Introducing SharePoint 2013 Soft Launched

If you’ve read my blog over the past months (no, I’m not doing the relative time thing again), you know I’ve been running a series of what has been known, rumored, and speculated about SharePoint 2013. You may also know I stopped taking new subscriptions to that series a couple of weeks ago.

One reason was that I was preparing for a new series, Introducing SharePoint 2013. I’ve now soft-launched that series, meaning I’ve made subscriptions available, but haven’t published any issues yet.

Here’s the essence, taken from the Introducing SharePoint 2013 page:

Introducing SharePoint 2013 at USP Journal is a subscription series that introduces you to the latest version of Microsoft’s collaboration platform SharePoint.

Throughout this series, you’ll learn about SharePoint 2013 from various perspectives, including:

  • SharePoint Developers
  • SharePoint Administrators
  • SharePoint Business Users
  • SharePoint End Users

The series runs from the first availability of the SharePoint 2013 beta, to be released in the summer of 2012, and to the Release To Manufacturing version becomes available.

Every 4-6 weeks, you will receive a new issue, of 20-30 pages, covering aspects of the new SharePoint version.

Each issue will also become a chapter in the first issue of USP Journal Volume 3.  That complete issue, to be released upon general availability of the completed version of SharePoint 2013, is also included in the price.

In other words, not only do you get the subscription issues, you also get the full journal issue when SharePoint 2013 ships!

You will get the first issue of this series within days of the beta availability of SharePoint 2013. That issue will cover topics such as:

  • SharePoint 2013 Features Overview
  • Hardware and Software Requirements for SharePoint 2013
  • Downloading and Installing SharePoint 2013
  • SharePoint 2013 First Looks

When you are ready to purchase, as part of your subscription purchase, you also get access to any past issues of the series through a password protected web page. New issues are made available on that page, and you will receive an email notification when new issues are available.

So, feel free to sign up, it’s $14.95, for the full series, including any back issues and the completed first issue of USP Journal Volume 3.

http://introducingsharepoint2013.com/

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Why LINQ to SharePoint is a Bad Idea!

One of the major third-tier developer components introduced in SharePoint 2010 is LINQ to SharePoint. In a recent debate on Twitter, I tried to convey some of the problematic aspects of using LINQ to SharePoint (or even LINQ in general) but because Twitter tends to be rather ADHD about its attention span, I thought I’d sum up my thoughts for posterity.

Now, if you have no idea what LINQ is, I’ll give you a brief intro. However, regardless in what tier you do your SharePoint development, I’ve tried to make this as non-technical as possible, so you should be able to follow along. I’ve even included the mandatory car example.

LINQ is What?

Developers, and especially third tier developers (meaning Visual Studio/.NET development following Marc D. Anderson’s Middle-Tier Manifesto), often manipulate data in some form or another. For a platform like SharePoint, that essentially is a glorified database, data manipulation is a rather important part of any development project.

Note: I’m simplifying the topic here. I realize that some of the terms used are not 100% accurate, but I’m trying to explain this to those with little or no prior development experience. If this bothers you, feel free to point out the inaccuracies in the comments below.

By data manipulation, I mean tasks such as finding, sorting, modifying, presenting, and filtering data, in SharePoint likely stored in lists or libraries somewhere.

To accomplish such tasks, developers have a wide range of tools and languages available, depending on the underlying data source. For example, if the underlying data source is a traditional database (often called a relational database), developers can use a data language called SQL. In non-traditional databases, such as a wide variety of what are now called NoSQL databases, graph databases, and big data implementations, languages and tools often vary by the individual database. And, for highly proprietary solutions, like SharePoint, there’s platform specific options like CAML queries.

So, as you may see, working with data requires that the developer knows a lot about the underlying data source because the method used to access and query data varies greatly. Obviously, this puts a huge burden on the developer because one needs to know not just the details of the language in which that developer normally works, but also the intricacies of multiple underlying data manipulation methods.

In fact, this is why database developer is a specialized job. These developers don’t necessarily know the programming aspects of development, but rather specialize on knowing how to build efficient and accurate queries for data access.

The Good

Here’s where LINQ comes in to sort-of save the day. LINQ provides, or at least attempts to provide, a unified language that allows developers that are less than specialists on databases to use one language to access data, regardless of what the underlying data source wants or needs. Rather than having to know how a certain implementation of a database works, a developer can focus on learning LINQ and then let what’s known as a LINQ provider.

The task of the LINQ provider is to translate what the developer writes into what the underlying data needs. For example, the LINQ to SharePoint provider will translate LINQ into CAML so that developers won’t need to even learn CAML to make queries against SharePoint data. Other providers perform similar translations, such as the now defunct LINQ to SQL, the newer LINQ to Entities, or LINQ to Objects.

In fact, you can write your very own LINQ to MyStuff provider if you want. It’s not even that difficult, but the consequences are profound, and in there lies the first problem with LINQ and I’ll get to that in a moment.

Because LINQ relies on providers, you abstract yourself from the underlying data. Normally, this is a great idea, in fact, abstractions are a key component in any modern development, saving you both time and the need to learn all the underlying technology.

Consider hardware drivers for a moment. It would be a right mess if every developer needed to learn how to actually generate the electrical signal needed to send a bit down the pipe of every vendor’s Ethernet network adapter. Instead, you can (or mostly won’t) write against a hardware driver, which exposes a set of capabilities such as ‘send some stuff down the pipe’ but leaving the hardware details out-of-sight of the developer.

LINQ works in much the same way. Developers don’t need to learn how the data source queries its data. Instead you get a set of exposed capabilities such as ‘get some stuff for me’ and leaving the data access details out-of-sight of the developer.

Good idea, right? Well, there are problems in the garden of Eden, as always…

The Bad

You see, because LINQ relies on providers (or drivers) to access its data, as a developer you get many of the same problems that developers working against hardware get.

Even though all LINQ providers can expose the same capabilities, not all of them do. In fact, even providers that give you the same capabilities does not necessarily give them to you in the same manner.

Let’s say that you write a LINQ query to retrieve the Title of a certain data item. The idea of LINQ is then that by simply returning the Title property, you don’t need to worry about the underlying mechanics for finding the Title.

This is great, except that you have no idea what the underlying provider does to retrieve the Title, and this can be a serious performance problem. In fact, behind the scenes, because the provider is responsible for everything, the Title property can be tied to functionality that requires additional and expensive database or even web service calls.

Until you’re building applications that rely on high performance, however, this may not be a huge deal. It is, or can be, a huge deal if your solution needs to support many concurrent users, but the essence is that you don’t know when you make the query whether it is going to download the entire web to your server. LINQ effectively hides that, and there’s no way, looking at the query, that you can possibly know what’s actually going on.

The Worse

To make matters worse, there’s no way for you to control how the provider works either, unless you understand intimately how that specific provider handles queries. There’s really no way to optimize a LINQ query without knowing both how the provider works and how the underlying data source works.

In other words, where writing efficient code previously required knowing the details of a data model, you now need to know the details of the data model and the details of the provider. We had a problem with writing code before? Now we have the same problems and another problem.

Again, unless you’re even slightly worried about performance, this may never impact you.

Sadly, most SharePoint developers I meet are more concerned with actually getting the code to do what they want rather than writing matinaintable code that works efficiently and scales well, but that’s another rant.

This is, however, a readability issue. Someone glancing over a LINQ query may get a general idea about what goes on, but won’t know anything about how it’s done, or even whether they can extend or modify the query, because they don’t know, from looking at the LINQ query, what the provider supports, how it supports it, or even which provider is in use.

Here’s one example, of many I might add, using what are known as enumerations. Enumerations in programming languages are when you have a variable or property that can have one of more predetermined values. For example, using the never-boring car example, a car may have one of three different engine types (petrol, diesel, electric), and no other engine types are valid for a car. In this case, you can use an enumeration to force the value to be valid, as opposed to having just a line of text, prone to misspelling, determine the engine type.

Note: In SharePoint, by the way, this would be akin to a choice field.

When you then want to find all diesel cars, you want to use that enumeration to make sure you get an accurate query, which is elegant and maintainable, but also here’s where the problems start.

LINQ providers are nowhere near consistent in how they support enumerations. One such example is LINQ to Entities, which up until version 5.0 does not support enumerations at all. To work around the issue, you end up with ‘hacks’ such as converting the enumeration to a number value and querying that number value instead.

Enumerations isn’t the only issue. Consider that you may want to not only know which engine a car has, but based on the engine type, you also want to know the possible engine sizes. To accomplish this, you might want to use what is know as a Join, in which you join the result of a second query with the result from the first query. Not all providers can support joins, and to make matters worse, some providers for the same underlying data source will support joins, while others providers to the exact same data source will not.

So, to a developer who needs to maintain a piece of code containing LINQ, the developer needs to not only know LINQ but also know which provider LINQ uses in order to know whether a modification will work. Maintenance becomes a nightmare forcing developers to sift through tons of included DLLs to determine which provider and which provider extensions are in effect.

LINQ to SharePoint does support enumerations, though, and to some extent also joins, so problem solved, right? Well, not exactly…

The Ugly

The problem is that enumerations in LINQ to SharePoint are rather quirky, especially when you take into consideration the tendency of SharePoint data models to change, depending on the needs of the user. A SharePoint site owner can and often will change the definition of a choice field, by either removing or adding additional values. They may add or remove columns, or even entire lists, because that’s just the way SharePoint is supposed to work.

We want this to happen because one of the primary and most powerful features of SharePoint is its ability to adapt to changes in needs. If someone invents nuclear powered cars or cars that run on M&Ms, we want our SharePoint solution to be able to store that, right?

Well, LINQ to SharePoint won’t pick up on such changes. In fact, as I’ll explain in a moment, LINQ to SharePoint is highly static and works only for a definition of the data model that was current at the time of the start of development. This happens because to get LINQ to SharePoint to understand your data, you need to run a tool called SPMetal, that essentially takes a snapshot of your data model and builds query classes based on that data.

If you change the model later, for example by adding new columns or changing the definition of a choice field, your .NET code breaks or at least won’t be able to work with the modified data.

There are ways to handle changes in data models or objects in SharePoint.  LINQ to SharePoint, however, isn’t a good approach to this. Although technically you can extend your LINQ to SharePoint classes after a data model change, it is again a highly specific method to this particular provider. Besides, it’s far from simple, as explained in this 2,500 word post from the SharePoint developer team blog.

Note that the problem of changes in the underlying data isn’t unique to LINQ to SharePoint. It is a problem with LINQ in general because the queries are strongly typed at the time of building and can’t easily be as dynamic as we need SharePoint to be.

Compare that to CAML for example, which is essentially a long string of text that you can build dynamically based on changes detected, LINQ becomes a cumbersome additional piece of technology you need to learn without actually gaining any real benefits.

Thus, the benefit of having a unified language for queries is more or less lost. No, you’re not getting one language that works the same across any data source. No, you don’t get the benefit of not needing to know the underlying data source. Yes, you need to know more because you also need to know how the provider works.

Conclusion

I rarely write conclusions and frankly hate them but I thought I’d make an exception for those that are too lazy or stupid to read the entire text.

First, LINQ is a great idea. I use it a lot. I also spend days, perhaps weeks, learning the intricate details of individual LINQ providers before I start using them. With that investment, LINQ can be a great time saver, if you know what you’re doing very well.

Second, LINQ is not easier than other options. It is in fact more difficult. Even though you can write a LINQ query fairly quick, that doesn’t mean you understand, control, or know what you’re doing. It’s a monkey-see, monkey-do problem; it’s really easy to learn a few tricks that will impress a novice.

Third, LINQ isn’t nearly as universal as it may seem. The syntax may be well defined, but that’s as useful as saying that since English grammar is fairly well defined, everyone who understand English grammar also understands what every English sentence means.

In even shorter term; use LINQ only when you fully understand both the provider and the underlying data source.

Until then, you’re just another monkey who can push a button to get a treat.

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SharePoint 2013 Name Confirmed and SharePoint Store Details

Hah! I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. I’ve been fairly certain for several months, and have in fact suspected it for over a year, but now I’m happy to say I’ve seen the irrefutable proof at least I need.

Sadly, though, I can’t show you the evidence, nor even tell you from where I got it, so consider this as loose a rumor as any.

SharePoint 2013 Shall Be The Name!

In a private forum I frequent, and from whom I’ve learned valuable insights on upcoming features of both Office 2013 and SharePoint 2013, someone posted a screenshot just a couple of days ago. Due to the policy of that forum, I can’t republish that image, and in fact, I have had to acquire permission just to mention them as a source, even though I’m not allowed to let you know which forum this is.

Normally, I don’t cite private sources at all, and I use them only to gain insight into what may come and give me hints as to what I should expect to find elsewhere. It helps with research.

In any case, the screenshot posted reveals details about the new SharePoint Store in  SharePoint 2013. And yes, the name SharePoint 2013 is used exclusively, there’s no mention of SharePoint 15 at all.

SharePoint App Functionality

Of further interest is the described installation of a SharePoint app, revealing even more insights into how this feature works.

First of all, the name used in the screenshot is the SharePoint Store, not SharePoint Marketplace, which was and is used in the protocol documentation.

To install an app, you go to the site where you want to install the app. To find an app, you go to the Settings menu (which is a has cogwheel icon much like that used in Windows 8 for settings) and click Add an app. Doing so will give you a search box where you, likely among a wide variety of options, can search for the asset ID of the app you want to install.

Interestingly, the results will default to search among what is described as ‘your apps’. This seems to be what I’ve previously described as a company app store, where farm administrators can acquire licenses for and install (or make available for installation) apps from different sources, including the SharePoint Store.

If, when searching, you can’t find an app in the farm store, SharePoint will automatically search the SharePoint Store. If found, the result will link to the app in the store, where you’ll likely be able to install it or license it if you have the required permissions.

Note: You also need to have site admin permissions to add apps to a site.

Gimme More, Gimme More!

OK, OK, here are a few tidbits that may be of interest.

In the screenshot, to illustrate how the search results looks, there’s a screenshot from the SharePoint 2013 interface for adding apps. Although scaled down, I’ve been able to glean some details of interest.

The interface inside SharePoint for app adding looks very much like the Metro interface in Windows 8. On the left side, there’s the Quick Launch menu as always and with a search box directly over the Quick Launch menu items.

In the top menu, where you’ve had the Personal menu (Welcome User) you see three links which are very interesting, Share, Follow, and what appears to be a Full Screen icon (it resembles the full screen icon of YouTube videos).

The Share and Follow link buttons may be part of new social features in SharePoint, perhaps allowing users to share pages, sites, or items either within the organization or possibly even outside. The Follow may be as simple as a bookmarking feature, but will more likely provide deeper following functionality like feed updates to your MySite or RSS reader.

Finally, I’ve previously mentioned, at least in the SharePoint 2013 Beta series (not sure if I’ve blogged it) that there is a new concept in SharePoint 2013 called Communities which seem to at least be used extensively in SharePoint Education Services. In the top navigation bar of the screenshot, there is a link called Communities (next to MySite) so it’s likely that communities will be used outside SharePoint education as well.

Beyond this, there are few details in the SharePoint screenshot, but I noticed that there is no Ribbon in the screenshot, nor any indication that there is one to open. This may be just a feature of the Add an App page or because the page is shown using the full screen feature, but regardless, I have no indication that the Ribbon will be gone from other pages. 

Well, we’re just days away from the first beta so I hope you’ll enjoy this little preview, and as always, remember that everything is highly speculative, and so on.

If you’d like to get first insights into SharePoint 2013 once the beta comes out, I’ve soft-launched my new USP Journal series titled Introducing SharePoint 2013 and the first issue comes out as soon as SharePoint 2013 Beta does. You can grab a subscription from the Introducing SharePoint 2013 page for $14.95 and as always with my series, that includes all the issues (even back issues) and the first issue of USP Journal Volume 3 (which will be a compilation of the series).

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