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SharePoint 2016: Implications for administrators

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SharePoint Server 2016 has arrived and it’s got some very interesting (in the best sense of the word!) changes and features for all SharePoint professionals, especially administrators. If you cast your mind back 18 months or so, there was a lot of speculation that SharePoint 2016 would be the last version created for on-premises installations. Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

Instead, we can clearly see that, for Microsoft, “cloud-first” is their favored approach. Leading from this are hybrid deployments (consisting of an on-premises SharePoint, consuming cloud-based resources). This Software as a Service (SaaS) approach to SharePoint results in a number of changes, and this is what we’re going to discuss today.

From an administrator’s point of view, there are a selection of considerable changes to be aware of. These include:

  1. Search Amendments
  2. SQL Server / Min Role Capability
  3. Zero downtime patching
  4. eDiscovery
  5. SharePoint Designer

SharePoint 2016 Search Amendments

Every time a new version of SharePoint is announced, we’re all quick to expect drastic and life-altering changes to the platform. Fortunately, this rings true in 2016 with big improvements to search. There are some positive and powerful changes here for administrators.

After much anticipation, hybrid search is now upon us; it’s now possible to crawl content from both your on-premises deployment and in the Cloud, see a unified index heralded as “one search to rule them all”. Within Office 365, users querying this will see results retuned from both content sources.

Furthermore, we can now (for compliance and auditing reasons) search for sensitive items in both SharePoint (online and on-premises) and OneDrive. It’s easy to envision how an increased number of sources will help improve compliance; a unified search experience that accesses all content allows a company to be much more responsive to these commitments, and to adjust any training and policy as required.

New hybrid search functionalities have garnered a lot of attention, and for good reason – it’s a big improvement on the current SharePoint search experience.

SQL Server / Minimum Role Capability

Previous versions of SharePoint allowed administrators to install a single server instance of SharePoint that utilized SQL Server Express. This mode was called Stand Alone mode but, due to Microsoft’s SaaS approach to SharePoint 2016, it has vanished.

Why? SharePoint 2016 has been heavily influenced by SharePoint Online – the current cloud equivalent of SharePoint Server – which will be built on something far more complex than SQL Server Express.

In its place, there’s something known as Minimum Roles (or “Min Roles”) – a series of defined server templates that range from Front-End to Search. Each of these roles come with a specific set of tools and services. Another of these roles is the Single Server Farm mode, which mimics the Stand-Alone capacity and thus provides the ability to spin up development and prototype environments still.

New Ways of Applying Bandages

We’ve seen SharePoint 2016 previews and teasers that hinted at a change as to how the platform is patched. For years, administrators have been required to power down and remove a server from the farm before being able to patch it. Moving forward though, we’ll be able to call upon something known as zero downtime patching.

This is a process that allows you to keep a farm operational in read/write mode, while undergoing any patches. Wahid Saleemi recently alluded to this on the TechNet blogs, and this is no doubt a huge, huge improvement to an essential and important task.

Improved Data Loss Prevention

Data loss prevention (DLP) is something that concerns anyone involved in IT. In the last few years, controversial and highly publicized data security breaches at companies like Apple and Sony compel us to be ever-vigilant. While Microsoft does uphold their part of the deal in the data centres (we’ve written previous articles on this before), we would still like to draw attention to the tools that administrators will have access to.

SharePoint has had some rudimentary DLP tools since SharePoint 2010 – such as in-place records management – but 2016 takes this even further. The addition of the Compliance Center within the current Office 365 offering gives a good pointer of the tools that an administrator can expect. These tools are going to be enhanced with such things like Document Deletion Policy templates, and Site Collection On Hold Policy templates.

Alas, Poor SPD! I Knew Him

One of the more explosive announcements from the Ignite 2015 conference was that SharePoint Designer (SPD) is being killed off, causing quite the commotion on the Twitter-sphere. While many people will (understandably) be rather upset about this; from our administration viewpoint, it has some plus points.

SharePoint Designer – despite leveraging the out-of-the-box permissions infrastructure – made it a LOT easier for users to break things – Branding, CSS, Master pages, Workflows and more.

Earlier versions of SharePoint Designer (I’m looking at you, SPD 2007) were fairly notorious for this. Removing this tool from users lessens our duty to clean-up after them, and gives us a greater chance to adhere to SharePoint ‘best practice’ (even though that can be a very opaque term). SharePoint 2013 uncoupled SharePoint Designer by removing the design view. New iterations of the product will continue this journey, and we already have an alternative to SPD for a good deal of the tasks that administrators would use it for.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Administrators and SharePoint 2016

A lot of high-level and architectural items have changed, but we should also pay some attention to what’s going to stay the same for us. The core SharePoint product itself remains fairly consistent across sites, users, permissions, content types and so on. Tasks ranging from first line to third line support, designing and assisting with solutions within the business, and administrating the healthiness of the platform will still need an administrator to be as attentive as always.

So, as much as SharePoint Server 2016 is sure to improve the life of administrators everywhere, we can’t guarantee that those calls from panic stricken sales colleagues, 5 minutes prior to a sales pitch, asking about versioning and permissions won’t vanish entirely…

Once an Administrator, Always an Administrator

The adoption of Microsoft’s SaaS approach to SharePoint doesn’t invalidate the skills and duties of an experienced administrator. In a field as diverse and evolutionary as Information Technology, we all expect to have to ‘skill-up’ and learn about new product features every now and again.

This time around is no different. Being aware of all changes and nuances to them, and planning not only how your business, but you yourself, will react to them is very important. A lighter burden of administration on us, for example, may be replaced by more support work or solution design potential in our roles.

Tell me, as a SharePoint Admin, what do you anticipate the most with SharePoint 2016?

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