This week, many AIS team members are attending the Microsoft SharePoint Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. We’ll be posting blog posts from each of them as they learn what’s new and what’s exciting during sessions, demonstrations and other conference highlights.

During the Microsoft SharePoint Conference keynote yesterday morning, there weren’t a lot of surprises (if you’ve been paying attention for the last few months, that is).  However, you can always learn something from the emphasis that Microsoft puts on certain topics.  The biggest “announcement” was that the enterprise features of Yammer are now included with Office 365 E Plans and SharePoint Online.  SharePoint 2013 also went up for sale (at least for some customers) yesterday. The rest is all about the cloud and apps.

Steve Ballmer has stated that Microsoft is “all in on the cloud.”  He wasn’t kidding.   From a custom app development perspective, the differences between cloud and on-premises development are disappearing (they are actually almost gone).  Every single demonstration of SharePoint today was performed in SharePoint Online.  On-premises — and the fact that it is basically the same — is mentioned, but it’s almost an afterthought.

Jeff Spatero said that the engineering team was split into two teams more than two years ago, with one team focusing on the cloud infrastructure and the ability to do enterprise, world-wide scale, and the second team was focused on SharePoint 2013 development. The drive to the cloud has been a factor in almost every architectural decision they’ve made: performance optimizations, the whole app model and isolation of custom code from the SharePoint server processes, integration with SkyDrive Pro, Outlook.Com, etc…

[pullquote]If you are a SharePoint developer, this is the next generation. Don’t be left behind.[/pullquote]You don’t have to move to the cloud, but you should be able to make a reasonable evaluation of the costs and capabilities available with SharePoint Online and Office 365.  If you don’t know enough and can’t do the math, you are doing your organization or customers a disservice.  There could be cost savings and there could be new capabilities that could benefit your organization.  If you are a SharePoint developer, this is the next generation. Don’t be left behind.

There were demonstrations of the seamless integration of SkyDrive Pro, Outlook Online, and SharePoint Online. You can now drag and drop files from Windows directly onto SharePoint document libraries in the browser.  Search is now built on the FAST search technologies that have been kind of an add-on in SharePoint 2010.  Document previews, better refiners, recommendations and activity feeds all take advantage of the upgraded search engine.  Many of the U/I related improvements are search driven. E-Discovery and holds can now discover and hold items across multiple repositories: SharePoint, Exchange, File Shares, Lync.

[pullquote]According to Microsoft, you can upgrade the content database but retain complete (100%!) SharePoint 2010 functionality (without new 2013 features).[/pullquote]One interesting tidbit that was demonstrated was the way upgrades will be handled at the Site Collection level.  According to Microsoft, you can upgrade the content database but retain complete (100%!) SharePoint 2010 functionality (without new 2013 features).  It’s like they put a mini-SharePoint 2010 engine inside. You can visit the Health Check area of the site’s settings to see what SharePoint considers an upgrade issue.  You can flip back and forth between 2010 and 2013 modes until you’re ready to complete the upgrade.  This is very much like the V3/V4 UI Mode in 2007 to 2010 upgrading, but apparently there is much more backwards compatibility in the 2010 mode of SharePoint 2013 than there was in 2007 mode in SharePoint 2010.  This allows you to more quickly get onto the 2013 infrastructure and spend less time nursing separate farms for each version. (Been there, done that.)

Microsoft also touted significant performance improvements, including 40% bandwidth improvements through optimized compression, less full-page refreshes, and transferring only changes between the client and the server.  They say they’ve achieved a 50% improvement in stored procedure execution time.  While we can all take advantage of this better performance, the driving force was the need to host this in the Microsoft cloud data centers for millions of users.  They ran all of the keynote demos from SharePoint Online in their European data center in Amsterdam to show off the improvements.

Outlook integration with SharePoint lists and libraries is no longer about offline synchronization. The items are left in SharePoint. I’m curious to see how this affects the Colligo product line that works in much the same fashion.

A lot of this conference is about SharePoint (and Office) apps. They are a major departure from customizations in previous versions of SharePoint, but they are very powerful and flexible.  While you can still do the 2010 style development of server-side (farm and sandbox solutions) customizations or use the 2010 client-side object models, the new model provides significant advantages in deployment, flexibility and application isolation.

You can host apps within SharePoint, in Azure, or anywhere else you want as long as you use the new SharePoint Cloud App Model.  All “apps” run outside the SharePoint server processes.  They all communicate back to SharePoint using “client-side” code.  This new object model, dubbed “_api” is fully capable of doing almost everything you need to do.  It’s much more powerful than the client-side object model or other services.  Using apps, you can build everything from simple “App Parts” to very complex, highly scalable enterprise applications with SharePoint.

One interesting note about custom development: After attending multiple developer-oriented breakout sessions, the term “sandbox” was never mentioned.  In essence, the app development model provides the isolation that the Sandbox Solution was intended to provide, but in a much more powerful way.

All in all, there’s a lot of new and better capabilities in SharePoint 2013.

For a unique perspective on the new SharePoint and Office App paradigm, check out The App Economy: Coming to an Office Near You, an e-book authored by Vishwas Lele (who happens to be my manager and the CTO at AIS).  This book is FREE on Amazon during the SharePoint conference (ending Thursday, 11/15/2012). You can download your copy here.