Building your skills

Being somewhat of a technology addict that enjoys the stream of bits coursing through the air, inducing flux through the antennas embedded within electronics, I tend to also have a craving for knowledge. From a theological standpoint, some might refer to this as the theorist that enjoys staying in the balcony. For the IT Pro they might refer to this as the architect.  I suppose I’m a little different though in that I enjoy getting my hands dirty and understanding how the technology beneath the shiny shrink wrap works.

To some this might seem ridiculous – why would you care how something works if you’re able to develop solutions on top of it or just get it operational by clicking Next, Next, Next? I sometimes wonder that as well and it goes back probably to the fact that if you don’t understand things at the bit level, when you start scaling something out at the gigabyte level and you hit limitations you’re going to wonder, “What is it that is your LimFact?”  LimFact or limiting factors always tend to be those items that restrict us from proceeding or crossing the plateau of a success criteria.

Limiting Factor – A condition that acts as a control or constraint on some function or process

In the SharePoint world though the limiting factors aren’t just at the level of the technology – in many cases it’s at the level of the education.

What do I mean by this? Well, more times often than not, there’s a misunderstanding as to what someone with a Site Administrator skillset can do in comparison to say a Portal Administrator, Infrastructure Engineer, Solutions Developer, SharePoint .net Developer or UX/UI developer.

Probably Christian Buckley termed this best in a video he put together regarding how one becomes a Site Administrator.

As the video accurately portrays, more often than not someone with tertiary skills and knowledge of how basic list functionality and a copy of one of Wrox’s several SharePoint books is suddenly thrust forward into the roll of SharePoint Site Administrator.

Is it the Site Administrator’s role to ensure that lists and libraries are working properly with the views that their management want? I would argue that it depends on the organization but more than likely such items are more the role of an individual that is the solution developer for that organization.  There’s a good chance that management doesn’t quite get that and intermingles the two.

So what does a Site Administrator do then?  One might say that they’re the responsible party for ensuring that permissions are set properly for individuals and that views of information are accurate.  If they’re not, either they switch hats and take on the role of the solution developer or they delegate the task to the solution developer with a request date for completion.

What about the quotas for the site though and the search scopes? Can’t my site administrator do that?  Again, it comes down to a management team’s understanding of a SharePoint organization. More likely than not your SharePoint Site Admin is not also the Portal Administrator (though they probably do have them on speed dial for help troubleshooting issues in their site).

Welcome to the Portal Administrator tier, the individual that ensures the application framework itself is operational – keeping the system’s search indexes up to date, ensuring that services are running and that permissions and the authorization settings at the portal level are working. Is this individual’s responsibility also the health and welfare of the infrastructure that the SharePoint system is hosted on?  I surely hope not though this is a common position for dual hatted assignments.

The IT Pro / Infrastructure Engineer typically gets called on frequently to assist with troubleshooting issues with the portal but their daily job description is more to ensure that the authentication and authorization system (if using something than regular classic authentication) is operating normally with little latency, that disk backups are operating properly and that if restored will properly work.

So what about content management? Who’s in charge of that? Clearly I’ve left something out (and I have left out a lot of detail because I didn’t want this to become a highly respected TechNet article on governance)… Content Managers should be individuals appointed within an organization that know the organization and the content, data and information that is relevant to them.  If a management structure has the expectation that the individuals within their organization will monitor their information and ensure the care, feeding and nurturing of said information they’re in for a surprise when the system stops being used because individuals resort to just using e-mail – permissions on that are pretty easy, just make sure that they keep the authorization to that “To:” list and that they don’t forward it outside the circle of trust.

I digress.  Where’s that leave us with training?

Site Administrators – Definitely should take a class through Microsoft or a partner that is able to educate the individual on the basics of SharePoint site administrator, lists and document libraries (views, content types, columns, permissions, etc.) as well as the permissions model that SharePoint uses for a site.

Site Collection Administrator – Whatever an organization determines their Site Administrator needs to know, Site Collection Administrators should have the same training as well as a greater understanding of site permissions such that they don’t inadvertently remove permissions put in place by their Site Administrators that they shepherd. Further having an understanding of features and their effects on the site collection and underlying sites is a must.

Tenant Administrator – This is definitely something new in SharePoint 2010, but seems to be glossed over in some respects by most training programs. I’d recommend that these individuals be your top notch Site Collection Administrators or have served as a portal administrator at some point so as to ensure that they understand some of the additional benefits of having a multi-tenant dashboard presented to them and what power it gives them.

Web Application Administrator – Wait, what? This was never mentioned.  These individuals are typically individuals that either have full read or full control access to a web application.  More often than not these individuals are help desk individuals or content managers. With great power comes great responsibility. These individuals really do need to have a site collection administrator background at a minimum to ensure that they don’t inadvertently remove a permission that sabotages the work of another admin.

Portal Administrator – First I’d say that these individuals really do need to have the same training if not more than a Site Administrator.  I’d highly recommend these individuals take a course through one of many training organizations for their SharePoint Administrator Boot Camp class so that they have a distinct understanding of how their actions are applied throughout the system they’re in charge of.

SharePoint IT Pro / Infrastructure Engineer – These folks really need to be well versed in SharePoint, with the knowledge of the portal administrator but also with the know how of performing Windows Server administrator functions – trust me, I never thought I’d be setting up clustered servers with shared disks as a SharePoint guy – it’s something that comes with the territory. What’s more having an MCITP or MCSE background is extremely valuable when having to troubleshoot Active Directory issues, or perhaps a Juniper or Cisco background when working with Network and Firewall engineers.

So there seems to be several different levels of SharePoint skillsets without even getting into the solutions developer / application developer / sandboxed solutions developer / no code design developer / SharePoint Designer side of things.  How do I find the right training?

I’d recommend any of the following training organizations:

Architecting Connected Solutions

Critical Path Training

Mind Sharp

SharePoint Experts Bootcamps

Next stop, Boston – SPTechCon Summer 2009

Working backwards a little bit before pressing forward, next trip on presentation lane…

After spending a few days back in the office attending to pending client tasks, it was off to Boston, hoping on Amtrak’s Acela Express to Boston’s South Station with my laptop in tow, reviewing slides and working through a few different new anecdotes for the presentation the next day.

The conference was a great time to hang out and enjoy the company of other brains in the SharePoint community to include Todd Klindt and Mike Watson.  My session went well and was well attended.  After the conference we decided to check out downtown Boston’s Union House – unfortunately it was a little crowded.  So our group of Dux Sy,Fabian WilliamsMike TaylorEric KrausDarrin BishopMaurice Prather wound up down the street at a local Irish Pub to share our thoughts on the conference and different areas of SharePoint that we currently were working with and some of the challenges and opportunities we’d recently engaged in.  Great time to say the least!

My deck from the presentation is available at:  http://go.spdan.com/sptechcon-deck

Baltimore SharePoint User's Group – 21 May 2009

This past Thursday, I drove up to the Baltimore SharePoint User’s Group to present on the topic of “Designing Logical Architectures and Site Taxonomies.” It was a decent drive up the BW Parkway from Northern Virginia, chatting with Eric Harlan and a few others on the way up – apparently there were folks heading for the beach already on Thursday afternoon for the Memorial Day weekend, so the drive lasted a little longer than anticipated (about 2 hours).

The presentation was well received by the group as well as lively with questions. Eric Harlan, Shadeed Eleazer and I headed off to the Bone Fish Grill afterward to chat about life, SharePoint and SharePoint Saturday Baltimore (25 July 2009).

Overall, a successful trip up to Baltimore!

The slides from the presentation are available here in

Please note that the slides are constantly being refined with each presentation – feedback is always greatly appreciated 🙂

Contextual Considerations of Technical Planning

On 10 January 2009, I attended the SharePoint Saturday – Virginia Beach event with a friend of mine, looking to see SharePoint from a different angle and take in new perspectives and perhaps learn a thing or two while being refreshed by others in the "community".  It was great to meet Paul Galvin, Dan Lewis, Becky Isserman and John Miller.

The first session that I attended was led by Dean Halsted of Microsoft. Dean’s session was entitled, "Technical Best Practices". I cringed. Why did I cringe? Primarily because I’ve learned that the words we use unintentionally influence the thoughts of those that we’re speaking to significantly. If we mention the buzz words "best practice" then regardless of what is said down the line, there is no going back, the "best practice" is essentially canon – there can be no deviation.  Lesson Learned – try not to call something a best practice unless it applies regardless of context.

So does that mean? No "best practices"? By no means… there are definitely core things to think about from a technical and functional perspective. There is however the distinction that while keeping things in context and consideration of the technical problem at hand, the solution may not always be the same. Design recipes, patterns and practices are approaches for problems, not necessarily pre-baked cookie batter waiting to be dished out.

Needless to say this got my brain cooking on contextual considerations and is the melding of Dean’s thoughts, those of others and my own, intertwined with commentary.  For this post, the primary focus will be just on the “Pre-Deployment Considerations”.

Overall, Dean’s session was informative as he provided information that while common sense to the seasoned SharePoint engineer (though still a good reminder and refresher) a key set of starting points and considerations for the rookies and novices in the crowd.

Prior to the deployment of a SharePoint system in the context of enterprise systems that are rigorous and require change management processes be in place to assist the information worker, several key things should be considered to include:

  • System Quotas
  • Information Policy
  • User and Server Network
  • System User Base
  • Authentication Mechanisms

Each of these should be planned out so as to ensure that the deployment of SharePoint is seamless and that there are no surprises. As an engineer, we might like surprises and problems that require elegant solutions, but for clients, the preference really should be that we find them out prior to deployment in a test bed.  One decent example to make note of in terms of overlooked planning is the use of quotas. Without a quota in place, there is no way to keep a site collection from grow rapidly without oversight. In some instances sprawling uncontrollably causing system failures due to hard disks filling up (you’ll see this often if you’re not using a SAN or DAS). By applying quotas when a system first deploys it provides for greater flexibility and allows all sites with the quotas applied to quickly be updated should you decide to increase the size allowed – similar to the way gMail has a quota for your mailbox.  With quotas initially enforced they can be increased dynamically across your entire web application rather than having to go site to site to site.  For more on this topic, check out Dan Lewis’ recent post on “Managing and Administering Site Quotas in SharePoint”.

Information policy, while not typically touched upon by the novice administrator can come in quite handy when creating internal and external access boundaries. This additionally comes into use when the need for certain personnel within an organization require access to all items within a particular web application, or when it is required that a specific user cannot access a site, regardless of what permissions a site administrator may attempt to grant the user.

Defining and designing the user and server networks within an organization are never trivial unless working with an organization that resides completely on a single network segment without firewalls or any other boundary. For smaller organizations, it might even be ideal to host the environment on something like Amazon EC2, Microsoft SharePoint Services Cloud, or through a hosting company like 1 and 1. Perhaps your organization is looking to have a centralized deployment with a significantly large farm to provide a high performance end user experience – has the farm been load tested from several systems sitting within the network to ensure that the circuits don’t be come saturated?  For most large organizations additional planning and consideration must be taken to ensure that latency is minimal, availability is high and that integration is not degraded.

Defining the System User Base is also a necessary step that should be investigated. Knowing where the users reside, what levels of access they require and the overarching permissions model provides for to include security groups will provide for a more seamless and palatable deployment across an organization. This will cut down on the confusion of how users access sites and what user has permissions which will make your system administrator’s will to live increase significantly 🙂

Authentication mechanisms… figuring out how your users are going to come into the system is key. Are you using ISA server as a proxy in a DMZ to allow for external users or forms authentication? Are you merely using SharePoint on an intranet and don’t require anything fancy so you settle for NTLM? Are you working with integrated systems that require a double hop to occur for credential passing and therefore have to go through the tedious task of setting up Kerberos? All considerations that require diligent investigation based on the context of the environment.

Overall, there are several other factors that should be considered prior to deployment, but I’ll save those for another day.  What are some of the key things that were planned prior to your organizations deployment?

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