Sunday, September 06, 2009

Classification and Structuring of SharePoint Sites (Part I)

As part of my work as a SharePoint architect, I almost always run into poorly designed and structured SharePoint solutions. Mostly because consultants hardly ever seems to read and really understand the Technet SharePoint Site Structure Planning and the SharePoint Logical Design and Architecture guidelines or do any information architecture (IA) analysis. What is needed is a site classification scheme based on solution domains, usage, management and governance as shown in this article with structuring guidelines for each site category.

This post and the next is targeted at a technical audience; if back-end architecture details is not for you, jump straight to part III for a simple five step process aimed at business users, analysts and information architects.

IA defines the structural design of your information space to facilitate content organization, realized in a SharePoint site structure to store and manage your content. Skipping the IA and site structure planning will work for some time, perhaps forever, but eventually most SharePoint solutions grows into the software boundaries of the platform. The effect will be poor performance and frustrating user experience due to the unmanageable number of sites popping up everywhere.

SharePoint supports a flexible IA structure by providing several types of content containers, and you really need to understand how to use them:
  • Root site collection: container for portal, home sites
  • Explicit site collection: container for department, services, regional sites
  • Wildcard site collection: container for team, community, project sites
  • Top-level site (site home): container for content and subsites and channels
  • Subsite (site section): container for content and even more subsites and channels
Note that it is a best practice to not use the terms "site" or "web" when classifying and structuring sites. Experience shows that these terms are so overloaded that is just causes confusion. Even the latest SharePoint guidance makes a classical MSDN mess using the term "root site" in some parts when referring to top-level sites. Also stay away from using site-definition names such as team-sites and workspaces.

In addition, I use "managed site-collection" instead of the term "managed path" to get consistent naming in my site taxonomy. Managed paths are central when constructing your URL space, but thats a secondary goal and only important as part of your IA structural design to facilitate content organization and driving findability. It is the site-collections held at managed path explicit and wildcard inclusion URLs that is the primary goal, plus of course that held at the root path.

It is important that you look at your diverse set of information and develop a classification scheme for the content that will go into your SharePoint solution. Develop a classification of sites and follow the planning guidelines on how to structure your sites according to SharePoint recommended practices. I like to classify sites into four major categories as shown here (click to enlarge):

Sites are classified into the four major categories based on the management policies (corporate to community, controlled to uncontrolled) and the life-cycle policies (predefined and planned, predictable and ad-hoc) of the site content. The four categories are numbered 1 to 4 ranging from most specific to very generic classification of sites.

Sites always belong to one site-collection. A site-collection is just that, a collection of sites. A site-collection contains one top-level site, that again can contain a hierarchy of subsites. Hence site-collection. As there is a limited set of explicit site-collections per SharePoint web-application, these should be reserved for a planned, wellknown small number of predefined sites. Use wildcard site-collections when the predictable number of sites is too large for explicit, and for ad-hoc sites that come and go in unknown numbers. Finally, there can be only one root site-collection per SharePoint web-application.

The following figure applies the SharePoint site structure design limits to my site classification scheme:

The major categories provide a recommendation of the type of site-collection to use; and for each category and site-collection type, the site classification scheme provides a recommendation for how to use top-level sites (TLS) and subsites to provide the structural IA design. There are two major ways to structure content within a site-collection: wide and deep. A wide site structure uses multiple TLS sites (and hence multiple site-collections), while a deep site structure rather uses a single TLS site with multiple subsites with even more subsites. Both approaches can be combined to best structure the content according to your IA.

Using a wide site structure is applicable for sites like projects and team-sites, as this gives the best control over site configuration, administration and management in SharePoint. Each TLS is a separate site-collection, and each site-collection is a management boundary for users and groups, access control, content taxonomy, navigation, branding, SLA, all in all sites are separated from each other and each have their own life-cycle and governance policies.

Using a deep site structure is applicable for sites like portals, departmental or regional content, and shared communities. All subsites with the TLS site-collection share the same navigation and content taxonomy, the same members and groups, the same branding, all in all the same configuration and administration and the same governing policies and life-cycles.

You will of course also need to consider the site-definition type that you plan to apply to each site, as this will influence what should be structured together to create a well planned user experience. E.g. within a internet "Publishing portal" TLS you would most likely not add a "Team-site" subsite.

Note that root or explicit site-collection storage cannot be scaled as you cannot add another content database to a site collection. If scalable storage is a requirement, using wildcard site-collections is best practice.

I recommend making a SharePoint site diagram like this to vizualize how your site structure is built by combining root, explicit and wildcard site-collections (click to enlarge):

I hope this site classification scheme will help you understand how to plan and design your next SharePoint site structure. At least it should make planning workshops more focused and less confusing, both for you and your customers.

Read part II for more details on wide vs deep site structures, including SharePoint system boundaries.

Read part III Five Steps to Structure Your SharePoint Sites if you're unsure of where to start your site classification and structuring efforts.


Geir Fuhre Pettersen said...

Good work! I believe there is a small spelling mistake in the diagram. It says "mananged".

Good luck to you and Mads!

Kjell-Sverre Jerijærvi said...

Sure does, the famous copy-paste bug strikes again :) Will fix it in due time.

Florian said...

I experienced that SharePoint governance and site structuring is often not that important from a customer perspective. SharePoint provides new possibilities to share information and to provide information hierarchies.

Great article!