The Lightning Tools SPFx Products and Why!

Lightning Tools is in its 11th year of building SharePoint tools and web parts. We’ve gone from manual deployments of dll’s to the bin folder and accompanying code access security files, to WSP’s, and SharePoint Add-In’s over the years. For the past 12 months, we have been rebuilding our products using the SharePoint Framework. The purpose of this blog post is to give you as insight into what we are doing with our products and why.


Currently, the vast majority of our customers are using WSP’s, 20% of those customers are using SharePoint 2010, 75% are using SharePoint 2013, 5% are using SharePoint 2016. All of our products have been available for SharePoint Online for a number of years now, with two of our products being the among the first 10 apps (as they were known back then) available in the SharePoint App Store. Despite creating our products as Add-Ins (apps) to effectively replace WSP’s and provide the same functionality to SharePoint Online customers, we’ve found that typically our Add-Ins are used by Office 365 customers and WSP’s are still used by SharePoint On-Premises customers. In fact, many of our SharePoint On-Premises customers have not adopted the SharePoint App Infrastructure despite it being available in both SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint 2016. It took quite some time to begin selling any SharePoint Add-Ins, but over the past two years, our sales of Add-Ins has almost equalled the sales of our SharePoint On-Premises products. What is surprising is, how few appear to be using SharePoint 2016.


One reason perhaps why WSP’s are still used quite heavily, is that our SharePoint Add-Ins couldn’t always provide the equivalent functionality of their WSP counterparts. That is until recently. Our DeliverPoint product for example, allows Site Owners, Site Collection Administrators to report and manage permissions on objects that they have permissions to manage throughout the SharePoint Farm. Within SharePoint Online, the same functionality is restricted to Site Collection Administrators only and the scope is limited to a single site collection due to the restrictions on a SharePoint hosted Add-In. The Lightning Conductor Add-In uses search in order to aggregate across site collections, where as the WSP equivalent can use the Server Side Object Model to rollup content across site collections whilst still offering great performance and real time aggregation of content.. The biggest difference was with our Data Viewer and Chart products which were limited to Site scoped BCS External Content Types for external data or SharePoint Lists rather than the 30+ data sources that they could connect to as a WSP. So in summary, our WSP’s were a lot more powerful than the equivalent SharePoint Add-In.


The SharePoint Framework (SPFx) and many other evolutions in Office 365 have enabled us for the first time to go from maintaining two separate versions of the same product, to a single powerful version for both SharePoint On-Premises and SharePoint Online. The recent changes by Microsoft are not just SPFx related but the improvements such as Graph, and Webhooks make it possible to incorporate some of the features that our on-premises customers enjoy using within SharePoint Online. Not only that, but SPFx also allows us to build products that look great within the new Modern pages offered by SharePoint Online.


Note: Please visit our Webcasts to learn more about the SharePoint Framework (SPFx) by SharePoint MVP Andrew Connell.


We’re still 100% committed to our customers that use WSP’s and SharePoint Add-Ins and those products are still maintained, but looking forward over the next few years, we predict that our Client Side Web Parts built under the SharePoint Framework will be a powerful replacement for the WSP’s and SharePoint Add-Ins.


Below you can see screenshots and descriptions of what we are achieving with each product and why:


DeliverPoint (SharePoint Permissions Reporting and Management).

DeliverPoint is available for SharePoint 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016 as a contextual permissions management and reporting tool for decentralised permission management environment, meaning that it is not just IT that can use the tool, but content owners such as Site Owners and Site Collection Administrators can use the tool to manage the permissions of their content contextually. We could have developed a tool for SharePoint Online that sits outside of SharePoint much like many of our competitors where the tool is a windows application. However, we wanted a tool where business users could run accurate permission reports contextually and therefore not even knowing that they are not using native SharePoint. This was difficult to do in as a SharePoint hosted add-in. Within our on-premises version, DeliverPoint contains timer jobs that crawl the active directory accounts, and SharePoint permissions and logs the information within a SQL database. Single object reports would execute using real time information, but large reports would load by called a stored procedure against our own database thus providing a very complex report efficiently whilst not affecting the performance of SharePoint. This same architecture wasn’t possible in a SharePoint Add-in, meaning many reports had to run in real time and using the Client Side Object Model which in itself wasn’t as rich as the server side object model. Recently, Through Azure Functions, and Web Hooks we are now able to crawl information within the SharePoint Online environment and cache it as we do with SharePoint On-Premises. Meanwhile, we are able to design a new UX which adopts the new look and feel of modern sites whilst still offering ribbons to our customers using classic view. Permission Alerts, and Auditing were also features that we can now add under the SharePoint Framework. Another unique feature of DeliverPoint On-Premises was to run permission reports as an auditor or operator without needing to have Full Control to the content. Effectively, this is simply elevating privileges which is something that is not allowed under the SharePoint Hosted Add-In model. Learn more about DeliverPoint through a Recorded Webinar.



Figure 1: The DeliverPoint Permissions Reporting and Management tool in SharePoint Online.


Lightning Conductor

The Lightning Conductor is actually very powerful in both SharePoint On-Premises and SharePoint Online. The main difference is that SharePoint Online customers are required to use search to aggregate across site collections. This method actually provides very good performance, but doesn’t allow for real time results. Using the SharePoint Framework, we have re-engineered the Lightning Conductor Add-In to work with some of the new features in SharePoint Online such as Document Previews, integration with Graph, and a new configuration view which also allows for more advanced conditional formatting. You can see the Lightning Conductor in action today in this recorded web cast.



Figure 2: The new Lightning Conductor Client Side Web Part with Conditional Formatting controls now featuring icons and data bars.


Data Viewer & Chart

Our Data Viewer is already available under the SharePoint Framework and has been for the past 12 months. It is also available as a SharePoint hosted add-in and a Full Trust Web Part. The SharePoint Add-In was restricted to connecting only to Site Scoped External Content Types, or SharePoint Lists. This made it virtually impossible for anyone to benefit from its styling features for external data sources. The Full Trust version offered connections to data sources such as OData, XML, SQL Server, Oracle, ODBC, and Excel Files. Using the SPFx, we are able to offer OData, BCS, and are also investigating the possibility of using the Microsoft Data Gateway to connect to On-Premises external data sources. The Chart has suffered the same limitations, so over the next 12 months, you’ll see some great improvements. Sign up for a webinar showing the Dataviewer and Chart components.



Figure 3: The Data Viewer Client Side Web Part showing Initial External Data Source selection.


Social Squared

Social Squared is our Enterprise Discussion Forum tool which allows for Forum Groups to span multiple sites even in different site collections. This allows users from different teams and departments to communicate on similar discussions but from within the context of their own sites. Much of the same functionality is available for SharePoint Online as with SharePoint On-Premises since the Social Squared Add-In is a provider hosted rather than SharePoint hosted add-in. Using the SharePoint Framework, we can provide better themes with a modern look. See a web cast of Social Squared



Figure 4: The Social Squared Client Side Web Part with Threaded View.


Lightning Forms

Lightning Forms being a newer product is available purely as a SharePoint Add-In and works with SharePoint 2013, 2016 and SharePoint Online. There are continual improvements being made to Lightning Forms around the Modern list forms. See Lightning Forms in action



Figure 5: Lightning Forms in action within SharePoint 2016 customizing SharePoint list forms.


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