The Day Outlook Became My Secretary

In this post, I share a brief bit of magic that Outlook exhibited for me recently. I don’t know where it came from or if it is even is an indication of things to come … but I liked what I saw!

typewriterI feel that I’ve been tricked. Okay, maybe “tricked” is a harsh word, but let’s put it this way: I’ve seen a bit of the future, I like it, and I’m not sure if and when it’s coming back.

I recently returned from SPTechCon. While I was in San Francisco, I delivered a few sessions (including a new advanced PowerShell session) and managed to make it to Muir Woods to visit the Redwoods once again. The entire time I was in San Francisco, I was riding around in a rental car from Enterprise. I usually get my rental cars from Enterprise, but something weird happened when I was getting this rental car.

Outlook did me a favor.

When I booked the rental car with Enterprise, I received the following email:

Enterprise Pickup

Do you see the part stating “This event was automatically added to your calendar from email by Outlook?” That caught my attention. Outlook had never taken any action on my behalf prior to this trip, and I can’t say that I’ve seen it do anything since. But for some strange reason, this one car reservation got Outlook to do something new and cool.

I checked my calendar, and sure enough, there were events for both pickup and drop off.

Calendar View

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how these events got onto my calendar, and I don’t even know who wrote the code to make the magic happen. But in this one single instance, I feel like I’ve had a taste of what’s to come … and I really like it.

I did a little digging as I was writing this post to see if I could figure out where Outlook got its smarts from. I didn’t find a whole lot, but I did find this one post on Microsoft’s acquisition of Genee to accelerate intelligent experiences in Office 365. Maybe that had something to do with what I was seeing?

I like the idea of Outlook getting some intelligence and being able to look at my email to ascertain when things will happen. Maybe Delta will send me a trip confirmation and my flight times will end up on my calendar. Or maybe Mark will send me an email about a great Baconfest that’s happening in Harrison, Arkansas, and that event will get parsed and entered into my records so that I’ll know when I need to leave my house to make it there on-time.

I see a lot of potential for this sort of processing and assistance, but I think I’d like to understand it all a bit better before things move on. Heck, right now I’m not even sure if what happened to me is something that’s going to roll out more broadly … or if it was just a blip/test. As I indicated, I haven’t seen anything appear on my calendar since the car reservation, so I’m not even sure that it’s something that “someone” is rolling out.

But I like this. If it’s done right, it has the potential to simplify a lot of things we manually push ourselves to do today.

I’m okay with Outlook becoming my secretary. How about you?

ADDENDUM: 12/12/2016

My friend Tom Resing reached out via Facebook after I shared this blog post, and he opened the door to a world of settings I was simply unaware of. He pointed me to a link titled Automatically add travel and package delivery events to your calendar. It discusses how to control the behavior with Outlook online, and it’s definitely worth checking out. I’m always happy to discover new knobs and levers!

References and Resources

  1. Event: SPTechCon San Francisco
  2. Resources: Tapping the Power in PowerShell (slides)
  3. Resources: Tapping the Power in PowerShell (scripts)
  4. Location: Muir Woods
  5. Microsoft Blog: Microsoft acquisition of Genee to accelerate intelligent experiences in Office 365
  6. Blog: Mark Rackley
  7. Blog: Tom Resing
  8. Office Support: Automatically add travel and package delivery events to your calendar

Quick Tips for Managing the SharePoint 2010 Office Web Applications Cache

I presented remotely to the Boston Area SharePoint User Group (BASPUG) tonight (7/13/2016), and I referenced an article that I had written that is no longer available online. This post originally appeared as a “SharePoint Smarts” article from Idera. Idera is out of the SharePoint business nowadays, but the information I shared in that article is still relevant to those who use SharePoint 2010. So if you have a SharePoint 2010 environment and use the Office Web Apps, this post (and more specifically, the scripts contained within) is for you.

One of the hotly anticipated items in SharePoint 2010’s feature set is the introduction of the Microsoft Office Web Applications, or “Office Web Apps” for short. The release of the Office Web Apps opens up new possibilities for those who work with documents and files that are tied to Microsoft Word and other applications in the Microsoft Office Family.

What Are the Office Web Apps?

In prior versions of SharePoint, viewing and editing Office documents that existed in SharePoint document libraries normally required a client computer possessing the Microsoft Office suite of applications. If you wanted to view or edit a Word document that existed in SharePoint, for example, you needed Microsoft Word (or an equivalent application) installed on your computer.

That situation changes with the arrival of the Office Web Apps. When a SharePoint 2010 farm is properly set up and configured with the Office Web Apps, it becomes possible to view and edit several different Office document types directly from within a browser as shown in Figure 1 below.

Open Document

Figure 1: Browser-based editing of a Microsoft Word document

The Office Web Apps provide browser-based viewing and editing support for Microsoft Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word document types, and this support extends to more than just Internet Explorer. Firefox 3.x, Safari 4.x, and Google Chrome browser types are also supported for viewing and editing – making the Office Web Apps an enabler of cross-platform collaboration that centers on Office documents.

A Word about the Plumbing

As you might imagine, browser-based rendering and editing of Office documents involves a number of complex processes that engage a variety of front-end, middle-tier, and back-end components. The front-end and middle-tier tasks that are tied to document viewing and editing are handled primarily by a new set of service applications that appear when the Office Web Apps are installed. These service applications (and their associated pages, handlers, and worker processes) take care of the business of document conversion, load-balancing, and rendering for browser consumption.

Document conversion and rendering typically generate a combination of images, HTML, JavaScript, and XAML (or eXtensible Application Markup Language) that are sent to consuming browsers. The creation of these document resources is an expensive process, both in terms of CPU cycles and storage. To improve performance levels, it makes sense to generate these document resources only as needed and reuse them whenever possible. That’s where the Office Web Apps cache comes in.

The Office Web Apps cache is the back-end store that is responsible for housing images, HTML, JavaScript, and XAML resources once they have been created for a document. Each time a document is converted into a set of these resources, the resources are stored in the Office Web Apps cache. When a request for a document comes into SharePoint, the cache is checked to see if the document had been previously requested and rendered. If it had, and the cached document resources are up-to-date for the document, then the document request is served from the cache instead of engaging the Office Web Apps to convert and re-render it. Serving document resources from the Office Web Apps cache can yield significant performance improvements over scenarios where no cache is employed.

Quick side note before going too far: the Office Web Apps cache is only employed for Word and PowerPoint document types. It is not used for OneNote or Excel documents.

Inside the Office Web Apps Cache

The Office Web Apps cache takes the form of a single site collection for each Web application within a SharePoint farm. When the Office Web Apps are installed and configured in a SharePoint environment, a couple of new timer jobs are installed and run regularly within the farm. One of those timer jobs, the Office Web Apps Cache Creation timer job, ensures that each Web application where the Office Web Apps are running has a site collection like the one shown below in Figure 2.

Site Collection

Figure 2: The Office_Viewing_Service_Cache site collection

The Office_Viewing_Service_Cache site collection is a standard Team Site, and it is the location where resources are stored following the conversion and rendering of either a Word or PowerPoint document by the Office Web Apps.

The Team Site can be accessed just like any other SharePoint Team Site, and a glimpse inside the All Documents library (showing a number of document resources) appears below in Figure 3.

Cache Library

Figure 3: All Documents library in an Office Web Apps cache site collection

Managing the Cache

For such a complex system, the Office Web Apps components do a pretty good job of maintaining themselves without external intervention. This extends to the site collections that are used by Office Web Apps for caching purposes, as well. For example, the Office Web Apps Expiration timer job that is installed with the Office Web Apps removes old document resources from cache site collections once they’ve hit a certain age. The timer job also ensures that each of the site collections responsible for caching has adequate space to serve its purpose.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities for tuning and maintenance, though. In fact, there are a couple of things that every administrator should do and review when it comes to the Office Web Apps cache.

Tip #1: Relocate the Cache to a New Database

By default, the Office Web Apps Cache Creation timer job creates an Office_Viewing_Service_Cache site collection in a content database that is collocated with one or more of the “real” site collections within each of your content Web applications. Since the cache site collection is allowed to grow to a beefy 100GB by default, it makes sense to relocate the cache site collection to its own (new) content database. By relocating the cache site collection to its own content database, it becomes easy to exclude it from other maintenance such as backups.

Relocating the cache site collection is pretty straightforward, and it can be accomplished pretty easily with following RelocateOwaCache.ps1 PowerShell script. Simply save the script, execute it, and supply the URL of a Web application within your farm where the Office Web Apps are running. The script will take care of creating a new content database within the Web application, and it will then move the Web application’s Office Web Apps cache site collection to the newly created content database.

[code language=”powershell”]
<#
.SYNOPSIS
RelocateOwaCache.ps1
.DESCRIPTION
Relocates the Office Web Apps cache for a specified Web application to a new content database that is created by the script
.NOTES
Author: Sean McDonough
Last Revision: 07-June-2011
.PARAMETER targetUrl
A Web application where Office Web Apps are in use
.EXAMPLE
RelocateOwaCache.ps1 http://www.TargetWebApplication.com
#>
param
(
[string]$targetUrl = "$(Read-Host ‘Target Web application URL [e.g. http://hostname]&#8217;)"
)

function RelocateCache($targetUrl)
{
# 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 }

# Get the name of the current database where the cache is located; it
# will serve as the basis for a new content database name.
$cacheSite = Get-SPOfficeWebAppsCache -WebApplication $targetUrl -ErrorAction stop
$newDbName = $cacheSite.ContentDatabase.Name + "_OWACache"

# Create a new content database and relocate the cache to it. Make sure the
# user knows what’s happening each step of the way.
Write-Host "- creating a new content database …"
$cacheDb = New-SPContentDatabase -Name $newDbName -WebApplication $targetUrl -ErrorAction stop
Write-Host "- moving the Office Web Apps cache …"
Move-SPSite $cacheSite -DestinationDatabase $cacheDb -Confirm:$false -ErrorAction stop
Write-Host "- performing required IISRESET …"
iisreset | Out-Null

# Let the user know where the cache is now located
Write-Host "Cache successfully relocated to the ‘$newDbName’ database."

# 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
RelocateCache $targetUrl
[/code]

Tip #2: Review Size and Expiration Settings

When an Office_Viewing_Service_Cache site collection is provisioned within a Web application by the Office Web Apps Cache Creation timer job, it is initially configured to hold cached document resources for 30 days. As mentioned in Tip #1, a cache site collection can also grow to a maximum of 100GB by default.

Whether or not these default settings are appropriate for a Web application depends primarily upon the nature of the site collections housed within the Web application. When site collections contain primarily static documents or content that changes infrequently, it makes sense to allow the cache to grow larger and expire content less often than normal. This maximizes the benefit obtained from caching since document content turns over less frequently.

On the other hand, site collections that experience frequent document turnover and heavy collaboration traffic tend to benefit very little from large cache sizes and long expiration periods. In site collections of this nature, cached content tends to become stale quickly. Little benefit is derived from holding onto document resources that may only be good for days or even hours, so maximum cache size is reduced and expiration periods are shortened.

Tip #3: Give Yourself Some Warning

Since each Office Web App cache is a Team Site and like any other site collection, you can leverage standard SharePoint site collection features and capabilities to help you out. One such mechanism that can be of assistance is the ability to have an e-mail warning sent to site collection owners once a site collection’s size hits a predefined threshold. In the case of the Office Web Apps cache, such a warning could be a cue to increase the maximum size of the cache site collection or perhaps lower the expiration period for document resources housed within the site collection.

Like the maximum cache size setting described in Tip #2, the ability to send e-mail warnings once the cache reaches a threshold is actually tied to SharePoint’s site collection quota capabilities. The maximum size of the cache site collection is handled as a storage quota, and the warning threshold maps directly to the quota’s warning threshold as shown below in Figure 4. In the case of Figure 4, a maximum cache size of 50GB is in effect for the cache site collection, and the e-mail warning threshold is set for 25GB.

Quota

Figure 4: Quota settings for an Office Web Apps cache site collection

Knobs and Dials

Tips #2 and #3 discussed some of the more straightforward Office Web Apps cache settings that are available to you, but you might be wondering how you actually go about changing them.

The AdjustOwaCache.ps1 PowerShell script that appears below provides you with an easy way to review and change the settings discussed. Simply save the script, execute it, and supply the URL of the Web application containing the Office Web Apps cache you’d like to adjust. The script will show you the cache’s current settings and give you the opportunity to modify them.

[code language=”powershell”]
<#
.SYNOPSIS
AdjustOwaCache.ps1
.DESCRIPTION
Dumps several common OWA cache settings to the console for a selected Web application and provides a mechanism for altering the those values
.NOTES
Author: Sean McDonough
Last Revision: 08-June-2011
.PARAMETER targetUrl
A Web application where Office Web Apps are in use
.EXAMPLE
AdjustOwaCache.ps1 http://www.TargetWebApplication.com
#>
param
(
[string]$targetUrl = "$(Read-Host ‘Target Web application URL [e.g. http://hostname]&#8217;)"
)

function AdjustCache($targetUrl)
{
# 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 }

# Create an easy converter for GB to bytes
$GBtoBytes = 1024 * 1024 * 1024

# Get a reference to the cache site collection and extract the values we’ll be
# working with and (potentially) altering.
$cacheSite = Get-SPOfficeWebAppsCache -WebApplication $targetUrl -ErrorAction stop
$wacSize = $cacheSite.Quota.StorageMaximumLevel / $GBtoBytes
$wacWarn = $cacheSite.Quota.StorageWarningLevel / $GBtoBytes
$wacExpire = 30
if ($cacheSite.RootWeb.Properties.ContainsKey("waccacheexpirationperiod"))
{ $wacExpire = $cacheSite.RootWeb.Properties["waccacheexpirationperiod"] }
Write-Host "Current OWA cache values for ‘$targetUrl’"
Write-Host "- Maximum Cache Size (GB): $wacSize"
Write-Host "- Warning Threshold (GB): $wacWarn"
Write-Host "- Expiration Period (Days): $wacExpire"

# Give the user the option to make changes.
$yesOrNo = Read-Host "Would you like to change one or more values? [y/n]"
if ($yesOrNo -eq "y")
{
[Int64]$newWacSize = Read-Host "- Maximum Cache Size (GB)"
Write-Host "- Warning Threshold (GB)"
[Int64]$newWacWarn = Read-Host " (supply 0 for no warning)"
[int]$newWacExpire = Read-Host "- Expiration Period (Days)"

# Convert GB values to bytes and set the cache
$newWacSize = ($newWacSize * $GBtoBytes)
$newWacWarn = ($newWacWarn * $GBtoBytes)
Set-SPOfficeWebAppsCache -WebApplication $targetUrl -ExpirationPeriodInDays $newWacExpire -MaxSizeInBytes $newWacSize -WarningSizeInBytes $newWacWarn -ErrorAction stop
}

# 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
AdjustCache $targetUrl
[/code]

Conclusion

The Office Web Apps are a powerful addition to SharePoint 2010 and pave the way for greater collaboration on Office documents without the need for the Microsoft Office suite of client applications. The Office Web Apps cache is an important part of the larger Office Web Apps equation, and the cache is generally pretty good about taking care of itself. As shown in this article, though, it is still a good idea to relocate the cache from its default location. At the same time, a little bit of tuning and e-mail alerting can go a long way towards ensuring that the cache operates optimally for you in your environment.

Help, We Are Stranded on SOPSI (SharePoint Online Public Site) Island

In March of 2015, the Doomsday Clock started ticking for SharePoint Online Public Sites. Some have transitioned off of the service, but many of those least able to make the move (non-profits, user groups, small businesses) are stranded and concerned. In this post, I discuss the issue and my conversation with Jeff Teper about it. I also ask Microsoft to provide us with more help and assistance for transitioning away from SharePoint Online Public Sites.

SOPSI IslandA couple of weeks ago, I was down in Nashville, Tennessee speaking at SharePoint Saturday Nashville. The event was a huge success and a lot of fun to boot. Those two qualities tend to go hand-in-hand with SharePoint Saturday events, but the event in Nashville was different for one very important reason: it had a “distinguished guest.”

And Who To My Wondering Eyes Should Appear?

Who was the “distinguished guest” to whom I’m referring? Well, it was none other that Jeff Teper himself. Some of you may know the name and perhaps the man, but for those who don’t: Jeff is Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for OneDrive and SharePoint. In essence, he’s the guy who’s primarily responsible for the vision and delivery of SharePoint both now and in the future. The Big Kahuna. Top of the Totem Pole. The Man in Command.

Jeff Teper and Sean McDonough

Jeff wasn’t in Nashville specifically for the event, but he took time out of his personal schedule to do an open Q&A session at the end of the SPS event. This was a *HUGE* deal, and it offered us (the speakers, organizers, and attendees) a rare chance to ask questions we’d always wanted to ask directly of the guy at the top.

Some of the questions were softballs, but several weren’t. A few of us(Mark Rackley, Seb Matthews, myself …) took the opportunity to ask questions that we anticipated might be uncomfortable but were nonetheless important to ask. To Jeff’s credit, he did a fantastic job of listening and responding to each question he received.

So, About These SharePoint Public Sites In Office 365 …

I asked Jeff several questions, but only one of them dealt with a topic that had started becoming a true area of concern for me: SharePoint Online Public Websites.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wait – what are you talking about?” If you came to SharePoint Online after March of 2015, then you might not even be aware that most Office 365 plans prior to that point came with a public-facing website that companies and organizations could use for a variety of purposes: public presence, blogging, e-commerce, and more. It was an extremely easy way for small-to-mid-size organizations to hang their shingle on the web for very little money and with little technical know-how.

Unfortunately, Microsoft announced in January of 2015 that it was deprecating SharePoint Online public sites. Beginning on March 9th of 2015, new customers did not receive a public site with their tenant. Those who already had the public sites, though, were allowed to keep them for a minimum of two years. In that two year period, the organizations with the public sites needed to “move on” and find an alternate hosting option. Microsoft eventually offered up a few options for public site owners, but they didn’t go very far.

Before I continue there, though, let me rewind for some additional context.

Public Sites: The Early Days

The Schizophrenia Oral History Project OnlineLike many smaller businesses, non-profits, user groups, and other non-enterprise customers, I bought into the SharePoint Online Public Website vision in a BIG way when it was laid out at the Microsoft’s SharePoint Conference in 2012. I remember thinking, “this is going to simplify the web presence problem for so many folks who are ill-equipped to deal with the burden of a ‘big site’ and web content management platform.”

Shortly after they became available to me, I set up several of the public sites for my own use. I also put my wife’s non-profit organization on one. As of right now (May 27, 2016), these sites are still alive-and-well in SharePoint Online:

I recommended SharePoint Online public sites to everyone who needed “an Internet presence that was both cheap and easy.” That said, it’s probably easy to understand that the bulk of the public site adoptees (that I saw) were organizations who either lacked money, formal IT capabilities, or a combination of the two.

Back To Now: Why Am I Losing Sleep?

The Clock Is TickingIt’s currently late in May of 2016. The plug could get pulled on SharePoint Online public sites as soon as March 2017. The clock is ticking, time is running out, and I don’t yet have a plan for transitioning to something else for the sites I cited above.

I’m not alone. It seems I’m getting into more and more conversations with other Office 365 customers about the topic, and they don’t know what to do either. It’s not that they want to wait until the last minute to make the move; they simply don’t know how to get off the SOPSI Island.

In my estimation, the organizations that have money and IT capabilities have either transitioned to another platform or are in the process of building a viable plan. As I wrote earlier, though, I think the greatest adoption of these public sites was among those who are traditionally the least capable and underfunded: small-to-mid-size companies, non-profits, user groups, and the like.

When I speak with customers in those segments, their concerns echo my own. They’re still on Office 365 Public Sites and haven’t gone to something else because they lack the money and capability to do so. And they’re growing increasingly worried.

Those Are The Alternatives?

Here’s another problem with this situation: the other hosting platforms and options that Microsoft has tossed our way don’t actually provide any sort of bridge or migration option between SharePoint Online public sites and their platforms.

The reality in all of this is that we won’t be migrating: we’ll be rebuilding. We’re going to need to find some way to drag our content out of the pages we’ve created, and then we need to go somewhere else and rebuild from the ground-up.

GrumpySure, Microsoft has provided us with a “migration support” resource, but as I size it up, the “guidance” it provides is more abstract hand-waiving than usable, actionable content. Go read it. Would you feel confident migrating to one of the third party providers mentioned with the instructions as they’re laid-out? I know I wouldn’t – and I work in IT for a living.

And, of course, any time that was spent customizing a SharePoint Online public site is going to go out the window. That tends to happen in migrations (disclosure: I’ve been doing SharePoint migrations in some form for the better part of a decade), and that’s probably acceptable in the grand scheme of things … but the users who truly need help need something more than the guidance provided in the online resource.

Back To My Conversation With Jeff Teper

Fast-forward back to Nashville a couple of weeks ago.

Although I asked Jeff “Hey, what happened with the SPO public sites?,” the question that I really wanted to get an answer to was this: “Why are our options for exiting the SharePoint Online public site platform so … lousy?”

Jeff took the time to respond to the various pieces of my question, but when we got to talking about migration options and the people who were currently “stuck,” the response was something to the effect of this: he thought that most folks had already migrated or were in the process of doing so.

At that point, various other folks in the audience (representing user groups, non-profits, etc.) started sounding-off and explaining that they were stuck, too. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with sites hanging out on SOPSI Island.

Jeff indicated he’d take our input and concerns back to Microsoft, and I believe that he will. But just to put the request in writing …

My Request To The Microsoft SharePoint Online Team

HopefulOn behalf of all of the non-profits, small-to-mid-sized companies, user groups, and others stranded on SOPSI Island: please build us a reasonable bridge or provide us with some additional hand-holding (or services) to help us safely leave the island.

At a minimum, we need better and more practical, prescriptive guidance. For some, a tool might help – perhaps something to package up assets to take them somewhere else. If I’m allowed to dream, a tool that might actually carry out some form of migration would probably be appreciated tremendously by the smaller, less-capable customers. Regardless of the specific form(s), we need more help and probably more time to make the move.

When SOPSI Island is (likely) wiped-out in 2017, we don’t want to still be stuck on it – watching our sites disappear forever.

References and Resources

  1. Event: SharePoint Saturday Nashville 2016
  2. Events: SPSEvents.org
  3. LinkedIn: Jeff Teper
  4. Twitter: Mark Rackley
  5. Twitter: Seb Matthews
  6. Microsoft Support: Information about changes to the SharePoint Online Public Website feature in Office 365
  7. Channel 9: Deep Dive on the Capabilities of SharePoint Online’s New Public Website
  8. Office Support: Migrate you SharePoint Online Public Website to a partner website

A Heartfelt Thank You

On April 1st, Microsoft presented me with an MVP (most valuable professional) award in the Office Development and the Office Server and Services categories. This post is a thank you to all of you who helped make the last seven years of community engagement such a fantastic and rewarding experience for me.

A heartfelt thank you!Historically speaking, April 1st has always been “April Fools Day” in my house. My children, Brendan and Sabrina, are nine years’ old right now (yes, they’re twins). To a couple of nine year olds, April 1st is the perfect opportunity to play jokes on someone. That “someone,” in the overwhelming majority of cases, is me. This year, I was hit a total of six times before I ever left the house to head into the office. Six. That’s a new record … and unfortunately for me, I doubt it’ll be limited to just six next year …

So, my day started with a wary mindset – fearful of what may lay around the next corner. When this arrived in my inbox, that all changed.

Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Email

I’d been nominated for the Microsoft MVP (most valuable professional) award a handful of times over the years, and I had been nominated again as recently as a couple of months back … but the earlier nominations hadn’t actually turned into an award.

I had to actually read the first paragraph of the email I’d received a few times before it truly registered that yes, I was being presented with an MVP award.

As a rule of thumb, I’m not an overly emotional guy. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that over the course of the day, I went through a wide range of emotions. Disbelief. Joy. Numbness (okay, that’s not an emotion – but it was a mental state for me). Tremendous gratitude. Humility. I got “teary” at least a few times. Even today, it still doesn’t feel “real” – even though I know it is.

Receiving an MVP award from Microsoft for Office Development and Office Servers and Services (two different categories – I’m kind of a switch-hitter) sent me thinking back to the beginning.

Humble Beginnings

John and Sean "Save SharePoint"My “community journey” started seven years ago in 2009 with a presentation at Mark Rackley’s first SharePoint Saturday Ozarks in Harrison, Arkansas. John Ferringer (my good friend and disaster recovery partner-in-crime) and I presented “Saving SharePoint” to a small room full of people. It was a presentation based on elements from our SharePoint 2007 Disaster Recovery Guide book, and I was scared to death. I had no experience with public speaking, but John and I had worked out a system to ensure that we’d present effectively together. And it all worked out okay. And best of all, it was fun. I felt like I was onto something, and I wanted to continue running with it.

Laura Rogers and MeI met some of the SharePoint “legends” at that SPS event (hey, they were – and still are – legends to me): Eric Shupps, Mike Watson, Laura Rogers, Lori Gowin, Corey Roth, Cathy Dew, and plenty of others. Some of them had already established a place for themselves in the community; others were like me and just beginning their journey. The whole SharePoint Saturday thing was still ramping-up, and we were all excited to be a part of it.

SharePoint Saturday Ozarks 2009 Speakers

The Journey

If you look at the Presentations and Materials section of my blog, you can see most of the stops I made between Harrison, Arkansas (in 2009) and today. There are quite a few. And I have a ton of fantastic memories from the various events and get-togethers that have taken place over the last seven years.

The reality, for me, is that the extended SharePoint Community (each of you reading this) is my “social network.” I consider many of you to be my good friends, and many more of you are familiar faces at events, conferences, and get-togethers. I love to spend time with you, hang out, and talk shop wherever I may go and wherever we may all meet up. My SharePoint community “work” has definitely been a labor of love, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

So, from the bottom of my heart: thank you for all the great memories, engagement, and interactions over the years. I wouldn’t have this MVP award were it not for you folks. And, of course, my thanks to Microsoft and the numerous people who helped turn this into a reality for me. It feels great, and I look forward to many more years of great community fun and engagement!

My MVP Award for 2016
 

References and Resources

  1. Blog: Mark Rackley
  2. Blog: My Central Admin (John Ferringer)
  3. Book: SharePoint 2007 Disaster Recovery Guide
  4. Blog: The SharePoint Cowboy (Eric Shupps)
  5. LinkedIn: Mike Watson
  6. Blog: @WonderLaura (Laura Rogers)
  7. Blog: See the Point (Lori Gowin)
  8. Blog: Dot Net Mafia (Corey Roth)
  9. Blog: SharePointlessness (Cathy Dew)
  10. Blog Section: Presentations and Materials

SPTechCon Austin 2016 – The Videos!

In my last post, I promised those who attended my Content Search Web Part session (at SPTechCon Austin 2016) that I’d deliver videos of the demos I normally perform during that session. This post contains links to those demo videos as well as some additional commentary.

video playerAs I discussed in my last post titled “SPTechCon Austin 2016 And Death By Demo,” the demonstrations I intended to deliver at SPTechCon in Austin a week and a half ago didn’t go very well. In fact, they didn’t really go at all due to some extremely odd technical circumstances. To make up for the lack of demo content, I promised attendees that I would put together video walk-throughs for each of the demos I had intended to deliver at SPTechCon.

It took a little longer than initially anticipated, but the half-dozen links below represent the demo material I would normally walk through during a delivery of my “SharePoint’s New Swiss Army Knife: The Content Search Web Part” session. If there’s a silver lining to the fact that I’m doing the demos after the actual presentation, it’s that I was able to take more time than I normally have (within the context of a 75 minute session) to show some extra content and go off the beaten path a bit more.

So, for those of you who have been waiting … here are the goods!

These videos were recorded with Camtasia and rendered directly out to YouTube. I made every attempt to keep the quality high, but if something gets “lost in translation” or you have other issues, please let me know.

I enjoyed putting these videos together, and in the past I’ve tossed around the idea of doing more videos like this. If these CSWP videos were helpful to you and/or you’d like to see more, please let me know. If enough of you find value in these, I’d be willing to put together additional videos for some of the other presentations and workshops I deliver.

Enjoy, and as with everything else, I welcome your feedback!

References and Resources

  1. Blog Post: SPTechCon Austin 2016 And Death By Demo
  2. Resources: SharePoint’s New Swiss Army Knife: The Content Search Web Part (SPTechCon Austin 2016)
  3. Software: TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio
  4. Site: YouTube

SPTechCon Austin 2016 And Death By Demo

I just got back from SPTechCon Austin 2016, and I had some “trouble” (putting it mildly) with demos I gave during one of my sessions. This post is a note – and a promise – to those who attended my Content Search Web Part (CSWP) session during the conference.

This was me after my CSWP session yesterdayI used to write posts to sum-up the various conferences at which I’ve spoken. That was feasible when I was only speaking at a conference or event here or there, but writing about every event is somewhat time-consuming nowadays. And besides, most of the posts would look about the same: “great event,” “lots of fun,” “awesome attendees,” etc.

Well, I got back from SPTechCon Austin 2016 yesterday … and I felt compelled to write something today. Yes, it was a great conference, lots of fun, and filled with awesome attendees. But there was something more to this conference that motivated me – no, compelled me – to write this post.

Compelled By What?

That “thing” that compelled me was this: death by demo.

I delivered two sessions during the event: a new one on performance troubleshooting with SharePoint Online, and one of my “standards” that is an introduction to the Content Search Web Part (CSWP). I delivered the troubleshooting session on Tuesday, and although it went long (I still need to tune it up), it went pretty well – no real issues. I can’t claim the same about the CSWP session yesterday (Wednesday) morning.

Simply put, the demos for my CSWP session were a disaster. I’d gotten everything ready to go on the Tuesday night before the session; despite that, things went off-the-rails almost immediately. I was RDP’ing back to my home desktop system where I had VMware Workstation running, and all of that (i.e., the RDP and VWware Workstation parts) seemed fine. The fashion in which things blew up was not something I’d ever seen before.

Kerplunk? Kerplooey!

What went wrong? Well, it’s hard to describe. The best way to describe it is that left-clicking didn’t work properly in the development VM I was using. Sometimes my clicks would visibly register (e.g., on a window close button) – but nothing would happen. Other times, my left-clicks seemed to register somewhere else on the screen (other than where the mouse pointer was located). And at other times still, a left-click would highlight some weird section in the web browser window.

Because of this aberrant mouse behavior, I couldn’t show the demo material. I certainly tried enough times, and I even hobbled through one demo with the audience members helping me by shouting out keyboard shortcuts when I asked … but it was a total wreck.

Attendees for my CSWP session at SPTechConIf you were in attendance for this session (and there were quite a few folks, as shown in the picture on the right – taken a handful of minutes before I started), I truly apologize. An apology alone, though, isn’t enough (in my opinion).

My Attempt to Make Up

As the demos were slamming into walls and catching on fire, I commented a couple of times that I’d find some way to share the demo materials with the audience at a later time. I was initially thinking I’d try to do a webcast – kind of a do-over – but I thought about it some more on the plane ride home last night and decided on something else.

Here’s what I’m going to do: rather than do the whole session over again, I’m going to work through each of the demos I intended to show and record those as a Camtasia/video that can be viewed whenever someone has the time to do so. Doing this sort of video cuts straight to the chase and is ultimately more flexible than trying to round everyone up for a webcast. It can also be re-watched as desired.

“When is this video going to be ready,” you might ask? I need to do some catching-up after having been out of town for a while, but I’m hoping to find the time this coming weekend to put it together. If I can do that, then the video will be available sometime early next week.

How Will We Know?

Once everything is ready to go, I’ll put together another blog post to announce the availability and provide a link. I’ve also been in contact with David Rubinstein at BZ Media about this, and he said that he’d blast the information out to attendees and newsletter subscribers, as well.

Summary

So, once again: my sincere apologies to those who attended my CSWP session at SPTechCon. It’ll be a few days after the actual session, but hopefully the video will make up for the demos that went nowhere during the session.

Caching, You Ain’t No Friend Of Mine

I love caching and all that it can do to boost performance, but caching for SharePoint in the cloud isn’t the same as it is on-premises. In this post, I explore why that is for Object Caching – and what you can do about it.

I've got a caching-induced headacheI’m a big fan of leveraging caching to improve performance. If you look over my blog, you’ll find quite a few articles that cover things like implementing BLOB caching within SharePoint, working with the Object Cache, extending your own code with caching options, and more. And most of those posts were written in a time when the on-premises SharePoint farm was king.

The “caching picture” began shifting when we started moving to the cloud. SharePoint Online and hosted SharePoint services aren’t the same as SharePoint on-premises, and the things we rely upon for performance improvements on-premises don’t necessarily have our backs when we move out to the cloud.

Yeah, I’m talking about caching here. And as much as it breaks my heart to say it, caching – you ain’t no friend of mine out in SharePoint Online.

Why the heartbreak?

To understand why a couple of SharePoint’s traditional caching mechanisms aren’t doing you any favors in a multi-tenant service like SharePoint Online (with or without Office 365), it helps to first understand how memory-based caching features – like SharePoint’s Object Cache – work in an on-premises environment.

On-Premises

The typical on-premises environment has a small number of web front-ends (WFEs) serving content to users, and the number of site collections being served-up is relatively limited. For purposes of illustration, consider the following series of user requests to an environment possessing two WFEs behind a load balancer:

On-Premises Request Results

Assuming the WFEs have just been rebooted (or the application pools backing the web applications for target site collection have just been recycled) – a worst-case scenario – the user in Request #1 is going to hit a server (either #1 or #2) that does not have cached content in its Object Cache. For this example, we’ll say that the user is directed to WFE #1. Responses from WFE #1 will be slower as SharePoint works to generate the content for the user and populate its Object Cache. The WFE will then return the user’s response, but as a result of the request, its Object Cache will contain site collection-specific content such as navigational sitemaps, Content Query Web Part (CQWP) query results, common site property values, any publishing page layouts referenced by the request, and more.

The next time the farm receives a request for the same site collection (Request #2), there’s a 50/50 shot that the user will be directed to a WFE that has cached content (WFE #1, shown in green) or doesn’t yet have any cached content (WFE #2). If the user is directed to WFE #1, bingo – a better experience should result. Let’s say the user gets unlucky, though, and hits WFE #2. The same process as described earlier (for WFE #1) ensues, resulting in a slower response to the user but a populated Object Cache on WFE #2.

By the time we get to Request #3, both WFEs have at least some cached content for the site collection being visited and should thus return responses more quickly. Assuming memory pressure remains low, these WFEs will continue to serve cached content for subsequent requests – until content expires out of the cache (forcing a re-fetch and fill) or gets forced out for some reason (again, memory pressure or perhaps an application pool recycle).

Another thing worth noting with on-premises WFEs is that many SharePoint administrators use warm-up scripts and services in their environments to make the initial requests that are described (in this example) by Request #1 and Request #2. So, it’s possible in these environments that end-users never have to start with a completely “cold” WFE and make the requests that come back more slowly (but ultimately populate the Object Caches on each server).

SharePoint Online

Let’s look at the same initial series of interactions again. Instead of considering the typical on-premises environment, though, let’s look at SharePoint Online.

Cloud

The first thing you may have noticed in the diagrams above is that we’re no longer dealing with just two WFEs. In a SharePoint Online tenant, the actual number of WFEs is a variable number that depends on factors such as load. In this example, I set the number of WFEs to 50; in reality, it could be lower or (in all likelihood) higher.

Request #1 proceeds pretty much the same way as it did in the on-premises example. None of the WFEs have any cached content for the target site collection, so the WFE needs to do extra work to fetch everything needed for a response, return that information, and then place the results in its Object Cache.

In Request #2, one server has cached content – the one that’s highlighted in green. The remaining 49 servers don’t have cached content. So, in all likelihood (49 out of 50, or 98%), the next request for the same site collection is going to go to a different WFE.

By the time we get to Request #3, we see that another WFE has gone through the fetch-and-fill operation (again, highlighted in green). But, there’s something else worth noting that we didn’t see in the on-premises environment; specifically, the previous server which had been visited (in Request #1) is now red, not green. What does this mean? Well, in a multi-tenant environment like SharePoint Online, WFEs are serving-up hundreds and perhaps thousands of different site collections for each of the residents in the SharePoint environment. Object Caches do not have infinite memory, and so memory pressure is likely to be a much greater factor than it is on-premises – meaning that Object Caches are probably going to be ejecting content pretty frequently.

If the Object Cache on a WFE is forced to eject content relevant to the site collection a user is trying to access, then that WFE is going to have to do a re-fetch and re-fill just as if it had never cached content for the target site collection. The net effect, as you might expect, is longer response times and potentially sub-par performance.

The Take-Away

If there’s one point I’m trying to make in all of this, it’s this: you can’t assume that the way a SharePoint farm operates on-premises is going to translate to the way a SharePoint Online farm (or any other multi-tenant farm) is going to operate “out in the cloud.”

Is there anything you can do? Sure – there’s plenty. As I’ve tried to illustrate thus far, the first thing you can do is challenge any assumptions you might have about performance that are based on how on-premises environments operate. The example I’ve chosen here is the Object Cache and how it factors into the performance equation – again, in the typical on-premises environment. If you assume that the Object Cache might instead be working against you in a multi-tenant environment, then there are two particular areas where you should immediately turn your focus.

Navigation

By default, SharePoint site collections use structural navigation mechanisms. Structural navigation works like this: when SharePoint needs to render a navigational menu or link structure of some sort, it walks through the site collection noting the various sites and sub-sites that the site collection contains. That information gets built into a sitemap, and that sitemap is cached in the Object Cache for faster retrieval on subsequent requests that require it.

Without the Object Cache helping out, structural navigation becomes an increasingly less desirable choice as site hierarchies get larger and larger. Better options include alternatives like managed navigation or search-driven navigation; each option has its pros and cons, so be sure to read-up a bit before selecting an option.

Content Query Web Parts

When data needs to be rolled-up in SharePoint, particularly across lists or sites, savvy end-users turn to the CQWP. Since cross-list and cross-site queries are expensive operations, SharePoint will cache the results of such a query using – you guessed it – the Object Cache. Query results are then re-used from the Object Cache for a period of time to improve performance for subsequent requests. Eventually, the results expire and the query needs to be run again.

So, what are users to do when they can’t rely on the Object Cache? A common theme in SharePoint Online and other multi-tenant environments is to leverage Search whenever possible. This was called out in the previous section on Navigation, and it applies in this instance, as well.

An alternative to the CQWP is the Content Search Web Part (CSWP). The CSWP operates somewhat differently than the CQWP, so it’s not a one-to-one direct replacement … but it is very powerful and suitable in most cases. Since the CSWP pulls its query results directly from SharePoint’s search index, it’s exceptionally fast – making it just what the doctor ordered in a multi-tenant environment.

Quick note (2/1/2016): Thanks to Cory Williams for reminding me that the CSWP is currently only available to SharePoint Online Plan 2 and other “Plan 3” (e.g., E3, G3) users. Many enterprise customers fall into this bucket, but if you’re not one of them, then you won’t find the CSWP for use in your tenant :-(

There are plenty of good resources online for the CSWP, and I regularly speak on it myself; feel free to peruse resources I have compiled on the topic (and on other topics).

Wrapping-Up

In this article, I’ve tried to explain how on-premises and multi-tenant operations are different for just one area in particular; i.e., the Object Cache. In the future, I plan to cover some performance watch-outs and work-arounds for other areas … so stay tuned!

Additional Reading and References

  1. MSDN: Navigation options for SharePoint Online
  2. MSDN: Using Content Search Web Part instead of Content Query Web Part to improve performance in SharePoint Online
  3. SharePoint Interface: Presentations and Materials

A New Look and Feel

Yeah, it was time.

I host this site on WordPress.com, and I’ve been doing so for quite a few years now. The theme I’d had previously was fine four or five years ago, but the web has since moved on.

I recently started up a new gadget blog (The Gadget Café – go check it out if you’re a gadget wonk like I am) using the Ghost platform, and I was really impressed by everything that it offered. I had backed Ghost when they were Kickstarting it (thanks to Marc Anderson for making me aware of it a while back), and the process of starting up that new blog got me thinking about my SharePoint blog and the look-and-feel that it had.

I knew that I hadn’t done any “housecleaning” in years. The site wasn’t responsive. It didn’t look good on mobile devices. It was just kind of  … well … there.

So, I’ve attempted to remedy that.

The good folks at WordPress.com have kept with the times better than I have, and they’ve been adding and updating themes. So, I started tinkering this evening. And what you see is where I’m at.

I’ve got rotating banners at the top (which I actually lifted from my Bitstream Foundry site), I’ve got some go-to areas organized on the right (like the always-important Resources area for my presentations and my upcoming Events), and in general things are just sort of moved around and reorganized.

I hope you like the redesign, and as always, I welcome your feedback.

Oh, and I’ve got some SharePoint goodness coming soon. So stay tuned!

Additional Reading and References

  1. Blog Platform: WordPress.com
  2. New Blog: The Gadget Café
  3. Blogging Platform: Ghost
  4. Blog: Marc D Anderson’s Blog
  5. Company: Bitstream Foundry
  6. Section: Resources
  7. Section: Events

Revisiting the Basement Datacenter in 2016

Here we are in 2016. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might recall a post I threw together back in 2010 called Portrait of a Basement Datacenter. Back in 2010, I was living on the west side of Cincinnati with my wife (Tracy) and three year-old twins (Brendan and Sabrina). We were kind of shoehorned into that house; there just wasn’t a lot of room. Todd Klindt visited once and had dinner with us. He didn’t say it, but I’m sure he thought it: “gosh, there’s a lot of stuff in this little house.”

Servers in 2010All of my computer equipment (or rather, nearly all of my computer equipment) was in the basement. I had what I called a “basement datacenter,” and it was quite a collection of PCs and servers in varying form factors and with a variety of capabilities.

The image on the right is how things looked in 2010. Just looking at the picture brings back a bunch of memories for me, and it also reminds me a bit of what we (as server administrators) could and couldn’t easily do. For example, nowadays we virtualize nearly everything without a second thought. Six years ago, virtualization technology certainly existed … but it hadn’t hit the level of adoption that it’s cruising at today. I look at all the boxes on the right and think “holy smokes – that’s a lot of hardware. I’m glad I don’t have all of that anymore.” It seemed like I had drives and computers everywhere, and they were all sucking down juice. I had two APC 1600W UPS units that were acting as battery backups back then. With all the servers plugged-in, they were drawing quite a bit of power. And yeah – I had the electric bill to prove it.

So, What’s Changed?

For starters, we now live on the east side of Cincinnati and have a much bigger house than we had way back when. Whenever friends come over and get a tour of the house, they inevitably head downstairs and get to see what’s in the unfinished portion of the basement. That’s where the servers are nowadays, and this is what my basement datacenter looks like in 2016:

Servers in 2016Purpose of each server

In reality, quite a bit has changed. We have much more space in our new house, and although the “server area” is smaller overall, it’s basically a dedicated working area where all I really do is play with tech, fix machines, store parts, etc. If I need to sit at a computer, I go into the gaming area or upstairs to my office. But if I need to fix a computer? I do it here.

In terms of capabilities, the last six years have been good to me.

All Hail The Fiber

Back on the west side of town, I had a BPL (broadband-over-powerline) Internet hookup from Duke Energy and The CURRENT Group. Nowadays, I don’t even know what’s happening with that technology. It looks like Duke Energy may be trying to move away from it? In any case, I know it gave me a symmetric pipe to the Internet, and I think I had about 10Mbps up and down. I also had a secondary DSL connection (from Cincinnati Bell) that was about 2.5Mbps down and 1Mbps up.

Once I moved back to the east side of Cincinnati and Anderson Township, the doors were blown off of the barn in terms of bandwidth. Initially, I signed with Time Warner Cable for a 50Mbps download / 5Mbps upload primary connection to my house. I made the mistake of putting in a business circuit (well, I was running a business), so while it gave me some static IP address options, it ended up costing a small fortune.

InternetSpeed2016My costly agreement with Time Warner ended last year, and for that I’m thankful. Nowadays, I have Cincinnati Bell Fiber coming to my house (Fioptics), and it’s a full-throttle connection. I pay for gigabit download speeds and have roughly a 250Mbps upload pipe. Realistically, the bandwidth varies … but there’s a ton of it, even on a bad day. The image on the right shows the bandwidth to my desktop as I’m typing this post. No, it’s not gigabit (at this moment) … but really, should I complain about 330Mbps download speeds from the Internet? Realistically speaking, some of the slowdown is likely due to my equipment. Running full gigabit Ethernet takes good wiring, quality switches, fast firewalls, and more. You’re only as fast as your slowest piece of equipment.

I do keep a backup connection with Time Warner Cable in case the fiber goes down, and my TMG firewall does a great job of failing over to that backup connection if something goes wrong. And yes, I’ve had a problem with the fiber once or twice. But it’s been resolved quickly, and I was back up in no time. Frankly, I love Cincinnati Bell’s fiber.

What About Storage?

ProRaidIn the last handful of years, storage limits have popped over and over again. You can buy 8TB drives on Amazon.com right now, and they’re not prohibitively expensive? We’ve come a long way in just a half dozen years, and the limits just keep expanding.

I have a bunch of storage downstairs, and frankly I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve graduated from the random drives and NAS appliances that used to occupy my basement. These days, I use Mediasonic RAID enclosures. You pop some drives in, connect an eSATA cable (or USB cable, if you have to), and away you go. They’ve been great self-contained pass-through drive arrays for specific virtual machines running on my Hyper-V hosts.  I’ve been running the Mediasonic arrays for quite a few years now, and although this isn’t a study in “how to build a basement datacenter,” I’d recommend them to anyone looking for reliable storage enclosures. I keep one as a backup unit (because eventually one will die), and as a group they seem to be in good shape at this point in time. The enclosures supply the RAID-5 that I want (and yeah, I’ve had *plenty* of drives die), so I’ve got highly-available, hot-swappable storage where I need it.

Oh, and don’t mind the minions on my enclosures. Those of you with children will understand. Those who don’t have children (or who don’t have children in the appropriate age range) should either just wait it out or go watch Despicable Me.

Hey? What About The Cloud?

Servers and their shelfThe astute will ask “why are you putting all this hardware in your house instead of shifting to the cloud?” You know, that’s a good question. I work for Cardinal Solutions Group, and we’re a Microsoft managed partner with a lot of Office 365 and Azure experience. Heck, I’m Cardinal’s National Solution Manager for Office 365, so The Cloud is what I think about day-in and day-out.

First off, I love the cloud. For enterprise scale engagements, the cloud (and Microsoft’s Azure capabilities, in particular) are awesome. Microsoft has done a lot to make it easier (not “easy,” but “easier”) for us to build for the cloud, put our stuff (like pictures, videos, etc.) in the cloud, and get things off of our thumb drives and backup boxes and into a place where they are protected, replicated, and made highly available.

What I’m doing in my basement doesn’t mean I’m “avoiding” the cloud. Actually, I moved my family onto an Office 365 plan to give them email and capabilities they didn’t have before. My kids have their first email address now, and they’re learning how to use email through Office 365. I’m going to move the SharePoint site collection that I maintain for our family (yes, I’m that big of a geek) over to SharePoint Online because I don’t want to wrangle with it at home any longer. Keeping SharePoint running is a pain-in-the-butt, and I’m more than happy to hand that over the Office 365 folks.

I’ll still be tinkering with SharePoint VMs for sure with the work I do, but I’m happy to turn over operational responsibility to Microsoft for my family’s site collection.

The Private Cloud

ServerShelfLeftSo even though I believe in The Cloud (i.e, “the big cloud that’s out there with all of our data”), I also believe in the “private cloud,” “personal cloud,” or whatever you want to call it. When I work from the Cardinal office, my first order of business is to VPN back to my house (again, through my TMG Firewall – they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands) so that I have access to all of my files and systems at home.

Accessing stuff at home is only part of it, though. The other part is just knowing that I’m going through my network, interacting with my systems, and still feeling like I have some control in our increasingly disconnected world. My Plex server is there, and my file shares are available, and I can RDP into my desktop to leverage its power for something I’m working on. There’s a comfort in knowing my stuff is on my network and servers.

Critical data makes it to the cloud via OneDrive, Dropbox, etc, but I still can’t afford to pay for all of my stuff to be in the cloud. Prices are dropping all of the time, though. Will I ever give up my basement datacenter? Probably not, because maintaining it helps me keep my technical skills sharpened … but it’s also a labor of love.

Additional Reading and References

  1. Blog Post: Portrait of a Basement Datacenter
  2. Blog: Todd Klindt’s SharePoint Admin Blog
  3. Department of Justice: Current Group Broadband Overview
  4. Site: Cincinnati Bell Fioptics
  5. TechNet: Threat Management Gateway
  6. Amazon.com: Seagate Archive 8 TB Internal Hard Drive
  7. Amazon.com: Mediasonic PRORAID Drive Enclosure
  8. Amazon.com: Despicable Me
  9. Company: Cardinal Solutions Group

What Happened To My Office 365 Public Site?

Close Out (Early 2016)

It would appear that things are more or less back to normal. I never got an “everything is okay and live” email, but theming and branding are working properly both on public sites (tick, tock, tick, tock …) and internal sites. No conflicts at this point. Since I like to tie things up when complete, we’ll call this one “done” for now and move on.

What the heck happened?Update (Evening 7/23/2015)

Microsoft has been looking at this issue, and progress is being made! My public site looks like it has returned to normal … but I know that we’re not quite out of the woods yet.

John from Microsoft followed-up with me yesterday and said the following:

“We have pulled the flight that was impacting everyone from production.  The plan is to address these issues before turning the flight back on.  Would you be up for piloting the upgraded flight before we turn it back on for everyone? Also, you mention you know others who are having problems, would they be willing to pilot the new flight as well?  If so, please provide their contact information so I can follow up with them.”

Clearly, there’s a strong “flying vibe” in Redmond ….

I told John that I was definitely a “go” for the flight, and that I knew some others who’d experienced problems. And that’s where I’m hoping that some of you can help.

If you have been encountering problems with your Office 365 public site that are similar to mine – and you want to be part of the fix – let me know and I’ll hook you up with John. Shoot me your name, email address, and public site URL; I think that will do the job.

Stay tuned!

Original Post (below)

First of all, let me state that I’m not talking about the fact that Office 365 public sites are going the way of the dinosaur. That’s old news at this point. Instead, I’m talking about a “disruption in the force” that some of you may have observed when recently browsing to your public sites and discovering that they had … changed.

And what do I mean by “changed?” In my case, it was the observation that my public site’s branding had been altered to something I hadn’t chosen. The background image was different, the fonts weren’t the same, a number of the CSS styles I had applied to address scrollbar positioning and what-not weren’t in effect, and more. In essence, my custom branding had been completely steamrolled.

The After And The (Sort-Of Before)

Office 365 Public Site: Forcing Some Branding Elements BackOffice 365 Public Site: Busted BrandingDon’t take my word for it, though. Have a look for yourself. On the left is my public site as I discovered it a couple of weeks back (i.e., near the beginning of July, 2015). On the right is the way it’s supposed to look … sort of. The fonts and aspects of the responsive design are still off in the “corrected” version on the right, but I managed to hack the proper background, scrollbars, and a few other elements back to where they were previously. Even though I didn’t get everything corrected, differences between the two are immediately obvious.

I was confident that it had been months since I had changed anything on my public site, but I verified the branding assets in the Office 365 site against what I was tracking in source control. As expected, they were identical. The changes I was observing were not due to anything I had done to the public site.

Grumble Grumble …

Facebook Complaint About Branding IssueSince it wasn’t the first time I’d had issues with unexpected changes and behavior on my public site, I wasted little time before going to Facebook to complain aloud. Many of my friends in the SharePoint community are also friends on Facebook, so I figured I’d get some support (moral, if nothing else) there.

Shortly after posting the update seen on the left, I tagged a couple of my Microsoft friends (specifically, Jeremy Thake and Chris Johnson) who work with the Office 365 team(s) and asked if I should have known about an update or change that might have affected my public site in this fashion. Even though I was confident that I hadn’t done anything to directly impact my public site’s look-and-feel, I was not about to rule out the possibility that I had missed something that had been communicated to me. In fact, I have been consulting in information technology long enough to know that my “mental glove” doesn’t catch everything thrown to me; anymore, I just kind of assume that I am in error and work from there.

Jeremy got back to me first and indicated that he didn’t have anything specific to share, but he indicated he would take the issue to folks (internally) who should know. Shortly after that, Chris tagged Steve Walker (another Microsoftee with superhuman powers) to bring the issue to his attention. Steve told me to file a service request (SR) and that he would escalate that SR right away. So, I filed the service request with supporting screenshots and documentation … and as he had indicated he would, Steve escalated the SR in less than an hour.

In the meantime, I did what I could to get some of my site’s branding back to the way it had been. How did I do that? With the liberal application of the dreaded !important CSS directive in the custom style sheet I had created to go with my master page. The !important directive is definitely not something I use (or even like to go near) on a daily basis, but in this case, I was trying to achieve results with a minimal investment of time and effort. I needed my styling to trump whatever was being laid-down after my style sheet was being processed.

So, What Happened Next?

Following Steve’s escalation, I started working with an extremely approachable escalation engineer named John. John and I exchanged some emails, did a late-night screen-sharing session, and generally looked things up-and-down. John concurred that what we were seeing shouldn’t have been happening, and he mentioned that he had another customer or two that seemed to be having a similar problem. Some tracing in those cases seemed to implicate a recent client-side theming change that had been made and rolled-out.

Analysis Of Styles In Internet Explorer Developer ToolsAn issue with client-side theming “felt” right to me. I had used Internet Explorer’s Developer Tools to do some backtracking into the source of the errant styles that were being applied to my site, and I noticed that the background image was being served from a temporary theme directory on the server. Until I started forcing my styles to override the ones that were being applied (an example of which is shown on the right), the theme styles were trumping my own styles.

John was out for a while, but he came back to me recently with the following explanation. And his explanation makes complete sense:

So the problem you were having was the result of a bad interaction with a third-party CSS minification technique called minisp.  By adding HTML comments around our CssLink controls in the master page, the <link> tags we normally render are part of a comment and therefore not part of the DOM.

When Client-Side Theming goes to replace the CSS on these pages, it wants to put the generated <style> blocks immediately before the corresponding <link> tags. Since it can’t find the <link> tags in the DOM, it defaults to adding the <style> blocks to the end of the document head. Since these come after the custom CSS, the rules in our themed CSS take priority over the rules in the custom CSS.

Resolution?

As of July 21st, 2015, there is no official resolution. Since this has been identified as a problem in how client-side theming handles CSS <style> block insertions, though, the ultimate fix needs to come from Microsoft. In the meantime, I’ll be sticking with my hacked CSS style sheet to get back most of the look-and-feel that I need. I could expend additional (development) effort to ensure that my styles are applied after the Office 365 theme styles without using !important, but there are plenty of other more important tasks vying for my attention right now.

Thumbs UpSo, if you found this post and it’s helping you to realize that you’re not going insane (at least not because of public site branding changes you didn’t make), I’ll feel that my job is done.

As I hear more and changes take place, I’ll try to update this post accordingly. Check back every now and then if you want the play-by-play on this issue.

Parting Thoughts: A Tip Of My Hat To Microsoft

In the past, I’ve been pretty vocal about the way that Microsoft has sort of “rolled” changes onto its Office 365 customer base and failed to communicate problems in a timely and complete fashion – actions (or lack of action) that ultimately caused pain and problems. As vocal as I’ve been in those situations, I want to go on-record as saying (just as loudly) that Microsoft has definitely listened to the critical feedback it has been receiving and has acted to make changes that we have indicated we need.

Even though this public site branding issue is indeed a bug, Microsoft listened and responded quickly – without protest, without claiming that “nothing is wrong,” and without some of the problem behaviors I used to see.

Where there were previously few communications about Office 365 outages, problems, changes, and updates, we now have a boatload of information (with some of it actually being pushed) to us to keep us in-the-know on our tenants, where they stand at any given point in time, and where they are going. I can get both at-a-glance health information and deep explanations for issues using the administrative portal’s Service Health dashboard. I get push notifications whenever something happens in my tenant using the Office 365 Admin application that runs on my Windows Phone. I know when new service features and capabilities are rolling out, if changes have been cancelled, etc., by looking at the Office 365 Roadmap. And these are just some of the channels and information streams that are available.

Is Microsoft “all the way there” yet? No, but they are dramatically further along than when Office 365 first rolled-out. Outages still occur – as they do with any service – but I feel like I know what’s going on now. That’s a huge improvement in my book.

References and Resources

  1. Microsoft Support: Information about changes to the SharePoint Online Public Website feature in Office 365
  2. Office 365 Public Site: Bitstream Foundry LLC
  3. LinkedIn: Jeremy Thake
  4. LinkedIn: Chris Johnson
  5. LinkedIn: Steve Walker
  6. Stack Overflow: What are the implications of using “!important” in CSS?
  7. MSDN: Using the F12 developer tools
  8. Microsoft: Office 365 Service Health Status
  9. Windows Phone App Store: Office 365 Admin
  10. Office.com: Office 365 Roadmap