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New Tools for Collaboration: Introducing Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2007

Volume Number: 25
Issue Number: 09
Column Tag: New Tools for Collaboration

New Tools for Collaboration: Introducing Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2007

An indispensable tool on any Sharepoint Website

by Penelope Coventry, MVP SharePoint Server

Introduction

In both the June and July 2009 issues, MacTech Magazine has covered Microsoft SharePoint and how OS X can integrate with it. In this article you will learn about SharePoint Designer, whether it is the only web editing tool you should use on SharePoint sites, who it is targeted for, and what it can do for you. SharePoint Designer, at this time, only runs under Windows, but may be compelling enough for you to run under a virtualization product, such as VirtualBox or VMWare. If you use SharePoint in your organization, whether you are an Information Worker, an IT Pro or a developer, you should read this article. Once you start using it you may find that you can't do without it.

What is SharePoint Designer?

SharePoint Designer is a web-editing tool with an emphasis on building solutions on top of Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 and SharePoint Server 2007. Like many other web editing tools, it provides a document window, similar to any word processor, such as Microsoft Word in which you can visually amend content in a "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG) environment. In fact, it is the only web editing tool on the market that allows such a visual environment with SharePoint sites. This enables you to manipulate components, such as, lists, libraries, master pages and page layouts, by using toolbars similar to other Office client applications. Using SharePoint Designer you can customize and develop business solutions based on SharePoint technologies without writing server-side code.


Figure 1 SharePoint web page open in the WYSIWYG document window

You may never have of heard of SharePoint Designer before, and therefore you may think that this is a first generation product. However, it been around since 1995, when Microsoft bought from Veneer Technologies, Inc.a product which they then named FrontPage. In the middle of this decade Microsoft took the engine out of FrontPage and produced two HTML editing tools, SharePoint Designer and Expression Web. If you opened these two tools side by side, back in 2007, you would initially find it hard to tell them apart. Using either tool you can complete similar tasks, such as creating and customizing a mixture of web pages (HTML, ASP, ASPX), branding your web sites by manipulating Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), configure ASP.NET controls, plus work with XML data and external data sources. However SharePoint Designer is planned to be used with SharePoint sites and Expression Web will NOT even open a web site based on SharePoint.

Since their release, SharePoint Designer and Expression Web have gone their own way. SharePoint Designer, as you would expect, has followed the update and service pack schedule of Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), whereas Expression Web is now on at version 3.0. Expression Web 3.0 has become more standards compliant, incorporating newer Web technologies, for example, Silverlight, AJAX; allows you to write web sites to take advantage of new technologies in Internet Explorer 8, supports web editing PHP sites and integrates with Visual Studio Team System. Therefore, use SharePoint Designer for SharePoint sites and Expression Web or another web editing tool for non-SharePoint sites.

So what's the biggest news for SharePoint designer? In the last three months Microsoft announced that it's free!


Figure 2 SharePoint Designer is FREE!

It was never bundled into any of the Office client suite bundles such as Office Ultimate 2007 or Office Small Business, and you originally had to purchase it. However, from April this year you can download it by clicking Download for free on http://www.microsoft.com/spd at no cost. Expression Web is still a for-pay product, but at least with Expression Web 3.0, you also get Expression Design 3 and Expression Encoder 3.

Is this the only tool to use on SharePoint sites?

Well no. In any SharePoint implementation, a range of tools will be used: the browser and Office client applications, SharePoint Designer and Visual Studio. These three tools represent a continuum of customization capability and the level of skills required.

At one end of the continuum, the two SharePoint products, Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) 3.0 and SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 are designed to allow owners of content to add content quickly and simply to SharePoint sites. Such contributors need no knowledge of web technologies, allowing users to easily complete tasks that were traditionally completed by highly skilled technical users. Content owners used to email their content to the IT department, the Web master or Web hosting company. Content on sites became dated with the result that the number of visitors decreased. Essentially, the Web Master was the bottleneck. SharePoint technologies reduce the Web Master bottleneck, as content owners main tools will be either a browser or Office client applications, such as Word or Excel. This new way of working does not come without problems. Content owners may be unwilling to take on the responsibility of publishing their own content, which results in a change to business processes. Also, a Web Master may be unwilling to raise their skill-level, or not have the time to develop dynamic solutions rather than adding static content.

At the other end of the continuum, comprehensive customization will still be needed and can be achieved using Visual Studio. Such development is no different than developing other Web based solutions and may require significant developer time, a number of environments to implement structured deployments from development, test to production SharePoint servers.

SharePoint Designer is a very powerful tool in the middle of the continuum, and complements the use of the browser on SharePoint sites rather than replacing it. You need to know how to use the browser with SharePoint site and understand the out-of-the-box Web Parts so you don't reinvent functionality that is already present.

SharePoint Designer, sometimes allows you to customize and develop data driven SharePoint web sites quickly with little knowledge of web technologies and then there are solutions that may take time to develop that may require modification of the underlying code. Therefore, for some users the experimenting and investigation aspects of developing a solution with SharePoint Designer may be new, frustrating and initially unfriendly compared to other tools they may be used to.

Who should use SharePoint Designer?

Don't be put off by its name; it's not aimed at just web designers. Everyone who's had some training into its use should use SharePoint Designer - experienced information workers, designers, business analysts, project managers, administrators and developers. Neither is it a tool that should be used by everyone, but it does have a very dominant role in any SharePoint installation. Just remember that in many cases, it is easier, quicker and safer to use the browser. SharePoint Designer in untrained hands can caused unrecoverable damage, which will result in the IT department looking for the latest good backup.

Also, although you can, it should not be used for adding static content to a page - use the browser, a SharePoint page that includes Web Part zones and the Content Editor Web Part or if it's a Web Content Management page, it will include an HTML field control on the page layout. Don't reinvent the Web Master bottleneck, where the bottleneck now becomes you! Use SharePoint Designer to create solutions that are easy to maintain and support. Typically, any organization that uses SharePoint should use the browser to achieve 75 percent of the necessary customizations; SharePoint Designer for 15 percent and a developer skilled in Visual Studio for 10 percent.

So if the majority of modifications only need to use the browser and Office applications, how can you stop people using SharePoint Designer? With SharePoint Designer free, downloadable by anyone, and if your organization does not restrict what product is installed on your employee's desktop or if your employee can access the SharePoint site from home on their own computer where again they can install what they like - what can you do? The Microsoft SharePoint Designer team blog has a detailed post on this subject; however, I recommend that you should never give a person more permissions than they need. SharePoint Designer adheres to the authorization rules you apply to your sites, and in the majority of cases most users only need to be mapped to the contribute permission level on any SharePoint object. Only map users to the Full Control or Design permission levels if they really need those levels of access.

Why should you use SharePoint Designer

Well basically, there is no other tool that allows you create solutions as quickly as SharePoint Designer and is seen by Microsoft as one of the premier products to grow user adoption of SharePoint. The most compelling uses of SharePoint Designer are:

Data Form Web Part

This Web Part, also known as the Data View Web Part, is the Swiss army knife of Web Parts. It enables you to do almost anything you like, and this Web Part cannot be created using the browser. The Data Form Web Part allows you to create data driven solutions based on XML and eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT) technologies, including creating custom views of business data exposed by the SharePoint Server Business Data Catalog (BDC). In many cases using this Web Part negates the need for a developer-created Web Part or at the very least allows you to prototype a solution, investigate the exact business requirements, thereby justifying business expenditure and reducing the time needed during the software development life cycle - if you do find you need a developer-created Web Part.

Connecting to a data source

SharePoint enables connections to other data sources, such as databases: SQL, Oracle, MySQL; XML Web services, RSS feeds as well as lists and libraries on other SharePoint sites. This is very useful in a WSS-only installation, such as Small Business Server, where you can quickly present the data from these disparate sources into a unified view. If you have MOSS installed and you want to present the same data over a large number of sites, and you are using the BDC or the Business Intelligence features, these definitions can also be used from within SharePoint Designer to design pages allowing you to create mash-up solutions and aggregating content that is related but live on many disparate sources. Using the Data Form Web Part you can not only display data from these data sources, but you can also create data entry forms that can update those data sources - all using the document window a couple of task panes and with no server-side code!

Building interactive solutions

SharePoint adds additional functionally to Web Part connections. Web Part connections allows the user to interact with the data with the result that the data displayed on the page can dynamically change matching the user's business need and not restricted to preconceptions of the business analyst or developer.

For example on one part of a Web page there could be a list of hospital wards. A nurse or doctor could click one of the wards and a list of patients would display on another part of the page together with the name of the staff nurse on duty. Using the browser, this was as far as you could go. With SharePoint Designer you can pass data from a Web Part on one page to one or more Web Parts on another page. Therefore in the ward/patient scenario, a nurse or doctor could then click on the patient name, they would be redirected to a second page where detailed patient information is displayed, such as, a picture of the patient, their age, sex, a list of their allergies, the medicine administered, the time and amount, a graph of their temperature and blood pressure readings with those reading above a critical threshold highlighted in red; who their local doctor is, their consultant and so on.

Most of this data on the second page is displayed using - yes, you've guessed it - with the Data Form Web Part. It might require someone with knowledge of XSLT and the use of the code view window, but this scenario is achievable with just the use of SharePoint Designer.

Workflows

Using the browser, SharePoint provides you with a number of ways to help with business processes: Alert Me, RSS feeds and creating workflows on lists and libraries based on a number of workflow templates. SharePoint Designer extends the number of workflows you can create using a workflow designer wizard where you can choose the conditions and the subsequent actions if the conditions are met.


Figure 3 SharePoint Designer workflow wizard

There are some limitations creating workflows in SharePoint Designer as compared to creating workflows with Visual Studio. SharePoint Designer workflows are:

  • Bound to one list or library, not easily transferable to other lists or libraries, although there are a couple of projects on codeplex (www.codeplex.com) that might help you if you do want to transfer them, but you are back into the developer domain for this.

  • Execute steps in sequential order, although with a bit of imagination it is possible to implement a state like workflow.

  • No debug capabilities.

  • No support for mid process changes.

  • Execute under the permissions of the user who starts the workflow.

Having said all that, however, even though there is a learning curve on how to create SharePoint Designer workflows, they are in general easy to use and have a simple one click deployment, abide it is an in-place mechanism, that is, you usually create and test them on the live SharePoint environment.

Site Templates

Once you have created your solution, you can package it up into a site template, which can be used to create new sites that included that new functionality. In fact, Microsoft has released a number of site templates that were created using SharePoint Designer, that can be used, to extend your knowledge of how to create solutions using SharePoint Designer. These sample site templates are known as the fabulous forty. There is a whitepaper, "Application Templates for Windows SharePoint Service: Under the Hood", that explain how they were built together with a number of blog posts on the SharePoint Designer team blog.

Administration Tool

SharePoint Designer also provides a number of administrative tools, from backing up a site and, optionally, its sub-sites, creating sites, lists and libraries, hiding lists, libraries and folders from users who use the browser and a number of reports.

Getting started with SharePoint Designer

Unlike other web developments you may be used to, you do not use SharePoint Designer on a web site created on your local drive. You need SharePoint, either Windows SharePoint Services or SharePoint Server installed prior to using SharePoint Designer. You connect to the SharePoint site you wish to modify using http: or https: just as you would connect to a SharePoint site using the browser. You never open files directly on the local drive, especially on a SharePoint server. If you do so then you may corrupt those files, therefore, you should never install SharePoint Designer on Windows server where SharePoint is installed.

Also you will need to install SharePoint Designer using virtualization, Bootcamp, or a physical Windows box running XP, Vista, Windows 7 or a Windows Server operating system. You need .NET Framework 3.0, if you want to use the WYSIWYG environment and create workflows with SharePoint Designer. Once installed, click the Start button, All Programs, Microsoft Office, and then click Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer. From the File menu, click Open Site and then type in the address of the SharePoint web site.


Figure 4: Opening a SharePoint site with SharePoint Designer

Controlling Change

All SharePoint Designer modifications are at the site level with the modifications saved in the SharePoint SQL content databases. When you use SharePoint Designer many of your modifications can only be done on the live environment that is in situ. They refer to lists or libraries by a randomly generated number, a GUID, and not the name of the list or library and cannot be easily transported or placed on other sites. This can sometimes be overcome by switching to code view and replacing the GUID, by the list name. Similarly there are other tricks you can do. For example: developing the Data Form Web Part on a separate page on the site where the Data Form Web Part is to be used or within the same Site Collection and then exporting and importing the Web Part, or develop the Web Part against SharePoint's XML Web services.

There are a limited number of modifications, such as creating new master pages and CSS files that you can use SharePoint Designer to complete, say, in a development environment that can be packaged and are therefore similar to modification created using Visual Studio.

Either way I've found it useful to plan right from the start to develop a SharePoint Designer solution with portability and supportability in mind. It's not always possible, but I'm often pleased that, for example, I did save the XSLT in a separate file pointed to by the Data Form Web Part rather than leaving it embedded in the Data Form Web Part in the SharePoint page.

What does the future hold?

When Microsoft made SharePoint Designer free in April, they also stated that they were working toward some time in the future when Expression Web would become an excellent choice for SharePoint customization. So that's the future. What about what's going to happen this year and next year? Well, SharePoint 2010 is around the corner, with the public beta later this year with the release to manufacturing in the first half of 2010. This should see the next version of SharePoint Designer released as well - and it's going to be free again. To get an early peak at what the new version looks like, view the screencast hosted by Tom Rizzo, Senior Director, SharePoint, on http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/2010. More information will be released in October at the SharePoint Conference at Las Vegas. I can't wait, and I hope to see all of you there.

Bibliography and References

More information on SharePoint Designer:

Microsoft SharePoint official web site, with a link to the free download of SharePoint Designer: http://www.microsoft.com/spd

Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer team blog: http://blogs.msdn.com/sharepointdesigner.

My book's web site: http://www.sharepointdesignerstepbystep.com

Woody Windischaman blog site: The Sanity Point: http://thesanitypoint.com/default.aspx

Asif Rehmani's blog and many SharePoint Designer screencasts : https://sharepointelearning.securespsite.com/screencasts/blog/default.aspx

More information on Expression Web can be found at:

Expression Product site: http://www.microsoft.com/expression/products/Web_Overview.aspx

Blog Post: Dreamweaver vs FrontPage vs Expression Web, http://by-expression.com/blogs/by-expression/archive/2009/07/08/dreamweaver-vs-frontpage-vs-expression-web.aspx

Glossary:

  • AJAX - Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. A Web development language for creating interactive Web sites.

  • Business Data Catalog (BDC). A SharePoint Server 2007 feature that provides connectivity to backend business systems and data sources whose data is present through the SharePoint interface.

  • Data Form Web Part (DFWP). A Web Part also known as the Data View Web Part, that reads data from and writes data to a data source in the form of XML and applies XSLT to it. With SharePoint Designer you can add a DFWP to a web page using the WYSIWYG document window, so that you don't need to know XSLT.

  • Fabulous 40. Additional site definitions and site templates for Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 that are examples of solutions and customizations that are possible.

  • Globally Unique Identifier (GUID) a unique 128-bit number that identifies components in SharePoint.

  • Master Page. A special ASP.NET 2.0 web page that defines code that can be share code between pages. Their primary use is to provide a Web site with a consistent look and feel, and navigation for each page within a site.

  • Page Layout. A key component of SharePoint Server's Web Content Management functionality that defines the position and location of content of publishing pages. Used in conjunction with a Master page.


Penelope Coventry is an independent consultant based in the UK, with more than 30 years of industry experience. She currently focuses on the design, implementation, and development of SharePoint Technology-base solutions. Penny was the sole author of the book, Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007 Step by Step and has co-authored a number of other books, including Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 Administrator's Companion, Microsoft Office SharePoint Products and Technologies Resource Kit, and two editions of Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services Step by Step. Penny has presented at the SharePoint Best Practices conference, user group meetings in the UK and Ireland, and is frequently seen at TechED and IT Forum. She also hosts a Web site at www.sharepointdesignerstepbystep.com, where she posts additional information and links that she has found useful.

 

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