Blog

Sep 04
On Cyclical Transformation

"Could I Interest You in a Timeshare?"

I emerge from Microsoft into a technical landscape undergoing radical changes. This is nothing new. In fact, it is something even older than computing itself. For as long as there has been business, every few years something comes along to shake it up. Whether sociological or technological, change and transformation are a constant fact of life. Some changes are linear and progressive – like the reduction in the length of the average workweek, the speed of data transition, or the size of a given level of computing power. Other changes are more cyclical.

Tick: Starting at the (Data) Center

One of these cyclical changes is the balance of computing power between distribution and centralization. Early computers were huge and horribly expensive for even the most basic of capabilities, and only the largest organizations could afford them. Yet once you had crossed that threshold, the performance was so fast that the actual work for most companies only took a fraction of the raw computing power these behemoths provided. Eventually, some companies started selling these "wasted cycles" to other organizations (General Electric "GEnie"), and others came into being specifically to offer "time-shared" computer processing (CompuServe).

Tock: Swinging to the Desktop

The first tools to access these services were simply terminals attached through modems in offices. This soon changed, as the growing popularity of desktop microcomputers like the Atari 800, TI-99, Commodore 64, and Apple ][ started making these services attractive to individuals in homes as well as companies. While some saw these desktop systems as little more than toys, their owners quickly started reaping the benefits of having their own processor that didn't depend on a data center to enable basic productivity.

As uses became accustomed to this autonomy, they started bringing their home computers into the office. Corporate IT departments realized that this was a concern on a number of fronts. Each of these devices had their own operating systems, applications, and data formats. Now that they were being used for work, the users wanted IT to be able to support them, and wanted to share data with one another. In addition, for as long as there have been people, there have been other people who seek to do them harm, which meant that corporate data was now being put at risk in a whole new way.

Tick: Rebuilding the Glass House

To address these concerns, IT began establishing standards, and eventually budgeted for company provided systems. They were greatly aided in this by IBM's de facto "blessing" of the desktop with the introduction of their own "Personal Computer". The IBM PC and its clones became the new way of working. In addition to these standards, information sharing became easier with the introduction of Local Area Networking (LAN), and the establishment of in-house Servers for the storage of data and user files. It is important to note that within these organizations, centralized computing never actually went away. The latest generation of mainframe and minicomputers continued to be employed for certain "heavy lifting", such as accounting systems, HR, ERP, and other tasks, brought back in-house from timeshares due to falling equipment prices. These new "file servers" for PC's joined the existing big iron in computer rooms around the world. As these microcomputers grew in scale and power, some of the applications from the "big iron" started being moved onto this new platform.

Tock-Tick: What a Tangled Web

Just as IT was getting comfortable with their networks, the outside world intervened again with the explosion in popularity of the Internet, and in particular, the World Wide Web. Public network speeds were increasing. Local PC power was increasing. Barriers to entry were falling. Hosting services became the new timeshares. Business models were changing – you almost couldn't be successful unless you had a presence "on the web". All a user needed was a web browser, and information from all over the world was theirs.

This same technology, however, was just as useful within an organization. Corporate Intranets were built just as easily as public facing web sites. And it all lived happily in the corporate data center. Hidden from the outside world behind firewalls. Layered with antivirus software. Safe and sound…

TOCK! Power in Your Pocket

Humans are mobile. They are not designed to be bound to a desk, or any other single place, for extended periods of time. The advent of the smartphone has enabled people to take their productivity and entertainment with them wherever they go. Today's smartphones have more storage and processing power than a desktop PC of just a few years ago. In addition, ease of use and installation of various apps make for a handheld tool of unprecedented effective power and versatility. Unfortunately, this power is frequently muted in its application because the corporate data is locked away.

TICK! Reaching for the Clouds

The latest digital transformation in many enterprises is the rethinking of just how much data to maintain behind the firewall. Many capabilities that used to be solidly in the "in-house" camp are now readily available online. From identity management, to line of business applications, and beyond it is becoming very attractive to "move to the cloud". Services like Office 365 and G Suite purport to offer everything your users have on their desktops, from word processing to instant messaging, through a single unified experience, accessible from anywhere, and secured with your corporate credentials. Software, Platform, and even Infrastructure services are available to build and deploy your own enterprise applications, without the hassle of building, hosting, and securing your own servers. Modern design for new applications means that these services can be used and shared across devices regardless of their base operating system.

In many respects, the digital workplace transformation of today with its cloud services represents a "full circle" back to the same timeshare model used so long ago. The services themselves have come a long way from those basic text terminal interfaces, but the idea remains the same. Shared Services, leveraged by multiple companies, making their data available wherever and whenever it is needed.

Sep 04
A Free Agent Once Again

There is a certain irony to having Labor Day be your official "last day" with a company.

For the last 5+ years, I have been working directly for Microsoft, in the Services group doing consulting for a huge variety of organizations. Starting tomorrow, I'll be back to free-lance consulting. I've already got my first engagement lined up, so the world isn't coming to an end, but it certainly is changing. I won't deny that I'll miss the stability that comes with being a full-time "permanent" employee. I truly enjoyed my time at Microsoft, and I send my best wishes to all of the friends I made along the way.

I truly enjoyed my time at Microsoft, and I send my best wishes to all of the friends I made along the way.Certainly, if the right full-time opportunity comes along, I'll be all over it like our cats over a fresh tub of Tuna and Salmon Meow-Mix™. In the meantime, I find myself excited anew by the prospect of freedom and variety the "Gig Economy" offers.

Aug 01
Granular External Sharing Controls in SharePoint Online

A Long Time Coming

One of SharePoint Online's greatest strengths has always been its ability to easily share with users external to your organization. Yet this ease often brings with it concerns about excessive sharing. SharePoint Online has historically addressed this by allowing companies to turn off sharing either at the tenant level, or by placing restrictions at the site collection level.

In addition to totally enabling or disabling sharing, companies have also had the ability to add organizations to either a tenant level Allowed or Denied list by specifying their email domains. Until now, however, this capability has not applied at the site collection level.

Microsoft has just started rolling out site collection level allowed/denied lists. If this has been enabled in your tenant, you will now see a much richer experience when you configure sharing options for your site collections. To see this new experience, go into your Office 365 administration portal, and select SharePoint Administration:

This will usually default to your site collection list. Highlight a site collection, and click the Sharing icon on the ribbon:

Note that this option will not light up until you select a site collection.

Once you click the button, the enhanced sharing dialog will appear. Clicking one of the Allow options, as shown below, will then display the checkbox that lets you limit sharing by domain. Checking that box then lets you choose to set the list of domains that are enabled or blocked.

This gives your SharePoint Online admin tremendous flexibility.

One thing to keep in mind. In keeping with most other SharePoint security settings, tenant-wide policies always trump less restrictive site collection policies, but your site collection settings can be more restrictive. For example:

  • If your tenant is mute on allowed/blocked domains, you can configure anything you want at the site collection level.
  • If you have a tenant-wide Allowed list, then you can only create a site collection Allowed list. In addition, any sites selected at the site collection level must also be members of the tenant allowed list. (Thus, a subset of the tenant list)
  • If you have a tenant-wide Denied list, you can configure either an allowed or blocked list, but you cannot "allow" at the site collection something that is "blocked" at the tenant.

Overall, this is a great addition to Office 365's governance capabilities.

Jul 20
TapTapTap - Is This Thing On?

​Hi, Folks!

I just wanted to drop a note to let you know that this site is soon to be lighting back up, bringing you once again my unique, and perhaps a little twisted, perspective on all things Collaborative in SharePoint - both on-prem and online, as well as all of the great new stuff that has been going on in the Office 365 space.

As part of this, I'm going to be chaning hosting locations, and revisiting some of my "classic" articles, looking at what has changed, and what is still just as cool as it always has been.

Watch this space!

Jan 14
The Fractal Nature of SharePoint

​The Closer You Look, the More Complex it Gets...

(Another Classic!)

Over the years, there have been many analogies proposed to help people understand the sheer depth and breadth of SharePoint. Application, Platform, Pie wedges, Donuts, Layers like an onion, Shimmer ("Floor wax and a dessert topping!"). A few years ago, I used the parable of "The Blind Men and the Elephant", and that was looking at the much simpler (relatively speaking) SharePoint 2003!!

Today, SharePoint Server 2010 is orders of magnitude more comprehensive. At the most superficial level, you can look at the whole of SharePoint, and see organization and structure. The key areas are fairly easy to identify, but maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. Consider the image below, which represents the "complete" Mandelbrot Set - the classic fractal example.

 

Mapping this to SharePoint, you might see the large, two-lobed central area representing the Collaboration and Content Management features, the large ball to the left as social, and other balls representing Excel Services, Access Services, Search, etc...

But when you get closer, and start exploring some of the deeper capabilities, things don't get any simpler. Let's say you want to start exploring the integration of social tagging with content management, so you zoom in on the area just above the center of the image, between the two larger segments. Suddenly you open up a whole new world of options in API's, storage requirements, user interactions with news feeds and tag clouds, managed metadata and tagging external content - all in just that one small area of SharePoint functionality!

 

This same expansion of detail and complexity occurs virtually anywhere you look. And although every area you zoom into is clearly related to the whole, each has its own variations in the detail. This is why I am using fractals, rather than layers, to describe the depth of SharePoint. While each aspect has levels of functionality (from basic web UI to development APIs), each set of levels is slightly different. The social APIs look different from the search APIs, which are different from the publishing APIs.

That's why it is so hard to find anyone who knows "everything" about SharePoint - it can't be done. People tend to disappear into whatever rabbit hole they find most interesting. Now that doesn't mean that a single person can't know a lot about many different areas. But, you can pretty much guarantee that they don't know everything about everything. There is a very strong tendency to specialize, and even the specialists are (if they're worth their salt) constantly learning.

Oh, and just so you know, the detail image at the top of this article is about the same fraction of the image immediately above as that image is of the entire set!

Note: The fractal images in this article are derived from those in the Wikipedia article on Fractals, and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. They were originally created by Wolfgang Beyer with the program Ultra Fractal 3.

Oct 11
Your (Share)Point of View

image17.pngNote: This classic post has always been one of my most popular. The user experience details  and the recommended customization approaches have changed a bit, but most of the article still holds true, even though it was written several years (and SharePoint versions) ago. I'm including it here for your "enlightenment".

SharePoint is big. Really big. So big, in fact, that it is very hard, some might say impossible, for any one person to fully comprehend. Now, I wouldn't go quite that far, but I will say that many people approach SharePoint in much the same way as the blind men approached the elephant. 

What? You haven't heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant? Well, sit back and relax, while I digress a moment…

Once upon a time (don't they all begin this way?) Anyway, once upon a time, there was a group of blind men traveling down the path to enlightenment when they encountered an elephant and his trainer. The elephant was totally blocking the road, so the trainer said to the men, "Please wait, while I move my elephant out of your way."

"We have never met an elephant before," the men said. "May we touch it so that we may know what an elephant is?"

"Of course!" The trainer said, and the men approached the elephant.

The men reached forward as they walked, and each spoke to the others according to what they perceived.

The first man walked into the side of the elephant, felt up, and down, and side to side and exclaimed "I have encountered a wall. An elephant is a large, warm wall!"

The second man had walked up to the elephant's leg. He said "Are you crazy? This is no wall, but round, and sturdy, like a tree trunk, or a pillar. An elephant is a kind of tree!"

The third had encountered the trunk and said "You are both wrong. An elephant is a large serpent, like a python, but without bones!"

The fourth, who had felt the elephant's ear, believed it to be a piece of canvas, while the fifth was equally convinced by his encounter with the tail that an elephant was a brush for cleaning things better left unmentioned in a family blog.

The blind men argued with each other, each believing that his view of the elephant was the correct one. They were about to come to blows when the trainer, who was also very wise intervened: "Gentlemen, please, you are each right, in your own way, but also all of you are totally wrong. An elephant is neither wall, nor tree, nor serpent, or even bottle brush. It is a vast creature of many parts, some of which resemble the familiar things you have perceived. But to truly understand the elephant you must expand your perception, and approach not just the piece you are familiar with, but the entire animal."

With that, the trainer had moved the elephant from the path of the blind men, who had just taken another major step on their journey toward enlightenment.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post…

What you see when you first approach SharePoint will vary considerably depending upon your experience and what you expect to find. You might, as a network administrator, first see SharePoint as a stand-alone application. And you would be right. SharePoint provides a great "out-of-box" experience, with tools for file sharing, team collaboration and communication, project management, all wrapped up with easy distributed administration functions.

As a business analyst, you might say "Wow! Look at the all of the tools I have to aggregate knowledge and business intelligence" You see SharePoint as an integration portal, able to give you windows into data scattered throughout your organization through search, through the BDC, or even Forms and Excel Services. And again, you would be right.

As a software developer, you might see SharePoint as a rich application platform. Almost like an extension of the .NET framework, with its own API, an extensive object model, built-in modularity, and extensibility. Also correct!

SharePoint is all of those things. And more. But to treat SharePoint simply as an application, or BI aggregator, or development platform is missing the "Point". What if I told you that you could, in your integration portal, add connections between your views and information already within SharePoint so you can filter results dynamically, customize the look, enter in new information, and notify your team of changes, all without writing a line of code? Or by adding a little custom code behind the scenes, alter the experience to the point where you might never know you were using SharePoint? This is all possible, just shifting your mind set.

As an administrator, look at the SharePoint API and object model to see what you can do with just a little programming (e.g. my previous blog entry regarding "The SharePoint Nobody Sees")

As an analyst, don't just look at how SharePoint can connect to your data, but how you can connect the pieces of a page together to coax even more intelligence from your knowledge.

As a developer, familiarize yourself, not just with the object model, or the web service API, but with the front-end customizations that are available before you even open Visual Studio. Web part connections, Data web parts, and the WPSC are just waiting to do your bidding!

Like the elephant in the story, SharePoint is a beast of many parts that each can, at first glance, look complete. But to truly understand it, you must venture outside your comfort zone, and see how the parts connect and relate. Only then can you say "I have seen the elephant!"

Oct 09
Welcome Back!

I know I've been off the air for a while. It is a looonnngggg story, which I'll probably fill a post up with soon. In the mean time, I'm digging up some of the most popular articles from my old blog to re-post. And, of course, I'll have lots of new material, too!

See you soon!