In the recent announcement outlining the SharePoint integration strategy on the SQL Server Reporting Services Team’s blog, there was a statement that was almost hidden that I think deserves more attention. The statement was:
“….in time, we aim to support web-based viewing of Excel workbooks in Native mode…”
This may not sound like a big deal – after all, we’ve been able to serve up Excel workbooks in a browser since Excel Services was initially introduced with SharePoint 2007. However, as per Microsoft’s Reporting Roadmap from October 2015, Reporting Services is their on-premises solution for BI report delivery. If an Excel workbook is to be considered a report, the SSRS absolutely should be able to do it. The roadmap defined four types of reports:
I tend to see there being two types of reports, Structured and Analytical. In the list above, Structured corresponds with Paginated, and the other 3 types are different subtypes of Analytical. They four categories do, however line up well with the different reporting technologies available.
RDL (Classic SSRS)
PBIX (Power BI)
RSMOBILE (SSRS Mobile aka Datazen)
The roadmap was primarily concerned with the future of SSRS, but SSRS is Microsoft’s stated report delivery platform for on-premises reporting. The platform for cloud reporting is of course Power BI. There is a third platform for the delivery of “Analytical”, or Excel based reports, and that’s Excel Online. On premises, it’s called Office Online Server, but it is the same technology. The three platforms and their capabilities are shown below.
The technical preview of Power BI reports in Reporting Services is available for testing, which covers Interactive reports in SSRS, and the above statement indicates that there is a solution to support Analytic reports in SSRS as well. The Power BI platform does this already, and it is done by leveraging the capabilities of Excel Online. Given the fact that Office Online server provides the same capabilities on premises, it makes sense that it would be used by SSRS when the Excel workbook support is added.
It should also be noted that the above comparison shows Mobile reports being supported by Power BI. To be clear, Power BI does not support RSMOBILE files, but regular Power BI reports are inherently mobile and available through the Power BI mobile client. which is also how RSMOBILE reports are delivered to end users.
The Reporting Services team is clearly very close to completing the vision laid out over a year ago, in the Reporting Roadmap for on-premises users. If the goal is to have parity between on-premises and cloud platforms, the only thing remaining (apart from possible support of the RSMOBILE format) is support for Paginated reports in Power BI. There have been no statements made regarding this capability, but its absence is certainly notable.
Yesterday, Microsoft made official what many, including myself had been suspecting ever since the release of SQL Server 2016 – that SQL Server Reporting Services Integrated mode would not exist in the future. With the announcement, we now know the timeline of when that will happen. SSRS Integrated Mode will not be included with the next version of SQL Server. Instead, SSRS Native mode will be more tightly integrated with SharePoint for those organizations that use both products. As someone that has always approached Business Intelligence from the SharePoint point of view, I see this is a good thing.
This change is another step in the process of de-cluttering and uncomplicating SharePoint. This process started arguably with the move away from fully trusted code running on SharePoint, to the newer app, add-in and now SPFx development models that run with SharePoint. When Excel Services was removed from SharePoint in SharePoint 2016, with its capabilities moved to Office Online Server this process became obvious. A decreased dependency on SharePoint allows for simpler, more streamlined architectures, better options for upgrade management, and better, more targeted performance management.
SSRS SharePoint Integrated mode has been with us in various forms since it was first introduced in SQL Server 2005 SP2. The original goal was to simplify the integration of the two products, and to take advantage of SharePoint’s storage and authorization capabilities. The integration has always worked well, but the very fact that these two products were delivered by two different product teams on different media, often on different release schedules has typically led to a great deal of confusion. The SharePoint prerequisite for Integrated Mode leads to far too many SQL servers having SharePoint installed on them.
Managing SSRS in SharePoint Integrated mode requires a combined skill set to some degree as well, with knowledge of both SSRS and SharePoint. SharePoint administrators tend to be intimidated by SSRS, and SharePoint simply mystifies SQL DBAs.
The fact that the two different modes did not always maintain feature parity is another problem. PowerView and several other features are only available through SharePoint integrated mode. This results in entire SharePoint farms being created for the sole purpose of providing reporting features. Since those performing these installations are typically not familiar with SharePoint best practices, these farms tend to be unreliable. The latest release of SSRS 2016 contains a massive number of new features, but many of them in Native mode only, leaving the SharePoint integrated folks with a decision whether to favour features or integration.
A strategy that reduces the dependency of one platform on the other is therefore to everyone’s advantage.
The two operating modes also represent two different code streams for Microsoft to maintain. Given the finite set of resources that is any development team, resources must be spent on maintaining both of these streams that could otherwise be applied to features. A single code stream is simply more efficient.
Preventing the wholesale move to Native mode are several SharePoint integration features that have been employed over the years that are only available in SharePoint Integrated mode.
There has been a SharePoint Report viewer web part for SSRS Native mode since SharePoint 2003. The trouble is that while it does work, it is deprecated, and hasn’t been updated since SQL Server 2008 R2. It also doesn’t allow for parameter binding, or interface control. For all intents and purposes, it is an iFrame embed of a report. The web part that is available through integrated mode allows for parameter interactivity, and significant control of the look and feel. It has been widely deployed. Integrated mode also allows for the reporting of SharePoint list data, and the ability to publish reports to a SharePoint library on a schedule. These features are well utilized in the market today.
Power View reports (RDLX) built on top of SSAS tabular models, or Excel Power Pivot models also require Integrated mode. Compounding this is the fact that Power View requires Silverlight, which does not work in either the Chrome nor the Microsoft Edge browsers.
These integration features will need to be added to Native mode before it will be possible to fully abandon Integrated mode. The good news is that the announcement commits to doing just that. Report embed, Report viewer web part, and SharePoint library destination capabilities will all be added. For Power View reports, a conversion tool will be provided to convert from RDLX into Power BI Desktop (PBIX). A technical preview is already availably that demonstrated PBIX rendering in SSRS.
This announcement signals the end of SSRS SharePoint Integrated mode, but it does not spell the end of SSRS SharePoint integration. The single mode architecture should be more approachable, simpler, and more efficient. It’s a win all the way around.
Microsoft Planner went into general availability in June of 2016. It allows basic project and task management for organizational teams. Like most products in the Office 365 suite, Planner makes extensive use of Office 365 Groups, which provides membership services through Azure Active Directory, and Storage through SharePoint. Creating a new Plan in Planner is one of the ways to create and Office 365 Group – each plan gets a Group. Conversely, each Group gets a Plan.
Adding Members to a Plan – Adding to the Office 365 Group
Microsoft Teams was released into preview earlier this month, and included in Teams is very tight integration with Planner. Teams is also tightly coupled with Groups (each Team gets Group), and adding the Group’s Plan to the interface is relatively straightforward. Simply click on the “add tab” icon, and choose Planner.
And then give the plan a name and save it.
However, there’s more to it than that. From the Teams interface, it’s possible to create additional Plans. To do so, simple add another tab and repeat the process.
How is this possible? If there is a 1:1 correspondence between Groups and Teams, and a 1:1 correspondence between Groups and Plans, then there must also be the same correspondence between Plans and Teams. As it turns out, that the relationship between Groups and Plans is no longer limited to 1:1. The plans created in Teams are not (or do not appear to be) a part of the group. This can be seen if you open Planner on its own, and these plans will not appear in the “All plans” list, because this is just a list of Groups. The Group itself has a Plan associated with it, but it’s not any of the plans that are created in Teams. However, if you have tasks from these Plans assigned to you, they will appear in the My tasks list.
Conversely, in the Teams interface, I cannot find a way to have this default plan appear in the Teams interface. This is something that could be very confusing for any users that use bot the Planner ands the Teams interfaces. Given that Teams is only in preview now, I can only assume that these user interface inconsistencies will be remedied.
The bottom line to all of this is that it appears that the bulk of the work has been done to allow multiple plans in a single Office 365 Group. You simply need to use Microsoft Teams in order to access them.
Today, Microsoft debuted Microsoft Teams. Microsoft Teams allows teams of people to quickly get together to collaborate in real time. If you’re keeping count, this represents Microsoft third tool in the Social Computing space.
Why would Microsoft want to introduce yet another social computing tool? They already have Yammer, Skype (for business and personal), and Outlook Group conversations. What would be the reasoning for this new product? At one level, Microsoft Teams is aimed at the same group of users that find value in Slack, which is a social tool that has grown in popularity recently and is particularly popular with developers.
I was first exposed to Slack a little over a year ago. I had heard about it, and the buzz around it was that it was the “next big thing”, so my expectations were high. When I did first use it, my thoughts were, “That’s it? That’s all there is to it?”. Functionally, Slack doesn’t really bring anything to the table that we didn’t have 30 years ago with IRC chat. Now, given the demographic that Slack is popular with, they are likely not old enough to remember IRC. Of course, none of this really matters, what matters is that Slack fills a need for immediate, almost synchronous communication with very little structure. Slack doesn’t even support threaded discussions. However, it’s simplicity is its strength and its value proposition, and Microsoft hasn’t had anything in the market quite like it. Until now.
So how does this product compare with its existing Social tools, Yammer and Outlook Groups? When would you use one vs the other?
Microsoft bought Yammer in 2012 and quickly championed it as the cornerstone of its social computing strategy moving forward, replacing the social features of SharePoint Online, and making them optional in SharePoint on-premises. However, at Ignite 2015, Microsoft introduced Groups for Office 365, which included a conversation platform based on Exchange (Outlook conversations). This was essentially a group inbox with a number of social features added such as likes, etc. It was pretty clear that Groups were going to be the underpinning of the next generation of features in Office 365, and this led to quite a bit of uncertainty about Microsoft’s social strategy. The recent Ignite 2016 made it pretty clear that Microsoft is doubling down on Yammer as its social strategy, but that does little to clear up the confusion. What happens now with Outlook conversations? Microsoft Teams would seem to only make it worse.
The reality, in my opinion, is that these tools are not exclusive. Although there are some areas of overlap, I see them at complementary, with each serving a niche depending on requirements, or at the same time. The problem is that they tend to be positioned as competitors. In my opinion, we have an “or” vs an “exclusive or” situation.
I have used Yammer, Outlook Groups and Slack (used here for comparison purposes) of these platforms fairly heavily in the past year. At UnlimitedViz, we have moved most of our collaboration and document management away from Team sites and into Groups. On a side note, we’re very happy to see Team sites now following us over. Yammer is the platform that we primarily used for our threaded discussions. Slack is used by the MVP community for quick and easy chats. I like all three and dislike all three for different reasons.
Once we moved most of our customer focused content into Groups, the value of having an inbox for each group became readily apparent. When going through email, I could simply forward important ones to the group, where it would be retained, and accessible to other members of that group. I could now delete customer email with impunity. From a feature standpoint, this is gold. We also decided to run one of our more significant projects using Outlook conversations alone, and that aspect wound up being a very poor experience. The email infrastructure simply wasn’t built for threaded conversations.
Yammer can infuriate me from time to time, particularly with its unread mark handling (which has admittedly gotten better) and its poor to non-existent search capabilities. Content stored in Yammer is effectively gone as far as I’m concerned, which makes it particularly difficult to have conversations around context. Keeping the content in Office 365 Groups requires a lot of URL copying and pasting if you want to socialize or discuss it in Yammer. A “group” in Yammer is not the same thing as a Group in Office 365. With all of that said, Yammer delivers a superior threaded discussion experience. Its similarity to Facebook makes adoption relatively easy, and its threading keeps relevant content at the top.
Slack is the simplest of the bunch, which makes it the easiest to get up and running. It is almost totally unstructured, meaning that while anything goes, it’s not too long before it disappears. Messages are kept, but I grow weary of scrolling back through the pile of previous messages to find something that I think that I saw. Slack lives in the “now”, and the more current the content is, the more appropriate Slack is. However, it doesn’t take long for a Slack channel to become noisy, with several conversations going on at the same time. It’s like having ADD while being at a noisy cocktail party.
None of these tools on their own deliver everything necessary for a complete social experience, although they are suitable on their own for their own niche. I think that my biggest pet peeve about using these different tools is that I need to jump from interface to interface to complete the experience. This, I believe is where Groups comes in.
Office 365 Groups is (I so badly want to use “are” here… but Groups is the name) designed to be an integrating construct. Groups really has no interface of its own, but when it was originally released, it backed the interfaces of Outlook, OneDrive, and OneNote. Outlook Groups is the Exchange based conversation interface. Shortly afterward, Office 365 Groups became an integral part of Power BI and Planner as well. Integration of Modern SharePoint Team Sites with Office 365 Groups provides a logical entry point for the Group, as SharePoint can integrate disparate UI elements. At Ignite 2016, both Yammer and Power BI content was shown in pages in a Modern Team Site through web parts. It’s not hard to see how these things can coexist in the same container.
Yammer embedded in a Modern Team Site
Power BI embedded in a Modern Team Site
The introduction of Microsoft Teams would seem to muddy the water a little. The important thing is to understand which tool to use under which circumstance. This is a much-discussed topic, and there are hours of presentation material available that discuss it. The decision is a combination of personal preference and applicability to the task at hand, but far too often it becomes a matter of familiarity. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I wince every time that I’m asked to build click throughs into an SSRS report, or to design a Power BI report to optimize printing – these are two different tools that are good at doing different things. Often, if it can be done with the tool that you know, often time we don’t look elsewhere, even when that other tool is better at that task. Further to this, the “difference” can often be a matter of perception, and in the case of an online service like Office 365, of branding.
These components can be used within team sites as appropriate wherever suitable. With the team site providing the “glue”, it will be possible to surface content from any or all of these tools as appropriate. All the products already require, or use an Office 365 license already, so that is not a consideration. The question is where would you use one versus the other?
As mentioned above, Outlook Groups makes for an excellent Group inbox, but is not great as a conversation platform. This Group inbox also provides the destination for content brought in from Office 365 Connectors. It’s a logical and effective landing spot for content that is sent to the group. If the group needs an inbox, this is it – straightforward. Less straightforward is the difference between Microsoft Teams and Yammer.
I’ve been using Slack thus far as an example of group chat simply because it’s what I have experience with. Microsoft Teams is new, and while it compares favourably with Slack, it also includes threaded discussions. Threaded discussions are something that Slack does not have, but Yammer does, and this makes the decision between the two a little less clear than between Yammer and Slack. IN fact, looking at the UI, it’s a little difficult to spot the difference.
Microsoft Teams threaded conversation interface
Even with threaded discussions, Microsoft Teams has more in common with Slack than it does with Yammer. Microsoft Teams is highly appropriate for small groups that get created, have a relatively short or defined life, and are then retired. Yammer groups are more structural – they are typically managed by someone to help foster participation. Microsoft Teams follow a bottom up approach, where Yammer is more top down. Small groups will participate in a single Team, but too many users will likely make it too noisy to be useful. Conversely Yammer groups can reach the entire enterprise, and like most networks, their value increases with the number of nodes. Microsoft Teams are focused of chat, and Yammer is focused on conversations. If you need to get a quick group of collaborators together around a specific goal, Microsoft Teams is likely the right tool, but if you’re trying to build a community, Yammer is likely a better choice. There are of course other technical factors that may dictate one versus the other, but these factors are subject to change.
This leads me to my suggestion. We can see that the technology is emerging that will allow us to work with these tools simultaneously, as appropriate. Office 365 Groups along with Modern SharePoint Team Sites will become the containers for this convergence. However, if these products maintain their own identity, there will continue to be confusion around which one Microsoft is “betting on” or which one is “the best”. I believe that a rebranding exercise is in order.
Outlook Conversations becomes Group Inbox
Yammer becomes Group Conversations
Microsoft Teams becomes Group Chat
While this branding may not become a reality, I think that it’s helpful to think of the 3 tools in this manner.