In the course of a couple of disjointed weeks, we have been building a new entryway to our house. The small addition features a single level deck, set just below the threshold, and is connected to the driveway by a ramp. A ramp? That seems to be the reaction from most of the people who hear of this project. Yes, a ramp. There are several good reasons to build a ramp now: First, we can; I mean if something were to happen so that we would need a ramp, chances are good that same thing would preclude our building it. Yes, there are volunteer groups who would build a ramp for us at that time, but their focus would rightly be on utility, not appearances; we want the ramp to compliment the house, not detract from it. Second, even if we don’t need it, others might benefit from it now. Third, there are times when healthy people could use a ramp; both my wife and I have spent time on crutches, and this would have been nice to have during that time. Does this sound like SharePoint? It should. Taking the time and spending the money to help SharePoint survive its own success makes good sense. Here are three things that we’ve done that fall into this category:
Separate Content – One of the bits of future-proofing we decided to tackle when we upgraded to SharePoint 2010 was to split much of our content into separate content databases and site collections. We did this where we had to, where individual or combinations of content were banging up against those recommended limits, and we did this where we might have to in the future. There are some immediate benefits, mostly associated with backup and recovery planning, but it’s nice to know that content can grow at its own pace. It’s also nice to know that the navigation we put in place during that upgrade will remain useful for a while.
Domain Names – Changing the location of content presents a problem for users who have bookmarked certain pages. Internally, we are able to address this pretty quickly, but on our Internet-facing server, this had the potential to be a major problem. First, we have many more users hitting that server than the internal one and second, they are scattered far and wide. Rather than issue an apology along with a slightly revised URL, we introduced a new feature – custom domain names. Instead of http://blah.blah.com/policyholders changing to http://blah.newblah.com/policyholders we decided to spend $8 and just make it something like http://www.ourPolicyholders.com. As long as we continue to fork over the registration fee, our users will never have to worry about broken links.
Usability First – Although it’s a bit more nebulous and it’s a change that is occurring at a glacial pace, I think this change has the greatest potential to do good. We have started to slow down the process of building SharePoint solutions so that we can think about, and force our coworkers to think about the design issues that will surface when plans succeed. Library structure, metadata, navigation, and reporting are all aspects of SharePoint that are harder to change than they are to build. We have learned, in some cases the hard way, that it is much better to consider these issues up front and design the site accordingly. We are building a site right now that incorporates a lot of this type of thinking. We have included libraries that have very few documents today, but which will grow to a point that will justify a separate container. We have lookup list metadata columns that are tied to custom lists that the users can easily maintain because they can’t think of every term today. We are adding site-columns that we can use for search terms so that we can put content where it belongs but find it across the whole site structure. We are building parameterized search web parts that will look pretty silly at deployment – they might only return one or two documents but will look fantastic as their results grow automatically over time.
Splitting content into separate site collections does require some additional attention to navigation (you can’t walk all the way back up the tree). Domain names, even at $4.99 a pop add an incremental bit to the ongoing cost of SharePoint. Focusing on usability slows down the development process, but all of these things work to make life easier in the future. Also, just like the ramp, these are all things we can do now, that might be harder or more expensive to do in the future and they all offer some immediate benefit.