imageAs we near the end of Ignite, day 4 was still filled with some great technical sessions.  I’ll give you a rundown of everything from SQL High Availability, best practices for branding and page design in SharePoint Online to scaling SharePoint 2013 search.  We ended the last full day conference day (Thursday) with a closing celebration and capped with a concert by Fall Out Boy.  One of my favorite sessions that I’m excited to share dealt with navigating the landscape of Office 365 tools. 

Session – Microsoft SQL Server End-to-End High Availability and Disaster Recovery

One thing that struck me right off the bat was of the hundreds of people in the room, by hand raise about 75% were running SQL Server 2014 in some form.  During this session, MVPs led us through discussions on AlwaysOn failover clustering and AlwaysOn Availability Groups.  Both of these options require Windows Failover Clustering to be configured. 

  • imageAlwaysOn failover clustering is like your more typical clustering, in an active/passive type of failover.  You have two identical servers sharing storage, and if one server fails, the other server takes over, the SQL databases get moved and things progress on.  A big change here in SQL 2012 was the ability to host the TEMPDB files on local storage instead of the shared storage (like a SAN). 
  • AlwaysOn Availability Groups are a step down from that.  It has no dependency on shared databases, but still interacts with the cluster service.  This is like database mirroring, but with multiple servers with instances.  In SQL Server 2012, Availability Groups required the use of Enterprise edition.  With SQL Server 2014, they are now available in Standard edition though with limitations. 

For Disaster Recovery, a possible configuration to consider is use Microsoft Azure as your offsite backup / storage. 

Another huge change in SQL 2016 is full support for AD Group Managed Service Accounts.  Once setup, AD can manage the SQL service account, change the password with full SQL awareness automatically!

Session - Best Practices for Design and Performance in SharePoint Online

imageLed by Rackspacers and MVPs Randy Drisgill and John Ross and joined by Microsoft PM Shyam Narayan, we discussed topics around branding, optimizing performance and portals in SharePoint Online.  Let’s look at some of my big takeaways from this great session.  Since the SharePoint 2014 Conference, usage of Office 365 has increased 500%, making it the fastest growing product in Microsoft history.

  • Use of Custom Master Pages with SharePoint Online
    • One of the biggest points of contention these days in the branding community seems to be about whether or not to use custom master pages with SharePoint Online.  It was clear from this session the answer is, it depends.  Yes, custom master pages are an absolute supported feature, and will continue to be.  That being said, you are on your own about ensuring that your customizations continue to work as Microsoft evolves the look and feel and design structures of SharePoint Online. 
  • Migrating to SharePoint Online considerations
    • SharePoint Online has a different capabilities than 2013 (somewhat) and greatly over previous versions, and it’s best to re-architect your design to make use of SharePoint Online features.  Along with that, re-organize your content where it makes sense.
    • Latency – with SharePoint Online, now you have potentially many web front ends and internet connectivity to consider. 
  • Branding SharePoint Online
    • Along with the first point, there are many levels to change the look and feel of SharePoint Online.  The likely best option to customize the UI and maintain future compatibility is to limit your branding to CSS only as much as possible.

Improving Page Performance in SharePoint Online

imageShyam then took us through the top 5 reasons poor page load performance in SharePoint.  Most made sense, and I learned a couple things.  You can read them all, but by a mile he said the biggest cause of slow page load is using structural navigation.  You know, the Navigation link on site settings when you have the publishing feature turned on. 

He gave a demo of a page that took 32 seconds to render.  Just by converting the navigation to be search based, it reduced the load time to 8 seconds!  Think about it – structural navigation scourers all of your subsites (2 levels by default), check permissions and renders the structure.  He said every item check makes 8 SQL calls.  If you have a lot of sites, this can be an expensive query.  Most of the others are common sense, like don’t use 5 meg JPGs for you page background.  You can do other things like minimize your JS and CSS / condense into one file, and for JavaScript call out to internet CDNs instead of loading locally. 

TIP – If your SharePoint Online page is slow, check the load time of your OneDrive for Business page.  If that’s fast, don’t call Microsoft, and review your master page / CSS / page content. 

Another TIP – use content search web parts instead of content query web parts.  They will save you additional SQL calls.

After further page optimization, the final page load was 1.8 seconds.  You can review the guidance, scripts, tools and step by steps for this at

Session - How to Decide When to Use SharePoint and Yammer and Office 365 Groups and Outlook and Skype

imageWhile it has a long title, it was a great fast-paced discussion and investigation into how you navigate the current landscape of Microsoft’s Office 365 collaboration tools and provide guidance on when to use what.  Here were my biggest takes from this session.  The question is, when do I use what tool?

  • This is a complex question for many reasons, and I wouldn’t do the session justice to try and boil it down to a few bullets and proverbs.  Having said that, let’s look at some guidelines that can get you on your own path to figuring this out. 

First, let’s start with a couple resources from the source to review in depth. 

imageMicrosoft now provides many different tools and services as part of Office 365.  Which do you choose when you need to store documents, track company events, or congratulate someone?  As I said, it’s a complex question with no straight answer.  The big point here is that asking the vs. question is the wrong way to go about it.  It’s not about this tool vs. that tool.  Technology works best together and maximizes the value of Office 365. 

imageWhat you need to do is provide guidance to your users so they can make the right decision and come up with their own matrix.  Knowing what product to use isn’t enough as each product has many features.  When users don’t know what tool to use or can’t, they fall back to what they know, which is often a very inefficient way to accomplishing the task, or even against your governance.  For example, when asked most of the people in the room said that their users didn’t even know that Yammer / SharePoint could provide interactions with external users.  That makes a big difference!  One of my favorite quotes was:

Getting more people to use the technology is important, and so is getting people to use MORE of the technology

imageThe vision is we’re trying to achieve shared understanding and change organizational guidance.  In their book they walk through 13 different scenarios where they analyze how the different tools are evaluated and can be used together.  This doesn’t happen on its own, and you need technology champions in your organization.  People learn best and are influenced by their peers and coworkers. 

You need to come up with your own tools use matrix, ideally at the organizational, group and individual levels.  This matrix should also evolve and not be static.  An example is pasted on the right.  Again, these are guidelines, suggestions.  I highly encourage you to read the book / whitepaper and visit Microsoft Customer Success center for more information. 

As a final note here, Outlook is the biggest offender.  It’s the most used tool, but very often not the right tool.  How often are you blasted with all company or all group emails with reply alls, or people sending email attachments?

Session –  Search Extensibility in SharePoint 2013

imageMVPs Corey Roth and Matthew McDermott took us through different ways and examples of how you can extend the Search service in SharePoint 2013.  Here are the highlights. 

We covered Query Rules and how they are “If this, then do that”.  Think of them as conditional formatting for search results.  They can be used to change the way search results look, sorting and basically improve the query results.  They are fairly well documented, with lots of examples of how to configure them.  Query rules determine WHAT data is returned, and Display Templates determine HOW they look when returned.

imageWhat we also talked about was this service part of SharePoint 2013 called the Content Enrichment Service.  Enabled through PowerShell, it allows you to manipulate managed properties during the crawl or inject logic into the crawling process.  The example they gave was being able to read location data from a column, and going out to the bing service, and rendering a map of the location along only for jpg images.  Very cool stuff!  You have to be very careful and not enable it for ALL types like Document, but it can be a very powerful way to enhance your results and make them more actionable.  You can read more on the subject from here:

Microsoft Ignite Celebration

WP_20150507_18_24_41_Pro_smThe evening’s celebration was a final party as the conference nears a close.  Food samples were provided from over 30 different local restaurants, as well as many different musical acts were on hand, with Chicago-born Fall Out Boy headlining the show.  Fun was had by all playing 5 foot tall jenga and the board game Operation (6 ft long table) inside and outside overlooking Lake Michigan or watching an ice sculptor chainsaw the Chicago skyline from blocks of ice.  It was a great time, and everyone really enjoyed the festivities.  Here are a few pictures from the evening:

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