Track and Visualize Compliance Events as Part of Nintex Workflows

Like most consulting groups that build a lot of workflows for process automation, we work with a lot of approval processes to help formalize important reviews and decisions while supporting compliance activities.  We recently received an interesting request to update an existing process we helped build and maintain.  In this particular approval process, the financial transactions were being reviewed and approved, but the stakeholders really needed to be able to view the pending and approved transactions. 

Adding a calendar to visualize when approvals have taken place was a big win with the client. The requirements for setting it up were simple. The events would have either a 'Pending' or 'Approved' state and can approve via email. Finally, the events would appear on a calendar color-coded to each state of approval.  Because the pending documents are stored in a separate library from final documents, and to support color coding and full featured calendar connections, we chose to use a calendar list versus the limited calendar view format for a traditional SharePoint library. 

Nintex's LazyApproval is a great solution for approval workflows. Setting up the workflow was simple. Once a user adds a new document and sets the event date, the workflow creates a calendar event and then creates a task. The first step in the workflow is a filter to check if the Created date is equal to the Modified date. This lets me know if the item was just added to the library without having any metadata added to it. I could check to see if a calendar item has already been created. This would occur if an item had already been rejected and updates have been applied to the original item. If not, the calendar item is created in the 'Pending' state. On approval, the calendar item is set to 'Approved'. If rejected, it will stay as 'Pending'.

The workflow looks like this:

The way I keep the Calendar Events in sync with the documents is by using the Document ID. I added a text field called "Document ID" and write the Document ID value on creation of the calendar item. That makes it easy to query.

Setting up the calendar requires a trick in the use of the ribbon option 'Calendar Overlay'.

Normally, separate SharePoint calendars are used to overlay onto a single calendar. Using that method, 3 separate calendars would be required for this solution, one for each state of the event. The trick is to add a separate calendar view as a separate calendar. By using this method, there is no need for separate calendars, only for separate calendar views.

Once you enter your site into the Web URL and click 'Resolve', the List and List View dropdowns should populate. Simply choose them and when your calendar items meet the criteria for the list view, they will appear with the color you chose.

The result is a single calendar with multiple color-coded entries. Events can even span multiple days or specific times depending on your start/end dates and times.

While this is just a subset of the total workflow, it illustrates a great technique that can be used for supporting your compliance activities. Creative uses of workflows with SharePoint apps help demonstrate the full power of the platform as well as their investment to the client generating a win on many levels.  Utilizing what is available in the box combined with thinking out of the box is key to happy clients.

If you would like to learn more about this solution, or how we can help automate different aspects of your business, please contact us.

Planning for Hybrid Cloud Deployments

For organizations that don’t have any immediate strategic plans for a full migration to the public cloud but want to leverage some of the innovative cloud service offerings, there is a hybrid alternative available.  The hybrid cloud provides companies with a higher degree of flexibility without forcing a choice between either an on-premises or cloud model.  With minimal configuration, an organization can integrate their current enterprise on-premises applications with their choice of a la carte cloud services and products.  The time and infrastructure investment it takes to move to a hybrid cloud model is minuscule compared to the sheer value-add that Office 365 and Microsoft Azure bring to the table. 

Typically, Microsoft will release a new on-premises product every 2-3 years.  Compare that to a 3-6 month release cycle in Microsoft Azure or Office 365 (O365), and organizations quickly begin to see a product that is continually evolving.  In this post we are going to discuss why a move to a hybrid cloud model is a good first step in your organization's cloud adoption strategy.  This post is geared towards organizations who have already made on-premises investments in SharePoint 2013 / 2016 but want to leverage cloud services where it makes sense for the business.

Enabling the SharePoint Hybrid Cloud

Moving to a hybrid SharePoint environment will provide additional enhancements and integration points for on-premises installations of SharePoint 2013 and 2016.  In fact, Microsoft is now releasing on-premises feature packs for SharePoint 2016.  These feature packs contain cloud features and capabilities that can be deployed into your SharePoint 2016 on-premises environment.  This means that on-premises customers can enjoy product updates based on all the current innovative cloud service offerings happening in Microsoft Azure and Office 365.

Enabling the hybrid cloud doesn’t require lengthy investments or migration efforts.  It can be thought of as an add-on enhancement to your existing SharePoint implementation.  This is a win-win for organizations who are new to the cloud and would like to see what the cloud has to offer.  In most cases, companies can continue to leverage existing on-premises application deployments (SharePoint, Exchange, etc.) and cloud service add-ons together without impacting current SharePoint deployments.  If down the road you decide to begin migrating some on-premises workloads to the cloud you will already have positioned yourself to make that move more seamless.

The hybrid cloud is the integration of on-premises resources with cloud resources.  Organizations today with on-premises SharePoint 2013 / 2016 investments that are wondering how they can begin adopting the cloud should first think about adopting a hybrid cloud model.  With the hybrid cloud organizations can leverage the strengths of both on-premises and cloud workloads.  All the while providing a robust and consistent user experience for the users.

Planning Your Move

When planning a move to the hybrid cloud for SharePoint there are a few key areas that require special attention.  Your trusted Cloud Service Provider has the experience needed to guide your organization to the hybrid cloud model.  They should have the right questions lined up to ask in order to match the proposed SharePoint hybrid solutions to the business requirements.

With the proper planning, and with some of the new advancements from the Azure AD Connect onboarding tool, getting through the initial hybrid cloud setup is easier than it has ever been.  Listed below are a couple of important topics that should be discussed when planning and configuring on-premises hybrid connectivity:

  1. Azure / O365 tenant deployment planning
    1. Which Azure / O365 plan works best for my organization
    2. Domain name planning / routing
    3. Tenant name and administration delegation
  2. Integration of on-premises directories with Azure AD
    1. Will user passwords be synced up to Azure AD?
    2. Pass-through Authentication (PTA), provides the same corporate credential access to cloud based services.  This does not require a ADFS deployment.
    3. Is single sign on (SSO) between O365 / Azure and on-premises resources a requirement?  Integrating your on-premises directories with Azure AD makes your users more productive by providing a common identity for accessing both cloud and on-premises resources. 
    4. Is Active Directory Federations Services (ADFS) deployed currently?  If not Pass-through Authentication (PTA) w/ SSO enabled is a new option that should be evaluated.
  3. Authentication topology planning
    1. One-way Inbound
    2. One-way Outbound
    3. Bi-Directional Authentication
    4. Server to Server Authentication
  4. SharePoint hybrid cloud integration points
    1. Centralized user profile deployment
    2. OneDrive for Business deployment
    3. Hybrid search deployment
    4. Extranet website deployment
    5. Seamless on-premises disaster recovery environment in Azure
    6. Hybrid self-service site creation
    7. Enhanced hybrid auditing capabilities

In the next blog post of this Hybrid SharePoint series, I will begin to dive into each of the higher-level planning items mentioned above.  The first one up will be planning your organization's O365 tenant and choosing the best integration option for your organization's on-premises directories.

To assist in your planning process, be sure to download your free copy of the Hybrid SharePoint research report, sponsored by Microsoft, B&R Business Solutions, and other leading partners. And if you'd like to learn more about how B&R can help your organization move to the cloud, please contact us.

What’s New in Record Center Version 2

Yesterday, we announced the release of Record Center Version 2. This release is marked with a number of enhancements to help our customers more easily wrap their arms around their organization’s complex records management practices. We continue to work to simplify otherwise stressful and complicated tasks for users and record managers, making the overall records management life cycle much more manageable. This ethos has fueled the development of Record Center from the very beginning—putting a focus on something that most organizations can’t afford to ignore, and setting them up to be able to easily implement the records management structure their organization needs.

Enhanced In-Line Preview

In the previous release of Record Center, we introduced the concept of an in-line document preview, enabling users to easily input and review metadata while being able to view the document directly alongside. This feature has become a hallmark of Record Center, drastically reducing the time needed for users to initially submit records, and for approvers to validate that a document’s metadata is correct. In Version 2 of Record Center, we’ve expanded this capability by making it available throughout the record lifecycle, whether editing, submitting, approving or viewing a record. We’ve also added full support for Office Web Applications and Office Online Server, enabling a richer document preview experience for PDF and Microsoft Office file types.

New “Browse Records” Functionality

Since the very beginning of Record Center, we’ve acknowledged that users are always going to have varying levels of technical acumen. Our approach to making records easy to find has been based on the premise of empowering users—regardless of their experience level, and helping them to develop concepts over time that increase their proficiency. Recognizing that most users are familiar with file shares and directory structures, Record Center has always offered a “Browse Records” capability as the introductory method to finding records. In Version 2, we’ve overhauled that browsing experience, to increase commonality with the look, feel, and behavior of “Keyword Searching” and “Record Finder”. This update helps users to feel more at home regardless of their chosen search method, and standardizes the user experience across all three methods.

Performance Enhancements

Version 2 of Record Center includes a number of under-the-hood performance boosts to make your Record Center experience faster, and more stable than ever before. We’ve significantly increased the processing time of record submission, and increased the number of records that can be bulk submitted, approved, or rejected at once. These enhancements allow you to process more records in less time, and with less clicks than ever before.

Brand New Management Interface

Our design philosophy with Record Center has always been to present options in a clear and concise way, simplifying the overall task of managing and maintaining a large records management process. Version 2 of Record Center includes a refreshed configuration page, centralizing all of Record Center’s core configuration options in a single, tabbed interface. From here, a record manager can control all of the options that drive record approvals, user experience, user security, plus any Record Center add-ons.

Record Center is your turnkey solution for enterprise-class record management. An extension of Microsoft SharePoint, Record Center arms your users and record managers with a feature-packed, intuitive solution to manage the entire life-cycle of your records. Configure, approve and search for records faster and easier than ever with Record Center.

Hybrid IT: A Journey Worth Exploring

In recent years, the cloud has emerged as the leading technology for delivering services across industries.  How have cloud technology-as-a-service solutions come to dominate the market so quickly?

  1. The internet continues to improve and is the backbone of delivering cloud solutions anywhere.
  2. Cost-effective, high-speed networks and broadband used by individuals, small businesses, and enterprises.
  3. Server virtualization has dramatically reduced the cost of powerful computing (possibly to a tipping point for #2)

Now, massive and extremely cost-effective datacenters around the world are hosting all the software that drives “as-a-service” apps. Businesses of all sizes and their employees can access these datacenters for services from around the world via reliable and affordable high-speed networks.

All cloud all the time? Not so fast…

Despite all the powerful advancements, we are living in a hybrid world where there is a mix of on-premises and cloud technologies. 

Though cloud computing is here, organizations and their Modern MSPs need to approach cloud computing as a journey from on-premises technology to cloud computing.

During the transition, a hybrid model is a great (and often recommended) next step to gain the flexibility, scalability, and affordability of cloud computing while getting the full life and utility from existing on-premises IT.

A Modern MSP with expertise in both traditional on-premises technology and cloud computing can help customers build an intelligent solution now that will help an organization transition in the future. The right partner will help to make every investment in the cloud an investment that addresses immediate needs as well as long-term goals.

How? It’s all about the business outcomes you have in mind.

Just as moving to the cloud is a journey, so are the long-term business outcomes you hope to achieve. Combine the two goals and you create a powerful feedback loop to drive your IT and your business forward.

We’re here to help you grow. We look forward to the opportunity to discuss your unique needs and see where the cloud fits into your IT and business planning.

Not All Customizations Are Bad

As I meet with technology and business executives, one of the topics that keeps frequently coming up is whether to customize SharePoint of SharePoint Online in Office 365.  There continues to be a lot of misunderstanding around what can be done safely, and what is going to cause long term stability or maintenance problems. 

In the Beginning

The first thing to understand is that not all customizations are the same, or have the same level of risk or impact within the system.  In the early days of SharePoint, the platform was completely open for customizations and in some cases developers had free reign to do whatever they wanted or needed.  In some cases, poor decisions were made or bad code was written.  Generally, the mistakes fall into a few categories; the developers were inexperienced with the platform and didn’t know any better, or they were not forthcoming with information on what kind of impact there would be maintaining the solution or when upgrading SharePoint to the next version. 

Over time, SharePoint started to get a bit of a bad rap as being difficult to upgrade if there were any customizations or commercial add-ons within the system.  The people that know the system, of course, know how to mitigate this risk, and address the upgrade challenges -- but again, that assumes knowledge and competencies that only a small percentage of people have. 

Evolution of Customizations

Over time, Microsoft and the community-at-large learned some valuable lessons and responded with better guidance, as well as new options for how to interact with and customize SharePoint. The focus shifted more toward client-side development and interacting through standardized web services. 

  • Full Trust Solutions:  Server code that runs within the server, this is the traditional SharePoint Server customization, which is typically deployed with a .WSP file. 
  • Sandbox Solutions:  Microsoft’s first attempt at providing a system for customizations that runs in a safe, isolated space to ensure customizations have little to no negative impact on SharePoint sites.  Unfortunately, this did not prove to be a powerful enough solution and so it was deprecated.
  • Add-In (initially called App) Model:  Isolated applications that can interact with SharePoint through published APIs in a safe manner.
  • SharePoint Framework (SPFx):  A new, lighter method of developing SharePoint interface customizations through client script, without a full Add-In package. 

As Microsoft has evolved, the public APIs for SharePoint have also evolved.  The client side APIs for interacting with SharePoint have become very robust, and while you cannot do everything that you used to be able to do with the server side APIs, it could be argued that it provides a good set of safety rails for the average SharePoint developer, ensuring that the risk to long-term stability is minimized. 

Management Tools

What spurred the idea for this blog post was a customer conversation around a request for a tracking system that needed to be setup and then reset for each new calendar year.  Using the published APIs, it is simple to create a process that can safely automate the setup in a repeated manner.  The customer in question was concerned with implementing a customization that could have a negative impact on the system in the future, and stated that they have a "no customization" policy.  It proved to be an interesting conversation as I uncovered the root of the concerns and perceptions.  In the case of the solution we were proposing, there would be no customizations deployed to SharePoint, and therefore no artifacts left behind that could impact SharePoint in any way.  Since our tools would be run locally and interact with SharePoint through the REST services, our solution would be safe and effective.  This is the same approach taken by most SharePoint management tool vendors, like our partners at Sharegate and Metalogix. 

Our Approach

At B&R, our approach is always to understand the goals of what the client is trying to accomplish and then figure out the most appropriate way to accomplish those goals.  In some cases, we still get requests that are best addressed with the traditional Full-Trust code model.  In those cases, we have to have an open and honest conversation about what that means, and what the ongoing costs will be for the customer.  At times, that is the only way to address the requirements (for on-premises) customers, while in other cases it may be a more cost-effective and attractive fit than adopting a provider hosted add-in. Whatever the path forward, we make sure that the pros and cons are fully understood. 

While we do still find ourselves building some Full-Trust solutions, it is difficult to argue against client-side code being the future, and many of the modern SharePoint development techniques find their way into our solutions one way or another.   

Can We Help You on Your Journey?

Are you experiencing issues upgrading a farm with customizations, or are you looking for assistance in getting a solid development plan in place for the foreseeable future?  We would like to help you make the most of the platform, and leverage all the options that are available to you.  If you would like to talk through your goals and challenges, please reach out and setup a consultation.