Custom Ribbon Button Image Limitations with SharePoint 2013 Apps

What started as a simple attempt to use the ~appWebUrl token in an image URL became a deep dive into SharePoint’s internal processing of custom actions and the App deployment process. In this post, I cover what will and won’t work for custom action image URLs in your own SharePoint 2013 Apps.

A custom action button with image My adventures in SharePoint 2013 App Model Land have been going pretty well, but I recently encountered a limitation that left me sort of scratching my head.

The limitation applies to the creation of custom actions for SharePoint apps. To be more specific: the problem I’ve encountered is that there doesn’t appear to be a way to package and reference (using relative links) custom images for ribbon buttons like the one that’s circled in the image above and to the left. This doesn’t mean that custom images can’t be used, of course, but the work-around isn’t exactly something I’m particularly fond of (nor is it even feasible) in some application scenarios.

If you’re not familiar with the new SharePoint 2013 App Model, then you may want to do a little reading before proceeding with this post. I’m only going to cover the App Model concepts that are relevant to the limitation I observed and how to address/work-around it. However, if you are familiar with the new 2013 App Model and creating custom actions in SharePoint 2010, then you may want to jump straight down to the section titled Where the Headaches Begin.

One more warning: this post does some heavy digging into SharePoint’s internal processing of custom ribbon actions and URL tokens. If you want to skip all of that and head straight to the practical take-away, jump down to the What About the Image32by32 and Image16by16 Attributes section.

Adding a Ribbon Custom Action

First, let me do a quick run-through on custom actions. They aren’t unique to SharePoint 2013 or its new “Cloud App Model.” In fact, the type of custom action I’m talking about (i.e., extending the ribbon) became available when the Ribbon was introduced with SharePoint 2010.

With a SharePoint 2013 App, adding a new button to the ribbon is a relatively simple affair. It starts with choosing the Ribbon Custom Action option from the Add New Item dialog as shown below and to the left. Once a name is provided for the custom action and the Add button is clicked, the Create Custom Action for Ribbon dialog appears as shown below and to the right. There’s a third dialog page that further assists in setting some properties for a custom action, but I’m going to skip over it since it isn’t relevant to the point I’m trying to make.

Adding a Ribbon Custom Action

Create Custom Action for Ribbon

I want to call attention to one of the selections I made on the Create Custom Action for Ribbon dialog, though; specifically, the decision to expose the custom action in the Host Web rather than in the App Web.

Why is this choice so important? Well, the new App Model enforces a relatively strict boundary of separation between SharePoint sites and any custom applications (running under the new App Model) that they may contain. A SharePoint site (Host Web) can technically “host” applications, but those applications operate in an isolated App Web that may have components running on an entirely different server. Under the new App Model, no custom app code is running in the Host Web.

App Webs (where custom applications exist after installation) don’t have direct access to the Host Web in which they’re contained, either. In fact, App Webs are logically isolated from their Host Web parents. If App Webs want to communicate with their Host Web parent to interact with site collection data, for example, they have to do so through SharePoint’s Client-Side Object Model (CSOM) or the Representational State Transfer (REST) interface. The old full-trust, server-side object isn’t available; everything is “client-side.”

There are some exceptions to this model of isolation, and one of those exceptions is the use of custom actions to allow an App (residing in an App Web) to partially wire itself into the Host Web. The Create Custom Action for Ribbon dialog shown above, for instance, adds a new button to the ribbon for each of the Document Libraries in the Host Web. This gives users a way to navigate directly from Document Libraries (in the Host Web) to a page in the App Web, for example.

The Elements.xml file that gets generated for the custom action once the Visual Studio wizard has finished running looks something like the following:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<Elements xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/sharepoint/">
  <CustomAction Id="1470c964-6b8a-4d79-9817-4d32c898ffbe.RibbonCustomAction1"
                RegistrationType="List"
                RegistrationId="101"
                Location="CommandUI.Ribbon"
                Sequence="10001"
                Title="Invoke &apos;LibraryDetailsCustomAction&apos; action">
    <CommandUIExtension>
      <!-- 
      Update the UI definitions below with the controls and the command actions
      that you want to enable for the custom action.
      -->
      <CommandUIDefinitions>
        <CommandUIDefinition Location="Ribbon.Library.Actions.Controls._children">
          <Button Id="Ribbon.Library.Actions.LibraryDetailsCustomActionButton"
                  Alt="Examine Library Details"
                  Sequence="100"
                  Command="Invoke_LibraryDetailsCustomActionButtonRequest"
                  LabelText="Examine Library Details"
                  TemplateAlias="o1"
                  Image32by32="_layouts/15/images/placeholder32x32.png"
                  Image16by16="_layouts/15/images/placeholder16x16.png" />
        </CommandUIDefinition>
      </CommandUIDefinitions>
      <CommandUIHandlers>
        <CommandUIHandler Command="Invoke_RibbonCustomAction1ButtonRequest"
                          CommandAction="LibraryManager\Pages\LibraryDetails.aspx"/>
      </CommandUIHandlers>
    </CommandUIExtension >
  </CustomAction>
</Elements>

Deploying the App that contains the custom action markup shown above creates a new button in the ribbon of each Host Web Document Library. By default, each button looks like the following:

Custom Ribbon Button

There are a few attributes in the previous XML that I’m going to repeatedly come back to, so it’s worth taking a closer look at each one’s purpose and associated value(s):

  • Image32by32 and Image16by16 for the <Button /> element. These two attributes specify the images that are used when rendering the custom action button on the ribbon. By default, they point to an orange dot placeholder image that lives in the farm’s _layouts folder.
  • CommandAction for the <CommandUIHandler /> element. In its simplest form, this is the URL of the page to which the user is redirected upon pressing the custom ribbon button.

The Problem with the Default CommandAction

When a user clicks on a custom ribbon button in one of the Host Web document libraries, the goal is to send them over to a page in the App Web where the custom action can be processed. Unfortunately, the default CommandAction isn’t set up in a way that permits this.

CommandAction="LibraryManager\Pages\LibraryDetails.aspx"

In fact, attempting to deploy the solution to Office 365 with this default CommandAction results in failure; the App package doesn’t pass validation.

To understand why the failure occurs, it’s important to remember the isolation that exists between the Host Web and the App Web. To illustrate how the Host Web and App Web are different from simply a hostname perspective, consider the project I’ve been working on as an example:

Notice that although the /sites/dev2 relative path portion is the same for both the Host Web and App Web URLs, the hostname portion of each URL is different. This is by design, and it helps to enforce the logical separation between the Host Web and App Web – even though the App Web technically resides within the Host Web.

Looking again at the default CommandAction attribute reveals that its value is just an ASPX page that is identified with a relative URL. Rather than pointing to where we want it to point …

https://mcdonough-bc920dbeb7ecd3.sharepoint.com/sites/dev2/LibraryManager/Pages/LibraryDetails.aspx

… it ends up pointing to a non-existent destination in the Host Web:

https://mcdonough.sharepoint.com/sites/dev2/LibraryManager/Pages/LibraryDetails.aspx

And this is exactly what should happen. After all, the custom action is launched from within the Host Web, so a relative path specification should resolve to a location in the Host Web – not the location we actually want to target in the App Web.

Fixing the CommandAction

The Key! Thankfully, it isn’t a major undertaking to correct the CommandAction attribute value so that it points to the App Web instead of the Host Web. If you’ve worked with SharePoint at all in the past, then you may know that the key to making everything work (in this situation) is the judicious use of tokens.

What are tokens? In this case, tokens are specific string sequences that SharePoint parses at run-time and replaces with a value based on the run-time environment, action that was performed, associated list, or some other context-sensitive value that isn’t known at design-time.

To illustrate how this works, consider the default CommandAction attribute:

CommandAction="LibraryManager\Pages\LibraryDetails.aspx"

Modifying the attribute as follows changes the destination URL of the button so that the user is redirected to the desired page in the App Web rather than the Host Web:

CommandAction="~appWebUrl/Pages/LibraryDetails.aspx"

The ~appWebUrl token is replaced at run-time with the actual URL of the associated App Web (https://mcdonough-bc920dbeb7ecd3.sharepoint.com/sites/dev2) to build the desired destination link.

SharePoint defines a whole host of URL strings and tokens for use in Apps. As it turns out, a fairly complete list has been aggregated and defined in a handy little page on MSDN. Thanks to the always-helpful Andrew Clark for pointing this out to me; I hadn’t realized Microsoft had pulled so many tokens together in one place!

Where the Headaches Begin

Baby Crying Since tokens are the key to inserting context-dependent values at run-time, you’d think they’d have been implemented and usable anywhere a developer needs to cross the Host Web / App Web divide.

Apparently not. To be more specific (and fair), I should instead say “not consistently.”

Since this blog post is about image limitations with custom ribbon buttons, you can probably guess where I’m headed with all of this. So, let’s take a look at the Image16by16 and Image32by32 attributes.

By default, the Image16x16 and Image32by32 attributes point to a location in the _layouts folder for the farm. Each attribute value references an image that is nothing more than a little round orange dot:

Image32by32="_layouts/15/images/placeholder32x32.png"
Image16by16="_layouts/15/images/placeholder16x16.png"

Much like the CustomAction attribute, it stands to reason that developers would want to replace the placeholder image attribute values with URLs of their choosing. In my case, I wanted to use a set of images I was deploying with the rest of the application assets in my App Web. So, I updated my image attributes to look like the following:

Image32by32="~appWebUrl/Images/sharepoint-library-analyzer_32x32-a.png"
Image16by16="~appWebUrl/Images/sharepoint-library-analyzer_16x16-a.png"

Tokens Do Not Work for Image Attributes I deployed my App to my Office 365 Preview tenant, watched my browser launch into my App Web, hopped back to the Host Web, navigated to a document library, and looked at the toolbar. I was not happy by what I saw (on the left).

The image I had specified for use by the button wasn’t being used. All I had was a broken image link.

Examining the properties for the broken image quickly confirmed my fear: the ~appWebUrl token was not being processed for either of the Image32by32 or Image16by16 attributes. The token was being output directly into the image references.

I tried changing the image attributes to reference the App Web a couple of different ways (and with a couple of different tokens), but none of them seemed to work.

I did a little digging, and I saw that Chris Hopkins (over at Microsoft) covered this very topic for sandboxed solutions in SharePoint 2010. In Chris’ article, though, it was clear that tokens such as ~site and ~sitecollection were valid for use by the Image32by32 and Image16by16 attributes.

To see if I was losing my mind, I decided to try a little experiment. Although I knew it wouldn’t solve my particular problem, I decided to try using the ~site token just to see if it would be parsed properly. Lo and behold, it was parsed and replaced. ~site worked. So, ~site worked … but ~appWebUrl didn’t?

That didn’t make any sense. If it isn’t possible to use the ~appWebUrl token, how are developers supposed to reference custom images for the buttons they deploy in their Apps? Without the ~appWebUrl, there’s no practical way to reference an item in the App Web from the Host Web.

Token Forensics

When I find myself in situations where I’m holding results that don’t make sense, I can’t help myself: I pull out Reflector and start poking around for clues inside SharePoint’s plumbing. If I dig really hard, sometimes I find answers to my questions.

RegisterCommandUIWithRibbon After some poking around with Reflector, I discovered that the “journey to enlightenment” (in this case) started with the RegisterCommandUIWithRibbon method on the SPCustomActionElement type. It is in this method that the Image16by16 and Image32by32 attributes are read-in from the XML file in which they are defined. Before assignment for use, they’re passed through a couple of methods that carry out token parsing:

  • ReplaceUrlTokens on the SPCustomActionElement type
  • UrlFromPrefixedUrlCore on the the SPUtility type

Although these methods together are capable of recognizing and replacing many different token types (including some I hadn’t seen listed in existing documentation; e.g., ~siteCollectionLayouts), none of the new SharePoint 2013 tokens, like the ~appWebUrl and ~remoteWebUrl ~remoteAppUrl tokens, appear in these methods.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t see any noteworthy differences between the path of execution for processing image attributes and the sequence of calls through which CommandAction attributes are handled in the RegisterCommandUIExtension method of the SPRibbon type. The RegisterCommandUIExtension method eventually “punches down” to the ReplaceUrlTokens and UrlFromPrefixedUrlCore methods, as well.

The differences I was seeing in how tokens were handled between the CommandAction and Image32by32/Image16by16 attributes had to be originating somewhere else – not in the processing of the custom action XML.

Deployment Modifications

After some more digging in Reflector to determine where the ~appWebUrl actually showed-up and was being processed, I came across evidence suggesting that “something specialwas happening on App deployment rather than at run-time. The ~appWebUrl token was being processed as part of a BuildTokenMap call in the SPAppInstance type; looking at the call chain for the BuildTokenMap method revealed that it was getting called during some App deployment operations processing.

App Deployment Hierarchy to BuildTokenMap

If changes were taking place on App deployment, then I had a hunch I might find what I was looking for in the content database housing the Host Web to which my App was being deployed. After all, Apps get deployed to App Webs that reside within a Host Web, and Host Webs live in content databases … so, all of the pieces of my App had to exist (in some form) in the content database. 

I fired-up Visual Studio, stopped deploying to Office 365, and started deploying my App to a site collection on my local SharePoint 2013 VM farm. Once my App was deployed, I launched SQL Management Studio on the SQL Server housing the SharePoint databases and began poking around inside the content database where the target site collection was located.

Brief aside: standard rules still apply in SharePoint 2013, so I’ll mention them here for those who may not know them. Don’t poke around inside content databases (or any other databases) in live SharePoint environments you care about. As with previous versions, querying and working against live databases may hurt performance and lead to bigger problems. If you want to play with the contents of a SharePoint database, either create a SQL snapshot of it (and work against the snapshot) or mount a backup copy of the database in a test environment.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I quickly examined the contents of each table in the content database. I hit paydirt when I opened-up the CustomActions table. It had a single row, and the Properties field of that row contained some XML that looked an awful lot like the Elements.xml which defined my custom action:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-16"?>
<Elements xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/sharepoint/">
	<CustomAction Title="Invoke 'LibraryDetailsCustomAction' action" Id="4f835c73-a3ab-4671-b142-83304da0639f.LibraryDetailsCustomAction" Location="CommandUI.Ribbon" RegistrationId="101" RegistrationType="List" Sequence="10001">
		<CommandUIExtension xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/sharepoint/">
			<!-- 
      Update the UI definitions below with the controls and the command actions
      that you want to enable for the custom action.
      -->
			<CommandUIDefinitions>
				<CommandUIDefinition Location="Ribbon.Library.Actions.Controls._children">
					<Button Id="Ribbon.Library.Actions.LibraryDetailsCustomActionButton" Alt="Examine Library Details" Sequence="100" Command="Invoke_LibraryDetailsCustomActionButtonRequest" LabelText="Examine Library Details" Image16by16="~site/Images/sharepoint-library-analyzer_16x16-a.png" Image32by32="~appWebUrl/Images/sharepoint-library-analyzer_32x32-a.png" TemplateAlias="o1"/>
				</CommandUIDefinition>
			</CommandUIDefinitions>
			<CommandUIHandlers>
				<CommandUIHandler Command="Invoke_LibraryDetailsCustomActionButtonRequest" CommandAction="javascript:LaunchApp('709d9f25-bb39-4e6a-97d5-6e1d7c855f38', 'i:0i.t|ms.sp.int|a441fa2c-8c5f-4152-9085-3930239ab21b@9db0b916-0dd6-4d6c-be49-41f72f5dfc02', '~appWebUrl\u002fPages\u002fLibraryDetails.aspx?ListID={ListId}\u0026SiteUrl={SiteUrl}', null);"/>
			</CommandUIHandlers>
		</CommandUIExtension>
	</CustomAction>
</Elements>

There were some differences, though, between the Elements.xml I had defined earlier and what actually appeared in the Properties field. I narrowed my focus to the differences that existed between the non-working Image32by32/Image16by16 attributes

Image16by16="~appWebUrl/Images/sharepoint-library-analyzer_16x16-a.png"
Image32by32="~appWebUrl/Images/sharepoint-library-analyzer_32x32-a.png"

… and the CommandAction attribute.

CommandAction="javascript:LaunchApp('709d9f25-bb39-4e6a-97d5-6e1d7c855f38', 'i:0i.t|ms.sp.int|a441fa2c-8c5f-4152-9085-3930239ab21b@9db0b916-0dd6-4d6c-be49-41f72f5dfc02', '~appWebUrl\u002fPages\u002fLibraryDetails.aspx', null);"

As suspected, some deployment-time processing had been performed on the CommandAction attribute but not on the image attributes. The CommandAction still contained an ~appWebUrl token, but it was wrapped as part of a parameter call to a LaunchApp JavaScript function that appeared to be handled (or rather, executed) from a client-side browser.

Jumping into my App in Internet Explorer and opening IE’s debugging tools via <F12>, I did a search for the LaunchApp function within the referenced scripts and found it in the core.js library/script. Examining the LaunchApp function revealed that it called the LaunchAppInternal function; LaunchAppInternal, in turn, called back to the SharePoint server’s /_layouts/15/appredirect.aspx page with the parameters that were supplied to the original LaunchApp method – including the URL with the ~appWebUrl token.

To complete the journey, I opened up the Microsoft.SharePoint.ApplicationPages.dll assembly back on the server and dug into the AppRedirectPage class that provides the code-behind support for the AppRedirect.aspx page. When the AppRedirect.aspx page is loaded, control passes to the page’s OnLoad event and then to the HandleRequest method. HandleRequest then uses the ReplaceAppTokensAndFixLaunchUrl method of the SPTenantAppUtils class to process tokens.

The ReplaceAppTokensAndFixLaunchUrl method is noteworthy because it includes parsing and replacement support for the ~appWebUrl token, ~remoteWebUrl ~remoteAppUrl token, and other tokens that were introduced with SharePoint 2013. The deployment-time processing that is performed on the CommandAction attribute is what ultimately wires-up the CommandAction to the ReplaceAppTokensAndFixLaunchUrl method. The Image32by32 and Image16by16 attributes don’t get this treatment, and so the new 2013 tokens (like ~appWebUrl) can’t be used by these attributes.

What About the Image32by32 and Image16by16 Attributes?

Doubt Now that some of the key differences in processing between the CommandAction attribute and image attributes have been identified, let me jump back to the original problem. Is there anything that can be done with the Image32by32 and Image16by16 attributes that are specified in a custom action to get them to reference assets that exist in the App Web? Since tokens like ~appWebUrl (and ~remoteWebUrl for all you Autohosted and Provider-hosted application builders) aren’t parsed and processed, are there alternatives?

My response is a somewhat wishy-washy “doubtful.” In my estimation, you’d need to hack SharePoint with something like a javascript: tag for an image attribute (which, interestingly enough, doesn’t appear to be expressly blocked), find some way to obtain the App Web URL base, formulate the proper path to the image, and more. If it could be done, you’d be gaming SharePoint … and I could easily see a cumulative update or service pack breaking this type of elaborate work-around.

The safest and most pragmatic way to handle this situation, it seems, is to use absolute URLs for the desired image resources and forget about deploying them to the App Web altogether. For example, I placed the images I was trying to use on the ribbon buttons here on my blog and referenced them as follows:

Image16by16="http://sharepointinterface.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/sharepoint-library-analyzer_16x16-a.png"
Image32by32="http://sharepointinterface.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/sharepoint-library-analyzer_32x32-a.png"

Working Custom Button Image I had some initial concerns that I might inadvertently bump into some security boundaries, such as those that sometimes arise when an asset is referenced via HTTP from a site that is being served up under HTTPS. This didn’t prove to be the case, however. I tested the use of absolute URLs in both my development VM environment (served up under HTTP) and through one of my Office 365 Preview site collections (accessed via HTTPS), and no browser security warnings popped up. The target image appeared on the custom button as desired (shown on the left) in both cases.

Although the use of absolute URLs will work in many cases, I have to admit that I’m still not a big fan of this approach – especially for SharePoint-hosted apps like the one I’ve been working on. Even though Office 365 entails an “always connected” scenario, I can easily envision on-premises deployment environments that are taken offline some or all of the time. I can also see (and have seen in the past) SharePoint environments where unfettered Internet access is the exception rather than the rule.

In these environments, users won’t see image buttons at all – just blank placeholders or broken image links. After all, without Internet access there is no way to resolve and download the referenced button images.

Wrapping It Up

At some point in the future, I hope that Microsoft considers extending token parsing for URL-based attributes like Image32by32 and Image16by16 to include the ~appWebUrl, ~remoteWebUrl, and other new tokens used by the SharePoint 2013 App Model. In the meantime, though, you should probably consider getting an easily accessible online location (SkyDrive, Dropbox, a blog, etc.) for images and other similar assets if you’re building apps under the new SharePoint 2013 App Model and intend to use custom actions.

Update (1/27/2013)

I need to issue a couple of updates and clarifications. First, I need to be very clear and state that SharePoint-hosted apps were the focus of this post. In a SharePoint-hosted app, what I’ve written is correct: there is no processing of “new” 2013 tokens (like ~appWebUrl and ~remoteAppUrl) for the Image32by32 and Image16by16 attributes. Interestingly enough, though, there does appear to be processing of the ~remoteAppUrl in the Image32by32 and Image16by16 attributes specifically for the other application types such as provider-hosted apps and autohosted apps. Jamie Rance mentioned this in a comment (below), and I verified it with an autohosted app that I quickly spun-up.

I double-checked to see if the ~remoteAppUrl token would even be recognized/processed (despite the lack of a remote web component) for SharePoint-hosted apps, and it is not … nor is ~appWebUrl token processed for autohosted apps. The selective implementation of only the ~remoteAppUrl token for certain app types has me baffled; I hope that we’ll eventually see some clarification or changes. If you’re building provider-hosted or autohosted apps, though, this does give you a way to redirect image requests to your remote web application rather than an absolute endpoint. Thank you, Jamie, for the information!

And now for some good news that for SharePoint-hosted app creators. Prior to writing this post, I had posted a question about the tokens over in the SharePoint Exchange forums. At the time I wrote this post, there hadn’t been any activity to suggest that a solution or workaround existed. F. Aquino recently supplied an incredibly creative answer, though, that involves using a data URI to Base64-encode the images and package them directly into the Image32by32 and Image16by16 attributes themselves! Although this means that some image pre-processing will be required to package images, it gets around the requirement of being “always-connected.” This is an awesome technique, and I’ll certainly be adding it to my arsenal. Thank you, F. Aquino!

References and Resources

  1. MSDN: How to: Create custom actions to deploy with apps for SharePoint
  2. MSDN: Apps for SharePoint overview
  3. MSDN: Customizing and Extending the SharePoint 2010 Server Ribbon
  4. MSDN: How to: Complete basic operations using SharePoint 2013 client library code
  5. MSDN: How to: Complete basic operations using SharePoint 2013 REST endpoints
  6. MSDN: URL strings and tokens in apps for SharePoint
  7. Twitter: Andrew Clark
  8. Chris Hopkins’ Visilog: Using images on your ribbon buttons from a sandboxed solution in SharePoint 2010
  9. Software: Red Gate’s Reflector
  10. Service: Microsoft’s SkyDrive
  11. Service: Dropbox

How My View of Microsoft’s Vision for SharePoint in the Cloud Has Evolved

After working with the Office 365 Preview over the last several months, I shifted my thoughts on SharePoint in the Cloud. In this post, I share my thoughts and “revelations” about what’s coming with SharePoint 2013, Office 365, and usage of SharePoint in the Cloud.

Pointing Out Some Clouds It was about a year and a half ago when someone dialed-up the volume on “The SharePoint Cloud Message” in my world. It’s not that I hadn’t heard people talking about SharePoint in the Cloud prior to that; I guess it’s just that I started listening more closely because Microsoft was turning into one of the Cloud’s most vocal proponents.

Around the summer of 2010, it was becoming clear to me that Cloud-based SharePoint wasn’t just a passing trend. With Microsoft clearly stating its intention to make the Cloud a cornerstone of its business, I needed to start paying attention.

How I Saw Things Before

My relationship with Microsoft and Microsoft technologies goes back to the days of MS-DOS. As a result, I’ve always seen Microsoft as a company that was primarily interested in one thing: selling software. I worked for a Microsoft managed systems integration (SI) partner – Cardinal Solutions Group – for several years. During my years with Cardinal, my goal was to help others who had purchased Microsoft software make use of that software. In many cases, customer leads came from Microsoft either directly or indirectly. Microsoft sold the software, and we setup/customized/serviced/configured that software based on what a customer was trying to accomplish. It was a symbiotic relationship, and it was pretty easy for me to grasp.

Then the whole “Cloud thing” started. Cloud-based SharePoint and other Azure-branded services seemed a somewhat confusing move for Microsoft at first – at least to me. Even before Office 365, Microsoft offered hosted SharePoint through BPOS – or the Business Productivity Online Suite. At the time when BPOS was first released, I viewed it as something of a niche market for Microsoft. I had plenty of friends who worked at places like Rackspace and Fpweb.net, so the part I found unusual wasn’t really that “someone else” was hosting SharePoint and focusing on it as a service. The fact that Microsoft itself was getting serious about SharePoint and other services was the eyebrow raiser.

For Microsoft, it wasn’t just about selling software anymore.

The Biggest Hurdle

A Hurdle Of course, when Microsoft wants to succeed at something, they invest considerable planning and resources in it. Since Microsoft is essentially betting the farm (pun intended) on Office 365 and SharePoint in the Cloud, they’re pushing it very hard on multiple fronts. Redmond’s marketing machine has been talking Office 365 frequently and loudly for at least the last year. With each new release, developer tools like Visual Studio get more Cloud-friendly. Partners have incentives to get customers onto Office 365 and Azure services. Competitive price points make it difficult to ignore Microsoft’s Cloud offerings. For me (and I’m sure for many of you), it’s a lot to process.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that I think Office 365 has a very compelling value proposition, even without SharePoint. SharePoint itself is a complex platform, though, and many organizations struggle with administrative needs like data protection, performance optimization, high availability, and basic day-to-day management. The idea of turning these concerns over to someone else (or some other entity) who better-understands them makes sense to me.

After working with SharePoint 2013 for several months now, I can easily say that the platform isn’t getting any easier. SharePoint 2013 has quite a few more “moving parts” relative to SharePoint 2010, just as SharePoint 2010 demonstrated itself to be significantly more complex than SharePoint 2007.

Despite the compelling nature of Office 365, I always seemed to come back around to fixate on one thought. This thought constantly reverberated through my head anytime “SharePoint in the Cloud” became a topic of conversation:

Most companies using SharePoint have made a significant investments in hardware, software, personnel, and services to get SharePoint up-and-running. They aren’t going to simply “dump” those on-premises investments and go to the Cloud tomorrow. The Cloud will happen, but it’s going to take longer than Microsoft thinks.

In discussions with many friends and respected professionals in the SharePoint community, I knew that I wasn’t completely alone in my way of thinking. In the conversations I’d had, there was almost always agreement that a shift to the Cloud and Cloud-based services would happen over time. The greatest debate seemed to be over whether it would happen next year or if it would take the next half a decade.

Breakthrough

Old Thinking I’d say my “breakthrough moment” came after I started playing with the Office 365 Preview more extensively a few months back. I initially set up a preview tenant to familiarize myself with what was coming, how SharePoint 2013 would be exposed, how to configure Office 365 tenants, etc. The more I played with the tenant, the more I thought about how truly useful Office 365 could be, particularly for non-enterprise customers, home users, and others who didn’t fit into SharePoint’s “big deployment picture” previously.

That’s when the pieces started to click into place for me. All along I had been thinking about Office 365 and Cloud-based SharePoint deployments along the lines of the bar chart seen above and to the right. Numbers and proportions are all relative, but the key concept I’m trying to convey with the chart is this: for some reason, I had always thought that the proponents of Cloud-based SharePoint were suggesting that Cloud adoption would come at the cost of on-premises deployments; i.e., on-premises users would “convert” to the Cloud. If Cloud-based deployments grew, that meant that on-premises deployments had to shrink. In short: I was inadvertently assuming that the overall number of SharePoint deployments had hit saturation and was remaining static.

I don’t think that way at all anymore.

New Thinking After I’d done some playing with my first tenant, it wasn’t long before I was setting up another two Office 365 tenants for other side projects. In conversations with friends in the SharePoint community, I was discovering that “everyone” was setting up tenants for their families, for their spouse’s business, etc. In almost all cases where tenants were being setup, the use cases were ones that didn’t align with traditional enterprise-scale on-premises SharePoint deployment and usage. In fact, the use cases were typically the types of things that would eventually find a home on Google Apps or its equivalent because Microsoft (previously) had nothing strong to offer in that space.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that Office 365 growth – once the new 2013 Preview goes live – will be aggressive and look something more like what I’ve charted above and to the left. While Office 365 might replace some on-premises deployments, particularly for smaller organizations, I don’t see that as its primary market (initially) or its strong suit. The greatest degree of Office 365 traction is going to be obtained with users who need a Google Apps-like solution but for whom buying the required infrastructure and expertise for Exchange, SharePoint, etc., is cost-prohibitive.

So, I stopped thinking “replacement” and started thinking “complement.” That’s my assessment and working outlook for the Office 365 (Preview) right now.

Why Not Everyone?

I’m sure that plenty of folks who’ve believed in “Cloud Power” since Day One probably think that I’m still being too conservative in my outlook for SharePoint on Office 365, and that may be true. However, I still see plenty of concerns that are near-and-dear to most enterprise and larger business customers, and I believe that they will be Cloud adoption blockers until they’re addressed directly and decisively. Here are just a few that come to mind.

1. Who owns the data? Sure, it’s your tenant … but do you own the data? Common sense would seem to suggest “yes,” but this is still uncharted legal territory. Don’t believe me? Do some background reading on the Megaupload situation and see how users of that Cloud-based service are faring in their attempts to get “their data” back.

2. What about disasters? Many people point to the Cloud as a solution for business continuity and disaster recovery (DR) concerns. The Cloud can certainly help, but I’ll tell you (somewhat authoritatively) that the Cloud doesn’t make DR concerns “go away” – especially for SharePoint. For one thing, you’re locked into your provider’s terms of service; if you need more aggressive RPO and RTO windows, then you need to be looking elsewhere. Even Cloud data centers themselves go down; what’s your plan then?

3. Can I leave my provider? Everyone is quick to talk about moving to the Cloud, and many companies are happy to talk about migration strategies. What if you want to leave or change providers, though? Do those migration strategies work? What do you lose? How long would it even take? These may not seem like important questions now, but they will become increasingly more important as Cloud adoption grows and more companies get in on the action. It stands to reason that some portion of those companies will fail, close-up shop, be bought, etc. When that happens, what do you do … and what happens to your SharePoint?

Wrap Up

Of course, my perspective on Office 365 uptake in the next several years could be completely off-the-mark. After all, I don’t really have any numbers to back up my hypotheses. They’re just my opinions, but they are in-line with my gut feel.

And I’ve learned to trust my gut.

References and Resources

  1. Network World: Microsoft’s Ballmer: ‘For the cloud, we’re all in’
  2. Company: Rackspace
  3. Company: Fpweb.net
  4. Company: Cardinal Solutions Group
  5. Microsoft: Windows Azure
  6. ZDNet: The road to Microsoft Office 365: The Past 
  7. Microsoft: Office 365 Preview
  8. Google: Google Apps
  9. TorrentFreak: Megaupload Seized Data Case Will Get a Hearing, Court Rules
  10. Book: The SharePoint 2010 Disaster Recovery Guide
  11. SharePoint Interface: RPO and RTO: Prerequisites for Informed SharePoint Disaster Recovery Planning
  12. ZDNet: Amazon cloud down; Reddit, Github, other major sites affected

Big Changes and Resolutions for 2013

2013 promises to be a year of big changes. In this post, I cover career changes and some official resolutions I’m making for the new year.

Happy 2013 Fortune Cookie

2012 is coming to a close, and 2013 is just around the corner. I’ve been thinking about the year that has gone by, but I’ve been thinking even more about the year to come. 2013 promises to be a year of great personal change – for reasons that will become clear with a little more reading.

But first: I’ve got this friend, and many of you probably know him. His name is Brian Jackett, and nowadays he works for Microsoft as a member of their premier field engineering (PFE) team. For the last couple of years, I’ve watched (with envy, I might add) as Brian has blogged about his year-gone-by and assembled a list of goals for the coming year. He even challenged me (directly) to do the same at one point in the past, but sadly I didn’t rise to the challenge.

I’ve decided that year-end 2012 is going to be different. 2012 was a very busy year for me, and a lot of great things happened throughout the year. Despite these great things, I’m going into 2013 knowing that a lot is going to change (and frankly has to change).

Biggest Things First

The End ... Or Is It?Let me start with the most impactful change-up: my full-time role as Chief SharePoint Evangelist for Idera is coming to a close by the end of March 2013. I’ve been with Idera for over two and a half years now, and I’m sad to be moving on from such a great group of folks.

I’m leaving because Idera is undergoing some changes, and the company is in the process of adjusting its strategy on a few different levels. One of the resultant changes brought about by the shift in strategy involves the company getting back to more of an Internet/direct sales-based approach. Since a large part of my role involves community based activities and activities that don’t necessarily align with the strategy change, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for me to remain – at least in the full-time capacity that I currently operate in.

To be honest, I didn’t expect my role or position to be around forever. As many of you heard me declare publicly, though: I wanted to make the most of it while I had the role and the backing. I got a lot out of working with my friends at Idera, and I greatly appreciate the opportunities they afforded me. I hope it’s been as much fun for them as it has been for me.

What’s Next?

Even after my full-time role comes to a close, I’ve already had a couple of conversations around continuing to do some work with/for Idera. Despite my full-time focus on Idera over the last 2+ years, I have actually been operating as a contractor/consultant – not a full-time employee. This has left me free to take on other SharePoint work when it made sense (and when my schedule permitted). Going forward, my situation will probably just do a flip-flop: Idera will become the “side work” (if it makes sense), and something else will take center stage.

I don’t yet know what will be “showing on the main screen,” though. That’s been on my mind quite a bit recently, and I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what I really want to do next. Take a full-time role with a local organization? Do contract development work and continue to work from home? Wiggle my way into becoming the first Starbucks SharePoint barista? Something else entirely? If my preliminary assessment of what’s out there is accurate, there are quite a few different options. I’ll certainly be busy evaluating them and comparing them against my ever-evolving “what I want to do” checklist.

Can You Help Me Out?

Linked In Connection to Sean McDonough Many of you know that I do a lot of speaking, blogging, answering of questions/emails, etc. Giving back to the community and sharing what I’ve learned are a part of my DNA, and I’ll continue to do those things to the extent that I can going forward. I normally don’t ask for anything in return; I just like to know that I’m helping others.

As I try to figure out what’s next, I’d like to ask a favor: if you feel that I’ve helped you in some significant or meaningful way (through one of my sessions, in an email I’ve answered, etc.) over the last few years, would you be willing to endorse my skills or recommend me on LinkedIn? I see a wealth of opportunities “out there,” and sometimes an endorsement or recommendation can make the difference when it comes to employment or landing a client.

Resolutions

Employment and the ability to support my family aside, this is the first year (in quite a few) that I’ve made some resolutions for the new year. Although it’s an artificial break-point, I’ve separated my resolutions into “work-related” and “non-work” categories. And although I can think of lots of things I want to change, I’ve picked only three in each category to focus on.

Work-Related

Resolutions for a New Year1. Manage Distractions More Effectively. Working at home can be a dual-edged sword. If I were single, unmarried, and better-disciplined, I’d see working at home as the ability to do whatever I wanted without distraction. That’s not the reality in my world, though. Where I can remove distractions, I intend to.

Some of you chimed-in (positively) when I recently made a comment on Facebook about unsubscribing to a lot of junk email. Over time, I’ve come to realize that all of the extra email I’ve been getting is just a distraction. I can do something about that.

The same goes for email in general. I have multiple email accounts, and mail streams into those accounts throughout the day. Rather than constantly trying to stay on top of my inbox, I’m going to shift to a “let it sit” mentality. If I’m honest with myself, 95% of the email I receive can go unanswered for a while. I’ll attend to those items that require my attention, but some of the quasi real-time email discussions I’m known to have don’t really matter in the greater scheme of getting real work done.

Social networking tools are another great example. I think they can be a very positive and helpful force (especially for someone who’s at home all day, like me), but they can very easily become a full-time distraction. I cut down my Twitter use dramatically a couple of years back. I won’t even set foot “on” Yammer because of the huge, sucking, time-consuming noise it appears to make. Going forward, I’m going to attempt to use other tools (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) during specific windows rather than having them open all-day, everyday – even if I’m not “actively” on them.

For distractions that can’t be removed (e.g., children running around), my only option is to better manage the distractions. My home office has doors; I’ve already begun using them more. I’ll be wearing headphones more often. These are the sorts of things I can do to ensure that I remain better focused.

2. Thoughtfully Choose Work. I had to come clean with myself on this one, and that’s why I chose to word the resolution the way I did. Work is important to me, and it’s in my nature to always be working on something – even if that work is “for fun.” While I’d like to be the type of person who could cut back and work less, I don’t know that I’d be able to do so without incurring substantial anxiety.

Knowing this about myself, I’ve settled on trying to be more thoughtful about doing work. Make it a choice, not the default. Being a workaholic who labors from home, work became my default mode rather quickly and naturally. I remember a time when weekends were filled with fun activities – and leaving work meant “leaving” in both the physical and mental sense. Even if I can’t maintain boundaries that are quite that clear nowadays, I can be more conscientious about my choices and actually making work a conscious choice. That may sound like nothing more than semantics or babble, but I suspect other work-at-home types will get what I’m saying.

For me, this mentality needs to extend to “extracurricular” work-like activities, as well. I just went back through my 2012 calendar, and I counted 19 weekends where I was traveling or engaged in (SharePoint) community activities. That’s over a third of the weekends for the year. Many of those events are things I just sort of “fell” into without thinking too much about it. Perhaps I’d choose to do them all anyway, but again – it needs to be a choice, not the default course of action.

3. Spend Time on Impactful Efforts. Of all my work-related resolutions, this is the one that’s been on my mind the most. As I already mentioned (and many of you know), I spend a lot of time answering questions in email, speaking at and organizing SharePoint events, writing, blogging, etc. Although I originally viewed all of these activities as equally “good things,” in the past year or so I’ve begun to see that some of those activities are more impactful (and thus “more good”) to a wider audience than others.

In 2013, I intend to focus more of my time on efforts that are going to help “the many” rather than “the few.” No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop answering email and cease meaningful one-on-one interactions, but I do intend to choose where I spend my time more carefully.

In broader terms, I also intend to focus my capabilities on topics and areas that are generally more meaningful in nature. For example, my wife and her co-worker started a project a while back that has been gaining a lot of traction at a regional level – and the scope of the project is growing. Their effort, The Schizophrenia Oral History Project, profoundly impacts the lives of people living with schizophrenia and those caring for them, providing services to them, and others. I’ve been providing “technical support” (via an introduction to Prezi, registering domain names, etc.) for the project for a while, and I’m currently building a web site for the project using SharePoint and the Office 365 Preview. This sort of work is much more meaningful and fulfilling than some of the other things I’ve spent my time on, and so I want to do more of it.

Non-Work

1. Lose Another Ten Pounds. My weight has gone up and down a few times in the past. At the beginning of 2012, I was pretty heavy … and I felt it. I was out of shape, lethargic, and pretty miserable. Over the course of 2012, I lost close to 30 pounds through a combination of diet (I have Mark Rackley to thank for the plan) and exercise. Now at the end of the year, I’ve been bouncing around at roughly the same weight for a month or two – something I attribute primarily to the holidays and all the good food that’s been around. In 2013, I plan to lose another ten pounds to get down to (what I feel) is an optimal weight.

2. Take Up a Martial Art Once Again. This will undoubtedly help with #1 directly above. I practiced a couple of different martial arts in the past. Before and during college, I practiced Tae Kwon Do. A few years back, I had to reluctantly cease learning Hapkido after only a couple of years in. Martial arts are something I’ve always enjoyed (well, except when I was doing something like separating a shoulder), and I’ve found that life generally feels more balanced when I’m practicing. With the recent enrollment of my five year-old son into a martial arts program, I’m once again feeling the pull. I’ve wanted to learn more about Krav Maga for a while; since there’s a school nearby, I intend to check it out.

3. Prioritize My Home Life. This may be last on my list, but it’s certainly not least. With everything I’ve described so far, it’s probably no surprise to read that I do a pretty poor job of prioritizing home life and family activities. That’s going to change in 2013. Provided I make some headway with my other resolutions, it will become easier to focus on my wife, my kids, and my own interests without feelings of guilt.

Wrap-Up

I’ve written these resolutions down on a Post-It, and that Post-It has been placed on one of my monitors. That’ll ensure that it stays “in my face.”

Do you have any resolutions you’re making? Big changes?

References and Resources

  1. Blog: Brian Jackett
  2. Microsoft: Premier Field Engineering (PFE) Team
  3. Blog Post: Brian Jackett – Goals for 2010
  4. Company: Idera
  5. Company: Starbucks
  6. LinkedIn: Sean McDonough
  7. Facebook: Sean McDonough
  8. LinkedIn: Dr. Tracy McDonough
  9. LinkedIn: Dr. Lynda Crane
  10. Prezi: The Schizophrenia Oral History Project
  11. Prezi: Home Page
  12. Microsoft: Office 365 Preview
  13. Blog: Mark Rackley (The SharePoint Hillbilly)
  14. Wikipedia: Taekwondo
  15. Wikipedia: Hapkido
  16. Wikipedia: Krav Maga

Whaddaya Mean I Can’t Deploy My SharePoint App?

After applying some recently-released patches for SharePoint 2013, my farm’s App infrastructure went belly-up. This post describes my troubleshooting and resolution.

ULS Viewer Showing the Problem I’ve been doing a lot of work with the new SharePoint 2013 App Model in the last few months. Specifically, I’ve been working on a free tool (for Idera) that will be going into the SharePoint App Marketplace sometime soon. The tool itself is not too terribly complicated – just a SharePoint-hosted app that will allow users to analyze library properties, compare library configuration settings, etc.

The development environment that I was using to put the new application together had been humming along just fine … until today. It seems that I tempted fate today by applying a handful of RTM patches to my environment.

What Happened?

I’d heard that some patches for SharePoint 2013 RTM had been released, so I pulled them down and applied them to my development environment. Those patches were:

After all binaries had been installed and a reboot was performed, I ran the SharePoint 2013 Products Configuration Wizard. The wizard ran and completed without issue, Central Administration popped-up afterwards, and life seemed to be going pretty well.

I went back to working on my SharePoint-hosted app, and that’s when things went south. When I tried to deploy the application to my development site collection from Visual Studio 2012, it failed with the following error message:

Error occurred in deployment step ‘Install app for SharePoint’: We’re sorry, we weren’t able to complete the operation, please try again in a few minutes. If you see this message repeatedly, contact your administrator.

Okay, I thought, that’s odd. Let’s give it a second.

Three failed redeploys later, I rebooted the VM to see if that might fix things. No luck.

Troubleshooting

My development wasn’t moving forward until I figured out what was going on, so I did a quick hunt online to see if anyone had encountered this problem. The few entries I found indicated that I should verify my App settings in Central Administration, so I tried that. Strangely, I couldn’t even get those settings to come up – just error pages.

All of this was puzzling. Remember: my farm was doing just fine with the entire app infrastructure just a day earlier, and all of a sudden things were dead in the water. Something had to have happened as a result of the patches that were applied.

Not finding any help on the Internet, I fired-up ULSViewer to see what was happening as I attempted to access the farm App settings from Central Administration. These were the errors I was seeing:

Insufficient SQL database permissions for user ‘Name: SPDC\svcSpServices SID: S-1-5-21-1522874658-601840234-4276112424-1115 ImpersonationLevel: None’ in database ‘SP2013_AppManagement’ on SQL Server instance ‘SpSqlAlias’. Additional error information from SQL Server is included below.  The EXECUTE permission was denied on the object ‘proc_GetDataRange’, database ‘SP2013_AppManagement’, schema ‘dbo’.

Seeing that my service account (SPDC\svcSpServices) didn’t have the access it needed to run the proc_GetDataRange stored procedure left me scratching my head. I didn’t know what sort of permissions the service account actually required or how they were specifically granted. So, I hopped over to my SQL Server to see if anything struck me as odd or out-of-place.

Looking at the SP2013_AppManagement database, I saw that members in the SPDataAccess role had rights to execute the proc_GetDataRange stored procedure. SPDC\svcSPServices didn’t appear to be a direct member of that group (that I could tell), so I added it. Bazinga! Adding the account to the role permitted me to once again review the App settings in Central Administration.

Unfortunately, I still couldn’t deploy my Apps from Visual Studio. Going back to the ULS logs, I found the following:

Insufficient SQL database permissions for user ‘Name: NT AUTHORITY\IUSR SID: S-1-5-17 ImpersonationLevel: Impersonation’ in database ‘SP2013_AppManagement’ on SQL Server instance ‘SpSqlAlias’. Additional error information from SQL Server is included below.  The EXECUTE permission was denied on the object ‘proc_AM_PutAppPrincipal’, database ‘SP2013_AppManagement’, schema ‘dbo’.

It was obvious to me that more than just a single account was out of whack since the proc_AM_PutAppPrincipal stored procedure was now in-play. Rather than try to manually correct all possible permission issues, I decided to try and get SharePoint to do the heavy lifting for me.

Resolution

Service Applications in Central Administration Knowing that the problem was tied to the Application Management Service, I figured that one (possible) easy way to resolve the problem was to simply have SharePoint reprovision the Application Management Service service application. To do this, I carried out the following:

  1. Deleted my App Management Service Application instance (which I happened to call “Application Management Service”) in Central Administration. I checked the box for Delete data associated with the Service Applications when it appeared to ensure that I got a new app management database.
  2. Once the service application was deleted, I created a new App Management Service service application. I named it the same thing I had called it before (“Application Management Service”) and re-used the same database name I had been using (“SP2013_AppManagement”). I re-used the shared services application pool I had been using previously, too.

After completing these steps, I was able to successfully deploy my application to the development site collection through Visual Studio. I no longer saw the stored procedure access errors appearing in the ULS logs.

What Happened?

App Management Database Roles I don’t know what happened exactly, but what I observed seems to suggest that one of the patches I applied messed with the App Management service application database. Specifically, rights and permissions that one or more accounts possessed were somehow revoked by removing those accounts from the SPDataAccess role. Additional role and/or permission changes could have been made, as well – I just don’t know.

Once everything was running again, I went back into my SQL Server and had a look at the (new) SP2013_AppManagement database. Examining the role membership for SPDC\svcSpServices (which was one of the accounts that was blocked from accessing stored procedures earlier), I saw that the account had been put (back) into the SPDataAccess role. This seemed to confirm my observation that somehow things became “unwired” during the patching and/or configuration wizard run process.

 

References and Resources

  1. MSDN: Apps for SharePoint overview
  2. Company: Idera
  3. Microsoft: SharePoint App Marketplace
  4. MSDN: How to: Create a basic SharePoint-hosted app
  5. SharePoint 2013 Update: KB2737983
  6. SharePoint 2013 Update: KB2752001
  7. SharePoint 2013 Update: KB2752058
  8. SharePoint 2013 Update: KB2760355
  9. MSDN: ULSViewer

Workflow 1.0 Beta and SQL Server Aliases Do Not Play Nicely Together

My recent attempts to configure the Windows Azure Workflow service (Workflow 1.0 Beta) with a SQL Server alias didn’t go so well. If you’re playing with Workflow 1.0 Beta, stay away from aliases!

Bad behaviour I’ve been doing a bit of build-out with the new SharePoint 2013 Preview in anticipation of some development work, and I’ve documented a few snags that I’ve hit along the way. Although I ran into some additional problems with the SharePoint 2013 Preview yesterday, this post isn’t about SharePoint specifically; it’s about the Windows Azure Workflow service – also known (at this point in time) simply as Workflow 1.0 Beta.

A Bit of Background

If you’re brand-new to the SharePoint 2013 scene, you may not yet have heard: the future for workflow lies outside of SharePoint, not within it. The Windows Azure Workflow service (yes, it even has “Azure” in the name if you’re running it on-premise and not in the cloud) is industrial-strength stuff, and it promises all sorts of improvements over workflow as we know it (and use it) right now.

To take advantage of Windows Azure Workflow at this point in the SharePoint 2013 release cycle requires the installation of the Workflow 1.0 Beta. The installation is not a particularly complicated process, but that’s probably because I’ve been using a solid resource.

Note: the “solid resource” I’m referring to is CriticalPath Training’s VM setup guide. I’ve been using it as a reference as I’ve been doing my SharePoint 2013 build-outs; the guide itself is fantastic and comes with some supporting PowerShell scripts to help things along. The guide and scripts are freely available here – you just need to create an account on the CriticalPath Training site to download them. I recommend them if you’re just getting started with the SharePoint 2013 Preview.

So, what’s my beef with the Workflow 1.0 Beta? To summarize it in a few works: Workflow 1.0 Beta doesn’t seem to work with SQL Server aliases. I certainly tried, but in the end I was forced to abandon using an alias.

How I Initially Configured It

If you read my previous “An unexpected error has occurred” post, then you know that there are four different VMs I’m configuring for a SharePoint 2013 environment. Two of those VMs are of interest in the discussion about Workflow 1.0 Beta configuration:

  • SP2013-SQL. A SQL Server 2013 Enterprise VM
  • SP2013-APPS. A utility server for running Workflow 1.0 Beta and other “off-box” services

As a general rule of thumb, anytime I need to establish a SQL Server connection, I try to create a SQL Server alias to avoid tightly coupling my SQL Server consumers/clients directly to a SQL Server instance. This buys me some flexibility in the unfortunate event that a server dies, I need to relocate databases, etc.

SQL Server Alias ConfigurationI was planning to install the Workflow 1.0 Beta on my SP2013-APPS virtual machine, and I knew that Workflow 1.0 Beta would need to connect to my SP2013-SQL SQL Server. So, I created both a 32-bit alias and a 64-bit alias called SpSqlAlias for the default SQL Server instance residing on SP2013-SQL (which happened to be at IP address 172.16.0.2) as shown on left.

Trying to configure with a SQL aliasOnce the alias was created and all other prerequisites were addressed, I started the Workflow 1.0 Beta installation process. In the Workflow Configuration Wizard, I supplied my SQL Server alias in place of a server name, checked the connection, and was given a green check-mark. As the configuration process started, everything looked good. Even the Service Bus farm management and gateway databases were created without issue.

The problems started shortly thereafter, though, during the creation of a default container. Basically, I didn’t get any further. I literally stared at the screen on the right for a full ten (10) minutes without seeing any meaningful activity in the Details box. After 10 minutes had elapsed, the configuration process failed and I was treated to an exception message and stack trace. Omitting the inner exception detail, here’s what I was told:

System.Management.Automation.CmdletInvocationException: A network-related or instance-specific error occurred while establishing a connection to SQL Server. The server was not found or was not accessible. Verify that the instance name is correct and that SQL Server is configured to allow remote connections. (provider: Named Pipes Provider, error: 40 - Could not open a connection to SQL Server) ---> System.Data.SqlClient.SqlException: A network-related or instance-specific error occurred while establishing a connection to SQL Server. The server was not found or was not accessible. Verify that the instance name is correct and that SQL Server is configured to allow remote connections. (provider: Named Pipes Provider, error: 40 - Could not open a connection to SQL Server) ---> System.ComponentModel.Win32Exception: The system cannot find the file specified

Validating the Alias

Of course, the first thing I double-checked was the SQL Server to ensure that it was responding. It was. I even backed through the configuration wizard a couple of steps and verified (with the “Test Connection” button) that I could reach the SQL Server. No issues there: my SQL Server alias was valid as far as the configuration wizard was concerned.

Looking more closely at the exception message left me suspicious. This part in particular made me raise my eyebrow:

(provider: Named Pipes Provider, error: 40 – Could not open a connection to SQL Server)

Named Pipes Provider? I had specified a TCP/IP alias, not Named Pipes. Changing the permitted 32-bit and 64-bit client protocols (again, via the SQL Server Configuration Manager) to make sure that TCP/IP was enabled and Named Pipes was disabled …

Permitted Client Protocols

… made no difference, either – I’d still get an exception from the Named Pipes Provider. It looked as though one or more steps in the configuration process were “doing their own thing,” ignoring my alias and client protocols configuration, and (as a result) having trouble reaching the SQL Server.

Trying to Go with the Flow

Named Pipe AliasThe thought that entered my mind was, “Ok – don’t fight it if you don’t have to.” If the configuration wizard was going to fall back to using Named Pipes, then I’d go ahead and set up a Named Pipes alias. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but I’d rather have the SQL Server alias in-place than no alias at all.

So much for that thought.

I played with the actual Named Pipes alias format quite a bit, but in the end the result was always the same.

Trying to configure with SQL alias (named pipes) and failing

Attempts to use a TCP/IP alias always failed partway through configuration, and attempts to use a Named Pipes alias never even got started.

The Result

I gave it some more thought … and came up empty. So, I dumped any remaining aliases, ensured that all client protocols were back to their fully enabled state, and tried to do the configuration with just the SQL Server host name (to connect to the default instance).

The result?

 Successful completion of configuration

Using just the host name, I had no issues performing the configuration.

The Conclusion

If you are setting up Workflow 1.0 Beta, stay away from SQL Server aliases. As best as I can tell, they aren’t (yet) supported. I’m hopeful that this is just a beta bug or limitation.

On the other hand, if you think I’ve gone off the deep end and can find some way to get the Workflow 1.0 Beta configuration to run with SQL Server aliases, please let me know – I’d love to hear about it!

References and Resources

  1. Blog Post: "An unexpected error has occurred” after Installing SharePoint 2013
  2. Microsoft Download Center: Workflow 1.0 Beta
  3. TechNet: What’s new in workflow in SharePoint Server 2013
  4. CriticalPath Training: SharePoint Server 2013 Preview Virtual Machine Setup Guide
  5. MSDN: Create or Delete a Server Alias for Use by a Client (SQL Server Configuration Manager)

“An unexpected error has occurred” after Installing SharePoint 2013

After installing the current SharePoint 2013 preview build, I was greeted by “An unexpected error has occurred” message while trying to navigate to the Central Administration site. This post represents the steps I took to troubleshoot the problem and implement a least-privileges fix for it.

Smiley Pill - You May Need It You’ve undoubtedly heard the news: SharePoint 2013 is coming. The preview is available right now, and you can download it from TechNet if you want to join in the fun. Just make sure you can meet the hardware and environmental prerequisites. They’re somewhat brutal.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, I’ve been trying to get in on the SharePoint 2013 fun. There are a number of things I’m supposed to be working on for SharePoint 2013, so building out a SharePoint 2013 environment with the new preview build has been high on my list of things to do.

This post is about a very recent experience with a SharePoint 2013 installation and configuration … and yes, it’s one that had me looking long and hard for a happy pill.

As with many of my other blog posts, this post takes a winding, iterative approach towards analyzing problems and trying to find solutions. Please bear with me or jump to the “Implementing the Change” section near the end if you want to blindly apply a change (based on the blog post title) and hope for the best.

Hitting a Small Snag

An unexpected error has occurredThis blog post would be something of a disappointment if all it said was “… SharePoint 2013 installed without issue, and my environment lived happily ever after.”

No such luck; just look at the screenshot on the left. Sometimes I feel like I’m a magnet for “bad technology karma” despite my attempts to keep a clean slate in that area. Of course, SharePoint 2013 is only in the preview stages of release, so hiccups are bound to occur. I accept that. Like many of you, I went through it with SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2007, as well.

Strangely, though, I built-out a SharePoint 2013 environment with an earlier build (prior to the release of the current preview) some time ago. That’s why I was really surprised to see the message shown in the screenshot immediately upon completing a run of the SharePoint 2013 Products Configuration Wizard:

An unexpected error has occurred.

That’s it. No additional information, no qualification – just a technological “whoops” accompanied by the equivalent of a shoulder shrug from my VM environment.

The Setup

Let me take a step back to describe the environment I had put into place before trying to install and configure the SharePoint 2013 binaries.

One major difference between my latest SharePoint 2013 setup attempt and the previous (successful) attempt was the make-up of the server environment. After learning of some of the install restrictions that are specific to SharePoint 2013 (for example, Office Web Apps require their own server), I decided to build out the following virtual servers on my laptop and assemble them into a domain:

  • SP2013-DC: a Windows 2008 R2 Enterprise domain controller (for my virtual spdc.com domain)
  • SP2013-SQL: a Windows 2008 R2 Enterprise server running SQL Server 2012 Enterprise
  • SP2013-WFE: a Windows 2008 R2 Enterprise all-in-one SharePoint 2013 Server
  • SP2013-APPS: a Windows 2008 R2 Enterprise “extra” server for roles/components that couldn’t be installed alongside SharePoint

Overkill? Perhaps, but I wanted to get a feel for how the different components might interact in a “real” production environment.

I also opted for a least privileges install so that I could start to understand where some of the security boundaries had shifted versus SharePoint 2010. Since I planned to use the farm for my development efforts, I didn’t want to make the common developer mistake of shoehorning everything onto one server with unrestricted privileges. Such an approach dodges security-related issues during development, but it also tends to yield code that falls apart (or at least generates security concerns) upon first contact with a “real” SharePoint environment.

Failed Troubleshooting

As stated earlier, my setup problems started after I installed the SharePoint 2013 bits and ran the SharePoint 2013 Products Configuration Wizard. The browser window that popped-up following the configuration wizard’s run was trying to take me to the Farm Configuration wizard that lives inside the Central Administration site. Clearly I hadn’t gotten very far in configuring my environment.

I started looking in some of the usual locations for additional troubleshooting hints. Strangely, I couldn’t quickly find any:

  • The Central Administration site application pool looked okay and was spun-up
  • My Application and System event logs were pretty doggone clean – exceptionally few errors and warnings, and none that appeared relevant to current problem
  • I didn’t see anything in the Security log to suggest problems

I tried an IISRESET. I rebooted the VM. I checked my SQL alias to make sure nothing was messed-up there. I checked my farm service account permissions in SQL Server to ensure that the account had the dbcreator and securityadmin role assignments as well as rights to the associated databases. Heck, I even deprovisioned the server and re-ran the SharePoint 2013 Products Configuration Wizard twice – once with a complete wipe of the databases. Nothing I did seemed to make a difference. Time after time, I kept getting “An unexpected error has occurred.”

Some Insight

Maybe it was my go ‘rounds with previous SharePoint beta releases, or maybe it was a combination of Eric Harlan’s and Todd Klindt’s spirits reaching out to me (the point of commonality between Todd and Eric: the two of them are fond of saying “it’s always permissions”). Whatever the source, I decided to start playing around with some account rights. Since I was setting up a least-privileges environment, it made sense that rights and permissions (or some lack of them) could be a factor.

Application Pools The benefit of having gotten nearly nowhere on my farm configuration task was that there wasn’t much to really troubleshoot. Only a handful of application pools had been created (as shown on the right), and only one or two accounts were actually in-play. Since my Central Administration site was having trouble coming up, and knowing that the Central Administration site runs in the context of the farm service/timer service account, I focused my efforts there.

In my farm, I had assigned SPDC\svcSPFarm for use by the timer service. This account was a basic domain account at the start – nothing special, and no interesting rights to speak of. To see if I could make any progress on getting the Central Administration site to come up, I dropped the account into the Domain Admins group and tried to access the Central Administration site again.

I had no luck at first … but after an IISRESET and a re-launch of the site, Central Administration came up. I pulled the account out of the Domain Admins group and re-tried the site. It came up, but again – after an IISRESET, I was back to “An unexpected error has occurred.”

I repeated the process again, but the second time around I used the local (SP2013-WFE) Administrators group instead of the Domain Admins group. The results were the same: adding SPDC\svcSPFarm to the Administrators group allowed me to bring Central Administration up, and removing the account from the Admininstrators group brought things back down.

Hunch confirmed: it looked like I was dealing with some sort of rights or permissions issue.

Of course, knowing that there is a rights or permissions issue and knowing what the specific issue is are two very different things. The practical part of me screamed “just leave the account in the Administrators group and move on.”

Unfortunately, I don’t deal well with not knowing why something doesn’t work. It’s a personal hang-up that I have. So, I started with some low-impact/low-effort troubleshooting: I adjusted my VM’s Audit Policy settings (via the Local Security Policy MMC snap-in) to report on all failures that might pop-up.

Unfortunately, the only thing this change actually did for me was reveal that some sort of WinHttpAutoProxySvc service issue was popping-up when SPDC\svcSPFarm wasn’t an administrator. After a few minutes of researching the service, I decided that it probably wasn’t an immediate factor in the problem I was trying to troubleshoot.

So much for finding a quick answer.

Wading Into the Muck

I knew that I needed to dig deeper, and I knew where my troubleshooting was going to take me next. Honestly, I wasn’t too excited.

I dug into my SysInternals folder and dug out Process Monitor. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Process Monitor, I’ll sum it up this way: it’s the “nuclear option” when you need diagnostic information regarding what’s happening with the applications and services running on your system. Process Monitor collects file system activity, Registry reads/writes, network calls – pretty much everything that’s happening at a process level. It’s a phenomenal tool, but it generates a tremendous amount of information. And you need to wade through that information to find what you’re looking for.

I did an IISRESET, fired-up Process Monitor, and tried to bring up the Central Administration site once again. Since the SPDC\svcSPFarm account was no longer an administrator, I knew that the site would fail to come up. My hope was that Process Monitor would provide some insight into where things were getting stuck.

Over the course of the roughly 30 seconds it took the application pool to spin-up and then hand me a failure page, Process Monitor collected over 220,000 events.

Gulp.

I don’t know how you feel about it, but 220,000 events was downright intimidating to me. “Browsing” 220,000 events wasn’t going to be feasible. I’d worked with Process Monitor before, though, and I knew that the trick to making headway with the tool was in judicious use and application of its filtering capabilities.

Initially, I created filters to rule out a handful of processes that I knew wouldn’t be involved – things like Internet Explorer (iexplore.exe), Windows Explorer (Explorer.EXE), etc. Each filter that I added brought the number of events down, but I was still dealing with thousands upon thousands of events.

ProcMon FilterAfter a little thinking, I got a bit smarter with my filtering. First, I knew that I was dealing with an ASP.NET application pool; that was, after all, where Central Administration ran. That meant that the activity in which I was interested was probably taking place within an IIS worker process (w3wp.exe). I set a filter to show only those events that were tied to w3wp.exe activity.

Second, I knew that my farm service account (SPDC\svcSPFarm) was at the heart of my rights and permissions issue. So, I decided to filter out any activity that wasn’t tied to this account.

Applying those two filters got me down to roughly 50,000 events. Excluding SUCCESS results dropped me to 10,000 events. Some additional tinkering and exclusions brought the number down even lower. I was still wading through a large number of results, though, and I didn’t see anything that I could put my finger on.

Next, I decided to place SPDC\svcSPFarm back into the Administrators group and do another Process Monitor capture. As expected, I captured a few hundred thousand events. I went through the process of applying filters and whittling things down as I had done the first time. Then I spent a lot of time going back and forth between the successful and unsuccessful runs looking for differences that might explain what I was seeing.

Two Bit Comedy

After doing a number of comparisons, I began to focus on a series of entries that were tagged with a result message of BAD IMPERSONATION (as seen below). I was seeing 145 of these entries (out of 220,000+ events) when the Central Administration site was failing to come up. When SPDC\svcSPFarm was part of the local Administrators group, though, I wasn’t seeing any of the entries.

BAD IMPERSONATION entries in Process Monitor

My gut told me that these BAD IMPERSONATION entries were probably a factor in my situation, so I started looking at them a bit more closely.

System.ServiceModel.Web Event Many of the entries were seemingly non-specific attempts to access the Registry, but I did notice a handful of file and Registry accesses where an explicit impersonation attempt was being made with the current user’s account context. In the example on the right, for instance, an attempt was being made by the worker process to use my account context (SPDC\s0ladmin) for a CreateFile operation – and that attempt was failing.

This led to me formulate (what may seem like an obvious) hypothesis: seeing the BAD IMPERSONATION results, I suspected that the SPDC\svcSPFarm account was lacking something like the ability to replace a process-level token, log on interactively, or something like that. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to the specific boundaries and abilities associated with each rights assignment, but again – my gut was telling me that I should probably play around with some of the User Rights Assignments (via Local Security Policy) to see if I might get lucky.

A Fortunate Discovery

I popped open the Local Security Policy MMC snap-in on the SP2013-WFE VM once again, and I navigated down to User Rights Assignment node. At first glance, I feared that my gut feeling was off-the-mark. Looking through the rights assignments available, I saw that SPDC\svcSPFarm had already been granted the ability to Replace a process level token and Log on as a service – presumably by the SharePoint 2013 Products Configuration Wizard.

Impersonate a client after authentication I continued looking at the various rights assignments, though, and I discovered one that looked promising: Impersonate a client after authentication. SPDC\svcSPFarm hadn’t been granted that right in my environment, and it seemed to me that such a right might be handy in getting rid of the BAD IMPERSONATION results I was seeing with Process Monitor. I took a leap, granted SPDC\svcSPFarm the ability to Impersonate a client after authentication (as shown on the left), performed an IISRESET, and tried to reach the Central Administration site.

And I’ll be darned if it didn’t actually work.

I don’t normally get lucky like that, but hey – I wasn’t going to argue with it. I browsed around the Central Administration site for a bit to see if the site would remain responsive, and I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. I also performed an IISRESET and brought the Central Administration site back up with Process Monitor running just to double-check things. Sure enough, the BAD IMPERSONATION results were gone.

The Fix?

SharePoint 2013 Central Administration Site I honestly have no idea whether this problem was specific to my environment or something that might be occurring in other SharePoint 2013 preview environments. I also don’t know if my solution is the “appropriate” solution to resolve the issue. It works for now, but I still have a lot of configuration and actual development work left to do to validate what I’ve implemented.

Since I’m trying to maintain a least-privileges install, though, I’m willing to try this out for a while instead of falling back to placing my farm service account (SPDC\svcSPFarm) in the Administrators group. Placing the account in that group is a last resort for me.

In case you were wondering: I did perform some level of verification on this change. Since the account I was running as (SPDC\s0ladmin) was itself a member of Domain Admins, I created a standard domain user account (SPDC\joe.nobody – he’s always my go-to guy in these situations) and added it to the Farm Administrators group in Central Administration. I then did an IISRESET and opened a browser to the Central Administration site from the domain controller (SP2013-DC) to see if SPDC\joe.nobody could indeed access the site. No troubles. The fact that the SPDC\joe.nobody account wasn’t a member of either Domain Admins or the local Administrators group (on SP2013-WFE) did not block the account from reaching Central Administration. No “An unexpected error has occurred” reared its head.

Implementing the Change

If you are of a similar mindset to me (i.e., you don’t like to elevate privileges unnecessarily) and find yourself unable to reach Central Administration with the same symptoms I’ve described, here is the quick run-through on how to grant your farm/timer service account the Impersonate a client after authentication right as I did:

  1. On your SharePoint Server, go to Start > Administrative Tools > Local Security Policy to open the Local Security Policy MMC snap in.
  2. When the snap-in opens, navigate (in the left Tree view) to the Security Settings > Local Policies > User Rights Assignment node.
  3. Locate the Impersonate a client after authentication policy in the right-hand pane.
  4. Right-click the policy and select the Properties item that appears in the pop-up menu.
  5. A dialog box will appear. Click the Add User or Group … button on the dialog box.
  6. In the Select Users, Computers, Service Accounts, or Groups dialog box that appears, add your farm service/timer service account.
  7. Click the OK button on each of the two open dialog boxes to exit out of them.
  8. Close the Local Security Policy MMC snap-in.
  9. Perform an IISRESET and verify that the Central Administration site actually comes up instead of “An unexpected error has occurred”

Conclusion

If the change that I described in this post and implemented in my environment causes problems or requires further adjustment, I’ll update this post. My goal certainly isn’t to mislead – only to share and hopefully help those who may find themselves in the same situation as me.

If you’ve seen this problem in your SharePoint 2013 preview environment, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it, as well as how your worked through (or around) it!

UPDATE (9/4/2012)

I ran into the same issue with the account that was being used to serve up non-Central Admin site collections; i.e., the account that I was using as the identity for the application pools servicing the web applications I created. In my environment, this was SPDC\svcSpContentWebs as seen below (for the SharePoint – 80 application pool):

IIS Application Pools

Attempts to bring up a site collection without the Impersonate a client after authentication privilege being assigned to the SPDC\svcSpContentWebs account would usually yield nothing more than a blank screen. As with the farm service account, there was very little to troubleshoot until I went in with Process Monitor to look for a bunch of BAD IMPERSONATION results:

ProcMon for svcSpContentWebs

At this point, I’m willing to bet that any other accounts that are assigned as application pool identities will need to be granted the Impersonate a client after authentication privilege, as well.

In addition to the Impersonate a client after authentication privilege, I also ended up having to grant the SPDC\svcSpContentWebs account the Log on as a batch job privilege from within the Local Security Policy MMC snap-in. Without the privilege to Log on as a batch job, I was receiving an HTTP 503 error every time I tried to bring up a site collection. Troubleshooting this problem wasn’t as difficult, though; examining the System event log helped with the following description for the WAS (Windows Process Activation Service) warning on an Event 5021 that was appearing:

The identity of application pool SharePoint – 80 is invalid. The user name or password that is specified for the identity may be incorrect, or the user may not have batch logon rights. If the identity is not corrected, the application pool will be disabled when the application pool receives its first request.  If batch logon rights are causing the problem, the identity in the IIS configuration store must be changed after rights have been granted before Windows Process Activation Service (WAS) can retry the logon. If the identity remains invalid after the first request for the application pool is processed, the application pool will be disabled. The data field contains the error number.

In my case, my account credentials were correct, but for some reason the Log on as batch job right hadn’t been assigned to the SPDC\svcSpContentWebs account. Each time the application pool tried to spin up, it failed and was stopped; I’d then get two warnings from WAS (5021 and 5057) in my System event log, and that would be followed by a WAS 5059 error.

References and Resources

  1. TechNet: Download Microsoft SharePoint 2013 Preview
  2. TechNet: Plan Office Web Apps Server Preview
  3. Blog: Eric Harlan
  4. Blog: Todd Klindt
  5. TechNet: Windows Sysinternals Process Monitor

Is a Higher SharePoint Backup Thread Count Better?

Many administrators have noted that SharePoint 2010 allows them to tune the number of threads that can be used for farm backup and restore operations, but very few have played with the settings. In this post, I share some results I compiled while testing the settings in my own environments. I also share the PowerShell script I assembled for my testing so you can tune the backup and restore thread settings in your own SharePoint farm.

Balls of purple, orange and grey yarn or woolScalability in the hardware and software space is all about parallel computing nowadays. Consider our modern hardware: it used to be that all we really cared about was how fast our CPU could run (“how many GHz?”) Now, we care more about how many cores our CPU has, whether or not those cores support Hyper-threading, how many memory channels our CPU has available to it, etc. Scale-out beats scale-up.

The same is largely true in the software space. Most IT folks learned some time ago that “multithreading” and “higher performance” tended to go hand-in-hand or were at least associated in some way. Multiple threads of execution meant better scheduling of limited processor resources and fewer chances that one long-running operation would bottleneck an entire application.

Configuring SharePoint 2010 Farm Backup and Restore

When I first saw the following section in the “Configure Backup Settings” section of SharePoint 2010’s Central Administration site, it brought a big grin to my face:

Thread Configuration

In SharePoint 2007 and earlier, administrators had no real levers to pull to try and tune the performance of farm backup and restore operations. This obviously changed with SharePoint 2010. We were basically being handed a way to adjust those processes as we saw fit – for better or worse.

Strangely enough, though, I never really took the time to explore the impact of those settings in my SharePoint environments. I always left the number of assigned threads for backup and restore operations at three. I would have liked to mess around with the values, but something else was always more important in the grand scheme of things.

Why Now?

I’ve been working on a new “backup tips and tricks” whitepaper, and I found myself looking for backup and restore concerns within the SharePoint platform that I may not have given much attention to in the past. It didn’t take much wading through Central Administration before I once again found myself looking at thread counts for backup and restore operations.

Doing a little bit of Internet (background) research confirmed what I had suspected: no one else had really spent any time on the topic either. In fact, the only “fresh” and non-copyright-infringing material I found came from a Microsoft TechNet post titled Backup and recovery best practices (SharePoint Server 2010) … and to tell you the truth, the following paragraph from the section titled “Configure SharePoint settings for better backup or restore performance” really bugged me:

If you are using the Backup-SPFarm cmdlet, you can use the BackupThreads parameter to specify how many threads SharePoint Server 2010 will use during the backup process. The more threads you specify, the more resources that backup operation will take, but the faster that it will finish, if sufficient resources are available. However, each thread is reported individually in the log files, so using fewer threads makes interpreting the log files easier. By default, three threads are used. The maximum number of threads available is 10.

Without an understanding of how multithreading (in general) and SharePoint backup (specifically) work, this could easily be interpreted as follows:

The greater the number of threads you assign, the faster your backups will complete.

I realize that my summary is an oversimplification, but I believe that many administrators see the TechNet paragraph as I summarized it. And that concerns me.

I’ve always told people that increasing the backup thread count could yield better performance, but any adjustments would need to be tested in the target farm where they are to be implemented. Realistically speaking, there are several participants and a lot of moving parts in any SharePoint farm backup. Besides the SharePoint server where the backup operation is being coordinated, there is the performance of one or more SQL Servers to consider. The capabilities and restrictions of the backup destination location (typically a UNC file share) also need to be factored-in since that destination is being written to by both the SharePoint Server and one or more SQL Servers.

Setting the number of backup threads to 10 on a SharePoint Server of infinite capability and resources doesn’t guarantee a fast backup, because the farm might have a slow SQL Server, a less-capable backup destination location, a slow or congested network, or a host of other complicating factors.

Oh Yeah? Prove It.

Of course, all of this is just a bunch of hand-waving without proof. So, the scientist in me (yeah, I actually used to be a chemist) decided to take over and devise a series of simple tests to see if there is any real weight to the arguments I’ve been making.

I began with the hypothesis that the easiest and most visible way to gauge the performance of a farm backup operation is to measure how long a backup takes to run; e.g., a farm backup that takes 10 minutes to run is faster than a backup that takes 20 minutes to run if farm content, hardware, configuration, and other factors remain constant. Since SharePoint 2010 provides the ability to specify anywhere from one to 10 backup threads, running a series of backups where the only variable is backup thread count should determine if greater or fewer backup threads yield better performance.

You might recall that I also mentioned that farm topology is a factor in the overall backup equation. As part of my experiment, I decided to run the tests on two different farms I have available to me. General descriptions for each farm:

  • Single-Server Farm: my single server farm environment is a VM running on my laptop. The VM houses SharePoint, SQL Server, and the backup location being targeted. The laptop hardware is a Core-i7 quad-core processor, and the underlying storage for the VM is a solid-state drive (SSD). Hardware bottlenecks should be minimized, and network latency isn’t a factor since backup operations are conducted against a local drive within the VM.
  • Multi-Server Farm: my multi-server environment is the “production” environment on my home network. It consists of a SharePoint Server VM running on a Hyper-V host that also hosts other VMs. The SQL Server instance backing the farm is a non-virtualized SQL Server housing all of the SharePoint databases as well as a few databases for other applications. The backup destination location is a virtualized file server with a pass-through drive array (eSATA with RAID-5). Overall hardware, in this case, is “okay” but obviously not dedicated purely to SharePoint. In addition, network latency and bandwidth (GbE) are also in-play as potential sources of impact.

These two environments have pretty different overall topologies, and it was my hope that I’d see some effect on the performance numbers as a result.

The Script

To run the tests reproducibly, I needed a PowerShell script. So, I put the following script together while I had a bit of free time one night. Feel free to pluck this out to use for testing in your SharePoint environment, as well.

<#
.SYNOPSIS
   TestBackupThreads.ps1
.DESCRIPTION
   This script is used to conduct and time a series of backups using different thread counts.
   The output can then be used to make an educated decision on the number of backup threads to
   assign for use in farm-level backups.
.NOTES
   Author: Sean McDonough
   Last Revision: 25-July-2012
.PARAMETER TestLocation
   A UNC path to a location that can be used to create test backup sets
.EXAMPLE
   TestBackupThreads \\FileShare\TestLocation
#>
param 
(
	[string]$TestLocation = "$(Read-Host 'UNC path to test backup location [e.g. \\FileShare\TestLocation]')"
)

function TestThreads($backupLocation)
{
	# Ensure that the SharePoint cmdlets are loaded before continuing
	$spCmdlets = Get-PSSnapin Microsoft.SharePoint.PowerShell -ErrorAction silentlycontinue
	if ($spCmdlets -eq $Null)
	{ Add-PSSnapin Microsoft.SharePoint.PowerShell }
	
	# Setup some variables we'll need for execution.
	$threadTimes = @{}									# Hash table to hold timing results
	$backupItems = Join-Path $backupLocation "spbr*"	# Used to delete temp backup files
	
	# We need to execute a full farm backup for each thread count 1 through 10
	Clear-Host
	Write-Host "`nBackup thread count testing process beginning."
	for ($threads = 1; $threads -lt 11; $threads++)
	{
		# Clean out any backup contents from the test location
		Remove-Item $backupItems -recurse

		# Grab the starting date/time (for later comparison), kick-off a farm backup, and then
		# grab the stop date/time.
		Write-Host "`nInitiating a backup with $threads thread(s) ..."
		$startPoint = Get-Date
		Backup-SPFarm -BackupMethod Full -Directory $backupLocation -BackupThreads $threads
		$stopPoint = Get-Date

		# Store and report results
		$keyName = "Backup with {0} thread(s)" -f $threads
		$elapsedSeconds = "{0:N0}" -f ($stopPoint - $startPoint).TotalSeconds
		$threadTimes[$keyName] = $elapsedSeconds
		Write-Host "Backup with $threads thread(s) complete"
		Write-Host ("- time to complete (in seconds): {0}" -f $elapsedSeconds)
	}
	
	# Do a final sweep of the test backup location to clean out backup items
	Remove-Item $backupItems -recurse

	# Dump the results sorted in order of quickest to longest
	Write-Host "`nBackup thread count testing process complete."
	$threadTimes.GetEnumerator() | Sort-Object Value

	# Abort script processing in the event an exception occurs.
	trap
	{
		Write-Warning "`n*** Script execution aborting. See below for problem encountered during execution. ***"
		$_.Message
		break
	}
}

# Launch script
TestThreads $TestLocation

The script is fairly straightforward in what it does. You supply a TestLocation parameter to specify where farm backup test data should be written to, and the script will run a series of full farm backups using the supplied location as the backup destination. The script starts with a full backup using one backup thread; at the end of each full farm backup, the script notes how long the backup took (in seconds) and cleans-up the contents of the TestLocation folder. The number of backup threads is then incremented, and the next test is run. When the script has completed running all backup tests, it sorts the results from “quickest backup” (i.e., the backup thread count requiring the least amount of time) to the slowest backup.

Test Results

I ran a series of three tests for each of the aforementioned environments for a total of six total test runs. Although there’s still quite a bit of variability between individual results within a backup thread series, some trends did appear to emerge.

Single-Server Farm

Backup Times for the Single-Server Environment

With the single-server environment, increasing the number of backup threads did appear to have a directional impact on performance. A single backup thread proved to be the slowest option for the farm backup, and “greater than one” thread resulted in better performance.

If you look at the average values, though, there wasn’t a tremendous difference between the slowest thread count (410 seconds for one thread) and the fastest (388 seconds for 10 threads). We’re only talking about a 5% to 6% difference overall. To truly find the optimum number of backup threads in an environment like this would require more than three test runs to account for standard deviation and establish significance.

Oh, and for those that might be wondering: I’m sure I introduced some of my own variability into the results. Although I didn’t do anything processor or disk intensive during the test runs, I didn’t go out of my way to minimize the impact of services, background operations, etc. To repeat: more testing (with better controls) would be needed for truly conclusive results. The only thing I started to show with this particular set of tests is that multithreading seemed to improve backup performance.

Multi-Server Farm

Things got quite a bit more interesting (to me) when I switched over to multi-server farm testing.

Backup Times for the Multi-Server Environment

In the multi-server environment, the average for using just one backup thread (1413 seconds) appeared to be significantly faster than the next best option (1747 seconds for seven backup threads) – in the neighborhood of 20% or so faster. Just like the single-server results, additional trials would be needed to completely validate the observations, but the results are less ambiguous (given the relatively greater precision of the samples) than with the single-server runs.

Do you find this surprising? Given my multi-server environment and what I know about it, I can’t really say that I was caught flat-footed by the results. Going into the tests, my hypothesis was that my backup destination location would likely be the “weak link” in my overall farm and backup topology. The SharePoint Server was doing well, the SQL Server was relatively robust … but all of that backup activity was hard on my (virtualized) file server. Multiple servers trying to write to the backup location were swamping it and the network, and adding additional backup threads to the mix didn’t end up helping or improving the overall backup process.

The Take-Away

At the end of the day, I recognize that these tests of mine didn’t prove anything conclusively. Frankly, conclusive proof wasn’t my goal. The intent of these experiments wasn’t to say “more threads are better” or “more threads are worse.”

The only point I’m making (I hope) by sharing these results is this: until you run some real tests of your own in your SharePoint environment, you really don’t know where your backup thread sweet spot is. You can try to guess it, but it’s just a guess. And guessing is really no better than simply leaving the backup thread count set to its default value of three.

References and Resources

  1. Wikipedia: Parallel Computing
  2. Wikipedia: Hyper-threading
  3. Wikipedia: Thread (computing) and Multithreading
  4. TechNet: Backup and recovery best practices (SharePoint Server 2010)