Microsoft Will Soon Allow You to Test Their Updates Before Deploying to Office 365

As cloud release cycles increase dramatically and with a complicated platform like SharePoint, there have been several cases where Microsoft’s updates to the platform have broken customizations.  These changes include HTML changes, API changes and user experience changes that when SharePoint developers start building customizations can break them.  Since SharePoint updates happen automatically, there have been reports where SharePoint customizations are breaking because of Microsoft’s software updates.

One of the recommendations for customizing Office 365 is to create development and test tenants for deploying customizations first before deploying to your production tenant.  However, when Microsoft has released updates, patches, etc. they are deployed all tenants, at least until now.

In the near future, Microsoft will allow you to sign-up to preview releases of these patches and updates so that you can deploy them to your development and test tenants to see if they break your customizations.  In addition, they will provide a release that can be deployed to a sub-set of your users in production first before being rolled out to the entire user population.

Office 365 updates process - small

Given the rapid changes to the platform, patches and updates, being able to deploy them with confidence that they won’t break customizations is a key requirement and this type of early testing approach can help your customization team ensure that Microsoft’s changes and their changes continue to work together instead of creating a conflict that breaks the user experience.

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Key Requirements to Enabling Data Refresh in Power BI

One of the key features of the new Power BI set is the ability to refresh your data on a schedule.  Within the Power BI application in Office 365, you can set up the data refresh by clicking on the ellipsis (…) in the bottom right corner of the workbook.

On the next page, you can configure the refresh schedule easily.

However, there are some important restrictions and prerequisites to enabling a data refresh within Office 365.  These include:

  • At least Write permissions on the workbook to create a data refresh schedule.
  • Access to the external data sources during data refresh.
  • Credentials with permission to access those data sources.
  • A data source location accessible over a network connection.
  • The workbook checked in when the refresh starts. The server places a lock on the workbook at the end of data refresh, when the file is saved, rather than when refresh starts.
  • The workbook connects to the external data using Power Pivot– not the Excel client and not Power Query.

The last one is important given how Microsoft is promoting Power Query as the new way of fetching data from a number of new data sources – if you use it to fetch your data the refresh will work fine in Excel on your desktop but fail in the Excel Web App running in Office 365.

As a result, there are also limitations on the types of data sources supported and they include:

  • Power BI Cloud Service
    • Windows Azure SQL Database
    • SQL Server in Windows Azure Virtual Machines
    • OData
      • Basic authentication
      • Anonymous authentication
      • SP Lists
      • ProjectOnline feeds
  • On-premises
    • SQL Server 2005 and above
    • Oracle 10g, 11g and 11gR2

While Power Query provides access to a number of new data sources such as Azure Table Storage, Blob Storage, HDInsight, various CSV/TEXT/XML sources, etc. these are not currently supported as part of the Power BI data refresh functionality.  In fact, if you use Power Query at all instead of the older Power Pivot fetching tool it will fail no matter what type of data source.

For On Premise datasources, you need the Data Management Gateway which acts as a client proxy to feed data from your on premise data sources as an ODATA feed to Office 365.  It runs as a Windows Service

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SharePoint Social Features Will Be Replaced by Yammer

In SharePoint 2010, there was “My Sites” and people invested in building up their My Sites, customizing them (since the features were fairly limited out of the box), and implementing infrastructure for shared storage.

Then came SharePoint 2013, and there was an entirely new “SharePoint Social” experience.  Significantly improved from SharePoint 2010, it provides activity feeds, micro-blogging, communities and lots of other social features.  So many organizations have started rolling out social based on this platform.

Then Microsoft bought Yammer which is a cloud based agile enterprise social platform.  Over the past year, Microsoft has been progressively integrating Yammer into the SharePoint platform through better security connectivity, web parts, etc.  Right now, there is a Yammer web part that allows you to replace the default SharePoint Social news feed with Yammer.

This week, an important blog article came out by Jared Spataro who is the general manager for Enterprise Social at Microsoft.  It includes some cool new features coming in future releases like the Office Graph and Oslo.


At the end of this article, there is a really important statement for anyone currently using SharePoint Social or looking to implement Enterprise Social within the SharePoint platform:

What about SharePoint social? We shipped basic social features with SharePoint Server 2013, and over the last year and a half I’ve had many people ask me whether they should implement SharePoint social or Yammer. My guidance has been clear and consistent: Go Yammer! While we’re committed to another on-premises release of SharePoint Server—and we’ll maintain its social capabilities—we don’t plan on adding new social features. Our investments in social will be focused on Yammer and Office 365, so that we can innovate quickly and take advantage of the viral user adoption that is so important to the natural network effect that makes social so powerful. We recognize that many of our SharePoint customers will continue to have large on-premises deployments for many years, but we’re investing to help customers easily manage hybrid environments so that they can connect their on-premises farms to their in-the-cloud social network.

So if you have spent the past 6-12 months implementing SharePoint social, you’re going to eventually hit a dead end in the same way as My Sites in SharePoint 2010.  There will be no new investments in SharePoint Social – everything is going to be focused on Yammer.

Given that Yammer is a cloud only service, it’s not clear what the best option is if you’re strictly on premise. 

There is also no obvious migration path or tooling to move any activities, files, content, etc. from SharePoint Social to Yammer or to migrate SharePoint Community Sites to Yammer Group Sites. 

If you’re planning on Enterprise Social, based on this information I would review whether you’re assuming SharePoint Social or Yammer is your platform and if it’s not Yammer, this should cause some long term concerns.

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Support for SAML 2.0 for Office 365 / Azure

Microsoft has been investing heavily in using Azure as a directory federation hub for both Azure based services (e.g. your custom web apps, virtual machines, queues, storage, etc.) and for Office 365.

Using Windows Azure Active Directory as the linkage between on premise directories, its now possible to federate authentication and authorization based on WS-Federation, WS-Trust, Shibboleth and now SAML 2.0.


As with any kind of federation scenario, implementing all the various aspects of governance, technical integration and network connectivity between these various directory and claims sources is not trivial but can be done using these latest federation technologies.

Keep in mind as well that these federation scenarios are not currently supported with the Office Desktop clients, e.g. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. However, this has been previously announced as coming in a future release.

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No New InfoPath Replacement at #SPC14

At today’s InfoPath session, Microsoft did not announce any specific new solution to replace InfoPath, which has been officially retired.

There was a display of potential InfoPath replacement solutions, some already existing and some in various stages of development.

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These solutions include:

  • Excel Surveys: collecting information via a web form and drop it into Excel for analysis, charting, etc.
  • Forms on SharePoint Lists: a new upcoming feature which will allow configurable forms based on SharePoint Lists.  Think of this similar to an Access Form based on an Access Table.
  • Word Form Documents: structured forms created in Word.
  • App Forms: forms generated from Access databases.

Microsoft has also created a community site to gather feedback from end users on what they would like to see in a future release.

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Introducing the new Office Graph and Project Oslo

With multiple enterprise social platforms (Yammer, SharePoint, CRM, etc.) Microsoft has been working on a brand new enterprise social API called Office Graph.  Office Graph extends the existing Yammer Enterprise Graph to connect and map relationships across multiple social platforms in the Microsoft eco-system.


The first application that has been developed on top of this new API is Project Oslo.  It’s essentially a twitter/facebook/linkedin/Yammer style feed that provides relevant content through your enterprise network connections. 

Oslo also provides the ability to gain insights into your colleagues by viewing their enterprise relationships, content and activities.


It’s not quite clear how many other applications Microsoft is building on top of the Office Graph.  It’s also expected that this functionality will be provided to Office 365 customers before on premise customers as part of Microsoft’s “cloud first” strategy.

It’s also not confirmed that external developers and partners will be able to create their own Oslo like apps on top of Office Graph, but it’s likely.  It’s also likely that Power BI will incorporate Office Graph as a data source in the same way today you can query Facebook and Exchange to look at historical patterns and analyze relationships using the Power BI toolset.

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OneDrive for Business Now Available as Stand Alone Subscription

In order to compete head to head with pure storage services such as DropBox, Microsoft is now providing a standalone subscription for OneDrive for Business.

The standalone offer provides each user with 25 GB of storage accessible through offline sync, Windows explorer and various mobile devices. 


The cost is $2.50 per user per month for April to September, 2014 which is a 50% discount from the regular price.  For those customers with Office with SA or Office 365 ProPlus, they can purchase at a price of $1.50 per user per month.

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Office Developer Tools for Visual Studio Updated with New Features

Microsoft has just announced that there is a new Office Developer Tools ready for download.  This toolkit is an add-on to the also new Visual Studio 2013.

The following are some features in the update.

Connecting to Enterprise Data from the Office 365 Cloud Business App

The new Cloud Business App project template is to enable developers to quickly build Office 365 applications.  In the new version, you can easily connect to enterprise data sources such as SAP, databases, SharePoint lists, OData sources, etc.


The tool also provides a pseudo entity framework that simplifies data access through a set of wizards and designers.


Integrating SharePoint Document Libraries into your App

Your Cloud Business App can now integrate with SharePoint document libraries to both surface a list of existing documents as well as allow users to create their own documents from within your app experience.


Rapid Forms Generation and UI Layouts

In a similar way to Access, you can generate forms based on your underlying data models, complete with searching, filtering, etc. 


Improved Deployment Targeting of SharePoint Apps

Within the new App for SharePoint tooling, you can now target your app to be SharePoint Online only or both SharePoint Online and SharePoint On Premise.


MVC Support for SharePoint Client Web Part Pages

Client Web Parts are JavaScript based apps hosted in an IFrame that can be surfaced within SharePoint 2013. 

Apps now support the MVC pattern that has become very popular with ASP.NET web applications.  While creating an MVC based App Part was possible in Visual Studio 2012, now this is supported as a basic template in Visual Studio 2013.

Figure 1. Specify the app for SharePoint settings

Figure 2. Specify the web project type

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Using Windows Azure as a SharePoint Disaster Recovery Environment

Brenda Carter at Microsoft has written a few great articles just published on using Azure as a disaster recovery site for your SharePoint on premise farm.

Technet has also published a complimentary article on SharePoint 2013 Disaster Recovery here.  The technical article describes in detail how to configure Azure VMs, VPNs and SharePoint Farms for this type of scenario.

Shows the elements of a warm standby solution in Winsows Azure.

Shows topology and key elements of a production farm and a warm standby recovery farm.

Shows the elements of a cold standby solution in Windows Azure.

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