My (long overdue) SharePoint Conference 2014 wrap-up

So almost 4 months ago now I was lucky enough to attend SPC14 in Las Vegas. I was always intending to write a wrap up of my experiences but having committed to doing an internal presentation along the same lines, didn’t want to spoil the material before it ‘went to air’ so to speak. Long story short, that presentation didn’t happen until this month, hence this extremely delayed blog post. In the interest of preserving this experience (and probably only for my own benefit) I figured I’d still throw it up here, so here goes.

Given I delivered it in presentation form, i’ll write this post as I have some of my other presentations. The headings will match the slides, so click along for context.

 

Introduction

Over 40 hours on planes and in airports for a week in Vegas. Sounded like a fair trade at the time – turned out to be a bargain. Was totally worthwhile, would rate it right up there as a professional highlight (and right up there with some of the personal trips I’ve been on!) and would do it again in a heartbeat. Will hopefully get the chance to do it all again the next time around!

There was of course, Vegas being Vegas, a need for a disclaimer. Some of the stories would have been more suited to a chat over a beer at the pub rather than the office setting, so at the risk of being severely cliched.. Sometimes what happens in Vegas..

Networking

Looks like a bad case of name-dropping I must admit, but at the end of the day one of the most valuable aspects of these conferences is the networking. I was lucky enough to have been given the wise advice before I left – I asked my mentor what I should be focusing on for the week and without delay was told to speak to and meet as many people as I could. If you were to ask me now what the best part about the conference was it’d be exactly that – the people I met and the conversations I had with them.

The conversations at the time might not even be work or conference related – we met people on the first night over sushi, sake and mechanical bull riding that got 2 guys from Perth who knew almost no-one into private parties with CEOs and senior staff within Microsoft teams. We had discussions with people who I’ve since lent on for advice regarding problems I’ve faced on client sites. Connections with event organisers to discuss presenting opportunities for colleagues. Money-can’t-buy advice and insight from some of the best in the business. You get the idea. Worth the price of admission alone.

SharePoint TV and Hands-on labs

I thought it worthwhile to highlight some of the lesser known aspects of conferences for the uninitiated. SharePoint TV – the panel style interviews now available over on Channel9 – were a pretty cool concept I’d not seen before and the ones I decided to check out didn’t disappoint. Hands-on labs are another generally undervalued offering available. Unfortunately I didn’t find the time to do any at SPC, however I have done them before and rated them highly. There’s just too much to do at SPC it’s impossible to fit everything in!

The future of forms

I think something worth remembering with these types of events is that the sessions that get chosen and particularly heavily marketed are there for a reason – it’s always worthwhile taking notice of the messages being repeated in sessions to see where Microsoft is leading us. One of the major focuses of the event was along the lines of the future of forms. InfoPath has been the defacto standard for a while now however when the 2013 version of Office really offered no upgrades to the product the writing was kind of on the wall. The death of InfoPath was announced shortly before the conference so there was big hype around what the next direction would be.

To be honest this topic has been covered comprehensively in so many different places it’d be pointless for me to do the same – so if you’re interested in reading up I’d suggest checking out these posts here, here and here. However perhaps the most important messages to come out of this were the ones around continual improvement and the desire to listen to the community and take on board the feedback provided. This is actually a message which is being heavily pushed by Microsoft recently and in my opinion it’s a great thing.

The future of social

Another one of the golden topics throughout the week was the future of social – it’s probably been a big focus for a while now not just for the conference. There were a tonne of highly rated social sessions available. I didn’t delve too deeply into discussing this topic as a colleague of mine had presented on it a couple of months earlier. Long story short, it’s now blatantly obvious that Yammer is the way to go for social in SharePoint. The really cool innovations coming – some of which have already started making their way into Office 365 – are around embedding the social functionality throughout SharePoint and Office 365 which is something I highly recommend keeping abreast of, it really is becoming more and more powerful in terms of the immediate and contextual value it can deliver.

I guess just as important as the news delivered around social was the consistent messages being portrayed in the sessions. Microsoft obviously see the barriers to organisations harnessing these social technologies as organisational culture, adoption issues and a failure to extract or recognise the value they are delivering so almost any session highlighting what social could offer touched on these points as well – they’ve obviously invested a lot into acquiring Yammer and definitely believe in the value it can bring to organisations and thus making Office 365 an even more attractive offering.

Public facing sites / responsive design

Of course having a great interest in public facing sites I couldn’t help but keep an eye on what was being said during the conference about the topic. Funnily enough it actually wasn’t a great deal – I guess because it’s primarily the domain of on-premises installations. What was said focused a lot on mobility and responsive design, and trying to advertise the cloud for hosting public facing sites. The main messages I took here was that even with the device channel offering provided in SharePoint 2013, they really seem to be pushing the responsive design angle. Also, when it comes to public facing sites particularly if you are wanting to leverage the cloud, then hybrid is the way to go. Be that a hybrid solution between responsive design and adaptive design or hybrid around SharePoint Online and Azure websites.

The architecture and developer streams

Now this slide might seem a bit unbalanced but there’s good reason. The way I approached the conference and even how I approached the sessions I reviewed once I got back was to focus on an area I wanted to improve in and mix in topics that I thought I’d find really interesting or entertaining. At the end of the day I chose the architecture or IT pro stream given I’ve been more known as a developer for the majority of my SharePoint career. I think that’s an important lesson I took out of my experience across the week – at the end of the day there is going to be so much you want to see and learn and its simply impossible to do it all in that short amount of time. I feel I got more out of focusing my energies rather than spreading them across a range of topics but at the end of the day everyone will take a different approach when it comes to session selection.

On-prem v o365, the push to the cloud and the App Model

Another one of the beauties of conferences like SPC is that if you meet the right people at the right times (and that generally means after a few beers) you can often get some really interesting conversations happening! Obviously none of these conversations were going to see the light of day published on my blog, but what I will say is that my opinion on some of the more controversial topics I’ve expressed views on in the past (Why wouldn’t you use the App model for On-Premises SharePoint solutions?) have changed a little. Long story short – it’s happening, so either ride the wave or try and swim against it, choice is yours.

There was of course just as much within the carefully crafted message at the conference as there was in the hallway conversations. It’s becoming more and more obvious that Microsoft see the resistance of moving to the cloud as an IT battle and one they’re trying to win by shifting the perception of what IT should be. They’ve also almost given up on the desire to get everyone to the cloud ASAP and are being more realistic and pushing the virtues of staggered migrations and hybrid scenarios to get organisations used to the idea of using cloud technologies.

So many other great sessions

It goes without saying that there was a tonne of other quality content available throughout the week and there’s no way known I could have watched it all and spoken about it all in this presentation. Going through the sessions I noticed that Search was still positioned as a big ticket topic and there were numerous top rated sessions on that. Another concept that stood out was the user stories and case studies – a lot of these were really highly regarded too and it’s actually something I wish I dropped into a couple of sessions for and is still on my never ending catch up list.

Post Conference Training: Hybrid Scenarios with Office 365 and SharePoint 2013 Workshop

One thing worth mentioning about the conference are the pre and post conference training sessions that are made available to sign up for, most at an extra cost but a couple that were free. I signed myself up for the full day on Sunday and the half day that was available for the Thursday after all the sessions had finished. Overall I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag but that was largely of my own doing. Trying to step off the plane, into the pubs and then into a days’ worth of training was really never going to end well and it kind of showed in the value I got out of that day. That said, the post session I did was really impressive and the resources I got out of it are bound to be worth the price of admission alone. In future I’d probably more seriously assess the value I thought I’d get out of a session before signing up, given the time could have been spent networking for just as much value in some instances.

Ask the Experts

I know I flagged the networking as probably the most valuable part about the conference but if I had to choose a close second it’d definitely be the ask the experts session. This is something they have at Tech-Eds as well and I’ve always used as a chance to eat the free food and drink the free beer then kick on partying somewhere, but I decided to actually have a few chats that night and it turned out to be one of the best things I did. I was able to bring back all of the advice I got that night and use it at the client I was at which was extremely valued and appreciated. Highly recommend.

Conclusion

To wrap things up I thought I’d finish on a fun note. It may sound like the SharePoint conference was a non-stop learn-fest filled with early nights, early mornings and cramming as much information into ones head as possible but there’s definitely another side to it though and it’s a massive challenge trying to do it all on a few hours’ sleep a night. The parties were awesome though. I know of some people who avoid them but to be honest unless you already know a lot of people it’s the best way to meet the people you’ll have some of the best and unique conversations with. There’s something on every night, everything is free, the food and the drinks, and it’s hard not to kick on with new friends after each one and enjoy everything Vegas has to offer. I’ll finish up on that note with a nod and a wink and leave the rest of those stories for another time. Thanks for reading!

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Why wouldn’t you use the App model for On-Premises SharePoint solutions?

It’s been a while since my last post, and due to a mini-hiatus I decided to take over the Christmas/New Years period in relation to certification studying, I figured it was time for a little something different on this blog. Truth be known, this is a conversation I’ve had with a number of pro-App model colleagues as far back as October last year. I tend not to be able to help myself when it comes to playing the devil’s advocate role (in fact I’ve been given the ‘black hat‘ on too many occasions to think it a coincidence) so this position did come perhaps a little too naturally for me, even with my bias towards heavily branded public facing solutions.

I was actually inspired to write about this from a recent #CollabTalk thread via a question posed by Christian Buckley (@buckleyplanet)

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My favourite responses came from a cloud-focused Microsoft employee on the SharePoint team, Mark Kashman (@mkashman)

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And a SharePoint Certified Master, Chris Beckett (@teknirvana)

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I found the honesty of the responses refreshing.

It’s no secret Microsoft’s position on this one. You only have to read the official documentation on MSDN such as Deciding between apps for SharePoint and SharePoint solutions or Apps for SharePoint compared with SharePoint solutions to realise they’re pushing the App model in a big way. A couple of ‘tell us what you really think’ quotes that spring to mind from the aforementioned articles include ‘With these considerations in mind, apps should be looked at as the primary choice, and full-trust solutions should be looked at when the capability of the app model does not meet the business requirement.’ and ‘The most important guidance we can give you is to develop an app for SharePoint instead of a farm solution or NCSS whenever you can’.

The cynic in me however still believes there may be an ulterior motive to this position. Microsoft has been ‘all-in‘ for the cloud for a long time and there are a number of very good reasons why they would prefer clients be on Office 365 rather than managing their own on-premises farms. It therefore makes sense that they would want to remove as many barriers to entry to that transition as possible, full trust solutions being a significant one.

So as I always do, I set out to read as many decent articles as I could on the topic. I had remembered some time ago reading the SP-king-of-controversy, Bjørn Furuknap’s SharePoint 2013 App Model Solves Non-Problems Only? article and even though it was one of the only ones that would potentially back up my argument, it seemed to be arguing against the necessity of the App model rather than why it perhaps shouldn’t be used. That article introduced me to Doug Ware’s posts SharePoint 2013 Preview – Apps or Crapps?The SharePoint 2013 App Model is better than Farm Solutions and An Architecture for Provider SharePoint 2013 Hosted Apps on Azure which definitely argue the counter-point well.

Alaa Mostafa’s SharePoint 2013 Development (Apps versus Solutions) was a decent read which pushed the App model as was Jeremy Thake’s SharePoint Apps Playbook Series: Part 1 – SharePoint Apps vs SharePoint Solutions (was looking forward to the series, lets hope for more!). There was also a logged discussion SPChat transcript: App Model vs Solution Model with Jeremy Thake which helped frame my thoughts.

So what are those thoughts? Well, in a perfect world it’s clear that Apps would be the way to go. There are a number of things that concern me though looking from a wider consultancy view rather than just my own (where did I put that ‘these thoughts are my own’ disclaimer..):

  • The learning curve of developing with the App model against sticking to what most already know. The MSDN article I referenced before actually counters this point, arguing that it is not the only factor to consider and that it may be outweighed by the extensive lifecycle management process required for full-trust solutions. Not everyone is a senior consultant capable of making this transition on a client site however.
  • The ‘new’ nature of the beast. Anyone who has been around SharePoint long enough (and this has been particularly relevant with SP2013) would know that things rarely ‘just work’ in the first iteration. I can definitely see this causing a lot of unnecessary headaches on projects.
  • The added development time the above points could lead to. Increased complexity + less familiarity is sure to equal more $$. When you’re competing for work it’s not always best to ‘theoretically’ offer the best-MS-approved solution if you don’t get to implement it for being cost noncompetitive. It also wouldn’t paint the most rosy of pictures of any existing consultant banging their heads against the wall for a seemingly easy requirement.
  • Getting the App model up and running on-premises isn’t a trivial thing, which again adds added complexity and cost to any project which hasn’t already set up their environment for it.

I also wonder if its just me that thinks that this shouldn’t be a purely technical decision and should be one that involves the business. I believe that as consultants we should advise the client on the best way forward by giving them all the facts (and perhaps even some opinions) but allowing them to make a business decision with that information in front of them. Why should we push the App model if the client has no desire to ever move to the cloud? My argument is if you’re on-premises and you have no short-to-medium aspirations to head to the cloud, then where’s the justification for the steep learning curve, increased complexity and increased cost of building Apps.

Now that I feel I’ve made my point, i’m going to do a complete 180. The App model in my opinion should be on any consultant-worth-their-salt’s priority learning list. The direction is clear, and it will become THE way to develop for SharePoint sometime in the future. I’ve put my money where my mouth is in this case, registering for SPC14 with the aim to attend a number of cloud and App related sessions as well as Sonya Koptyev, Kirk Evans, and Richard diZerega‘s pre-conference sessions on Migrating Traditional SharePoint Solutions to the App Model and Refactoring Business Solutions into Apps for Office. One more excellent blog that should also be on the must-read list I feel I need to point out is Vesa Juvonen‘s – definitely worth following for those wanting to transition to the App model.

I’m curious to see if my view changes over time, particularly after SPC14 and hopefully after a number of healthy debates in regards to whether the App model should be chosen over full-trust solutions for on-premises SharePoint installations. If you care to add to the debate i’d be more than happy to hear from you through any medium you wish – i’m definitely prepared to be convinced either way.