Category Archives: Thoughts On

Thoughts on : Customizing the Public Website of Office 365

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Recently, I attempted a migration from my ASP.NET based Azure website to Office 365. The reason was that I wanted to use SharePoint 2013 for in-page editing and simply try to get the platform to take care of all my business needs.

After a few days, I have reverted back to the Azure web host as I am not satisfied that the service will fulfill my requirements. Here is a recollection of my experiences of the shortcomings in the platform and the points that should be addressed.

Master page editing in the public Office 365 site is not much different from the rest of Office 365 and SharePoint 2013. You have access to the Design Manager and you can open the site with SharePoint Designer.

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On the up-side, you can create master pages, create page layouts and add Rich Text areas using the “Multi-Area Page” that allows up to four separate rich text areas. I managed to get the site to look virtually the same when published.

On the down-side, the page contained all the scripts and CSS styles from standard SharePoint and caused the responsive design to break for tablets and phones. I could probably have fixed some of the issues but the difference in page and load time is as follows:

Azure .NET Office 365
Total page weight 305.2K 727K
Total non-cached file size 7.2K 54K
Total number of script files 7 12
Average page load time during load test 1.67 sec 3.46s

I then amended the blog layout. The comments feature from blogs in standard SharePoint is not available so it uses Facebook instead. I replaced this with a Disqus control instead. Later on, I started running in to several issues when trying to add features.

Issue #1: You cannot define your own content types

The site administration does not contain a link to allow modification of content types or site fields. Trying to navigate to the URL manually presents you with a 403 error. Adding custom content types for your page layouts seems like a simple request. I then tried to inject these using sandbox solutions.

Issue # 2: Sandboxed solutions are not supported

Yes, this link is also gone. You cannot navigate to “Solutions” but you can manually enter the URL. I found a helpful and informative post by Jason Cribbet on the topic and was able to activate my feature. This is, however, not supported by Microsoft and I am now in “not supported” land with my website.

Issue # 3: You cannot create subsites

I was fairly happy until I started to create more content and restricted areas. There is no way to create subsites using the interface. You need to use SharePoint Designer. Again, this is not supported by Microsoft.

Issue # 4: You cannot control feature activation

Yes, features can not be changed either. This means that you cannot add or remove any functionality outside of apps to the site.

Issue # 5: What is going on with the blog framework and managed navigation?

I could live with the “hacks” and continued to style the blog area. This, in itself, has a number of very strange issues:

  • If you remove the “Blog Tools” web part from the page then the links to blog posts will not work.
  • The pages does not seem to understand changing page layouts. I first had to change the page layout, then disconnect the page from the layout in SharePoint Designer.
  • Managed navigation allows you to use the blog as “/Blog/Post/1/My-Blog-Title” and “/Blog/Date/2013/” etc. The page configuration, however, does not allow to be changed. If you rename a page then the entire navigation framework will stop working. Just don’t.
  • The blog and blog category lists can still be accessed using the forms URL at “/Lists/Posts/AllItems.aspx” and you cannot change the anonymous behavior. As you cannot change features, then the lockdown feature is out of bounds. I guess you can inject redirects on the pages or try to use PowerShell to reactivate the forms lockdown page feature but I did not attempt this.

Issue # 6: You cannot recreate the site

So finally, you have hacked this puppy to pieces. You want to recreate the site, you go into SharePoint administration for Office 365 and delete the site collection. But wait… there is no option to recreate the site? This rectified itself on my test tenant after 24 hours and allowed me to create the public site. It did, however, not fully recreate. Now the site has no web template applied and I get the error message “Sorry, something went wrong: There is no site in the current site subscription matching the HiddenSiteSelection control’s value.”.

Summary

Office 365 has a long way to go before it can offer any kind of enterprise solutions for public web. And in a sense, it seems that they are just about there but have intentionally limited themselves to support basic usage only. But if that was the case, why allow SharePoint Designer and Design Manager access at all?

I hope that the public website will be improved in upcoming releases and would really like to run my site and blog using SharePoint technology.

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