The much anticipated Office 365 was finally made available at the end of June 2011. It provides a great turn-key solution for organizations to provide all sorts of services like messaging, collaboration, online conferencing and document management to their personnel at an amazingly low price. Take a quick tour around the Office 365 interfaces by watching this video.

The collaboration piece of the Office 365 pie is SharePoint Online. It’s basically SharePoint 2010 trimmed down to run ‘in the cloud’. Within your SharePoint Online environment, you can create multiple site collections for projects, departments, regions, business units or areas delegated for external sharing. A company’s SharePoint Online Administrator can delegate ownership of a site collection to a separate Site Collection Owner, who can then further create subsites and delegate ownership to a Site Owner. SharePoint Online is highly customizable and you can mold the environment to suit your needs as you see fit. Just like SharePoint 2010 on-premise, SharePoint Online is meant to be a platform on which to build business applications.

Customization Opportunities in SharePoint Online

Once you get a handle on what you have with SharePoint Online, the question becomes: How can I modify it/enhance it to suit my needs? That’s what I would like to address in this brief article.

The first level of customization is the kind of configuration you can achieve via the internet browser. Site owners and designers of a site can accomplish tasks such as creating subsites, managing site security, adding and customizing default Web Parts, creating and managing lists/libraries and more with ease. A lot can be done with the browser actually, but of course, you can only go so far with it. For example, if you wanted to get to and modify the underlying list and library forms or let’s say implement a multi-step approval process for documents in a document library, you’ll need to look beyond the browser. You’ll end up looking into creating solutions using either SharePoint Designer 2010 or programming them with Visual Studio 2010.

If you are a programmer and comfortable with code, you can use Visual Studio 2010 (VS 2010) to create custom applications that run on SharePoint Online. The following developer features form the foundation of developing for SharePoint Online:

  • Sandboxed Solutions (scoped within a site collection)
  • Client Object Model
  • Silverlight and Javascript

SharePoint Online provides both server and client object models for developers. Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 provides a range of specialized templates for creating sandboxed solutions that contain a variety of SharePoint items, such as site and list definitions, workflows, Web Parts, event receivers, and content types, to include in your SharePoint solutions. You can check out the SharePoint Online Developer Resource Center to discover more about solutions created using Visual Studio.

If you are not a programmer or even if you are, but want to understand all the things you can accomplish in SharePoint Online with SharePoint Designer 2010 (SPD 2010) before jumping into code, continue reading. There is no way possible that I can list All of the customizations you can perform using SPD 2010, but the following information will give you a good idea of what’s available. You can pick up our SharePoint Designer 2010 book and be assured that most of the functionality explained in the book applies to SharePoint Online. Also, especially check out the related resources and video links listed in the paragraphs below to see for yourself the amazing things you can accomplish with this tool within the SharePoint Online space.

The Magic of SharePoint Designer 2010

With the release of Office 365, SharePoint Designer 2010 becomes more of an integral part of the SharePoint story. Why? Well, because almost all of your customizations in SharePoint Online will be at the site collection level – the space that SPD 2010 dominates!

The tasks you perform in SPD 2010 are generally referred to as customizations instead of development because tasks performed in SPD 2010 require you to edit SharePoint items declaratively, instead of using server side code. When you are using SPD 2010, you are going directly against the selected SharePoint Online site. This differs from SharePoint solution development in VS 2010, where you create and debug your solution on a local SharePoint installation, and then deploy the completed solution to the solution gallery in SharePoint Online.

Once you create a site collection using the SharePoint Online administrative interface, you are ready to crank up SPD 2010 and open the top level site of that site collection. Creating subsites and customizing metadata are very simple tasks to perform using SPD 2010. See for yourself how you can manage site components. Also, new in SPD 2010 is the ability to configure your SharePoint site security. The same functionality that will take you numerous clicks and lots of waiting to accomplish using the browser, you can perform easily using SPD 2010 in a matter of seconds. Especially if you are an admin of multiple SharePoint sites, this would be a most welcomed functionality.

Managing your site content types and metadata definitions (using mainly site columns) should be an integral activity for every site admin. Site columns and content types are declared at the site level, they work exactly the same within the SharePoint Online environment as they would with an on-premise installation. Generally, you would declare most site columns and content types at the top level site of your site collection in SharePoint Online so it would guarantee the availability of it throughout the site collection. Creating and editing site columns and content types for a site is simple enough to do in SPD 2010. If you want to see how it’s done, watch it in action here.

The core functionality of SharePoint sites is considered to be lists (and libraries which are essentially lists as well). All data is ultimately stored within a visible or hidden list or library. Using SPD 2010, you can make basic changes such as changing the name and description of the list, or edit the list columns (metadata) which is commonly one of the first things you need to attend to after creating a list. The content types attached to this list are also displayed in the Content Types section and can be managed directly from there. Customizations of list views and forms is key to really enhancing the functionality (and the look and feel) the way your organization needs it to be. You will find that there is a Lot more you can accomplish in this space using SPD 2010 compared to the browser. For example, watch how easy it is to create custom list form pages using SPD 2010.

One of the most robust and powerful features in SPD 2010 is the ability to create declarative sequential workflows. Sequential workflows are those that follow a prescribed path with a definite beginning and end with a set of conditions and actions. The workflow designer in SharePoint Designer 2010 lets you create three different types of workflows: List, Reusable and Site Workflows. All of them are available to use in their full capacity within SharePoint Online. If you have not seen the amazing possibilities of declarative workflows, I Highly recommend watching this demonstration of how you can model workflows in Visio, configure them in SharePoint Designer and then modify the workflow forms using InfoPath – all within a matter of minutes!

One of the most common requests that are received about customizing SharePoint sites is to change the look and feel of the site. You will at least want to change the logo, site colors and perhaps the font for the site – thus lightly designing and branding the site to match your corporate color scheme. You can also modify the look and feel of site pages using SPD 2010. It is all do-able in SharePoint Online with assistance from SPD 2010. If you are serious about branding your sites, pick up this book on branding SharePoint.

While working in the SharePoint Online environment, chances are that most of the times you will be utilizing the Team Site template to create your sites. In addition to the collaboration features, there also exists functionality in SharePoint called Web Content Management (WCM) – also known as the publishing infrastructure.

By enabling WCM features in a site, you can enable content authors to create and manage new page content in a consistent manner based upon the available page layouts. The functions that enable WCM in SharePoint are called publishing features. The designer of the page layout decides how to lay out the components on the page at design time using SPD 2010. Doing this controls the placement of content on a publishing page created by a contributor. Not only that, but the designer can also place restrictions on the type of content that can exist in every region of the page. For example, the designer can create a page layout which dictates that an image should be placed at the top right hand corner of the page and that a content region exists at the bottom left of the page which allows only plain text. Creating a page layout in SPD 2010 is a fairly complex, but a very powerful functionality.

Summing Up

Office 365 is targeted for all types of businesses. SharePoint Online within Office 365 starts a new chapter in SharePoint’s legacy. Now more than ever, it becomes a necessity to find out exactly how far you can take this product using the no-code customizations to quickly create business solutions. SharePoint Designer 2010 plays a major part in the customization story of SharePoint Online. It is essential that site owners, designers, power users and developers acquire a thorough understanding of what the right tools are to implement the necessary business experiences on SharePoint Online before they start building their solutions.

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