What SharePoint 2013 means for the data center

From a new app model to social networking, there's a lot to consider.

Microsoft held its most recent SharePoint Conference in November. The predominant buzz among the 10,000-plus attendees was around SharePoint 2013, the new release of the software giant's server productivity platform.

It is huge, and a massive upgrade. I spoke informally with many conference attendees and, while most are impressed with the set of features and capabilities in SharePoint 2013, it seems they're having a hard time getting their heads around the release.

With millions of installations of both the free and paid enterprise SharePoint editions, chances are good that your organization has already deployed some version of SharePoint and the new version is on your roadmap. But before you rush into anything, here are some facts that are important for understanding exactly what SharePoint 2013 is and what it means for your organization's deployment plans.

Social: It's here, but what do you do with it now?

In June, Microsoft purchased Yammer, a social networking company, for $1.2 billion and immediately announced its intention to integrate social networking capabilities into SharePoint. We've now learned that Yammer will be included free-of-charge in Office 365 subscriptions, with Yammer availability for on-premises installations to follow at some unspecified point.

But the integration of Yammer and SharePoint Online (part of Office 365) is not as clean as you might expect. While you can, for example, start up an instant conversation around a document stored on SharePoint and then search for the results of that conversation later, you lose any customizations you have made to the look and feel of your SharePoint site -- your branding, in other words.

It is not necessarily a confusing experience, but it is somewhat jarring, and your users will definitely be able to tell that another application is in use.

But predominantly the questions here are: What does "social" help you accomplish in your organization? What is the return on investment in terms of productivity, ease of use and so on by integrating social in your enterprise? These are deeper questions than the current technology allows you to answer today, in my opinion.

That is not to say Yammer will not become more fully developed. But until it is, my advice is to avoid basing a large part of your deployment decision or rationale on the presence of social. For one, if you are not in the cloud, you cannot use Yammer yet and, second, the payoff is as yet unclear.

The "app" model within SharePoint: New to 2013

New to SharePoint 2013 is the concept of full-featured apps, much like those that are available on your smartphone or tablet. You can purchase and download apps from third parties and extend the functionality of your SharePoint deployment from right within the product.

This is a fundamental difference in the new SharePoint version; previously, you had to buy third-party products and install them on top of SharePoint, with other licensing, and then perform manual integrations between all of the products. The app model transforms this multi-step process into a fully contained and tested activity, ready to go in a click or two.

Of course, another key point is that there is a lot required of your infrastructure if you are deploying SharePoint 2013 on premises and using third-party apps. For example:

  • Segregate SharePoint apps off on their own domain. Plan on hosting any third-party SharePoint apps on a different domain than the rest of your SharePoint infrastructure, to keep things clean and enhance your security model. This prevents cross-site scripting attacks from being possible, since otherwise scripts running on your regular SharePoint domain would be making calls to other environments.
  • Use an encrypted channel to host SharePoint apps. Microsoft recommends hosting SharePoint apps over HTTPS, not plain HTTP, to ensure that the authentication tokens that are exchanged are not sent over unencrypted clear text. (To do so, as well as to put SharePoint apps on their own domain, you need to obtain a separate certificate, preferably a wildcard certificate, to enable the new domain with SSL.)
  • Create a catalog to present apps to your users. This catalog is simply a SharePoint site collection that hosts the manifests, which are simply descriptions of the apps and their related files, which users can browse to select apps.
SharePoint 2013 user interface
SharePoint 2013 debuts a stark, minimalist interface with a simple color theme and a lot of white space, as well as imaging and icons borrowed from Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.
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