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Intranets on the O365 and Azure Platforms

Introduction

As more organizations move to Microsoft’s Office 365 platform, new conversations are occurring around how to best leverage the investment beyond the messaging, file storage, and desktop productivity applications that comprise the core of the offering.  For example, organizations that might never have had an Intranet before are deploying new file sharing and collaboration team sites using that tired and true workhorse SharePoint.  But while SharePoint offers a nice foundation, many find their success with the platform is limited to what they can do via simple application configuration.

GuideIT was no different.  When we launched our company, our Intranet (“MyGuide”) was 100% SharePoint.  While the approach was sufficient for our early needs, we soon realized that we lacked the data integration and custom application development capabilities we’d come to expect from an Intranet.  We then faced a decision – build on what we have or switch to one of the many “intranet in a box” products on the market?  While many of these stand-alone offerings are robust, what we kept coming back to was why would we incur additional expense, and potentially a different security model for access, when we could leverage our existing investment and augment it with applications development expertise on an applications development platform that integrates seamlessly with Office 365.

Enter Azure

Azure offered us a “blank canvas” for application development and data integration.  For our new Intranet, the home page is a custom C# MVC application hosted in an Azure App Service with an Azure database.  Department content is still hosted in SharePoint so the top navigation links point to each department’s SharePoint site, but now we are no longer limited by the traditional SharePoint constraints on the rest of the page:

  • In the left column, the “Team Member Search” and “Team Member Spotlight” combine data from ExponentHR and Azure Active Directory.
  • In the right column, we built a custom news component that combines Yammer, our public news feed, and internal application warnings into a single list.

For security, we integrated with the Azure Active Directory.  This approach lets people use their same credentials to login to both MyGuide and SharePoint.  On top of Azure Active Directory, we created a reusable security module that lets the security for our custom applications be administered on one page.  With the custom application landing page in place and this custom security component, we had the foundation to begin adding more custom applications.

“Azure App Service” is Microsoft’s platform-as-a-service offering.  It gives us a place to host our web applications without having to support a virtual machine. The various App Service plans give different CPU and memory options like a regular VM offering.  The plans also have built-in options to increase your application’s up-time by automatically managing a web farm.  Your code is automatically deployed to the pool of servers.  Requests are then load balanced across the pool to compensate for both planned and unplanned downtime.

Results

Our approach yielded exactly the results we’d hoped:  A resource for our team members with ubiquitous access, custom developed applications, external data integration, and in selected instances the structure of SharePoint sites.  Let’s look at a few examples of custom developed applications and data integration we’ve deployed to our leaders and team members, ensuring contract compliance is a critical facet of

1.     Maintaining the trust of our customers.  While our day-to-day approach to customer relationships is usually “if you have to pull out the contract, you probably have a problem”, we can’t lose sight of those obligations either.  So rather than being tied to a spreadsheet, we built a custom application for our customer executives to enter their contractual deliverables and obligations – with due dates, frequency etc.  Far from being a simple repository, the application sends reminder emails to leaders as obligation due dates approach.  And should an obligation not be marked as complete in a timely fashion, the application sends escalation emails to business unit leaders, and eventually our CEO.  As you can imagine, a great motivator!  Aside from the benefit to our own business, one of our customers for whom we are building a similar intranet saw the application and immediately asked us to deploy something similar for them.

2.     Being in the services business it’s important for our leaders to have clear visibility into time tracking data.  Our cloud-based HR/Time Tracking system meets our data entry needs, but at times reporting and analytics is lacking.  We import the data nightly, and each leader has browser-based reporting and drill down by time-period, project, team member, cost center etc.

3.     Monitoring annual compliance training is another example of this integration at work.  Each night we import data from Skillsoft, our SaaS based training and development vendor.  For team members who have not yet completed their required annual training, they see a personalized message reminding them of their outstanding obligation.  Leaders see a similar message for those team members in their organization.  Rather than waiting for periodic compliance reports from HR, we’ve seen a notable increase in compliance with the deadline due in large part to the increased visibility this tool provides.

Other custom developed functionality we’ve deployed include:

  • A custom team member directory with photos and individual bios
  • Compliance with team member twice-annual performance counseling
  • A security module for point and click access to various data and applications across MyGuide
  • A monitoring status page for the twelve different data feeds coming in and out of MyGuide; Green is good and a red status indicates an exception with the error details
  • Import of company news and press releases from our external website
  • Yammer integration for internal social media

Conclusion

Intranets have been around for over 20 years now, so you might ask “what’s the big deal?”  For us the disruptive event that is driving this opportunity is the evolution of Office 365 from its early stages of moving Exchange to the cloud, to its recent and ongoing maturity as an ecosystem of collaboration, storage, and security.  Microsoft is clearly incented to continue to drive value for those who’ve chosen to invest in Office 365, and you see that in the ongoing maturity of the “product”.  As mentioned, the icing on the cake comes from the Azure “blank canvas” for application development and data integration.

The result is a powerful combination that organizations of almost any size, with the right internal applications development talent, or who choose the right partner, can benefit from.  We’ve found that you’re truly limited only by your own organizational imagination about how this solution can drive change and efficiency in your business.

At GuideIT we’re excited about helping our customers drive the same type of value from this solution that we’ve enjoyed.  We take what we’ve built, deploy it for our customers, and then the real fun begins with customer-specific customizations and new tools designed to meet their specific requirements.  Ongoing support requirements are nominal, leaving organizations in complete control of how much or how little they want to invest in future enhancements. If you like to hear more and see some examples first-hand, we’d love to hear from you!

About the Authors

Mark Johnsonis an IT services executive with more than 25 years of operations, sales and business development experience.  Through an engaging style, he builds sustainable and mutually beneficial services relationships that deliver results.  Mark leads both the commercial business unit for GuideIT and the company’s application development solution group.
David Longis a senior applications developer specializing in the Microsoft technology stack.  He recently earned the “Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Cloud Platform and Infrastructure” certification.

 

 

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