The SharePoint Trip to Modern – Are We There Yet? Part 2

On the trip to SharePoint “Modern”…  I’m having a serious case of deja vu. Some macro-patterns I saw eons ago as a Microsoft Windows Developer I see again in SharePoint “Modern”… especially with SharePoint “Modern” forms.

SharePoint forms – “classic” and “Modern” – fall into three broad categories: list and library forms, survey forms, and “forms over data” applications (aka InfoPath). Classic forms in each category are functional… but hard to customize, and definitely not beautiful. So where are we, exactly, on the trip to modern forms, and what are these “macro-patterns” I see?

Let’s break it down.

Microsoft Forms is the “Modern” replacement for SharePoint classic surveys, PowerApps is the “Modern” replacement for InfoPath, and Modern list forms …we’ll discuss those momentarily.

I never cared much for SharePoint “classic”  surveys.  They seem too toy-like for anything but the simplest of surveys, and look ugly (to me). In fact, beautifying them requires custom development… typically with React or Angular, and supporting documentation for users to use it, site owners to configure it, and developers to support it. All for very little functionality. Which is why I was happy to see Microsoft Forms…  the “Modern” answer to SharePoint “classic” surveys.

Actually, I thought Microsoft Forms (which sort of sneaked up on me last year) was also too toy-like at first. But with constant improvements over the last year…  I think Microsoft has a winner here. The surveys are easy to design, look nice, are easily embedded in a SharePoint page, and easy to configure. Microsoft Forms plays well with others too – particularly with Microsoft Flow. There is even a curious integration with Excel (someone please tell me if this is useful). If Microsoft Forms stays on its current trajectory, it’ll be the SurveyMonkey® for corporate intranets.

PowerApps is out of the toy-stage, and positioned to replace InfoPath.  I expect PowerApps will do for SharePoint what Visual Basic did for Microsoft Windows development… and become the most popular tool for SharePoint “Modern” power users and developers.  A word to the wise for “I’m too cool for PowerApps… I do React/Angular/Vue” developers out there….  Visual Basic supplanted C++/MFC for corporate Windows development – because it was easier to learn, and quicker for creating “Forms over Data” applications. Will history repeat here, and relegate SPFx development to a smaller – but important – niche for high-end customizations? Maybe.  Regardless, I predict the PowerApps tsunami is coming. Are you ready?

Lastly, consider SharePoint List forms. Specifically, the classic EditForm.aspx, NewForm.aspx and listview.aspx forms, and their Modern alternatives. Many sophisticated SharePoint workflows depend on highly customized versions of these forms to view, create and update SharePoint list items.

SharePoint List/Library forms can be quite complex mini-applications in service to SharePoint workflows. Form data must be loaded, and fields labelled, disabled/enabled, validated, hidden or revealed – depending on the workflow state and who is looking. Error handling must be friendly and helpful.  Extra points for beauty.

Clients often don’t realize the effort required to achieve all this…  so it’s important to set expectations, and decide if functional – albeit ugly – forms are sufficient.  Or is beauty important too?

The “Microsoft approved” way to customize SharePoint “classic” forms is via JS Link and Client Side Rendering (CSR)  – you add customizations with client-side JavaScript/TypeScript, using Microsoft-provided hooks at key points in the form life-cycle. The coding patterns take some getting used to. And to make the forms visually appealing, you’re on your own. Many SharePoint developers have crashed and burned attempting to wrangle the ridiculously daunting CSS in SharePoint “classic” forms. Which brings me to SharePoint “Modern” form options.

We’re still screwed…  but less so. Beauty is within reach – with Microsoft Office UI Fabric React-based components and SPFx. But a few things are missing for developers.

When I built my first SharePoint “Modern” modal dialog box as an SPFx web part with these components, I was reminded of the early days of Microsoft Windows development, when Microsoft provided a Windows Software Development Kit (SDK) without a GUI-based dialog editor. Windows developers resorted to “imagining” their dialog layouts while coding them with a text editor. It was highly inefficient….  much like the situation today with SharePoint “Modern” modal dialogs. There is no GUI-based form Editor… the React-based field controls are “laid out” using JSX in a code editor. I hope Microsoft will get around to providing a GUI-based editor for list-item forms with Office UI Fabric React components (yes… I know Modern lists can be customized with PowerApps – but it’s not a viable option – not yet – for a SharePoint Modern modal dialog box containing Office UI Fabric components).

What else is missing? For starters, the Office UI Fabric React components lack “SharePoint awareness”. So you’ll need an abstraction layer over them. You could add your own abstraction layer… but smarter to use the SharePoint Patterns and Practices SPFx React Controls. These extend the Office UI Fabric React controls… adding SharePoint awareness.  But even here… we see signs of immaturity. Take for instance the oh-so-innocent looking People Picker control.

A SharePoint People Picker control is one of the nastiest, most difficult form controls to write yourself. And this is from personal experience. It’s the “iceberg” of SharePoint field controls, because so much is hidden beneath the surface. So I was very happy to see it offered in the Office UI Fabric React component library… that is, until I discovered it was neutered.  That is, the darn thing isn’t connected to SharePoint (or rather, the Azure AD instance attached to a SharePoint tenant).

But the PnP People Picker control fixes this.  You add it within your Office UI Fabric Dialog component…  and it just works…. almost. At the time of this writing, it lacks a property to initialize the people picker with users and/or SharePoint Groups (I’ve requested an enhancement to rectify this… so stay tuned). This means that if you have an existing list item containing a people field, and that people field is not empty… you cannot initialize the people picker control with that person.  While we’re waiting for a fix, you can do what I did and create your own people picker abstraction layer, starting from this React people picker control.

My beloved Knockout library is useless with these Office UI Fabric controls (and the PnP offshoots)… because you cannot add the Knockout bindings to the HTML attributes within the controls.. you don’t have access to the innards. Knowing how much Knockout reduces “classic” form complexity,  I worried that Modern form complexity would be unwieldy. But my fears were unfounded, since the controls have sufficient hooks to capture mouse and keyboard events, and properties to control the enabling, disabling, and show/hide behavior. At this point, it’s probably better to show you, rather than tell you about it.

But let’s pull over at the next rest stop….   I need a short break before showing you some code. And no… stop asking… we’re still not there yet… on our SharePoint trip to Modern. But almost.

Here’s our stop… want some Ice cream?










The SharePoint Trip to Modern – Are We There Yet? Part 1

Is time travel possible? It sure feels like it with the SharePoint Modern experience. Leave it to the Microsoft SharePoint team to turn me into that little boy on a car trip, asking “Are we there yet?”.

I’m referring to the current state of SharePoint, and the trip to “Modern”. I’m loving the sights along the way…  but when is this journey going to end?

As a SharePoint architect, I weigh many aspects of the platform (and the client’s needs and capabilities) before formulating a solution. This has been – ahem – especially challenging as Microsoft sloooowly releases its “Modern” vision piecemeal.

Hub sites, Communication sites, modern team sites, modern lists, O365 Groups, Flow, PowerApps, SPFx web parts and extensions, Microsoft Teams….  and the tools to regulate, control and govern everything….  all in different states of readiness and maturity.

This drip, drip, drip of wonderfulness puts SharePoint architects and developers in a weird spot… titillating us with ooh-la-la “modern” features…  but making us wait… drip.. for feature gaps to close… drip… before using them.  Like you, I am reluctant to deploy yet another “classic” team site, create yet another custom MasterPage, design yet another SharePoint 2013 Workflow, as the “new” taunts me….  dares me… to “go modern”. But are we there yet?  No. Not yet. But almost.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing…  some modern goodness is ready now…  Microsoft Teams has “blown up” (popularity-wise, in a good way)…  and the “low code, no code” ways to extend it are terrific.  At Slalom (where I work as a Solution Principal in the Content & Collaboration practice in NYC), we’ve published a Slack vs Teams whitepaper that is extremely popular among our clients evaluating both.  And while Teams has caught fire in the last year, the recently released governance & compliance controls are only now allowing highly regulated industries to realistically consider adopting Teams.

Microsoft Flow is terrific…. I’ve used it for over a year now and use it whenever I can….  but there are many things it still cannot do (such as elevated permissions not tied down to a specific user, or long-running state-based workflows, to name two features Flow currently lacks), and I find myself “enhancing Flow” with the occasional SharePoint 2013 Designer workflow.

Modern SharePoint publishing disappoints me – in its current state – as I wait for the modern equivalent to classic page layouts, Master Pages, item scheduling, and a better way to control article/news metadata than the way explained here. And while the recently announced “News Approval” workflow is very important to some organizations, in practice, I found many organizations preferred to keep it simple and forgo the classic “approval workflow”, instead using just check-in, check-out and Major/Minor drafts with versioning.

I’d like to see a better way to schedule articles. In classic, the way this worked is that a background timer job changes an article from draft to published, or visa-versa – depending on the schedule. But to create an article archive for “no-longer published articles” that visitors could search for and re-read, the classic scheduling approach is bad, because when an article is in “draft mode”, it cannot be read by visitors. I’d prefer a “modern” approach that avoids this technique, so visitors can search and view an archive of old articles… OOTB. But I digress.

Microsoft Communication sites bring the “wow”. Just the other day, we created one for a client unaware of them. The client was resigned to getting a “classic” experience.  So we surprised them (not always a good idea, but OK in this case). In a short demo, I heard a half-dozen “awesomes” and several “wows”… all for only a few days of configuration (and some snazzy images). I want all my engagements to delight clients like that.

I think Communication sites make ideal Hub sites. The “hubiness” idea is not new with Modern SharePoint. Classic SharePoint has offered the “Portal Site Connection” feature going back at least to SharePoint 2007 MOSS.  But Modern Hubs are so much better.  We’ll get to that later.

Two more “classic features” awaiting modernization are Document Sets and Search. I don’t use Document Sets that often, but when I need them, they are terrific. I find them to be most useful in “lawyer-like” scenarios, where a “matter” is best handled with several documents that are related.  Document Sets allow all documents in a set to be auto-tagged with the same meta-data. And provide a logical grouping that is natural to “lawyer-like” scenarios.  Microsoft has promised to modernize the Document Set experience – BUT I’M STILL WAITING.

Search is the “SharePoint killer app” (MS Teams not withstanding)… and has been since SharePoint 2013. But in my experience over the years, many clients have not realized the value.  One reason is lack of what it can do, when properly configured. It requires expertise in several areas –  such as defining a metadata taxonomy and associated site columns and content types, configuring the search web parts and customizing Display Templates. These are all do-able, repeatable and don’t require a PhD.  At present, there are no modern search web part equivalents to the “classic” ones. I anxiously await their arrival. Until then, I’ll continue to build the “classic” search experience with a “classic” publishing site collection and “classic” search web parts. (By the way, this is not in lieu of using modern “delve-like” search experiences based on Microsoft Graph. The graph-based modern search experience fills a different niche – highly personalized and useful for discovering new – often unanticipated – search results.  The “classic” search experience will remain extremely valuable for “Knowledge Management” search experiences, where content is authoritative and curated, and users have a general idea of what they’re looking for, and seek authoritative results.

In upcoming articles, I’ll take a deeper look at many modern capabilities, highlight the gaps, and suggest work-arounds where possible.

So sit back and enjoy the ride.  And together we’ll answer  “Are we there yet?”


Modern SharePoint Information Architecture

pnp-hub sites

I found this slide (from Vesa Juvonen’s March 2018 PnP video on SharePoint Hub Sites video presentation)  to be a good illustration of the new, modern direction for SharePoint site IA. It stresses a “flat-earth” approach for modern site collections… dispensing of site collection sub-sites in the name of O365 performance, and the flexibility and ease of making and breaking site associations between hubs and root-site site collections.

Notice the black-pentagons in the diagram…  for those scenarios where “classic” site collections need sub-sites.  I do think there remain scenarios for these until modern sites fill the gaps….  scenarios where search sites, record centers and departmental IA concerns (e.g. site collection specific site columns, Content Types, search, document sets, etc) are required.

Interestingly….  2 hours after I published this, Microsoft released a Hub Planning Guide.  After a quick read, I think many (but not all) of the ideas in the guide are reasonable. I’ll have more to say about this soon.

Was waiting for async/await worth it?

I read once that async and await were coming to ES2015 (ES6) and thought “hmm…   that’s nice – call me when it works in ES5.” Time passed. Then Microsoft announced TypeScript 1.7 support for async/await –  but only for ES2015 or above. More time passed. Then recently, Hell froze over and ES5 support arrived with TypeScript 2.1.

Prior to async/await, I used jQuery “Deferreds” to manage asynchronous function calls. My needs were simple – typically requiring one asynchronous function call. Sometimes, two – called sequentially or in parallel. In all cases, jQuery “Deferreds” met my needs.

But I could never remember the intricacies of these jQuery “Deferreds”. Anytime I needed to work with asynchronous functions, I had to review – once more – how Promises worked, how to chain together two function calls, how to handle errors.

I wondered, would async/await make asynchronous programming easier? The logic clearer? The error-handling better? I investigated. And here is what I found.

Yes, async/await does make asynchronous function call error-handling easier to understand, and easier to implement. And I found that async/await makes it easier to know which code fragments will “run now” versus those that will “run later”.

But async/await doesn’t remove your need to know what promises are, and how to use them. And I did not experience a significant reduction in lines of code after refactoring some legacy code to use async/await. And you can abandon all hope of trying to understand the ES5 code generated from the async/await statements, unless you’re a masochist (or work on the TypeScript team). The Typescript transpiler literally vomits bizarre ES5 code… bearing no semblance to the original TypeScript source. So you absolutely need to use Source Maps for debugging, and trust that Microsoft got the transpilation right. But I trust they did and I like debugging with Source Maps (as long as the output isn’t minified) so that I can follow the TypeScript code I wrote and not the JavaScript code emitted.

(Incidentally, you will benefit greatly if you understand how JavaScript uses a single threaded event loop in conjunction with a message queue to process “run now” and “run later” code fragments. There are many good articles explaining the details… just search on ‘JavaScript single threaded event loop’).

If you recall from my last blog post, I inquired if async/await reduced the number of lines of code in my jQuery “Deferred” code (and as mentioned above, the answer is “yes”). But there are additional benefits – better syntax, better error-handling – which make async/await a must going forward.

Let me show you two simple examples I used to explore the goodness of async/await. In the first example, I used a classic “Promises-only” approach (well… classic for me, anyway). The second example uses async/await.

Example 1 – Calling two asynchronous functions using Promises

Here is the first example (the VS Code project files are here). It consists of two asynchronous functions, asynch1 and asynch2, and a function that calls them sequentially and another function that calls them in parallel.

The getAsyncDataSequentially function calls asynch1 and waits for it to return before calling asynch2, and then waits for asynch2 to return before proceeding. This is the classic “sequential” pattern.

The getAsyncDataInParallel function calls asynch1 and then – without waiting – calls asynch2 allowing both asynchronous functions to execute in parallel, and waits for both to return before proceeding. This is the classic “parallel” pattern.

Note that asynch1 and asynch2 are identical, except for their name, and the duration of their setTimeout delays. They simulate asynchronous ajax functions that take different amounts of time to complete.


I’m not going to delve into the mechanics of how all this works, since I expect you’ve already used these patterns yourself. But you may not be familiar with the import statement at the top

import "es6-promise"
This is needed to bring in the ES5 “Promise” polyfill (and described nicely here).

With a “Promises only” approach, you use .then to resolve a promise, and .catch to handle errors. These add considerable complexity to the getAsyncDataSequentially function, due to the need to nest them. The getAsyncDataInParallel function is less complex because we don’t need to nest .then and .catch.

Example 2 – Calling two asynchronous functions using async/await

Example 2 (the VS Code project files are here) refactors Example 1 to use async/await. I was expecting syntactic miracles with async/await… hoping they’d remove the need for Promises. But it was magical thinking on my part. Promises are still needed in the asynchronous functions. So asynch1 and asynch2 don’t get refactored.  The refactoring is with getAsyncDataSequentially and getAsyncDataInParallel – the functions that call asynch1 and asynch2. This was a surprise.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of getAsyncDataSequentially – before and after using async/await… so you can see for yourself:


To my eyes…  async/await (on the right) cleans up the code (on the left) beautifully. In the refactored code, error-handling is exclusively try/catch. And 10 lines of code were eliminated. These benefits – cleaner code, better error-handling – convinced me to use async/await going forward.

Here’s getAsyncDataInParallel – before and after:


The refactoring didn’t reduce the code… but I still like the improved try/catch error-handling. I also like the cleaner semantics.  In the example on the left, the statement on line 84:
console.log("3") ;

executes before the .then block. But not the async/await code on the right. It will pause at the await statement, and proceed only after the asynchronous calls complete (with or without an error).  I found this much more intuitive.

Feel free to try out the examples yourself (I’ve configured a launch.json file so you can execute & debug them from within VS Code).

In my last blog post, I promised to refactor my Client Side Rendering example to see if async/await improved the code.  It did…  consistent with the examples above. The VS Code files are here.

Here is a comparison of using jQuery Deferreds vs ES2015 Promises in the getRoles asynchronous function:


I replaced the jQuery “Deferred” statements with “real Promises”. Other than that, the code remained the same.

The bigger change was in the postProcessEditForm function, which calls two asynchronous functions using a parallel pattern:


Both of the postProcessEditForm functions above call two asynchronous functions – GetRoles and GetCTMemberValues – “in parallel”,  pausing until both return. The jQuery “Deferred” version uses $.when to pause, the async/await version uses await.

I didn’t use error-handling in the jQuery Deferred version (no reason not to, I merely left it out of the example), but I used try/catch with the async/await version, and I find it easy to understand.

In Conclusion…

I heartily recommend using async/await and real “ES2015 Promises” in place of jQuery “Deferreds”. They make your code cleaner, and the error-handling better. And you will get the benefit of less code if you need to chain several asynchronous functions sequentially.

You’ll continue to need Promises… async/await requires them.

In my next blog post, I’ll see if the latest PnP JS Core JavaScript library  can simplify my code more than async/await did. From what I heard, it has functions for calling the SharePoint REST API without the need for Promises or async/await.

Stay tuned.

Is TypeScript worth the bother for SharePoint JavaScript snippets?


With the SharePoint Framework and other JavaScript Frameworks (React, Angular, VueJS, Aurelia) all the rage, and Typescript (and Babel) bringing C#-like capabilities to JavaScript … does it still make sense to write “raw JavaScript” (ES5) for SharePoint customizations? You know what I’m talking about…  those small snippets of JavaScript you’ve embedded within Script Web Parts, or linked to from Content Editor Web Parts, or injected into a SharePoint page via JSLink. You’ve been following the latest technical advancements with tooling, keeping abreast of TypeScript and ECMAScript advancements. Perhaps taken some online training. But still, you’ve hung back .. stayed in your comfort zone with JavaScript. And you’ve wondered… do the benefits of TypeScript – with its static type checking, ES2015 language enhancements, and advanced language features like async/await – outweigh the hassle of setting up a “build” process for transpilation, bundling and minification – for relatively small amounts of JavaScript?

(Note…  if you’ve been out of JavaScript development for a year, then this article is required reading before proceeding further.  Special thanks to Eric Maffei for bringing it to my attention)

I decided to investigate. And for a test case, I chose an example from an actual project, but simplified for this article. The JavaScript example I chose uses Client Side Rendering (CSR) to provide “field-level permissions” for items in a custom list.  CSR was introduced by Microsoft a few years ago as a way to control – via client side JavaScript – the rendering of list views and list item forms.  I’ve found CSR especially useful for manipulating field controls on the New/Edit/View forms of SharePoint custom lists.  Essentially, CSR allows for custom “field-level” permissions.

(I often hear “CSR” confused with “JSLink”. They are not the same.  “CSR” is a Microsoft-supplied SharePoint framework for allowing developers to customize fields within lists and forms. “JSLink” refers to a new string property exposed in list and form web parts to allow CSR JavaScript files to be injected into the page that is rendering the list or form.)

The chosen example contains almost 300 lines of ES5 code, and uses two popular JavaScript libraries – jQuery (for DOM manipulation and Ajax calls) and KnockOutJS (for field validation and display). After converting the example to TypeScript, using several TypeScript-specific language features, experimenting with various “build process” tool chains, and examining the debugging experience, what is my conclusion?

TypeScript is worth the effort (for 300 lines of code definitely… 30 lines of code… maybe not).  Especially if you’re starting from scratch. Converting the JavaScript to TypeScript was easy, and went quickly. And by “convert”, I mean using classes and type annotations and namespaces and a few other TypeScript features. During the conversion, I half-expected to see lots of TypeScript bugs, but that didn’t happen – probably because the JavaScript had already been thoroughly tested and debugged (that was a first…. being disappointed to not see bugs). But in fairness, TypeScript didn’t drastically simplify the code, or reduce the number of lines of code. With only 300 lines of (dare I say) well-crafted code to start with, TypeScript language improvements could only go so far. So, you ask, why my favorable conclusion?

For one thing, TypeScript eliminated several traditional JavaScript “gotchas” that tend to blow-up at runtime. You know the usual suspects – bugs arising from JavaScript hoisting “var” declarations you placed in a block deep down inside a function, and bugs from using “==” instead of “===”. TypeScript can eliminate them easily (for example, using let instead of var eliminates hoisting bugs). Also, TypeScript helps clarify the code. TypeScript type annotations –  while providing the wonderful benefit of “transpile-time” type checking – improves code “readability” by making variables, function parameters and function return types explicit.  So the developer maintaining your code immediately knows your intentions rather than having to infer it. Additionally, TypeScript classes provide that “Object-Oriented” expressiveness I sorely missed with JavaScript. Interestingly, the latest version of TypeScript (2.2.2 as I write this) boasts the ability to transpile asynch/await statements to ES5 (previous versions were restricted to ES2015 and above), and using asynch/await did simplify my example’s ajax calls somewhat – but not enough to declare them a “must use” feature.

Ok…  so TypeScript offers these nice features (and many more I haven’t touched on here). But what about the hassle of creating a “tool chain” for transpiling, bundling and minifying that TypeScript code?

To my surprise, establishing a tool chain wasn’t too much hassle. It’s largely a “one-time cost” in the initial setup… knowing which node.js npm packages to assemble and configure. But once that’s figured out… the tool chain is easily re-used on other projects.  During my investigation, I used two popular “tool chains” – Gulp with Browserify, and webpack. (Spoiler alert… I found webpack to be the better approach).

So yes, I think TypeScript is worth the effort even for small amounts of JavaScript code – for the likely chance it will catch bugs earlier in development, improve code readability, and allow for more elegant code abstractions.  For larger amounts of code, TypeScript is a no-brainer.  If only because of the immense advantages of using ES2015 modules to break the code into manageable pieces (demonstrated in this article – admittedly somewhat artificially – by importing jQuery and KnockOut).

If you’re interested in the details of my investigation, please read on. We’ll take a quick look at the example EditForm.aspx page I “modified” with the CSR script, look at some of the TypeScript conversions used, discuss my experience with the two tool chains and debugging experience, and conclude with some final observations.

The Clean Team Form example

Here’s some context about our example.

The ACME Crime Labs corporation uses SharePoint Online to collaborate on criminal investigations. For each investigation, a custom site is provisioned, containing a custom list – CTMembers – for detectives and aides of a “Clean Team” crime unit (“Clean” means the members have no conflicts of interest to the crime investigation). Clean Team members can request access to a secure data room containing highly confidential documents. In our example, we have a CTMembers list with two items… I mean, two detectives – Robert and duke:


The list has a “Person” column and a “Yes/No” column for Data Room Access:


Clean Team members can only edit their own “Needs Data Room Access” setting (I said this example was simplified), unless they are site “Owners”. Owners can edit anyone.

Robert is a site “Owner”. Duke is not. Here is what they see when attempting to edit a member:

Duke cannot edit Robert (“Save” button and checkbox are disabled):

Duke can edit himself:

Robert can edit himself:

Robert can edit Duke:

Duke can check only his own checkbox, while Robert can check anyone’s – since Robert is a site owner and Duke isn’t. The “field-level” permissions that control this edit behavior is implemented with CSR in under 300 lines of JavaScript.  (If you want to learn more about CSR, here’s a nice example by my friend and colleague Javed Ansari.  For CSR fundamentals, go here ).

Getting the CSR script into the EditForm.aspx page (along with the jQuery and Knockout libraries) is easy. I put them in a Site Assets library within the site collection – and “inject them” into the page via the JSLink property in the EditForm.aspx web part tool pane:


To get all three JavaScript files injected via the JSLink property… I concatenated the URLs with a vertical separator character ‘|’, like this:

https://…/SiteAssets/CSR.js | https://…/SiteAssets/jQuery.js | https://…/SiteAssets/knockout.js

[I prefer SharePoint Designer to set the JSLink property – it’s easier than navigating the SharePoint UI].

My dev/test/deploy cycle is straightforward:  Edit the CSR JavaScript with VS Code, copy it to SharePoint, debug in Chrome.  Wash, rinse and repeat.

With only 300 lines of JavaScript code to deal with, this “application life cycle” is not terrible… nor is the debugging too bad (I’m particularly fond of Chrome Developer Tools for debugging). But it took many cycles to ensure the JavaScript code was solid.

Some Easy-Peezee TypeScript Refactoring

So what magic can TypeScript bring to this party? And what is the least amount of effort needed to configure the VS Code editor for TypeScript – no Gulp, no Browserify, no webpack. (Bowden Kelly, Program Manager for Visual Studio, gave an excellent talk  on this very topic). But I had to see for myself, so here’s what I did.

“No Tool Chain” VS Code Configuration for TypeScript
(Effort: 5 minutes)

There are tons of examples for how to configure VS Code for TypeScript with a “build” tool chain to transpile/bundle/minify.  I wanted none of it… just VS Code (on my PC) and TypeScript. Here are the steps:

  1. From the integrated terminal prompt within vscode:
    • Type “npm init” (use all the defaults) to create and initialize package.json.
    • Add the following tsconfig.json file to the folder:fig04a
  1. Add the JavaScript file “js” to the top folder and change the extension from “.js” to “.ts”.
  2. Type CTRL-SHIFT-B to compile (transpile) “ts”. The first time you do this, you’ll be prompted to configure a task runner:

Go ahead and click “Configure Task Runner”, and then click the menu option for “TypeScript – tsconfig.json” :


This creates a tasks.json file.

  1. Type CTRL-SHIFT-B again – the task runner invokes tsc.exe (the TypeScript compiler) and transpiles “CTMemberEditFormCSR.ts“, outputting “CTMemberEditFormCSR.js” to the “dist” folder, and places the TypeScript compiler into watch-mode (I’m assuming much of this is familiar to you).

Here is a screenshot after the initial transpilation:


Wow… look at those errors.  The “Cannot find name…” errors are because TypeScript doesn’t know about jQuery, KnockOutJS, and SharePoint (e.g. SP.js). So let’s fix that.

5. Add Type Declarations for External Libraries

To be clear… I don’t want to download and bundle jQuery and KnockOutJS with my code. Those libraries are already deployed to SharePoint (and “included” in the SharePoint page via JSLink). I just want their TypeScript declarations so VS Code can provide Intellisense for them. According to Marius Schulz (one of my favorite TypeScript bloggers):

In TypeScript 2.0, it has become significantly easier to acquire type information for JavaScript libraries. There’s no longer a need for additional tools such as typings or tsd. Instead, type declaration packages are directly available on npm.

So to obtain the JavaScript TypeScript declarations for these libraries, I typed these npm commands in the VS Code terminal window:

npm install –save @types/jQuery
npm install –save @types/knockout
npm install –save @types/sharepoint

This created a node_modules folder and downloaded the declaration files into it and updates the project.json file (you may need to restart vscode to see the changes). For an in-depth discussion on this “typings” goodness, see Marius’s excellent blog.

At this point, VS Code can transpile my one TypeScript file to ES5 JavaScript, and the resulting JavaScript code is identical to the TypeScript code, except that it has been stripped of all blank lines.

Here are the files for VS Code.

This setup took about 5 minutes, so not too annoying. And now I’m ready to investigate the pros and cons of TypeScript. There are 5 areas I specifically wanted to refactor in my example code:

  1. Replace IIFE with a namespace
  2. Replace var with let
  3. Remove implicit casts
  4. add type annotations
  5. replace object literals with static classes

So without further ado, here are the results:

Refactoring – Replacing the IIFE with a namespace (Effort: 20 seconds)

I replaced the JavaScript IFFE (Immediately Invoked Function Expression) – a hideous ES5 mechanism for keeping variables out of the global JavaScript namespace – with a respectable TypeScript “namespace”.

That is, I replaced this:

//  IIFE

(function () {
all code goes here...

with this:

namespace myCTMemberEditFormCSR
all code goes here...

Refactoring – Replacing var with let (Effort:  20 seconds)

JavaScript variables declared with var are scoped to the nearest enclosing function – and not the nearest enclosing block, always leaving me with that sneaking suspicion a bug may be lurking in my ES5 code. I much prefer let, which scopes variables to the nearest enclosing block – like C# declarations. In fact, I see no reason to ever use var when let is available. So I replaced all occurrences of var with let in the example

Refactoring – Remove Implicit Cast (Effort: 5 seconds)

I had been relying on the implicit casting behavior of the ‘==’ in ES5 to logically compare two numbers.  Here is the expression I was using:

// using "==" instead of "===" to cast string to number
(myCTMemberEditForm.CTMemberId == _spPageContextInfo.userId);

I was relying on the implicit casting behavior of the double ‘==’ in ES5 – a known source of errors in ES5 if used without awareness of this behavior, and the reason for many “Best Practice” recommendations to avoid it in favor of the triple ‘===’, which doesn’t cast.  Typescript will have none of this implicit casting nonsense and require you be explicit.  Hence the need to tack toString() on the end of the _spPageContextInfo.userId  ‘number’ variable in order to work with TypeScript:

(myCTMemberEditForm.CTMemberId == _spPageContextInfo.userId.toString());

Refactoring – Replacing Object Literals with Static Classes
(Effort: 10 minutes)

I often use JavaScript object literals as singletons to organize my code. These are “sort of” analogous to C# static class instance singletons. They do a decent job of making the code easier to read by grouping functions and variables that logically belong together. In the example, you’ll notice two “object literal singletons” –
loggedInUser (representing the user who is editing the form) and myCTMemberEditForm (representing the form and its field controls.)

By refactoring them into TypeScript classes with static properties and methods… we get the additional benefits of static type checking. So let’s do that.

Here’s the original:

var loggedInUser = loggedInUser || {};
loggedInUser.IsCTMember = false;
loggedInUser.IsSiteOwner= false;

And here’s the refactored version:

class loggedInUser
static IsCTMember: boolean  = false;
static IsSiteOwner: boolean = false;

By annotating each member variable with a type, my intentions are explicit. And VS Code warns if there is a type mismatch, with visual “squiggles” in the editor.

Babel – another popular transpiler – does not offer type annotations. Babelites tout this as a benefit… because Babel can determine types by analyzing the code. TypeScript also does this in the absence of type annotations.  And this can be helpful in certain instances –  like when it’s too painful to figure out the proper type for a complex JSON string (similar to using var in C# to handle LINQ results). But in general, I prefer TypeScript annotations to make my intentions explicit, for better readability. But that’s just my opinion.

One thing I noticed while refactoring the “object literal singletons” into classes is how I had sprinkled declarations throughout the code, rather than in one place. In retrospect, this makes the JavaScript harder for someone else to understand. TypeScript classes tighten this up, improving readability.

Refactoring – Annotating the CSR object literal (effort: 1 hour)

When using CSR, you create a CSR “Template Override” object literal and initialize it with various callback functions. I wanted to annotate the object, and the callbacks.  It took significant effort. For example, I changed this:

var overrideCtx= {};

To this:

let overrideCtx: SPClientTemplates.TemplateOverridesOptions = {};

It was difficult locating the correct annotations… especially for the nested types within overrideCtx. In particular, it took me awhile to figure out that the correct function parameter used for overrideCtx.OnPostRender is:

static OnPostRenderFunc (ctx:SPClientTemplates.RenderContext_Form)

I suppose if I were doing many CSR scripts, this would be less of a burden, but for a one-off… it was a chore achieving this level of Typescript perfection.

Debugging TypeScript

It is comforting to debug in TypeScript. If you’re familiar with debugging JavaScript in Chrome – it’s almost identical.  You set your breakpoints in a TS file (you can also add a “debugger” statement in TS, just as you would in JS, and the Chrome debugger will pause when it hits it.) and away you go.

To get this to work, I needed to do three things:

  1. Set “sourceMap” to true in the tsconfig.json file
  1. Copy the transpiled output (and source map) to SharePoint. In my example, I copied them here:
  2. Copy the original typescript file to SharePoint, with the same folder hierarchy used in VS Code. So here it is in SharePoint:


Bring in the Chains

You are probably using a more sophisticated “build” process (“tool chain”) for client-side development than what I’ve demonstrated so far. But really, is that needed here? In my opinion, perhaps not needed, but recommended. The hassle of configuring a more advanced build process is mostly a “one time” cost assembling the right combination of node.js npm packages to perform transpilation, bundling and minification tasks. And orchestrating those tasks. Once you’ve figured that out…. the tooling is easily re-used in subsequent projects.

I investigated two of the most popular “tool chains” to compare the effort needed to set them up, and to offer my advice choosing one over the other.

If you’ve been following the changes with client side tooling, you’ll know change is a constant. Within the last 18 months, I’ve personally used Grunt, then Gulp, then npm scripts, and experienced the joys of ES2015 modules and how best to link modules together, starting with runtime (dynamic) linking with loaders like SystemJS and JSPM, before switching to build-time (static) linking with bundlers like Browserify, and more recently, webpack. I see no end to the churn.

I suppose a tool chain might be overkill for one TypeScript file since there’s nothing to bundle. But then again, it might be nice to package up everything –  the TypeScript file + libraries – into a single bundle.js file. Here’s the idea graphically:

bundling workflowThe “Browserify Tool Chain” required several npm packages, a simplified tsconfig.json file, and gulp to co-ordinate the transpilation, bundling and minification tasks. The three files that control it all are shown below (and familiar if you’ve used gulp before):


To separate my TypeScript file from these “controlling” files, I placed the TypeScript file into a src folder.  Here is the new folder structure in vscode:


I admit my “Browserify” configuration is not optimal…  but my objective was to judge the effort to configure a “traditional front-end build process”. And so, while it’s more complex than before… it didn’t take too long to throw this together. Type “gulp” at a terminal prompt… and watch gulp do its thing.

I was disappointed in minification, however (which is why I commented out the minification step on line 25 in gulpfile.js. And minification isn’t going to do much with 300 lines anyway). The Browserify “Uglifier” severely degraded the runtime debugging experience in Chrome….   I couldn’t set breakpoints on every line nor reliably single-step through the minified code. So I recommend not minifying your transpiled TypeScript code.  And sure, I could optimize my Browserify build process, but Browserify is – in my opinion – obsolete. I prefer webpack (webpack 2, actually).

Here are the files for the Browserify build.

Webpack is another popular tool for transpiling, bundling and minifying TypeScript. It’s been around for several years, but seems (to me) to have really taken off in the last year. No doubt webpack is already obsolete for some of you (rollup, anyone?), but I think webpack will remain very popular for the foreseeable future.

Some of the coolest webpack features have cool names – like “Hot Module Reloading” and “tree shaking”. Two benefits I particularly like are “no gulp needed” (self-explanatory), and “vendor code splitting” (webpack bundles can be split up – such that 3rd party libraries are bundled separately from application code).

I was disappointed to find debugging of webpack minified code remained problematic, so I omitted minification as before. A good work-around is to use “vendor code splitting” to separate jQuery & KnockOutJS from the TypeScript code, keeping the application code relatively small, while also providing a good debugging experience (maybe I’ll do that in another blog)

Here are the three files that control the “webpack 2 tool chain”:


And here is the file structure in VS Code:


Note the npm script (in package.json) named “build”. To kick-off the build, just type “npm run build” in a terminal window prompt.

Here are the files for the webpack build.

In Conclusion…

So is TypeScript worth it for relatively small amounts of JavaScript? For new snippets, yes… I think TypeScript is worth the effort (along with a re-usable build process). TypeScript will catch more bugs at “transpile time” (instead of at run-time). And TypeScript offers much better language abstractions to better model your application code, and the debugging experience (as long as you don’t minify it) is good. But it’s probably not worth the effort to convert existing snippets of JavaScript to TypeScript.

One area I didn’t cover in this blog… was how TypeScript might improve asynchronous REST calls with asynch/await. I’ll cover that in my next blog (sneak peek… it helped).  And I’ll also look at the new Microsoft PnP JavaScript library offerings – which do promise (pun intended) to greatly simplify the asynchronous REST calls (especially PUT).

Happy Coding.