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In keeping with its practice of updating the collaboration platform Sharepoint roughly every three years, Microsoft delivered another version in late 2012. With the shipment of SharePoint 2013, which was initially made available to customers with volume licensing agreements and TechNet and MSDN subscribers, IT managers and SharePoint administrators again need to consider what upgrading will mean for their organizations -- and their teams.
From a technical standpoint, the process of upgrading to the SharePoint 2013 release presents a set of challenges and issues that must be avoided or mitigated to smooth the path for a successful deployment. That starts with the basics: Evaluating the need for IT infrastructure improvements.
It's not uncommon for new versions of Microsoft's enterprise software products, such as SharePoint, Exchange and SQL Server, to require new and bigger hardware. The long gaps between releases also means that updates will be able to take advantage of added server functionality and improvements made by hardware vendors during the interim. The shift from 32- to 64-bit architectures is an example from SharePoint's past.
The likelihood is that many of the systems running existing SharePoint installations won't satisfy the processing needs of the 2013 release. For example, Microsoft's minimum RAM requirements for standalone SharePoint 2013 systems and Web and application servers range from 8 GB to 24 GB; for SharePoint 2010, the minimum amounts were 4 GB to 8 GB.
Storage boundaries get more elastic
Organizations are also collecting and storing more and more information, in both structured and unstructured forms. Between documents, e-mails, multimedia assets, transactional and master data and various other content types, companies require storage capacity beyond all historical norms. In many cases, SharePoint is used to manage storage of content; in addition, Microsoft's maximum recommended thresholds for the number of items in document libraries and task lists has increased into the multiple millions with SharePoint 2013. That means SharePoint is capable of storing more data than ever before. As a result, an evaluation of storage needs for the next three to five years should be included in weighing upgrades.
One of SharePoint's strengths is the broad and deep community of independent software vendors and systems integrators that support the collaboration platform. SharePoint customers have thousands of add-on tools available to them. In the SharePoint 2013 release, Microsoft has made some significant architectural changes that affect the way the software supports add-ons. At a basic level, the programming interfaces used by add-on developers have been updated, as part of an ongoing move by Microsoft to shift programmatic interaction from server-side to client-side operations (think jQuery) and expand support for REST-based Web services.
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In addition, Microsoft has deprecated the "sandboxed" add-on functionality it introduced in SharePoint 2010, withdrawing official support for the approach and replacing it with a new add-on app model that's somewhat akin to the ones developed by companies such as Facebook and Salesforce.com. The use of software sandboxes allowed various "tenants" of a single SharePoint farm to add third-party or custom code without affecting other users in the same environment. But there was little adoption of the concept outside of customers creating custom add-ons.
The new model significantly changes how add-ons function in SharePoint. In short, any add-ons that use the sandbox approach will effectively be incompatible with SharePoint 2013. Organizations that are looking to upgrade and have affected add-ons they built in-house should start planning to rewrite them, and SharePoint admins should assess whether vendors of any licensed add-ons plan to upgrade their technologies.
Flex time on SharePoint 2013 deployments
One of the most significant changes in SharePoint 2013 is to its cloud capabilities. Microsoft architected the new release to allow for greater deployment flexibility, including fully cloud-based systems and hybrid architectures combining on-premises and cloud technologies. For example, add-ons to in-house SharePoint 2013 systems can be run from Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud platform. Alternatively, companies that have the resources can construct private clouds and run all or parts of their SharePoint farms there, while small and midsize businesses can run their systems entirely in the cloud, through the newly updated Office 365 service.
Microsoft has also expanded its SkyDrive service, which provides cloud-based storage of documents and files and synchronizes data across different computers and devices. Along with SharePoint 2013, Microsoft released a companion SkyDrive Pro tool that supplements document storage in SharePoint, giving business users the option of storing files directly in SharePoint libraries or in their SkyDrive Pro accounts.
While the increased flexibility enabled by the new cloud options certainly provides new opportunities for SharePoint users, it also creates more headaches in terms of data protection, the overall content management lifecycle and user access control (think new firewall rules and access schemes).
No upgrade from one release to another is ever easy when enterprise software is involved. But upgrading to SharePoint 2013 promises to be a particular challenge, given the number of architectural changes in the software -- not to mention a variety of new front-end features, such as a redesigned user interface and expanded enterprise social networking capabilities.
It will take a cross-disciplinary team, including application developers, infrastructure managers and user interface designers, plus other staffers focused on the user experience, to ensure a smooth transition from older versions of SharePoint. And decisions on whether to move forward with upgrades may not be just a matter of evaluating the new software; the expanded cloud dimension of the SharePoint 2013 release could serve as an inflection point for organizations considering how to reformulate their collaboration systems and strategies.
Shawn Shell is the founder of Consejo Inc., a consulting and IT services company that focuses on SharePoint, Web application development, information architecture design and Web content management systems. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.