​​Update your SharePoint Site Architecture for Office 365

Post Date: 03/22/2018
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If you’ve ever wondered how to structure your SharePoint sites, you’re not alone. For those that have been doing SharePoint for a while, you may already know that we’ve long had the debate – where do your department sites go in SharePoint?

Are they considered publishing sites or collaboration sites? Or both?  Are they sub-sites or site collections? How can we structure sites so we secure some content and still publish content for others without making it too complicated?

This concern often leads to a successful intranet build, but prevents true collaboration from occurring in SharePoint. We watch as our HR teams, Finance, and others still resist adding their most secure content into SharePoint (and especially into the cloud!) when we know the file share is no longer the best place for that content.

This issue gets even more complex when we bring Microsoft Teams– which are supported by SharePoint sites – into the picture. I want to take some time to talk through what is no longer considered a good approach, and then provide a replacement, modern approach to site architecture best practices in Office 365.

Legacy site architecture approaches

I was always of the opinion you should have sub-sites off the root site for your publishing intranet sites (see Figure 1). Then, create site collections for your more secure content.  This provided two benefits:

  1. There was a clear division between the site that is sharing content for others vs. what is secured information for the department (Example: HR provides 401k benefits information to everyone (root sub-sites), but employee reviews need to be locked down to a small group of individuals (site collection) This limited confusion and security mistakes.
  2. If you did more complex branding on your intranet site collection, it was also easier to configure the additional sites and corresponding navigation. Giving your collaboration sites a more basic look and feel also made them easier to manage and contributed to the user understanding whether they were in a secure site or publishing site.

Another approach I would commonly see would look something like figure 2, where secure subsites were tucked under the publishing site for simplicity to the end-user. While this was never my preferred approach due to security concerns, I know plenty of organizations who implemented this way.

This further complicates the idea of “where does my content belong?” I still consider you among the lucky ones – best of luck to those sorting their way out of the folder and item level security structures!

Figure 1: Publishing sub-site and secure site collection approach
















At its core, the idea I believed in is still relevant in Office 365. *We still want the clear separation of what consists of a publishing site vs a collaboration space*  One area, where you would have many readers and few content owners/creators and other areas where you could have many collaborators, without compromising security. So now what do we do?

Modern sites bring modern approaches

It’s time to flatten your site architecture from those deep legacy structures into an architecture that is easy to manage, secure, organize, and re-organize to your heart’s content. We’re also keeping our philosophy on separating published (intranet) content from collaboration content.

One additional bonus – you should see better performance in site collections than you would buried in the sub-site structure. So, what does all this mean?  Our new structure will look something like this:


Planning: How do I know when to use Classic sites vs Modern Communications Sites vs Teams?

In Office 365 and SharePoint Online, we have two modern site templates we can use while still utilizing classic sites when necessary:

  1. Classic Team or Publishing Site – For the moment, this will still be your root site collection since modern is not available there.
  • Use Modern Pages on Classic sites to help bridge the gap.
  • Customize the masterpage at your own risk (changes are always possible that could break your site)
  • Suggestion: Share news rollups with search web parts, provide links to internal and external applications or even embed a video from Stream here! CEOs love to share their message from the latest town hall meetings on the home page.
  • Another option: you can use a redirect from here to send users to Modern Site.

2. Communication Sites — These are best for the rest of your publishing sites (intranet sites)

  • These sites cannot be “groupified,” meaning it’s a solo SharePoint site not associated to a Group or Microsoft Team.
  • Great for sharing communications and publishing content and fantastic for the mobile experience.
  • This is your legacy intranet replacement! One Communication Site (site collection) per department.

3. Microsoft Teams for Collaboration

  • Every Microsoft Team created is backed by a modern team site in SharePoint.
  • Great for collaborating, team conversation, and the ability to utilize SharePoint side by side with Planer, Stream, PowerBI, and more from a single interface. All secured with a simple AD Group the Team owner can manage themselves.
  • Teams can replace shared folders on a file share.
  • Teams may not be department focus — think functionally! How do you work together? You may find that creating Microsoft Teams based on “Projects” are easier to manage!

What about navigation?

Rolling out now – you’re going to be able to create automatic navigation by joining the site collection to a Hub site. If you don’t have this yet, you should have it very soon. Hub sites will provide a way to bring together related sites – you can roll up news/activity feeds, create a shared navigation, and even share the look and feel of the site.

You will be able to add and remove sites from hubs as needed.  Your site architecture will still be flat, the sites do not become a sub-site to the hub site, but they will be associated to each other. No more re-organization headaches.

I want to hear from you!

Finally – I would love to hear from all of you and your experiences with collaborating in Office 365 – the best thing about our community is to learn about what is working for others and apply it in our own way. Good luck!

**This article is a summary of the blog “Modern Approaches to Site Architecture for SharePoint and Office 365” and includes a few updates since the original blog was published.

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Stephanie Donahue is a Microsoft MVP, and president and managing partner of the PAITgroup, where she helps senior management build technology plans to achieve business critical goals. With almost 20 years of experience in IT, Stephanie believes that technology can minimize risk and maximize business growth.

View all post by Stephanie D.

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