Thursday, August 31, 2006

eGroup List Viewer Web Part

Whenever I begin a new portal design engagement, one of the most difficult concepts to communicate to the client's design/architecture group is 'Content-Driven Design'. The theory is simple - create an architecture and taxonomy around the information that is most important within your organization. What makes it difficult is the almost Pavlovian instinct to organize content based on company structure - breaking away from the org chart sometimes requires superhuman effort.

Fortunately, once the initial shock wears off, the light goes on and heads start nodding around the conference table. It doesn't take long for people who couldn't pronounce 'taxonomy' the week before to suddenly become content design experts. This only makes sense, as they already have a picture in their minds of how their company's information should be organized, they just need a push in the right direction to translate those thoughts into a good architectural design.

One of the most critical elements to a good content-driven architecture is the concept of "Author Once, Publish Everywhere". In this model, information is created and managed in the most granular context applicable to it's function but published in the context where it is most often consumed. For example, an HR policy would most likely be created and stored in an HR team site, somewhere within the overall departmental hierarchy. This allows team members to collaborate effectively on documents that pertain to their job function while permitting the greatest degree of security and oversight. Users, on the other hand, shouldn't be poking around in the HR team site, they should be browsing a portal area that is generally classified to contain that type of information (such as 'Employee Resources' or 'New Hire Information').

Unfortunately, this design methodology reveals an inherent weakness in SharePoint - the inability to distribute list content throughout the portal. In the SharePoint structure, lists can only be viewed in the context in which they were created (in our example, the HR documents could only be viewed within the HR team site). SharePoint does not ship with out-of-the-box capabilities to create list items in one area/site and view them in another.

To meet this requirement, we created a web part which allows list content in any area or site to be viewed in another area or site by users with sufficient permissions to view items in the source list (they must at least be a 'Reader'). We've used it in numerous client engagements and it is a critical component in our Content-Driven Design methodology. Just add the web part to a page, give it the portal/site url, list name, and view, set the display options (toolbars and column titles), and voila - list content for everyone, everywhere!

The web part can be downloaded here. The zip file contains a ReadMe document with instructions on installing the CAB file (in case you haven't done it before) along with information on deploying it to a portal/site page and configuring the various options.

As always, post any questions, comments, or suggestions to this post.


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Friday, August 18, 2006

eGroup SharePoint Utilities

I am a big proponent of leveraging SharePoint to deliver enterprise line-of-business applications (LOB's). Much of the custom development we do at The eGroup involves the use of SharePoint lists as data repositories for dashboards, workflows, roll-ups and, of course, LOB's. Working extensively with SharePoint lists brings introduces its own set of challenges - coding against the web services, creating and maintaining a large number of custom views, managing security and migration of list structure/content from development to staging and production.

In the course of developing these applications we have created a set of tools to aid us in our efforts. To save our fellow SharePoint developers some of the headaches we've encountered, and to encourage other developers to contribute their time-saving apps, we'll be releasing various applications and utilities from our toolkit in the coming weeks and months. The first utility, the SharePoint List XML Viewer, received an enthusiastic response and generated a fair number of downloads. I hope it is serving everyone well and we will continue to improve it as we receive feedback from the SharePoint community.

The second tool to be released, the SharePoint List Creator, is a companion utility to the List XML Viewer. Using the XML output gathered from the XML Viewer, it provides developers with the ability to define custom lists in XML and easily deploy them to multiple sites/areas. This can be quite a time saver when you have a large number of heavily customized lists that must be moved to different environments, especially when each portal or site collection exists in disparate server farms and/or separate domains.

To use the SharePoint List Creator you'll need good working knowledge of XML and some CAML experience. Creating a new list requires a source XML file that contains the properties, fields, and views that will comprise the list. A sample file, DocumentLibrary.xml, has been provided in the \XML directory to give you a basic template to work from (remember to store all your custom list templates in this same directory). If you haven't done much CAML or manual list creation, a good first step would be to create a custom list in the SharePoint GUI then view the list structure with the List XML Viewer. Compare the output to the sample xml template and it won't take long to figure out how to create just about any list type from scratch. We'll release more samples in the future to aid new developers and in response to comments/requests.

To use the SharePoint List Creator, first download the eGroup SharePoint Utilities Windows Installer package from our web site. This package contains both the SharePoint List Creator and the SharePoint List XML Viewer. Next, install the MSI on your development machine and launch it from the program menu shortcut. Provide the site/area URL, list name, type, source XML document, and authentication credentials, and submit the changes. The tabs in the utility will display the source XML, new list XML being submitted, the results from the list updates, and the results from the view modifications. You'll also find any errors encountered under the appropriate tab (i.e. if view creation fails, check the "View Results" tab).

We'll update the Utilities suite with new apps as we convert or create them (many are ASP.NET applications that require migration to Windows Forms prior to deployment). As always, please post your questions, suggestions, feature requests, gripes and complaints as comments to the post. Feedback is the only method we have to gauge the community reaction to our efforts. I hope you find the tools useful. Enjoy!

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

New Version of SharePoint XML List Viewer

I received some good feedback on the XML List Viewer utility and have posted a new version with the following modifications:

* Clear text entries hidden in password field
* XML displayed in structured view (similar to IE functionality)
* XML can be saved to local file (Right-click within XML field, choose 'Save')
* XML can be printed (Right-click within XML field, choose 'Print')
* XML can be searched for a specified string (right-click, 'Search')

Download the new version (1.1) here.

Please post any additional feature suggestions as comments to this post.


UPDATE: Downloads from the earlier post had problems with the .NET 1.0 version of the tree view DLL. I have posted an updated version (use the same link above) that includes a recompiled .NET 1.1 version XmlTreeView source code within the executable (thanks to Thomas Siepe for making the source available on The Code Project).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

SharePoint List XML Viewer Utility

Many of us are rejoicing over the new web publishing features in MOSS2007 and the ability to create corporate web sites using SharePoint. Unfortunately, many enterprises are not planning to upgrade to 2007 for quite some time, and those that use SharePoint extensively are looking for ways to derive additional value from their portal investment. One of the best ways to do this is to use SharePoint 2003 as a basic content management system for a public web site (at least until a full 2007 migration can be completed).

I just finished a project where an existing - and very expensive - CMS application (I won't name names but it's not MCMS) is being phased out in favor of using SharePoint lists as the primary method for managing content on a standard ASP/ASP.NET public web site. When you think about, this makes perfect sense - SharePoint provides a form-based web interface for handling content submissions, security is built into the platform, content approvals and basic workflow are easy to implement, and every list in a portal/site is accessible via web services (for more information on using SharePoint as part of a basic CMS application, email me directly).

While working on this project I discovered that working with the SharePoint web services is no picnic; not only do you have to know all their little quirks (like the viewName argument requiring a GUID instead of the display name of the view) but you also have to make allowances in your code for all the funky things SharePoint does behind the scenes with the list XML. For example, when you name a field 'Field1', the list details show the field as just that - Field1 - but when you try to retrieve the list data using the Lists web service, you must refer to the field as 'ows_Field1'. And then there's the ever-popular trick of replacing all spaces in field names with '_x0020_'. Naturally, there are no tools in SharePoint that allow you to retrieve this information, invaluable though it might be. It's enough to drive you mad.

To maintain my sanity and bring some order to web service programming, I created a small utility to retrieve the XML for any list via the SharePoint web services. The SharePoint List XML Viewer is a small Windows app that programmers can use to retrieve the XML output for any list or list items (including any default or custom views) to aid them in building web service applications. You can download it here. Just unzip the file and run the executable. Give it the site/area url, list name, and view name, supply the necessary login credentials, pick which type of XML you want (list data or list items) and - voila - instant XML that can be cut-and-pasted into your favorite text editor.

The SharePoint List XML Viewer Utility isn't anything fancy - it's just a basic utility for developers - but it saved me countless hours programming against SharePoint's web services and I hope it helps you, too. Enjoy!

(Post comments to this post if you have any issues installing and using the tool)

BTW, I recommend using the application along with the CAML Query Builder and Execution Tool from the good folks at U2U. Sooner or later you'll need to execute a query in a web service call and the CAML Builder is the best thing going.

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