Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Personalization approach / settings administrated outside content database

Personalization is an important functional aspect in my current SharePoint 2010 project. Personalization on itself is a phrase that can have multiple meanings and appearances. Examples:
  • Customize a page for your own preferences; via personal settings of webpart properties
  • Content targeting; on basis of the visitors profile
SharePoint enables page personalization via the Provider model, inherited from ASP.net. Implication of the standard SharePoint personalization approach is that each authenticated user gets an own copy per personalized page in the content database. The personalized settings are thus administrated in the content database, similar as in case of shared webpart properties. A disadvantage of this approach is that this makes it very difficult to (web content) manage the page. A content manager can update the (template) page, but none of the content changes are automatically propagated to the individual personalization page copies in the content database.
In our application scenario, we have the additional functional requirement that it must be viable to extract management information reports of the personalized settings: what type of user (profiles) typically select personalized setting X, choose to close webpart Y etcetera. Although not impossible, it is rather impractical to extract this management information when the personalized data is stored in the content database. The schema of the SharePoint content database must be treated as internal black box, and cannot be relied on. The schema also does not support ad-hoc querying for answering varying management info requests.
We also have User Experience related requirements: the users must be able to personalize, without being aware or be directly confronted with SharePoint. It should be intuitive and natural, without explicit [noticable] personalization-setting modus. Examples of requested personalizations are tuning the webpart behavior via settings, and dynamically reposition the webparts in the page.
These combined end-user and management requirements effectively rank out the utilization of standard SharePoint personalization. So what’s a viable alternative? The one we came up consists of the following elements:
  1. [Standard] shared webpart properties for enabling the content managers to set the initial and default values for personalizable settings. The shared value is regularly stored in the SharePoint content database, and applied for each visitor which has not [yet] explicitly personalized the shared setting.
  2. Storage of personalization settings in an own SQL Server database
  3. The iGoogle-like reposition behavior via jQuery and webpart zones tagged as droppable zones
  4. An abstract base PersonalizationWebPart; that handles both the server-side aspects of personalization (retrieving + applying personalization settings, as well as saving them), as the client-side (webpart movement); and that implements virtual methods for concrete subclasses to hook into.
  5. Custom AudienceProvider to derive on-the-fly whether visitor is within a certain audience by checking setting stored in the own SQL Server database [thus no need for User Profiles, nor compiling of Audiences]
Extra and a major advantage of this personalization approach is that there no longer originates a copy of the page being personalized. If the content manager updates the page, by adding or removing a webpart, modifying content on a publishing page; these changes are automatic and immediate effective for all the visitors, whether one has personalized the page or not.

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