With Falmouth University

The customer, Falmouth University has over 100 years experience as a leading specialist university with an international reputation for excellence in art, design, media and performance. Through it, Falmouth is redefining creative education and making a vital contribution to the resurgence of the local and global economies.

Falmouth University Logo
  • Sector: Higher Education
  • Students: 4,000
  • Staff: 700

Falmouth University has recently been awarded the No.1 UK Arts University by the Sunday Times. The University is supporting a forecast growth from 4000 to 8000 students by 2020 and have around 700 staff.

Organisational challenges and impacts

Having made the strategic decision to migrate all staff to Office 365 as a result of the earlier project (see here for case study), Falmouth now had to face the challenge of carrying out that decision.

There were two major objectives to consider in the migration:

  • Migrate the existing content (publishing pages in SharePoint and documents/files from both SharePoint and other systems) without losing data or causing disruption to staff.
  • Implement the information architecture, site structure and branding, developed in the previous project, within the constraints of SharePoint online.

The migration of content would be done by the team at Falmouth. To migrate the data consistently with all metadata intact, and in the timescales required, would require more than the simple upload methods presented by Office 365.

Challenges Summary

  • Vast amount of data to migrate, without disruption to the business
  • Requirement to ensure migrated data fits into new information architecture
  • SharePoint online is not easy to customise, automate or manage
  • All code is client side or remote.
  • Any customisation must be compatible with Office 365 standards to ensure it’s not overridden by updated features

The constraints of SharePoint online also have a big impact on implementing information architecture and custom solutions for navigation and branding. The usual on premise method of coding a SharePoint solution and deploying it at server level is not an option. Features and changes are deployed at automatically by Microsoft, making customisation not just difficult, but discouraged. And with no access to the servers hosting the farm, all custom code must run client-side or from a remote location.

The Chosen Solutions

To accomplish the two objectives, we chose two solutions:

Migration of Content: ShareGate

Sharegate Logo 

ShareGate is a content migration tool that can both copy and manipulate content as it’s being migrated. It’s designed for both moving data between SharePoint environments – such as in this case, moving content from SharePoint 2010 & 2013 to SharePoint online – and for moving content from other systems, such as shared file system. Its ability to both consume and manipulate metadata based on rules made it an excellent tool for this project, as the comprehensive information architecture Falmouth had developed meant that content needed to be directed to the correct content type and tagged with the relevant metadata for it to conform. Using ShareGate also made it possible to preserve the original dates, authors, and in the case of SharePoint content, versions of a document, assisting with the compliance and archiving IA features.

ShareGate also features an “insane” mode, which when used with an Azure storage account, enables much faster throughput of documents to Office 365, as they are uploaded and queued for processing in Azure rather than directly from the source. Falmouth took advantage of this mode for processing existing document repositories which contained thousands of files.

Customisation and Management of SharePoint Online: Microsoft OfficeDev Patterns and Practices Initiative

Office 365 developer pnp logo 

The Microsoft OfficeDev Patterns and Practices initiative is a source of guidance, sample code and developer support which we at Fuse used to implement Falmouth’s SharePoint online environment, and which provides them with the management tools to maintain and support it.

At the core of the solution is a remote provisioning engine, a web application hosted in Azure. We integrated this app with Falmouth’s Azure Active Directory so the application can authenticate Falmouth users and has rights to create sites and site collections within SharePoint Online. This engine uses XML templates to provision sites on demand, in an asynchronous queue. The user simply chooses to create a site from the standard SharePoint online link, which is overridden by an add-in so that they go to the provisioning engine instead. Once there, they choose from a selection of available templates, and supply the necessary metadata.

These templates include all the Falmouth IA requirements, such as:

  • custom content types
  • customised lists and libraries which use those content types
  • Security permissions, groups and roles which ensure users have the correct privileges
  • Site features are activated/deactivated as required
  • The custom master page (which includes branding and custom navigation) is applied
  • The site policy (for archiving purposes)
  • Custom pages, with layouts defined, web parts and wiki content
Falmouth Provisioning Engine

A screenshot of the provisioning engine website, showing the template selection page

The templates themselves are held in a standard document library in a central site, so they are easy to maintain. A part of the provisioning process, files (such as master pages) can be uploaded to the new site collection, so these too are held centrally for easy maintenance. Because the first part of the provisioning process includes the creation of a standard site from the inbuilt team site template, no Office 365 features are overwritten – the XML templates simply define for the engine what a site owner would be able to do through the web interface.

The same engine code is also made available to Falmouth as PowerShell commands, making ad-hoc maintenance of sites very easy. The same XML templates can be applied to existing sites using PowerShell, to update them with new features, a new master page or security model for example. We also used the PowerShell scripts to bulk provision the initial site structure, which consisted of around 100 separate sites. We provided the University with a spreadsheet to complete the required fields, e.g. site name, owner, description etc. and then fed this into our script to provision every site within a matter of minutes.

Falmouth SharePoint Site

A screenshot of a provisioned site, showing the custom master page, deployed libraries and custom navigation

As mentioned, Falmouth’s IA also included a requirement for a custom navigation structure which reflected the University’s departmental topology, but also was also relevant to the user. To implement this, we used a combination of five technologies in a single solution:

  • The managed metadata catalogue is used to define the structure of the navigation, and also provide friendly URLs to overcome the restrictions of Office 365 when it comes to site structure. Each site has a friendly URL and position with the catalogue which is determined by the type of site.
  • The provisioning engine creates new sites and populates the termstore with the new site friendly URL. PowerShell jobs maintains the termstore to capture changes and attach a new copy of the termstore to new/existing sites.
  • In order to show the user the sites they are members of, custom searches are run to return a set of results for three specific site types (projects, committees & groups, and departmental sites)
  • Javascript is used to combine the menu structure from the termstore with the custom results for each user. This result set contains all sites across all site collections, which is not possible with the in-built navigation. The combined results are cached to improve performance.
  • The resulting custom navigation is displayed within a custom master page which includes the Falmouth branding. All Javascript and CSS files are maintained in the root site for ease of maintenance.
Falmouth SharePoint Site

A screenshot of the custom navigation, showing the structure from the managed metadata termstore

The use of the PnP initiative ensures that Falmouth are able to achieve their IA objectives within the constraints of Office 365, with a scalable, easy to maintain solution that follows Microsoft guidance.

Results Achieved

Falmouth University have already migrated all of their published content from the on premise SharePoint platform, and have a number of departments using SharePoint online, with more scheduled to be migrated over the coming months. The entire migration is expected to be completed with the year. This has been achieved in a matter of months, by a team of four people.

The tools the University have at their disposal enable them to rapidly provision sites, migrate content and update existing sites, while ensuring all sites adhere to their IA policies. This has meant it’s been very easy to rollout training, and keep support requests to a minimum. The involvement of the business from the beginning of the project, together with the training and rapid provisioning process, has meant minimal disruption to each migrated department.

Fuse’s combination of knowledge of SharePoint on premise, SharePoint online, Azure and developing custom solutions has enabled us to deliver the complete solution and provide Falmouth with ongoing support for the environment.

Results Summary

  • Rapid, self-service provisioning of sites that include all information architecture requirements.
  • Consistency between sites makes training and support easier
  • Navigation solution that provides unique capabilities
  • Maintainable solution for site templates that scales to hundreds of sites
  • Custom master page that includes all branding
  • Integration with Azure AD and Azure websites ensures availability and security
  • Ability to migrate entire departments within days