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How To Replace A Custom Field In SharePoint 2010

One of the benefits of SharePoint is its extensibility. It comes with a cornucopia of tools and features that provide fantastic business value, but inevitably, you’ll come across a requirement that the out of the box features don’t address. The good news is that its extensible nature allow for custom development, and these features can be added.

Customization is not without its drawbacks. Just because you can build on SharePoint, it doesn’t mean that you should. With custom code comes all of the costs of ownership of running custom code, and the upgrade difficulties that come with it. If you can possibly use a no-code solution, you probably should. A recent customer challenge that we had is a good demonstration of that, and provides a good example of a highly customized solution being replaced with a no code solution.

Back in the days of SharePoint 2007 (!) we ran across a number of requirements for a cascaded combo box control. When filling out a form, we wanted the options available to one combo box to be driven by the selection in another. Unfortunately, there was no real way to do this with SharePoint forms. It can be done with InfoPath through filtering, but that was only available through InfoPath form libraries. We needed to provide this capability with standard lists.  Our solution was to implement a custom column that provided this capability.

This worked perfectly well for a few years, but when it came time to upgrade to SharePoint 2010, we found that the custom control didn’t quite work. One option would of course be to fire up Visual Studio and make the necessary modifications. However, since SharePoint 2010 allows you to use InfoPath to edit standard SharePoint lists now, this was determined to be the better choice, and we could ditch the custom controls. Another drawback of the custom columns is that InfoPath will simply not work with them, making solid form design difficult.

However, given that this was an upgrade, we wanted to make sure that all of the existing data was retained, so we couldn’t just trash the existing data, and start new. We needed to somehow convert the old column data to standard SharePoint data. We were able to do this through the PowerShell Import/Export function, with a few tweaks.

Step 1 – Upgrade the Content Database

Before you can use this method, the content databases will need to be in SP2010 format. If you’re doing an in place upgrade, this will happen automatically, but if you’re using the DB attach method, you’ll need to first install the custom solutions on the new farm, or else the database mount procedure could fail.

Step 2 – Export the List Data

Most SharePoint administrators are familiar with the STSADM import and export commands that allow you to export and import either single sites or entire site collections. This capability still exists in SharePoint 2010 with both STSADM and with PowerShell, but the PowerShell commands also allow you to export individual lists.

When ready, export your list with the following PowerShell command:

Export-SPWeb -Identity siteurl -Path outputpath -ItemUrl listurl –IncludeUserSecurity      -IncludeVersions All -NoFileCompression –Verbose

siteurl  is the url to the containing site (or web) i.e. http://server1/accounts/2010
outputpath is the file system path for the output files
listurl is the relative url of the list (i.e. Lists/customers)


The NoFileCompression is important because we need to edit one of the output files after the export is complete.

Step 3 – Modify The List

Now that the data has been saved outside of the list, you can go ahead and remove the custom columns from the list. Once you’ve done so, be sure to replace them with identically named columns. If possible, you should also use the SharePoint column type that the custom columns were originally derived from. In my example below, I replace a Cascaded Lookup (custom) column with a Text column.

Once this is done, you’ll also want to delete all of the current items in the list. You could simply delete the list itself, but if you have any workflows, or custom forms, they’ll get deleted too. Also, a new list will have a new internal GUID, which may not work for you.

Another option is to use the Data Sheet view to copy the old field values to Excel, so that you can copy them back after the fields are changed. This approach will update the last edited date and the last edited by, so that may not be acceptable. If it is, you can omit steps 2,4 and 5.

Step 4 – Edit the Manifest File

In the path that was used in outputpath in step 2, there will be a number of files. Find any named manifest.xml or manifestx.xml (where x is a number) and edit them. These files contain the metadata for your list. Simply search for the name of your custom field type (in my case, CascadingDropDown) and replace it with the standard type name (like Text). Once all occurrences have been modified, save the file(s).

Step 5 – Import the List

Once the manifest has been modified to match the new list schema, you can bring in the exported list, with essentially the reverse of the PowerShell used in Step 2:

Import-SPWeb -Identity siteurl -Path inputpath -IncludeUserSecurity -UpdateVersions Overwrite -NoFileCompression -Verbose

siteurl is the url to the containing site (or web) i.e. http://server1/accounts/2010
inputpath is the file system path for the input files


Once the PowerShell completes, you should have all of your data in a list with no custom columns. From there, you can use InfoPath to modify your forms, or anything else that is possible with the standard column types.

One caveat though. We had customized the standard New/Edit/View aspx forms with SharePoint designer. Before we could move toward our InfoPath goal, we needed to recreate these forms as standard forms.


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