SharePoint 2010: A migration odyssey

SharePoint 2010: A migration odyssey

Summary: How do you take a product that's so new nobody knows much about it, and get it ready for deployment over a large organisation? Robert Schifreen faced this task when Sharepoint 2010 was chosen for rollout at the University of Brighton


Last summer, the University of Brighton embarked on an ambitious project to roll out SharePoint 2010 from scratch.

Between them, 12 servers provide both a test and production environment that will eventually deliver personal file storage for the university's 4,000 staff; departmental storage areas for all schools, faculties and central admin departments; and a fully functional staff extranet. With eight years' experience in PHP/MySQL development and teaching staff the basics of web authorship, I got the job of deployment.

What follows is some of what I've learnt in the past few months on my journey to become a SharePoint farm administrator. It explains some of the major decisions that we had to make in order to get where we are today, and why we did it that way in the first place.

For those considering a move to SharePoint 2010, what follows will provide shortcuts and tips, save pain, and give pointers for more research.

Buying decision

Although neither myself nor anyone involved had any experience of SharePoint, the decision was taken to go with it. We needed an industrial-strength staff extranet and portal, as well as personal document storage that was accessible from on- and off-campus; SharePoint was the only sensible candidate.

I was prepared for a challenge. Everything I'd heard about SharePoint in the past was bad. The product was huge, expensive, difficult to learn, heavy on hardware resources, confusing for users, and way more complex than it needed to be. All these perceptions proved to be true.

Why not move to the cloud? Well, we currently have a policy of not hosting staff data outside of the institution. Our student email system is outsourced to Microsoft, but everything else is currently in-house. Also, a hosted SharePoint solution on Office 365 wouldn't have given us the flexibility we needed, while a collection of empty cloud-based servers onto which we could install SharePoint ourselves was not cost-effective for the amount of data and processing power we'd require.

We also quickly rejected SharePoint Foundation (free) in favour of the Enterprise version (most definitely not free). Foundation lacks a lot of the features we'd need from day one.

SharePoint 2010 seemed to tick all the right boxes. The 'My Sites' feature could replace the personal private network shares on which staff currently store their files, and be accessible both on- and off-campus. The 'Team Sites' component supported shared document libraries on a per-department basis, and the powerful security model would allow us to devolve administration and management of each department's sites to a handful of people within each department, school or faculty.

I was prepared for a challenge. Everything I'd heard about SharePoint in the past was bad.

Longer term, our extranet could evolve into a real portal with classic portally features such as online submission of expenses claims or holiday requests, and front ends into our other internal systems such as finance or student information. Our 25,000 students could also perhaps use it as a front end to our Blackboard-based Virtual Learning Environment.

Many experienced SharePoint consultants claim that My Sites is the most controversial feature. It can be hard to reach the critical mass of users who want to maintain a personal site, which results in the loss of what little inertia existed.

The general advice is that you shouldn't actually implement My Sites unless there's a good business case for doing so. In our situation, there's a jolly good case, namely that the feature will make a great replacement for personal network shares, which will now be easier to access and also available off-site. Being able to access documents when away from the university is something for which our staff have been clamouring.

However, choosing SharePoint 2010 came with a catch: the product hadn't even launched yet. We were to be pioneers.

Next time: How to be a pioneer

Robert Schifreen has reported on and implemented online technology since the early 1980s. His latest project has been a large SharePoint 2010 installation in tertiary education. For the next two weeks, we'll be serialising his experiences, positive and negative, in getting it to the stage where it's ready for action; we'll also be making the entire series available as a downloadable white paper.

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  • Agreed.
    I think Sharepoint is overpriced and needs to catch up on some other features, other CMS's have.
    Dotnetnuke does the same thing for a fraction of the price, & if you do need a Sharepoint instance, then you could use DNNs Sharepoint connector!
    I believe M$ is putting loads of resources into Sharepoint Dev also...
  • Interesting, I'm looking forward to the follow-up.
    P.S. I remember the excellent .EXE mag, in fact I still use Boyer-Moore search, and the Marsaglia-Zaman pseudo-random number generator.
  • Hi Robert,
    if all you really need is to give users remote access to their files, why not just use VPN?

    BTW, we are also using SharePoint as a glorified file server :-(
  • From my experience, SharePoint is a beast that is very resource intensive and very messy with its background services. It does the job though, and often requires migrating from version to version (in place upgrades have been problematic); this isn't uncommon for CMS sytems though, so it's understandable. Probably the worst part of SharePoint is that some elements of it still aren't compatible with non-IE browsers like Chrome and Firefox.

    I'm surprised that the author who has experience in PHP/MySQL didn't choose something that runs on a reliable and extensible LAMP platform, like Drupal?
  • I remember .EXE (rhymes with not-sexy) and the inimitable Verity Stob. In fact, I remember writing for .EXE; it took one of my first grown-up reviews, that of MASM, the Microsoft Assembler...
  • Overpriced? No more so than other Microsoft stuff, I guess. It's hugely powerful. More so than DotNetNuke or any of the other products we looked at. When I was working on the CMS side of things, our long-list was 99 products long! But in the enterprise portal space, rather than general web publishing, there's only a handful of major players. And if you want something that has a presence in the Higher Ed market, it's an even smaller group.
  • Why not a VPN? Because non-techie end users tend not to get on well with VPN clients. Plus, we don't want to allow it to become just a file share. We have grand plans for some proper portal functionality in the coming years, to automate a lot of our existing paper-based systems and to "surface" many existing online services. If it ends up being just a file share I will regard my time on the project as unsuccessful.
  • Ah, Rupert. MASM. Brings back memories. Mainly of when I worked on Personal Computer World and a new version was launched. The lovely Tim from Microsoft's PR agency biked me a copy over (this was in the days before even diskfax!). First thing I did was to make a backup copy of the floppy. Except I messed up the DOS command and ended up wiping the disk. So ten minutes after the software had arrived, I was back on the phone asking for another copy.

    As for SharePoint being resource intensive, you'd better believe it. It's quite good at load balancing itself, though. Put multiple servers in your sharepoint farm and most of the work will automatically be shared amongst them (as I'll mention in a future installment).

    Cross-browser compatibility is much improved nowadays. It'll use Silverlight if present, but it's not an absolute requirement. And ActiveX isn't used at all. I've accessed it from an iPad and an Android phone (albeit with FF, as the default Android browser won't work).

    Suggesting that we look at Drupal indicates that, like many people, you don't appreciate the difference between a proper grown-up enterprise-level system and something aimed at smaller organisations. Most people, including far too many journalists IMO, think that the web CMS market comprises Joomla, WordPress and Drupal. Try doing proper workflow, or talking to Active Directory, or having multi-terabyte databases, on any of those.

    One product that I would have liked to explore further, though, is eyeos. I've had my, er, eye on it since it's very early days and I think it deserves to be more well known than it is. It's a great idea, stunningly well executed. Though whether the company behind the product is stable enough to have "bet our business" on, I never got the opportunity to investigate because we'd already decided on SharePoint. Partly because it's a neat fit with our existing infrastructure such as Exchange.
  • As for SharePoint being overpriced, it's one of those projects where Total Cost of Ownership really does matter. I won't go into the precise figures, but if you worry merely about the cost of the software then it's definitely not for you. In addition to the software licences that we have, there's also a handful of salaries, 12 servers, many terabytes of disk space, and more.

    And remember that, in grown-up computing, a terabyte of disk space doesn't mean a 70 quid drive from PC World. It's probably SAS or SCSI rather than SATA so it's expensive to start with. And by the time you take RAID, backups, and other resilience features into account you're probably buying 5 TB of capacity for every 1 TB that can actually be used.
  • I'd like to know why people think SP is much better than OSS competitors like Alfresco or Nuxeo, from what I've read these seem to support as much as SP does, but in a cheaper, friendlier and much-less-resource-hogging way. I do know of the perils of using SP - upgrades were a nightmare, and resource usage was horrific. Nuxeo, for example, is built as a developer-friendly platform to extend, whereas Sharepoint is more of a end-product that has some extension capabilities. Nuxeo is arguably better from a document management PoV too.
  • Yes, some organisations have policies that are not ready to accept cloud. That can be a hard to policy to change without executive stewardship. It's clear that IT directors are either for or against cloud.
    90+% of hacking is from internal users. Cloud solutions have much better economy of scale to have secure environments.
    Some organisations are fearful of the patriot act but yet what do we actually know of the patriot act? Are the FBI / CIA really that interested in what you're doing? If they were, what would they find, what are they allowed to do with the data?
    I'm yet to hear a convincing argument against cloud based solutions.
    Still, enterprise installations and customisations are like sailing wooden ships to New York, quite the adventure, memorable experience and great fun if you live to tell the tale. OTS Cloud is like sailing in nice phat millionaires yacht... without the millionaires price.
  • Cloud-based storage has its place, Peter. I'm a huge fan of Dropbox, for example, but I only use it for "work in progress" and I back it up regularly to my own PC. Anything remotely confidential gets encrypted, by me, before it touches my dropbox folders.

    My personal opinion is that moving to the cloud should only be done if you have good reasons to do so and if you've done your homework very carefully. Many people think it's a no-brainer. Including those who work for companies that sell cloud-based solutions. They're entitled to their opinion. It's not one that I share.