Thursday, April 21, 2016

PremierPoint Solutions’ President Discusses ExCM 2013 R2 and Its Major New Features

 Don Beehler, PremierPoint Solutions’ marketing director, recently interviewed President Jeff Cate about the company’s ExCM 2013 R2:

Jeff Cate, President
PremierPoint Solutions
Question: An R2 is a major new release of a software product. Why did you conclude it was necessary to release a new version of your award-winning Extranet Collaboration Manager for SharePoint (ExCM)?

Answer: ExCM is deployed by hundreds of organizations around the world and is the most popular way to enable SharePoint to be used as an extranet. Even with the availability of the Cloud, people still like the security and control that an on-premises extranet provides. So, because we have a lot of active, committed customers, we wanted to make sure the software is kept up-to-date and provides the best user experience possible. That’s why we built R2.

Question: How long has this R2 for ExCM been in the works?

Answer: R2 was a nine-month project that involved hundreds of man hours of design, development, and testing. It includes major new components, and that is why it has been labeled as a second release of ExCM 2013.

Question: What are the major new features and why are they important?

Answer: ExCM has always had an incredibly deep set of security and management features such as password policies, domain policies, external user registration configuration, etc. But many of these features previously required manual configuration in SharePoint’s web.config files. With R2, these are all easily configured from Central Administration, which makes it much easier for the SharePoint Farm Administrator to take advantage of them.

The initial setup and configuration of a SharePoint-based extranet has involved a quite lengthy and tedious set of manual web.config file edits. We have always provided extensive documentation and excellent support services to assist customers with this, but a manual approach is less than ideal. So, in R2, we invested in the “plumbing” to automate the initial setup and configuration of Forms-Based Authentication (FBA) and the ASP.NET Membership Provider to make deploying a SharePoint-based on-premises extranet as painless as possible. A new Setup Wizard in Central Administration, along with an Extranet Global Configuration Timer Job, is the secret sauce for this.

There is a new Extranet Site Directory Web Part that can be placed on any extranet page to provide the external user with a hyper-linked list of extranet sites that they have access to. Of course, the web part takes advantage of SharePoint’s security trimming to make sure the user only sees links to appropriate sites.

Finally, we have added Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) as an out-of-the-box add-in for customers who desire a higher level of security for their extranets. MFA is starting to become a standard feature for web applications across the Internet, and it only makes sense that this capability should be available with ExCM.

Question: What can you tell us about the Forms-Based Authentication (FBA) setup wizard?

Answer: ExCM has always leveraged SharePoint’s built-in support for ASP.NET Forms-Based Authentication and the SQL Membership Provider. Unfortunately, until now, the way you enabled FBA on a SharePoint web application was to follow Microsoft’s guidance on editing the web.config files by hand. This approach works, but is error prone due to the complexity of SharePoint’s web.config files and the amount of modification needed.

The new Extranet Setup Wizard handles all of this work automatically for the SharePoint Farm Administrator. It does the following work that previously had to be done manually:

- Create the Extranet Directory database and set proper permissions on it
- Create the correct web.config file modifications to enable FBA and connect to the new Extranet Directory database
- Queue up the modifications for the Extranet Global Configuration Timer Job, which will automatically run and apply the modifications to every web front-end server in the farm, regardless of the number of servers in the farm.

With the new Extranet Setup Wizard it is entirely possible to have your extranet web application up and running within 15 minutes, rather than several hours or even days when doing it manually.

Question: Which features now have graphical user interfaces (GUIs)?

Answer: In Central Administration we have added GUIs for configuring these popular features:

- Create Extranet Account Managers
- Set Password Policies
- Set Account and Password Expiration Policies
- Configure Global Registration Settings
- Configure Global Domain Settings
- Configure People Picker Restrictions

Question: What does the R2 mean for current ExCM 2013 customers?

Answer: Current ExCM 2013 customers can upgrade to R2 for free if they have a current support contract with us. We have tested the in-place upgrade process extensively and feel confident that our documentation about how to go about it is thorough and accurate.

Question: What else would you like for people to know about ExCM R2?

Answer: Just like with all previous versions of ExCM, R2 can be deployed on SharePoint Foundation or SharePoint Server. For organizations that have SharePoint Server already deployed and licensed for their internal users, Microsoft allows unlimited free licenses for external users (non-employees). To deploy an extranet in the farm is as simple as creating a new web application, installing ExCM and running the Extranet Setup Wizard.

If your organization is relatively small and does not have an on-premises SharePoint deployment yet, a single server SharePoint Foundation deployment can be very inexpensive (you would only need a single license for Windows Server and ExCM). It would give you an incredibly feature-rich extranet capability that you have complete control over. This could easily be done on your own hardware, or you could do it on an Amazon or Azure virtual machine.

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