April 04, 2013, 10:41 AM — Call it the SharePoint crawl.
Professional Healthcare Resources, a home healthcare and hospice company based in Annandale, Va., had been running SharePoint since December 2007. At first, PHR used the collaboration system to house contact lists, weather information and office announcements. But the platform soon saw increased activity: Human resources began storing most of its forms and documents on SharePoint, while IT launched a help desk ticketing system.
As the amount of content grew, employees bumped up against performance issues. Users searching for data on SharePoint reported wait times of one minute or longer. "It became very slow," notes Hussein Sh-Ibrahim, director of IT at PHR. "I had to find where the bottleneck was coming from."
PHR's experience is not uncommon. SharePoint installations may start life as workgroup systems, but they typically don't stay that way. Other departments find new ways to take advantage of the system. The number of users grows, the data housed in SharePoint expands and performance often suffers. That's a particularly worrisome development for business-critical deployments.
Glacial search times aren't the only consideration for expanding SharePoint systems. Other growing pains include slow document upload and download times, long backup windows, and latency headaches for remote users.
"I would attribute a lot of those issues to suboptimal design and suboptimal infrastructure," says Kenneth Lo, CEO of Kattelo Consulting, a San Francisco-based company that provides SharePoint consulting services and runs its own business on the technology. "When the foundation is shaky, it's hard to build a big house on top of that."
Storage Adversely Affects SharePoint Performance
When SharePoint performance problems surface, storage frequently takes the blame. User demand may overwhelm storage-and SharePoint's underlying SQL Server database isn't designed for the unstructured data that organizations seek to distribute, industry executives contend.
Storage turned out to be the root problem at PHR. Sh-Ibrahim's SharePoint troubleshooting considered the network, server and storage. The problem came down to slow hard drive response time. PHR initially stored SharePoint data in internal storage, but later moved the data to a storage-area network (SAN). Last year, the company began considering storage workarounds from Dell EqualLogic and smaller players such as Astute Networks and Nimble Storage.
During these discussions, Sh-Ibrahim learned that many companies were moving to flash solid-state drives as a more-responsive alternative to traditional hard drives. He found price to be an issue, as other IT managers exploring flash storage have discovered. The Astute ViSX flash-storage appliance, however, provided to be more cost effective, Sh-Ibrahim says.
PHR moved its SharePoint server to the ViSX hardware and the performance bottleneck disappeared. "We don't have complaints about system slowness," Sh-Ibrahim says. "I can focus on other projects."
Jim Bahn, senior product marketing manager with Astute Networks, said the task of tuning SharePoint storage for the best performance can prove vexing. "There are tables and indexes and files that are specific to SharePoint and...SQL Server that people spend a lot of time tweaking in order to get the best performance they can," he says.
The trick is to place the various SharePoint components on the most advantageous storage tier. SharePoint transaction logs, for example, generally become a choke point and should reside on the fastest storage medium, Bahn explains. (This optimization approach, however, assumes organizations have well-trained database administrators with the time to juggle SharePoint storage.)
The level of complexity grows when storage is relocated to a storage network for greater performance. "There are 200 things you can tweak on the storage side," Bahn says. "Frankly, it's kind of a dark science. It's very hard to solve the storage network problem."
Forrester: SharePoint Faces Challenging Future
PHR, meanwhile, didn't have an army of IT people to throw at SharePoint storage, Bahn points out, noting that ViSX is geared toward mid-sized and smaller companies.
"They wanted to basically push a button and have the problem go away," he says. "The simplest way is to put the SharePoint application on the fastest storage device you can."
Other Paths to Peak SharePoint Performance
Astute Networks offers flash appliances to get the job done. But there are other ways around the SharePoint storage obstacle.
Kattelo Consulting uses Metalogix Software's StoragePoint and recommends it to customers with growing SharePoint deployments.
Lo says his 20-person company runs on SharePoint, which houses project schedules, task lists, client deliverables and training videos, among other items. StoragePoint offloads that content to a file server. StoragePoint takes Binary Large Objects (BLOBs) out of SharePoint's SQL Server databases and shuttles them to external storage devices. The product takes advantage of Microsoft's Remote Blob Store (RBS) APIs that permits BLOB storage outside the SQL Server database storage.
Moving unstructured data to external storage via RBS leaves organizations with only a small SQL Server content database for storing metadata, Lo says. "There's a very minimal footprint in SQL, and the majority of the files and workload is offloaded to the file servers."
Jignesh Shah, chief strategy and marketing officer at Metalogix, says organizations encounter performance issues in connection with rapidly expanding content. He notes that customers, on average, experience a content growth rate of 75% year over year.
"Even if you have a very well-tuned SharePoint infrastructure," he says, "the amount of content that people are pumping into SharePoint leads to a variety of problems."
Among those are backup times. Shah says backing up multiple terabytes of content takes several hours. As a consequence, a user who wants to restore data may discover that eight hours of content has not been backed up.
Metalogix offers a Replicator product that lets customers periodically replicate content to an offsite location or the cloud.) Lo notes that Kattelo uses Replicator to send data to a site in the Midwest-far from the Bay Area fault line. "Because the entire project lifecycle is in SharePoint, this is really a mission-critical system for us," Lo says. "We cannot afford any downtime."
Indeed, high availability is emerging as a SharePoint concern as more content gravitates to a single system.
"Customers can't afford to have all of the data, which now becomes sort of a central point in the enterprise, sitting on a single server as a kind of sitting duck to be shot," says Momchil "Memo" Michailov, co-founder and CEO of Sanbolic, which makes software for clustered SQL Server deployments. "It's not a question of if a server is going to fail, it's a question of when."
Sniffing Out SharePoint Performance Problems
Identifying the specific performance issues with SharePoint presents a challenge, given the infrastructure components involved. Some customers are now using application performance management (APM) tools to zero in on problem areas that impede smooth operations.
Winebow, a Montvale, N.J. wine importer, started using ExtraHop Networks APM technology late last year. Daniel Basile, IT help desk manager at Winebow, say ExtraHop has helped the company uncover database issues impacting SharePoint.
Winebow, at one point, was running SQL Server (for the SharePoint database), Microsoft Dynamics and a Symantec Enterprise Vault database on the same server. Winebow found that Symantec Enterprise Vault was generating error messages and decided to move the system off the server and onto another machine.
Moving Symantec to its own SQL Server improved SharePoint performance. Winebow got another boost when ExtraHop helped uncover a problem with its SharePoint application server. Office documents were taking 30 seconds to a minute to open. That issue was traced to antivirus software running on the same server and exclusions not being set correctly. "ExtraHop...helped put us in the right direction to where the problem was coming from," Basile says.
Erik Geisa, senior vice president for marketing at ExtraHop, suggests that such insight will become increasingly important now that SharePoint is central to how some enterprises operate. He said corporate constituents from HR to product development are rolling out the technology: "SharePoint grows like a weed."
The task for IT managers is to make sure SharePoint doesn't grow out of control, hindering the very productivity it intends to foster.
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 20 years. His areas of focus include mobile app development, health IT, cloud computing, government IT and distribution channels. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.
Read more about collaboration in CIO's Collaboration Drilldown.