Microsoft To Revamp Update Process for SharePoint 2016

The process of updating SharePoint Server will become less cumbersome in the next version of the product, according to a Microsoft executive.

Speaking about the upcoming SharePoint 2016 during an IT Unity-hosted talk last Friday, Bill Baer, a Microsoft senior technical product manager and a Microsoft Certified Master for SharePoint, said that IT pros will get smaller updates and that applying them will entail less downtime for organizations.

Baer described Microsoft's future update model in terms of an ice-cube tray, which he said represented a single SharePoint update. The update, or ice-cube tray, is composed of installer packages and the installers themselves, as represented by .MSP and .MSI files. The MSP and MSI files are represented as cubes in this ice-cube tray model. It's essentially a bunch of patches that can be arranged to a certain extent, he said. From a patching perspective, though, Microsoft has to test across all of these patches. If a patch isn't installed in a SharePoint environment, though, you get "entropy." In other words, the bunch of them waste away, he explained.

Another problem with the current model is the scale of the patching process.

"An update today, from a SharePoint perspective, is composed or comprised of 37 MSIs and MSPs. In addition to that, you may find up to 18 additional MSIs and MSPs for each Language Pack," Baer said. "So, if you have 10 Language Packs deployed, you're looking at another 180 updates or another 180 packages in addition to that update."

That circumstance leads to a big footprint to deliver down to a server installation. And it means there are more variables that need to be tested, which can lead to "entropy," Baer said.

Microsoft wants to reduce the "atrophy" on its side, meaning the number of untested patches delivered as part of an update. It also wants to reduce entropy, or the dissolution that comes from the sheer number of possible combinations of an update. With SharePoint 2016, Microsoft plans to eliminate a lot of that entropy and atrophy, Baer contended.

Ultimately, Microsoft wants to narrow down an update from something that looked like a full ice-cube tray down to something that looks like a partially filled ice-cube tray. That approach will reduce testing on Microsoft's side, and it also reduces the downtime involved for organizations in deploying SharePoint updates. Organizations also will face fewer service restarts with this approach, according to Baer.

"So, if we go back to this icetray concept, we would start adding all of these MSIs and MSPs back into the icetray, which is representative of what an update looks like today from a SharePoint perspective. What you have is a number of MSIs and MSPs. Each one of these requires some service restart at any given point in time. And that's where you incur a lot of the downtime. And ultimately, when we begin to reduce this footprint and reduce that surface area, you end up with less service restarts and subsequently you end up with less downtime."

The next-generation SharePoint product will reduce the number of restarts by reducing the overall number of fixes contained in the patch itself, Baer explained. Microsoft is also planning on addressing the footprint size of its SharePoint updates, which can be 2GB in size, or about as large as SharePoint itself.

"That's kind of where we're heading from a patching perspective as we move forward. And what users of SharePoint 2016 are going to find is that, in itself, is going to add a lot of value from a product perspective."

Baer additionally suggested that Microsoft may reduce the labor associated with updating schema with each SharePoint product release, at least in terms of moving from SharePoint 2013 to SharePoint 2016.

"Absent new capabilities that we are going to deliver, you are going to find a schema that effectively has some parity between [SharePoint] 2013 and the next release."

SharePoint 2013 has turned out to be a sort of baseline product as Microsoft has moved SharePoint into its Office 365 cloud-based services. Baer explained that SharePoint originally began as a server product, and Microsoft's subsequent SharePoint Server product releases over the years have been unique products, with no affinity between generations. But Microsoft is now viewing SharePoint from a cloud perspective, starting with SharePoint 2013. The company has been taking the innovation it has learned from running its SharePoint Online service and bringing it back to its server customers, based on its experiences running SharePoint 2013 from the cloud, Baer contended.

No More Uber Packages?
Microsoft may dispense with its uber package approach for updating SharePoint when it rolls out its SharePoint 2016 ice-cube tray model. Uber packages have been described as "mini-service packs" by Microsoft, but Baer said they represented an "archaic" approach.

"If you think the way our patching strategy -- the way that we look to evolve it -- you can think of the uber as being archaic. And anytime something's archaic, we are going to deprecate in favor of paving a path forward for more modern and advanced technologies."

He added that the deployment of uber packages, or the lack of deploying them, may have just contributed to the complexity of deploying SharePoint updates.

"Again, that concept of uber, that giant thing, was another indication where a lot of regression came from because it was testing across QFDs [quality function deployments], and then, in the event only a subset of those were applied or were applicable to the target environment, that's where you saw regressions."

Current Patch Advice
Baer offered some current advice about deploying Microsoft's cumulative updates. He indicated that cumulative updates should not be installed unless an organization finds that their computing environment is actually having the problem addressed by the update.

"I tend to see customers who just opt to grab a cumulative update and deploy it, and, in many cases, there was nothing in that update that applicable to their environment," Baer said. "The first step that I've always told people is evaluate whether or not you even need that cumulative update in your environment by determining if the issue you're having is addressed by that update. If you're not having an issue that that update addresses, avoid that update."

He added that IT pros should not skip service pack updates, though, because service packs will establish a new support baseline for an environment.

Microsoft briefly experimented with delivering SharePoint patches using the Windows Update service. However, that approach didn't generate good customer feedback, according to Baer. Microsoft later rescinded that approach.

"We moved away from that strategy [of using Windows Update], but at the same time we do have something great kind of up our sleeves that we'll be able to show you at Ignite, kind of along the lines of what I described through the icetray, without giving away too many details."

Microsoft plans to share more about this new patching strategy at its Ignite event in May, Baer said.

Expectations are that the new server will be released sometime in the second half of this year.