Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Avoid customizing the SharePoint Online root site collection

I had an interesting decision to make recently: Should the root site collection of the SharePoint Online tenant be used to host the main intranet landing site? A very common requirement for a SharePoint Online project is a customized landing site with the company's branding, logo and some custom functionality. You might refer to this as the Home page, Intranet home, Portal site, News hub etc. It's a site where the users will first land when they arrive on the Intranet/Digital Workspace.

So where should this site be located? Right now, I would NOT recommend this to be the root site collection in SharePoint Online (https://tenant.sharepoint.com) It is much more convenient to use another site collection like /sites/intranet or /sites/portal etc. In fact, I would recommend that the root site collection should be left alone and no customizations should be deployed to it. Here are the reasons why:

1) Custom Scripts

In the SharePoint Online admin portal, you can assign a site collection under which the self-service sites will be created. (by default it is the root site collection of the tenant e.g. https://tenant.sharepoint.com) So whenever a user creates a self-service site, it will be created as a sub site of this site collection.

SharePoint Online also gives you the ability to turn off custom scripts on self-service created sites. (The default is that custom scripts are NOT allowed on self service sites). This is to prevent users from injecting scripts into web parts and compromising the integrity of the site. This article describes this feature in detail:

But what the article does not mention is that the custom scripts are disabled only on the site collection (and its sub sites) which is assigned for creating self service sites. All other site collections in the tenant can still run custom scripts.  I have highlighted the relevant areas in the image below:

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Now just to recap, here are the defaults when you create a new Office 365 tenant:

1) Root Site collection is assigned for creating self service sites.
2) Custom Scripts are turned OFF for the site collection under which the self service sites will be created. 

Naturally, your customized intranet portal will have lots of JSOM or REST API/Ajax code embedded in Script Editor or Content Editor Web Parts. If this custom site is to be located at the root site collection, you will have to change at least one of these default settings. Either nominate a different site collection for creating the self service sites or change the Custom Scripts option to "Allow users to run custom script on self-service created sites"

Depending on how strict the governance is, changing default settings can be easy in some cases but more often that not, you will have to have a valid reason if you are going to do this in production tenants. 

2) Root Site collection cannot be created using PowerShell Cmdlets

There is a limitation in the SPO PowerShell Cmdlets which prevents you from creating the root Site collection. When you try doing so, you get the following error:

Now in most projects I have worked on, we have had a deployment script which runs off the build server. For integration testing, the deployment script creates a new site collection once every day and deploys the latest code to it. If you have a similar continuous integration process, you will not be able to create a new root site collection with the deployment script. It will have to be a manual step each time the deployment is done. This can get bit annoying.

3) No flexibility to delete and re-create the Site collection as everything else stops working. 

If something goes wrong in the deployment or some site columns or content types are corrupted, I do like to have the flexibility to delete the site collection and start afresh by creating a new one with the same url.  This is not really an option if you are deploying to the root site collection.

If you delete the root site collection, all other site collections in the tenant will stop working. I have also observed that SharePoint Search also stops working. This is why when you try to delete the root site collection from the admin portal, you get a big red warning message:

(click to zoom)

Now if this is a developer tenant and multiple developers are working in their own site collections, they will be blocked until a new site collection is created at the root.

If this is a production tenant and something else like the collaboration solution is already deployed to another site collection in the tenant, it will also stop working.  

The reason for this seems to be that when a user wants to navigate to any site collection in the tenant, the authentication is done via a page located in the root site. If the root site collection is missing, the user cannot be authenticated and hence cannot navigate to any site collection.

(click to zoom)

Due to all these reasons, I feel that the root site collection is an important piece for SharePoint Online to work correctly. I recommend treating it as you would treat a configuration site. It is best to leave it alone and not deploy any customizations to it.

Hope you find this article helpful!

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