By Cathy Dew
SharePoint Framework (SPFx): The Future of Customization
Microsoft introduced SharePoint Framework — abbreviated SPFx — a year ago, in May 2016, touting the feature as “a Page and Part model that enables fully supported client-side development.” The feature was available as a developer preview for a six-month period, but it wasn’t until late February of this year that SharePoint framework became generally available to all SharePoint Online and on-premises users. Now that SPFx has been available for a few months, one thing has become clear to SharePoint developers: the feature is nothing less than the future of customization for the SharePoint platform.
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The Shift Toward Client-Side Development
In the past, SharePoint experts have almost always developed solutions by designing Visual Studio Solutions and deploying it to the SharePoint Farm or server side. Over time, Microsoft realized that allowing developers to deploy code directly onto the SharePoint servers caused short and long term technical difficulties. Moreover, it left companies out in the cold if they didn’t have SharePoint .NET specialists on their teams.
Slowly, Microsoft has started moving SharePoint towards a client-side development model. SharePoint Framework crystallizes that move by making client-side development the norm for SharePoint Online and on-premises. Now, when SharePoint Developers need to create a solution or take some other kind of action, the code doesn’t execute directly on the SharePoint Farm server and potentially cause server slowdowns or instabilities. Additionally, many actions can be taken without interacting directly with the SharePoint server or can communicate directly with another Office365 REST service, basically they don’t have to send the data to the SharePoint server or wait for the server to respond when they don’t need to, which means that the new feature has the potential to work with a lot more speed and fluidity.
SharePoint Framework is definitely a work in progress with many features "to be completed", but the latest road map has some very important features targeted for release this summer for evaluation and eventual production release. As explained at Microsoft Build last week the following features are on the current high priority list:
- Field Customizers (formerly JSLink)
- Application Customizers (formerly Delegate Controls)
- Command Set (formerly Custom Actions)
- Web Part Connections
The Benefits of SPFx for Enterprises
As you can already see, Microsoft reaps benefits from the client-side framework, because they don’t require SharePoint developers to interact directly with the SharePoint servers. The server-side model was old and clunky, and the technical difficulties it created should now be a thing of the past.
The good news is that SharePoint Framework should also represent a major boon to enterprises—both regarding accessibility and customization.
One of Microsoft’s hopes in creating a more browser-based customization environment is to attract a broader array of “developer audiences”—including developers who have never used SharePoint before. This goal speaks to the increased usability of the platform.
Regarding customization, SharePoint Framework opens new possibilities for enterprises looking to get more out of SharePoint. SPFx comes with an existing set of web parts that organizations can use to customize pages in a quick and simple fashion. These default web parts make it easy to customize team pages within SharePoint so that they display the content, tools, and other resources that are most relevant to that specific team. If no web parts exist to serve the team’s needs, SharePoint developers can create completely new web parts using the new client-side development model. From polls to document dashboards and beyond, SPFx web parts give you options to gather data, provide convenient accessibility to essential resources, and more. With the right tools and apps at their disposal, teams can be more productive and deliberate with how they allocate their time and effort.
Simply putting more apps, tools, and data in the hands of SharePoint teams isn’t the only way that SPFx can benefit your business’s bottom line. On the contrary, the development of SharePoint Framework has been with responsive design in mind. In other words, if you use SPFx to customize your SharePoint pages—whether you do it using pre-built web parts or develop web parts on your own—you are creating a user experience that will be mobile-friendly “from day one.”
The Learning Curve
While SharePoint Framework should allow for easier and more varied site customization going forward, the new client-side development model will inevitably present a learning curve that enterprises need to master. Particularly if your business was very accustomed to the server-side development model, mastering SPFx might take some time. Microsoft recommends that teams create blueprints for how SPFx customization solutions might be deployed within their organizations, to minimize confusion or error.
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