incorporate this functionality and then easy to program with seeing you’re probably used to it already. It ensures values are consistent across all front-end web servers and are available and consistent across the entire web application. It’s also fairly useful for ‘set and forget’ the values – if you’re unlikely to need to change them in the future, then you won’t run into the application pool refresh issue I mentioned previously and will get the performance benefits of the cached settings.

Before running off and using this method however, be warned that the web is littered with issues and problems with using SPWebConfigModification. I’d probably want to avoid making any ‘unnecessary’ changes to the web.config especially for the purposes of setting configuration values considering there are other options available.

SharePoint lists

It almost seems too easy and obvious. SharePoint provides us with these useful things called lists. Most of us would be familiar with or have used database-driven variable configuration mechanisms before. Lists, on face value, are reasonably similar to database tables. Why don’t we use lists for variable configuration? It’s not actually that silly a proposition and is in fact one of the more reasonable options. One of the beauties of using lists is that you get all that SharePoint listy goodness. Versioning, security and an out-of-the-box UI for example. You’re likely already familiar with list-based programming, so that isn’t too much of an inconvenience.

Using SharePoint lists is definitely one of the preferred methods. It’s probably easier to outline some of the reasons why you may not want to use it; a site with lax security restrictions would probably be wise to avoid this method – you wouldn’t want any user being able to modify or delete configuration items or the list itself. If you wanted the application settings to be available to multiple site collections/web applications then you’d potentially end up duplicating the list values across these sites.

There’s another huge advantage to choosing this method. An MVP named Chris O’Brien has written a Config store framework available on Codeplex which makes the option even more attractive and erases some of the drawbacks from choosing it. I’d definitely recommend reading a bit about it in his post A better Config Store for SharePoint sites.

Property bags

This option is perhaps a little less obvious but similarly powerful. A number of SharePoint objects contain a Properties property which stores a collection of key/value pairs. These obviously lend themselves towards being used for storing application settings.

This option is possibly the best one to harness when scope is an important consideration for configuration. It lends itself to being able to maintain numerous variables with different values on a per-scope basis (per web, per web application and so forth).

Like the SharePoint list option, this also benefits from addons which improve the usability and effectiveness of the option. The SharePoint Guidance Library provides the Application Setting Manager which is an API to read and write application settings. Codeplex also has the SharePoint Property Bag Settings project which provides a GUI in Central Administration to manage the settings.

Hierarchical Object Store

This is a farm-scoped store similar to a property bag. It requires custom code to create and is far more complex than the other options, however has the benefit of being able to store more complex types if that’s neccessary. Generally for the purpose of variable configuration though, in my opinion i’d go for one of the other options.

You’d possibly choose this option if you were looking for a global storage option for values or required complex values to be stored. If the values are simple key/value pairs however a farm-scoped property bag would probably be easier to use and do the trick.

WebPart properties

I know I said before there were 4 main options, but I wanted to briefly cover this one too. In the event that your custom web parts require configuration values specific to the web part then it will often make sense to include custom properties editable in the web part itself – they are then able to be set by modifying the settings of the web part.

My initial concept for this post was to include an array of advantages, disadvantages and code samples on each option to more completely highlight where each could be used and how they’re used, however during my research for this post came across an MSDN article written by David Mann titled Managing Custom Configuration Options for a SharePoint Application – it essentially covers in reasonable detail those points and I would strongly recommend reading.

Overall I’d have to say I prefer the SharePoint list method the best. I’m somewhat surprised, I remember thinking a while ago that using lists for application settings would be a bit primitive and that surely the other options which have been provided (obviously for the purpose of variable configuration?) like SPWebConfigModification, SPPersistedObject and the Properties collections would be the best practice method to use. I guess sometimes the easy option actually is the best, and it’s sandbox-friendly to boot.

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