Migrating to SharePoint Online – Early Learning with Modern and Communication sites

We have had a ‘controlled’ on-premise SharePoint environment since early 2012, starting with SharePoint 2010 and moving to SharePoint 2013 two and a half years ago.

‘Controlled’ in this sense means that users cannot create their own sites or sub-sites and site owners are responsible for managing their sites, including creating libraries and lists and managing page content.

Governance model

Our governance model, originally based on a Microsoft governance model, provided a good balance between (a) the need for excessive IT control and effort (there’s only two of us managing the whole environment), and (b) the potential for a feral environment when site creation gets out of hand.

An early decision was made to use multiple web applications for teams, projects, publishing sites, the intranet, and ‘apps’ (a handful of ‘purpose-built’ sites).

Another key governance decision made in 2012 was to keep the environment as much as possible ‘out of the box’ (OOTB) and avoid customization. By doing this we aimed to ensure that upgrades would be relatively straightforward. This didn’t prevent site owners from being fairly creative with their sites, especially site pages.

Preparing for SharePoint Online

If you are planning to move to Office 365 and SharePoint Online (SPO), you should understand how existing sites will migrate to the new platform, especially with the release of new ‘modern’ SharePoint sites and more recently ‘communication’ sites.

One of the first considerations is the architecture of the new SPO sites. These use only name-based paths – ‘/sites’ or ‘/teams’. If you have (like we did) multiple web applications or complex hierarchies of sites, you will need to consider how these will map to the new architecture.

For example:

  • Sites in multiple web applications will need to be mapped to either /teams or /sites. For example, one of our web applications was /projects; these will be migrated to /teams and all new project sites will be Office 365 Group based, with a ‘PRJ’ prefix.
  • Sites in complex hierarchies can, potentially, continue in SPO, but the SPO model is more suited to multiple, separate sites at the same level. A hierarchy or organisational structure may change and this could cause problems for moving content between sites. Having said that, all SharePoint sites site under the top level https://(organisation name).sharepoint.com ‘root’ site, followed by either /sites or /teams – e.g., https://(organisation name).sharepoint.com/sites/example.

Migrating site content

Most SharePoint site content consists of a combination of pages, libraries and lists, and the data stored in each.

Each has a new counterpart in SPO and you need to understood these in advance of migrating. Note however that Microsoft have continued the ‘classic’ look in SPO so that the pages look the same (for the time being); libraries and lists on the other hand are converted immediately to the new ‘modern’ style on migration.

Libraries and Lists

The most visible change to libraries and lists is the removal of the familiar ribbon menu and its replacement with a much simpler and user-friendly version, one that is almost identical with the new ‘ribbon’ that appears in OneDrive for Business.

The main library ribbon is as follows:


The ribbon changes when a document is selected, in this case a Word document:


The new ‘ribbon’ was designed to make it as easy as possible for users to add, edit and access content, including on mobile devices, focusing on the primary actions users need to perform:

  • Add new content (including creating a new Office document from within the library, or a new folder or link)
  • Edit content (including by using Office Online applications)
  • Move and copy content
  • Share content

The ribbon is minimalistic and expands with additional options with a document is selected. The following options are accessed by clicking the three-dot ‘ellipsis’ to the far right of the ribbon menu, or clicking on the ellipsis to the right of the document name:

  • Copy to
  • Rename
  • Version history
  • Alert me
  • Manage by Alerts
  • Check Out/In

‘Flow’ is a new option in both libraries and lists, replacing the older style library or list workflows (and possibly some simple SharePoint Designer workflows).

The primary consideration when moving to modern libraries and lists is change management. On a positive note, users who found the old ribbon menu just a bit too complex should find the new ribbon simple to use.

Library Settings and List Settings still remain and have the same look and feel; this option is now accessed from the gear/cog icon.

A new (or rather slightly modified) option for SPO users on the ribbon is the ability to synchronise (‘sync’) the SPO library selected with File Explorer. This option allows users to access SPO content from the familiar File Explorer view, although various library options such as check out/in are not available; the documents in File Explorer are copies.

  • Note: Migrating to SPO provides the opportunity to ‘clean up’ libraries and lists, especially libraries without content.

Site pages

Perhaps one of the most challenging changes for SharePoint administrators and site owners or users will be the introduction of new ‘modern’ pages. This may be a challenge for organisations that have implemented or allowed site page customizations.

SharePoint Administrators need to make themselves familiar with the structure and layout of modern site pages well in advance of any planned migration, especially to understand how existing pages will migrate.

The main changes to site pages are the absence of the ribbon and completely new web parts. Instead of a ribbon, each new web part includes various editing options, outlined below.

The introduction of ‘communication’ sites in late June 2017 added to both the site type potential as well as the options for constructing a page. All of these changes make the new site pages mobile friendly.

Another key point to consider, in terms of site design, is whether sub-sites are really required.

New site page web parts

The new web parts are visible when any modern page is placed in edit mode; when you click on the page you will see the + option that allows you to add the required web part. This replaces the ‘App Part’ and ‘Web Part’ options under the SP2013 ribbon ‘INSERT’ option.

The new web parts are presented in three groups.

The first section offers the following web parts.

  • Text. Allows formatted text to be insert in a defined area on the page. Similar in a way to the FORMAT TEXT options on the ribbon menu in SP2013, and also presenting text in a Content Editor Web Part. However, it only includes rich text (headings, formatting, but no tables or images).
  • Image. Allows an image to be placed on the page, similar to SP2013 INSERT – Picture. No text can be added, and so if you need to place text and images together, you may end up with multiple text boxes with an image above or below.
  • Document. Displays the first page of a document within a defined area. This may used as alternative to a table.
  • Link. Allows a direct link to be provided to any other content. Similar to INSERT – Link in SP2013.
  • Embed. Almost the same as the ‘Embed Code’ option in SP2013 INSERT ribbon menu, but note there are some limitations.
  • Highlighted Content. Allows different types of content from the site or other locations to be displayed on the page. The content can be filtered and sorted, and various layout options are available. Type options are: Documents, Pages, News, Videos, Images, Events, Issues, Tasks, Links, Contacts, or All. As at the date of writing this post, the option to display the content from a List is still not available – but see below.

The next section offers various page layout options, similar to the Text Layout option under FORMAT TEXT.

  • One column
  • Two columns
  • Three columns
  • One-third left column
  • One-third right column

The last section offers the following web parts.

  • Bing maps. Displays a Bing map.
  • Document library (preview). Presents an editable list view of documents.
  • Events. Displays items created in the events list.
  • Hero. Provides a way to highlight and link to content using two different designs: ‘topic’, which presents 1 – 5 tiles; ‘showcase’ which presents 1 – 5 layers. The tiles or layers both include the ability to add a photograph and a link to other content.
  • Image gallery. Displays photographs from an image library.
  • List (preview). Presents an editable list view of a list.
  • News. Displays news that is created as news pages.
  • Office 365 Video. To be deprecated in favour of Stream (see below). Presents a link to a video.
  • People. Shows people from Active Directory.
  • Power BI (preview).
  • Quick chart. Displays a chart.
  • Quick links. Displays links to other content.
  • Site activity. Presents a tiled list of content that has been created recently on the site.
  • Stream (preview). This will replace the option under SP2013 INSERT – Video.
  • Yammer feed. Displays a Yammer group feed.

For more details on the new page options, see:

Considerations using the new modern pages

Aside from the overall page layout using the new web parts in modern pages, the key issues we have identified so far with migrating old site pages have been the following, none of which are possible in the OOTB modern site pages without (possibly) using the SharePoint Framework (see below):

  • Content presented in tables, including images.
  • Images with links, including image maps.
  • Multicoloured text.
  • Images embedded next to text.

If you have allowed extensive page editing or customisations, you may need to consider how to move away from this model.

Why are the page options now limited?

In a word – consistency, but also flexibility using the new SharePoint Framework (SPFx). Site Owners (and others) may have been able to create a range of page content in SP2013 or SP2010. Without central control, this could result in a range of user experiences which may in turn affect user take up. Consistency across SharePoint sites provides users with a familiar navigation model.

The need to access SharePoint on mobile devices also likely drove the requirement for consistency of content.

What are the other options?

The new SharePoint Framework (SPFx) offers the ability to create your own custom SharePoint web parts.

However, rather than use SPFx to re-create the web parts or options that no longer exist, it may be worth considering whether these ways of presenting information are still valid – for example, presenting information in a table on a page was a popular option, but was it the best way to present that content?


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