Q&A

Back to Basics with SharePoint 2016

Microsoft MVP Vlad Catrinescu gives us a thorough grounding on how to think about Microsoft's newest collaboration server.

The commercial release of SharePoint Server 2016 is expected in early May this year, so I recently asked SharePoint expert Vlad Catrinescu to shed some light on the topic.

Catrinescu has been a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) since 2013 and runs Montreal-based vNext Solutions, an independent consultancy. He does SharePoint implementations and migrations, and helps organizations get the most out of SharePoint. He is a Pluralsight author currently involved with a SharePoint 2016 project, and has his own SharePoint blog.

We talked about SharePoint Server 2016's IT pro benefits, server migration and upgrade possibilities, as well as its "hybrid" perks, including enablement via Office Online Server. What follows is an edited Q&A.

How did you get involved in SharePoint?
Catrinescu: After I finished college, I went to a small consulting company and I was the junior network admin. I was managing DNS and Exchange -- all of the network part, but not SharePoint. But then SharePoint became a huge part of that company. I started having to install it for QA and developer internal environments and all of that. And that's when I thought, "Hey, this SharePoint thing is really cool and I want to get into it." And then I switched from a network admin to being a SharePoint consultant, and that's around 2011, and I've been doing SharePoint consulting ever since.

As a consultant, have you seen many SharePoint disasters?
There are so many ways to do SharePoint that I don't even know what is "a disaster" and what is not. But I think the worst thing I've ever seen is a company with about 3,000 users and they were running their intranet as a subsite in central administration. So, by default, most of their users had contribution rights on the intranet site and some actually had full rights on the SharePoint central administration. It wasn't an easy migration because it was in the same Site Collection as the Central Administration!

How do you feel about customizing SharePoint? Some experts say it brings problems.
SharePoint is a development platform. It's really made to be customized to your business needs. If you don't customize SharePoint to your needs, you're not getting the most out of it. The problem is that so many companies want to save on money on developers. When you do bad development, you can get memory leaks; you can make the SharePoint farm unstable. Some developers will recode the out-of-the-box stuff. They make it custom. A lot of developers know how to develop .NET, but they don't know out-of-the-box SharePoint features and then they recode them for nothing.

Was Microsoft ambiguous about the future of SharePoint Server?
My opinion is that Microsoft has always been clear about where they will go with the server. Bill Baer, a Microsoft senior product marketing manager for SharePoint, said at the SP24 Conference in April 2014 that SharePoint on prem is not dead. We're going to have a next version, which turned out to be SharePoint 2016, and there'll be a next version after that.

Microsoft has stressed "hybrid" scenarios (server plus cloud services) with SharePoint 2016. What are the advantages of that approach?
The new SharePoint 2016 hybrid features are really cool, although I don't think they're a must for migrating. Also, SharePoint 2016 has features that are not hybrid only. So, for example, we've got DLP (data loss prevention), durable links, fast-site creation, big file uploads -- there are a lot of features that are only on prem. If you want to go hybrid, it gives you the ability of choosing on which SharePoint I should deploy a workload. For example, I have a SharePoint Site in which my users have to collaborate with external users. If I want to do it on prem, I have to put my SharePoint in a DMZ (demilitarized zone). I have to open up SharePoint to the Internet. I have to secure this connection. I have to see how I manage the credentials for the external partners. But if I have it in hybrid, then they just do a Microsoft account in the cloud and that's it. So I think the real advantage of hybrid is you have a SharePoint on prem in which can run all of your custom stuff -- all of the stuff that needs to stay on prem. But you also have SharePoint Online for more basic collaboration -- for team sites, for external sites where you only need to share files and have a discussion with your partners. So I think the advantage of hybrid is being able to give one more option to your business partners.

Microsoft has been touting its new hybrid search capability for SharePoint Server. The search index gets housed in its datacenters. But there are potential costs to going that route, right?
You are talking about the Cloud Search Service Application, and you're right, if you look at the cost, it can get really big. For example, an organization wanted to put 13 million items from its on-prem index, which is a lot, and move it to the Cloud Search Service Application, so cost becomes a question. However, the experience you get by using the Cloud Search Service Application is really good. The user experience is amazing, and what Microsoft enables with that -- being able to use Delve, being able to use the Office Graph, having all of that stuff with on-prem content -- is really good. However, some companies say they can't put their documents in the cloud for legal reasons. Well, when you put your index of documents in the cloud, the index is every word in your documents. The index is really the whole content of your SharePoint. If you put that in the cloud, it's very similar to actually putting your documents in the cloud. I know the index is encrypted and cannot be read as a document, but I think it's something that companies will have to get their legal departments involved in considering.

How do organizations migrate to SharePoint Server 2016? It's a one-hop move from SharePoint 2013, right?
If you are on SharePoint 2013, basically you pop up a new SharePoint 2016 farm. You migrate the databases. You run the PowerShell to attach the databases to the SharePoint 2016 farm, and that's about it. That's really the way it's always been. It's not something new for migrations. For SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2016, it's the same thing. You go from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013; you upgrade your site collections, and then you move to SharePoint 2016. It's the exact same path as it's always been, so there's nothing new there for IT professionals. The only thing that Microsoft says is that from SharePoint 2013 to SharePoint 2016 the move should be a lot smoother because the core between SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2016 is almost the same. There shouldn't be as many bugs as we had from SharePoint 2010 to SharePoint 2013.

SharePoint Server doesn't seem to have a happy administration experience. Is it a nightmare to keep patched?
It's my opinion that once you know how SharePoint Server patching works and you're in the community and you know whom to ask if that patch has any bugs, then there is no problem with SharePoint patching. Once you know to stop the services, and where to stop them and when, you don't have a problem.

Will the new MinRole topology in SharePoint Server 2016 be the way to go to get so-called "zero-downtime" patching?
That's kind of a misconception. First of all, MinRole is not a requirement for zero-downtime patching. You just need to have high availability, which Microsoft confirmed recently. That means you need to have every service running on at least two servers in your farm. So you don't need to have a MinRole highly available farm -- you just need to have a highly available farm. Also, people make a big deal about zero-downtime patching, but the only difference between SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2016 is that the schema update doesn't cause downtime anymore, so that's the big improvement.

What do you need to have a highly available SharePoint farm?
The minimum you need to have a highly available farm is only two servers that both run all the available services. If we want to follow the MinRole model, we will need nine servers.

Will zero-downtime patching be a welcome addition for IT pros?
If you can do it, it doesn't mean should do it. Yes, you get zero-downtime patching with SharePoint 2016, but let's not do it on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. It just makes that patch window a bit bigger. The other benefit is that Microsoft has changed the way that they packed the patches. Now you get MSP files, which patch a lot quicker. It's also a very different way of patching that SharePoint admins will have to know. Now you have prerequisite installers in the patches, which we didn't have before, so that's something new.

Will IT pros still have to carefully track Microsoft's cumulative update releases with SharePoint Server 2016?
Do you know Microsoft MVP Todd Klindt? He has a regressions section for every SharePoint Server cumulative update, which is where all of the community goes to give their opinions about Microsoft's releases. And everybody from the community knows that when we find a bug, we give it to Todd. I wouldn't patch without checking Todd's blog first.

IT pros will have to track several Microsoft product deprecations if using SharePoint Server 2016, right?
I think there is some confusion around that. SharePoint Designer and InfoPath are not deprecated -- there's just not going to be a new client version. The only way to do it is by using InfoPath 2013 and SharePoint Designer 2013 and Microsoft will support them through 2026. Microsoft officials have said that they're just not going to repackage them with new version numbers. And Excel Services is gone, but we serve the business users and I think users don't really care what technology is used in the background. And if we look at Excel Services, it's replaced by Excel Online and Office Online Server. So I don't think this actually impacts the users because they get the same functionality. Some features that are really gone are the Work Management Service that could aggregate tasks and show them in a user's My Site, as well as the Tags and Notes Feature. They were removed from SharePoint Online in September 2014.

Office Online Server is the successor to Office Web Apps Server. Is it something that IT pros should get to know?
It's important not to get confused by Microsoft's choice of names for a product. Even if it's called "Office Online Server," the product's fully on premises. It doesn't have any cloud connection. Its predecessor, Office Web Apps Server, allows you to view and edit Office documents in the browser, so you don't have to open the documents locally, which is really cool. It also allows you to have search previews. Whenever I search for a document, I can see what my document is directly from the search results without having to open it. And something that I think a lot of companies don't understand or don't capitalize on is that Office Web Apps or Office Online Server doesn't only add features to SharePoint. You can add features to Exchange Server and Skype for Business, too.

What are some features enabled by Office Online Server?
If you have BI (business intelligence) in SharePoint 2016, you need to have Office Online Server. Another feature is durable links. It basically makes sure your links don't break anymore when you rename files or when you move them to different libraries. "Modern attachments" is another benefit. It was previously available as an Office 365 feature. With modern attachments, instead of having a document in Exchange, you actually include attachments in OneDrive files. A Microsoft GM has confirmed that Exchange 2016 with SharePoint 2016 and Office Online Server will have an integration to enable Office modern attachments one hundred percent on premises. If you combine all three of them together, you can get this functionality on premises. In my opinion, there are a lot of great features that make it worth deploying Office Online Server for your business users. And if you use SharePoint for business intelligence, it becomes a requirement!

Microsoft has said it plans to release Office Online Server concurrently with SharePoint Server 2016. How can one prepare for Office Online Server?
I have a Pluralsight video training course on how to plan and deploy Office Web Apps 2013 for SharePoint, Exchange and Lync. The basic parts of Office Web Apps 2013 and Office Web Apps 2016 stay the same: the logic is the same and the certificate, ports and hardware requirements are the same. There are not really any training materials for Office Online Server available yet, so this course can give a good idea on how to plan for it, how Office Web Apps parts work, what one needs to connect, what certificates do I need and how can I plan it. All of the basics are the same, but in Office Online Server 2016 you have all of the BI stuff -- you didn't have that in Office Web Apps 2013. And you also have the modern attachments. Except for that, this course would still be valid for making sense of 90 percent of Office Online Server.

Will this upgrade to SharePoint Server 2016 be worth it? For instance, it's thought that SharePoint Server 2016 will be a lot like SharePoint Server 2013.
I think it's really a case-by-case scenario. A business should look at their requirements. If they started SharePoint 2013 and the project has been going on for one year, then I'd say, "No," enjoy your investment -- unless you need something that SharePoint 2016 has that you don't have in SharePoint 2013." A lot of factors come into play. Do you have the hardware to do it? Do you have Software Assurance? If you have those things, then you get some features like DLP and durable links with SharePoint 2016. If you want to control and integrate your Project Server farm with your SharePoint Server farm, you'll save money. If you're an international organization, you'll need a 99.999 percent SLA (service level agreement), and MinRole can help you get to that SLA. Zero-downtime patching can help you get that SLA. In my opinion, all new projects and all SharePoint 2010 deployments should go to SharePoint 2016 right away. And, for all of the potential SharePoint 2013 moves, it's a business-by-business analysis.

What about going the SharePoint Online route?
Well, the thing is, I'm in Montreal, and I think the adoption of the cloud here is a lot lower than in the United States. We don't even have a Microsoft datacenter in Canada yet. If you want to go to Office 365, I think Chicago is the closest one. And then you get hit by the USA PATRIOT Act. For my clients, it's really a server world. I haven't had any client maybe above 500 users that has said, "I want to go to the cloud." That's because they want to customize SharePoint. They want to be able to say, "I built my SharePoint. It's my company's SharePoint. It serves my needs, and I have control over it." You know, the bigger a company gets, the more siloed they get and they want to control things. When you go to SharePoint Online, you lose that control because you don't control updates anymore. A lot of companies cannot handle the rapidity of changes in SharePoint Online, especially the ones with custom dev. I think hybrid represents the best of both worlds.

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