On a recent client engagement (large, public-sector) we have been building out a "Web Platform" that extends the out of the box SharePoint CMS (Publishing) capabilities with a number of other core web features and branding options that now enable our client to create new web and micro sites at reduced time, cost and effort to them.
Our client has been running their main site and other notable microsites on the SharePoint 2007 platform for a number of years. With that site now showing its age and the client wanting to bring a fresh and modern feel to their web presence, it was time for a change.
Given their existing familiarity with SharePoint, and the appeal of an easier upgrade/migration path, the decision was made to move to the new SharePoint 2013 platform which came with a number of new features that make managing web sites and web content an easier job.
The client prepared a large wish list of features for the new platform, some of which we could achieve with existing SharePoint functionality and some of which we would have to build custom components.
Some of their core requirements were:
- To be able to easily create micro-sites and other websites using the same technology and same feature set, without requiring (or with less) continued developer input
- Able to publish/re-use content across different sites
- All Sites should be responsive (e.g. mobile-friendly)
- Apply different branding and theming to different sites and different sections of the same site. This could vary from total customisation to simply changing the header and footer colours.
- A suite of reusable web components that pre-exist or can be added to pages and configured by content editors.
- Improved Accessibility conformance
- Improved content editing experience
- Ability to use custom URLs for microsites (unlimited)
- Manageable "Vanity URLs" for every site (e.g. http://domain.com/vanityurl)
- Built in SEO functions for page meta tags and sitemaps
- Advanced Search functionality, across sites and within sites
- Image management facilities
- Publishing, Versioning and Approval process
- Google Analytics management
SharePoint 2013 CMS Features
SharePoint 2013 does deliver a number of new features that match the requirements listed above. For example:
- Design Manager – built-in tools for uploading standard HTML and CSS based web designs and converting them into SharePoint compatible templates
- Cross-site Publishing – the ability to configure content to be available for publishing across multiple sites
- Host Named Site Collections – making it possible to have a far greater number of SharePoint sites on their own separate URL
- Image Renditions - Image Management and cropping tools
- Search Infrastructure – Extremely powerful tools available for building search based applications and experiences for users
- Authoring Improvements -
- Improved WYSIWYG HTML editor, generates much cleaner and accessible HTML.
- Ribbon based editor interface providing Word-like experience
- Remove Formatting on Copy/Paste (e.g. from Word)
- Embed Snippet functionality for inserting snippets of code on a page, e.g. YouTube widgets
- Image Renditions allowing for multiple versions of the same image with different dimensions
- Improved Video management, storage and rendering
- Device Channels – Ability to target content and functionality to specific device types
As with any development project there are always custom requirements that an off-the-shelf product doesn't deliver. This is to be expected and can provide opportunities for value-add from partners like Fuse. We have been working on custom web sites on the SharePoint platform for many years now and have built up a number of reusable components that our clients find useful.
Central Management Administration
For this platform we have implemented a centralised "management" site where certain aspects of the web platform can be configured. This includes:
- Configuring Global Announcements – to appear at the top of every site running on the platform
- Configuring Global and Footer Navigation – again these links can optionally appear at the top of each every site where configured to do so
Configuration Hierarchy Management
We have also implemented hierarchical configuration administration screens and a configuration API which can be used programmatically to get and set the configuration settings. Many of these settings are configurable at the Farm, Web Application, Site Collection and (sub)Site level, this means that as a rule the configuration setting can be overridden at each level so that each site can have its own configuration setting or inherit from somewhere up the site hierarchy.
To enable the client to build out sites and content in many ways, whilst still retaining the required levels of consistency, we have built out a number of controls and web parts, such as:
- An A to Z system
- Site notification banner
- Cookie Disclaimer message
- Map web part
- YouTube web part
- RSS viewer
- Twitter web part
- Tile Web Parts (using images or icons)
- Rollup web parts (page and subsite listings)
- Optional Page Background Image
- Global, Section and Footer managed navigation (collapsing on smaller displays)
- Rate this Page feature
- Social Share Widgets
- Carousel web part
Hosting – Microsoft Azure
Another key decision for the new web platform was in deciding where it would be hosted. The project would also include a migration aspect where the old SharePoint 2007 farm (hosted elsewhere) would be phased out and re-created on the new farm. This highlighted the need for the ability to expand and reduce environment resources in a flexible way, thus always keeping costs to their minimum.
Given the need for this environment flexibility the decision was taken to leverage Microsoft Azure to host the new SharePoint 2013 web platform. At that time we also identified that the flexible Azure hosting model would enable cost savings for the existing website also, and also enable an easier migration between environments. This meant that we could not only share resources across the farms but also slowly reduce the resources available to the old farm while at the same time increasing resources on the new farm, keeping costs down.
It was also a long term objective to bring the hosting in-house. By configuring a VPN and an Active Directory Trust relationship between and Azure and the client's internal systems we have already paved the way for an easier transition should the client at some point want to bring the hosting in house. As the Azure servers are all Virtual Machines and have been intrinsically configured as part of the client's extended network, they can be redeployed and hosted internally through the use of the System Center suite of Deployment and VM management tools.
All in all Azure provides a great flexible hosting solution whether it be for short or long term requirements. An added benefit is that costs are still reducing too as Microsoft continues to maximise efficiencies on their platform and the customer base grows.
While this is still an ongoing project Fuse and our client are delighted with what we've been able to achieve using the combination of SharePoint 2013, Azure and our experience of website development on the Microsoft stack. The client are now making plans on how they can "re-sell" their web platform to internal departments and potentially also other partners in order to maximise their investment in the platform. With the options available, they are now able to quickly create new sites and theme them according to the needs of individual "customers" much quicker and at less cost than ever before.