SharePoint 2013 Workflows Resemble State Machine Workflows — to the Benefit of Stakeholders

Computer software, regardless of whether it’s hard coded, or produced with no code methods, must be useful if it is to deliver on a value proposition. Workflows in SharePoint 2013 are better equipped to be truly useful as the result of a closer resemblance to state machine workflows.

“Useful”, of course, is an abstraction requiring further definition. Perhaps it will be helpful if I provide an illustration of a process, I believe most readers will judge to be something less than “useful”.

Chris Beckett includes this illustration in one of the video tutorials in SharePoint-Videos.com’s set, SharePoint 2013: Workflows:

“Let’s say we have an approval workflow, I upload a document, and I ask my boss to review it, and approve it, before I send it to a customer, or something. So, in 2010 workflow I would upload a document to a document library, the workflow would start, I would assign a task to my manager, my manager would review the document, maybe he would enter in some comments, he wants some revisions before he’s willing to approve it. The workflow would have to end, because it could only move its logic in one direction.” (quoted from the audio track of Chris Beckett’s tutorial).

Clearly the workflow behind this illustration fails to deliver on the expectation of a no code method of managing an approval process for enterprise document management (EDM) from start to finish. The problem is the “in between state” constituted by the manager’s request for revision. Beckett attributes this problem to the sequential logic architecture of SharePoint 2010 workflows.

This isn’t to say SharePoint 2010 workflows aren’t worth the effort. In fact, they are very popular, and very widely used across SharePoint implementations. But, as Beckett goes onto explain in this video, this is the case as the result of ” . . . all kinds of custom logic that would allow us to check to see whether the workflow had already run previously, whether it need us to skip over some of our logic in order to kind of resume where it had left off . . . ” (ibid).

In contrast, as Chris presents in this video, SharePoint 2013 workflows incorporate a different logic architecture, one more closely resembling the architecture of what he refers to as “state machine workflows”. These “state-centric” no code solutions are capable of supporting the more common type of approval process, within larger organizations, meaning processes requiring multiple parties to sign off on requests.

For some organizations, it may make more sense to implement the SharePoint 2013 workflow method, regardless of whether or not they already have made a major commitment to SharePoint 2010 no code workflow solutions, or not.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

Reduce SharePoint Development Costs with No Code Reusable Workflows

The biggest return on an investment in developing custom solutions can be found in the combined benefits of enterprise wide accessibility and utility. For SharePoint, reusable workflows are a great example of a method of delivering this high value benefit.

In a video tutorial titled Intro to Workflow types, models, stages and app step usage scenarios, Chris Beckett presents the notion of reusable workflows: “Reusable workflows allow us to publish a workflow to a content type, instead of a specific list. Now the advantage of a reusable workflow is that anywhere that we use that content type we can also use the workflow. So, essentially, we get to be able to reuse workflows across multiple lists and libraries by binding the new content type.” (quoted from this video tutorial)

By publishing workflows to content types, then, SharePoint stakeholders can take a big step forward in an effort to eliminate duplication of efforts, while, at the same time, providing uniformity to the range of variables to be collected by SharePoint enterprise metadata tags, etc.

Stakeholders can mandate the importance of ensuring the highest possible percentage of reusability for workflows, along with the specified method, in a governance plan for just how custom processes will be developed for their SharePoint implementation.

Beckett differentiates SharePoint 2013 reusable workflows from their 2010 predecessors. With SharePoint 2013, any/all reusable workflows have to be published to the “all” content type, which ” . . . is, actually, the root system content type, which means that any reusable workflows can, literally, be used in any list or library.” (quoted from this video tutorial). The video is available for unlimited viewing by any subscriber to SharePoint-Videos.com. The video is also included in a DVD video training set titled “SharePoint 2013: Workflows”, which can be purchased for individual, or group viewing).

So, organizations opting to implement the SharePoint 2013 workflow methodology stand to benefit from the much wider applicability of custom solutions possible for any list or library, which is achieved once the reusable workflow is published to the “all” content type.

This video tutorial is available for unlimited viewing by any subscriber to SharePoint-Videos.com. The video is also included in a DVD video training set titled “SharePoint 2013: Workflows”, which can be purchased for unlimited, local viewing by individuals, or groups. Please contact us for further information.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

SharePoint Works Best as a Worflow Platform for Applications

In SharePoint-Videos’ set of video training content on SharePoint 2013 Worflows, SharePoint 2013: Workflows, Chris Beckett distinguishes between two types of workflow requirements:

  1. workflows for applications
  2. and workflows for Enterprise Systems Integration.

Chris recommends using SharePoint as a platform for building workflows for applications. Stakeholders after a substantial return on their investment in SharePoint for building workflows, will need to come up with an answer to this same question.

Perhaps it will be helpful to provide some definition to Chris’ use of the term “application workflows”. Any need to automate the steps in the human tasks related to office automation is best served by application workflows.

SharePoint is very well suited to this type of implementation. The “people/collaboration” features of the platform are numerous, which provides workflow designers a lot of options as far as connecting steps in a process.

But, in contrast, “application workflows” are usually built to automate the interconnection of software components of a large system. The need driving this type of workflow development, as Chris notes in the third video tutorial in our set, is something like “[t]ransform[ing] data between well-defined message schemas”, or “structured data exchange” or to manage “well-known exception flows” (all quotes are from the third video tutorial in our set).

As Chris explained in the second video of this set, Microsoft’s BizTalk Server is actually a better choice to meet a need for enterprise workflow development.

So what does all of the above have to do with SharePoint stakeholders, and their need to present a reasonable business case for SharePoint? My hope in publishing this post is to illustrate the urgency of vetting any/all technical assumptions underpinning the SharePoint implementation business case proposal. Opting to use SharePoint as a development platform for workflows better suited to BizTalk server would amount to a big mistake. On the other hand, implementing SharePoint, albeit without newsfeeds, team sites, etc, would handicap any effort to successfully use the platform to support application workflows.

Please contact us should you have any questions about Application Workflows and how they are distinguished from Enterprise Workflows.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

An Appetite for Document Workflow and Business Process Management Drives Enterprise Interest In SharePoint

Merely a minute into the third video tutorial in our SharePoint-Videos.com set on SharePoint 2013: Workflow, our instructor, Chris Beckett refers to a survey, conducted ” . . . a couple of years ago by Global 360 . . .” (quoted from a video tutorial titled “What’s new in 2013 Workflow and types of applications”). The survey question, ” . . . asking organizations what they intended to use SharePoint for within their enterprise. . .” (ibid) produced a set of answers, which clearly demonstrated interest, on the part of respondents, in ” . . . . both document workflow and business process management . . .” (ibid)

Sixty seven percent of survey respondents cited “Document Workflow” as a big SharePoint attraction, while almost fifty six percent cited “Business Process Management” as a big driver.

If SharePoint stakeholders need “a reason to be” rationale to justify an organization’s procurement of SharePoint 2013, then workflows may be precisely the feature worth emphasizing and positioning. It’s worth spending the remainder of this post exploring the return on investment for SharePoint implementers planning on a strong workflow component.

  1. Reduced Duplication of Effort: when document workflows are correctly produced within an enterprise platform like SharePoint there is little excuse for duplication of effort, and, probably, minimal occurence of it. When these EDM workflows are produced correctly, they will expose unique content types, columns, etc., along with associated MMS detail across an entire farm. If a governance plan, in turn, has been created, which mandates adhering to specific guidelines with regards to using content types, columns, and even MMS in a specific manner, then the result should be organization-wide consumption of these EDM assets, as required. The savings delivered through a substantial reduction in duplication of effort can, in turn, be substantial.
  2. Streamlined Business Procedures: By building workflows to automate process approvals, the amount of time required to complete otherwise costly tasks like collecting expense receipts, and reimbursing employees for expenses incurred for organizational activities, can also be substantial reduced. When these employees are using organizational credit cards, hastening this process can result in entirely tangible cost savings (in the form of reduced finance charges). Of course, a business case for SharePoint can, and should be written to include this type of savings, if applicable to a specific organization.

If your organization is considering SharePoint and is grappling with the need to put together a business case, please let us know, we are always available for this type of discussion and will welcome an opportunity to provide further detail on the above points.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

The New SharePoint 2013 App Model Should Be Included In A Business Case for SharePoint 2013 As An Opportunity to Reduce Support Costs

SharePoint 2013′s App Model is designed, in part, to insulate application servers from one of the most common sources of Tier II and II support calls — custom solutions. So SharePoint stakeholders preparing a business case for implementing SharePoint Server 2013 may want to include references to the new development model as a method of reducing operating costs for the platform.

Readers with an interest in researching this topic may want to read a blog post on MSDN authored by Ed Hild back in February, 2013. This post is titled A Perspective on SharePoint 2013′s App Model – Part 1.

As Hild notes in his post, with reference to the traditional SharePoint application development model prior to the release of SharePoint 2013, “[t]he problem comes when these SharePoint applications are deployed to production and are now the responsibility of IT to maintain. Focused on keeping the lights on, this group is change adverse. Any custom code deployed onto the SharePoint servers complicates things. Does it change the way they do backup and recovery? How well was the code written and will it bring down the farm? Does it change the capacity planning activities that were done for out-of-the-box functionality? For these reasons there is a struggle as to how to effectively support these types of applications that are built leveraging SharePoint.” (quoted from a blog post on MSDN authored by Ed Hild. I’ve provided a link to the entire post, above).

By diverting custom application development for SharePoint 2013 away from a typical reliance on dot net code, and over to a reliance on client-side development for today’s universal thin clients (web browsers) via an extensive reliance on JavaScript and HTML, Microsoft® has created an opportunity for organizations characterized by silos to implement the computing platform as a method of delivering custom solutions for LoBs, albeit without the big support cost associated with this kind of effort in the past.

We have offered an extensive set of training content on the new App development model since 2013. Steve Fox, a Director of Services for Microsoft authored our SharePoint 2013: Beginning Development video tutorial set. Yaroslav Pentsarskyy authored our SharePoint 2013: Development set. Finally, Marc D. Anderson authored our SharePoint 2013: JavaScript and jQuery DVD video training set.

If your organization would like to piece together a realistic opinion on the SharePoint 2013 App model, and what it can, or cannot do for your SharePoint objectives, please contact us.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

Implementing SharePoint as a Records Management Solution to Lower Operating Costs

Building a business case for a law firm to implement SharePoint 2013 as a records management solution should be a straightforward proposition. SharePoint 2013 includes a new E-Discovery feature targeted to law firms, and more. In a video tutorial titled How Litigation Holds and E-Discovery Work in SharePoint 2013, John Holliday, JD, explains how litigation holds and E-Discovery work in SharePoint.

More information on the new SharePoint 2013 E-Discovery feature can be found in an article titled eDiscovery in SharePoint 2013 on Microsoft’s MSDN site.

On June 10, 2013 Gartner released its Magic Quadrant for E-Discovery Software. Excerpts from this study are readily from a number of the 24 market participants included in it.

Quite a number of analyses of the cost of E-Discovery processes are also readily available online. A review of any of these should quickly provide readers with an appreciation of why implementing SharePoint 2013 as a Records Management solution, complete with an optimized E-Discovery feature, can represent a substantially less expensive project than opting to proceed with a branded, proprietary solution from someone else.

The video tutorial mentioned at the start of this post is one of nineteen video tutorials comprising our SP13-309 SharePoint 2013: Records Management Course. This course includes approximately 3.5 hours of training.

A law firm with SharePoint Server 2013, Enterprise, already implemented on premises, stands to benefit most from the comparative cost savings of building an E-Discovery function for the firm on the SharePoint 2013 platform. Our video tutorial set is available for unlimited enterprise viewing at a one time purchase cost of $1995.00.

SharePoint stakeholders can use our content, along with our VisualSP Help System for SharePoint, to expose context-specific help, directly to participants in the project, whenever they need it.

As an added benefit, any law firm opting to implement our Records Management video training content, along with our ribbon tab help system will also benefit from our SharePoint 2013 end user training content, which is included with VisualSP at no additional charge.

If your law firm would like to learn more about using SharePoint 2013 to build an efficient, comparatively low cost records management solution (including an E-Discovery capability), please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

A Business Case for Including a Security Plan for SharePoint 2013

No review of the business case for correctly planning for the administration of SharePoint 2013, on premises, would be complete without a look at security. In a video tutorial, nearly 9 minutes in length, titled SharePoint 2013 Security, Michael Noel makes a case for including security in an implementation plan for the computing platform.

Noel organizes security administration for SharePoint 2013 into four containers:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Data
  3. Transport
  4. and Rights Management

These four containers should work equally well for stakeholders considering a business case for SharePoint.

1) Infrastructure

Stakeholders should be aware that every service added to SharePoint includes an account. Malicious individuals can assign privileges to any of these accounts, so security review policies should include controls over just how privileges are added to any service account. As Noel explains in his video tutorial, the Kerberos authentication method must be enabled to ensure adequate access controls for users, accounts, etc.

2) Data

Noel presents the case for implementing a Roles Based Access Control (RBAC) method. Stakeholders can also find a report on Role Based Access Control (RBAC) and Role Based Security on the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology web site. The content included on the U.S. NIST site on this topic includes a presentation on the Economic Benefits of Roles Based Access Controls. My quick scan of this document revealed an authoritative opinion on the importance of RBAC and its value as loss deterrent in any plan for data exchange between users, and even machine-to-machine data communications.

Noel includes an example of how a RBAC method might be applied to a set of users in this last video tutorial in his set on SharePoint 2013 Administration.

3) Transport

Transport security amounts to safeguarding the TCP/IP stack, which is the layer in the OSI network packet model providing the basis for data communications over the Ethernet protocol. Web pages, which are published as HTML documents through a variety of methods, are presented at the application layer, above the transport layer. Encryption technologies, including SSL, which Noel presents in this video, amount to methods of securing the transport layer from malicious, subversive activity.

If, for no other reason than the current concern over a security hole found in the Open Source version of SSH, any business case for a SharePoint implementation must include a presentation of a transport security model, along with the controls intended to manage this network layer.

Rights Management

Noel presents the Rights Management Service (RMS) as a component of Active Directory Rights Management (ADRM). This security feature, which is unique to Microsoft server architecture, offers stakeholders a method of safeguarding content stored in SharePoint 2013 shared document libraries, etc. This feature, alone, may provide an implementation plan for SharePoint 2013 with enough value to assure its acceptance for an organization.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

When Does It Make Sense to Choose Virtualization for SharePoint Server Infrastructure?

In a video tutorial titled Architecting the farm in SharePoint 2013 – part 2, Michael Noel makes a case for virtualization as a serious option for providing hardware infrastructure to support SharePoint Server 2013. But what are the pros and cons, from a business perspective on virtualization?

Business Case for Using Virtualized SharePoint 2013 Servers

The real benefit of including some proportion of virtualized servers in a business plan for implementing SharePoint Server 2013, SQL Server, Windows Server, etc. is the flexibility this approach provides from a cost management perspective.

Implementing virtual servers prior to launch is the most sensible approach for communities of SharePoint users. Why invest in server hardware, and licenses before ascertaining whether or not SharePoint Server 2013 presents the best possible solution to the unique requirement for your community? Virtualization is even a better option than renting, or leasing physical machines. Virtual servers can be acquired and dispensed with via a few clicks of a mouse. There is neither a need to physically install any equipment, nor is there any need to take the equipment down following a proof of concept phase.

It also makes sense to implement virtual servers where resource demands fluctuate; for example, for a partner extranet characterized by substantial turnover, or during either a platform migration or a physical relocation of offices.

Why Not to Use Virtualized Servers, from a Business Case Perspective

A visit to Azure lead me to calculate a likely annual cost for virtual Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) for SharePoint Server 2013, of $3,216.00 for a Large (A3) Compute Instance with 4 Virtual Cores and 7 GBs of RAM. This cost may make sense for larger communities of SharePoint users standardized on HP’s Blade Servers, or directly comparable hardware. But Small to Medium Sized Businesses (SMBs) comfortable with Xenon Powered servers like Dell’s PowerEdge line, can actually purchase hardware at about 60% of the annual cost of the Azure A3 Compute Instance.

Another reason for SMBs to consider on premises server architecture is the opportunity of implementing “private cloud” virtualization services like VMWare’s vSphere on one’s own hardware.

Conclusion
Virtualization is an option worth careful consideration. Within the parameters I’ve briefly laid out in this post, communities of SharePoint users should carefully consider the pluses and minuses, from a business case perspective, of deciding to follow this route before rushing to a conclusion.

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved

Several Improved Administrative Features Make SharePoint Server 2013 an Attractive Option for Communities of Users

In a 14 minute video tutorial titled What’s New in SharePoint 2013 for Administrators – Part 2, Michael Noel presents a number of administrative features of SharePoint 2013. Noel considers each of these to be important. SharePoint stakeholders considering either a first-time implementation of SharePoint, or a migration from an earlier version to the current server platform, will want to take the time to view this video tutorial. Noel’s list of features, and my thoughts as to why stakeholders should think about them, follow below:

  1. New Features for User Profile Sync: As long as the security of the overall SharePoint platform, as implemented for a specific community, is kept at a maximum, but still operable, level, the improved ease of use reflected in the User Profile Sync service for SharePoint 2013 should be considered a substantial improvement. If, as Noel notes, breakdowns in earlier versions of this feature were the most frequent complaint of users, then migrating up to SharePoint Server 2013 if, for nothing more than gaining access to this feature makes sense, especially if user adoption is a clear objective for stakeholders.
  2. Claims Based Authentication is Now the Default for Any Web Application that is Created. Any community planning on a migration from SharePoint Server 2010 to 2013 needs to note the default type of authentication for web applications, once the content of each application is added in, post migration, will no longer work in the 2013 environment. As Noel points out, the “default” setting for authentication for 2010 was “Classic Mode”, which is no longer supported in SharePoint Server 2013. Noel does mention a handy PowerShell commandlet administrators can use to hasten the migration of 2010 web applications, complete with a change in authentication type
  3. SharePoint Server 2013 Implements a “Shredded Storage” method of storing data. This new feature is very similar to the concept of incremental change backups. In contrast to earlier versions of SharePoint Server, where unstructured data (reposed in Binary Large Objects, or BLOBs) was duplicated, in entirety, as activity occured, the “Shredded Storage” feature handles this better, actually adding only the changed content. Stakeholders can leverage this feature to plan on smaller storage infrastructure. Caveat: the “Shredded Storage” method is only applied to new content, and not, retroactively, to content migrated into the new server platform.
  4. Entire SharePoint Sites can be Added to Exchange as Team Mailboxes. Stakeholders after a solution lest end users not respond to adoption efforts can look at this new feature as a method of accomodating dependence on email file exchange, etc. within a SharePoint computing model.
  5. Fast Search is now part of SharePoint Server, and delivers a much improved search experience for communities of users. Stakeholders after a modern search feature, delivering comparable results to popular search engines, will want to implement SharePoint Server 2013 for this feature, alone

Ira Michael Blonder

© Rehmani Consulting, Inc. & Ira Michael Blonder, 2014 All Rights Reserved