Building the farm: From learning to testing

In the third part of his SharePoint 2010 implementation diary, University of Brighton project leader Rob Schifreen rolls up his sleeves and starts learning
Written by Robert Schifreen, Contributor

Starting in June 2011, I set aside the first couple of months to give myself a basic grounding in SharePoint 2010.

Having made the decision to adopt SharePoint at the University of Brighton, we had encountered a number of teething problems — not the least the fact the product was so new there was little information to be found on it.

However, by June, third-party books had begun to appear. I backed those up with lots of TechNet articles. I ploughed through SharePoint Unleashed from cover to cover (it's a great read for a first-time SharePoint admin). I made copious notes, in a document that has now become my own Knowledge Base and into which everything relating to the project (and how to rebuild it if things break) is meticulously noted.

I spent four days in London on a course run by Learning Tree for first-time SharePoint administrators. This helped immensely and I came away with a great deal of confidence that SharePoint could work for us. I also came away with answers to most of the questions that had been raised during my previous research stages. All that reading before going on the course turned out to have been a wise decision.

Taking the plunge

By August 2011 it was finally time to take the plunge and get SharePoint up and running on a test rig. I arranged with our server team for two new virtual servers and set about installing everything. I now had a playground where I could start to hone my skills.

If you're about to install SharePoint, take my advice. It won't always work the way you want it to, first time. Once your servers have been set up, whether physical or virtual, with nothing more than an operating system and an IP address, take a complete backup or clone image. Expect to have to wipe the server and revert to that clone two or three times during the initial build phase.

Alternatively, use the VM snapshot facility in your virtual hosting infrastructure (we use vSphere), so that you can roll the machine back to its 9am position if, by 5pm, you begin to suspect that the day hasn't gone well.

What might seem like a minor annoyance can often only be solved by extensive hackery or by reinstalling. The installation wizard will, by default, create database names that include a GUID at the end. Something as simple as a database called sharepoint_config will also have 32 characters of hex after it. Which, when you're looking through a Powershell script trying to search and replace all instances of a database name, can be irritating to say the least.

If you think that life as a SharePoint admin will be lonely, think again.

But if you think that life as a SharePoint admin will be lonely, think again. Unless you work in a very small company whose IT department consists of just yourself, be prepared to compete for the time of just about every technical person in your organisation.

You'll need servers set up, SAN storage provisioned, new domain accounts created, DNS entries adding, access to your Active Directory database, firewall holes punching, server licences purchasing, Active Directory security groups creating, installation DVDs downloading, workstations being put into domains for testing, access to VM management consoles granting, servers adding into the load balancer pools, IP addresses allocating, users' home drives re-mapping, SSL certificates applying for, login scripts amending, and more.

You'll soon learn why your job description asked for good communication skills and why you seem to spend so little time actually using the product.

Building the Farm

It was clear that we were going to need some expert guidance when it came to finalising the farm architecture, or the quantity and purpose of the servers. An afternoon spent online researching likely candidates led me to a US-based organisation called SharePoint 911. Its two best-known consultants, Shane and Todd, seemed well-known on the conference circuit and had written some major SharePoint books.

To our delight, their business model fitted our requirements better than we could have hoped, and in a way that no one in the UK could match. They offer ad-hoc consultancy sessions on the phone for a very acceptable hourly rate, billable in 15-minute segments, and are generally available at a couple of days' notice. Two hours with Shane, and an hour with Todd a few months later, proved incredibly enlightening and very good value indeed. I can't recommend them highly enough.

We didn't want or need posh management reports or in-depth meetings — we just wanted to talk through some questions and get some sensible answers.

With a basic two-server farm up and running (one SharePoint server and one SQL Server box) within which I could create simple document libraries and other sites, the next step towards understanding how SharePoint works in a corporate environment was to attempt an Active Directory synchronisation.

Next; Rob, SharePoint 2010 and Active Directory get acquainted 

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. We will be serialising his experiences, positive and negative, in getting it to the stage where it's ready for action; the entire series will also be available as a downloadable white paper.

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