Plan your upgrade to SharePoint Online 2013

Once your Office365 subscription has been upgraded to the 2013 experience, the only obvious difference is that the tenant admin site collection reflects the new tenant admin experience. At this point, the administrators of your tenancy have options on how and when to approach the upgrade and whether to execute the upgrades or allow site collection admins to perform the upgrades on their site collections.

The upgrade process consists of 5 general steps as shown here:

Basic steps for upgrading sites to Office 365

This document covers the first step, planning, and provides guidance on how to approach the upgrade process. It describes the options available to assist you in managing the experience and refers you to other articles in the upgrade series for procedural steps.

Plan site collection version and upgrade settings

There are many new features in SharePoint Online 2013 that allow the site collection admins to control the timing and execution of the upgrade for a specific site collection. While this is useful and helpful in the vast majority of situations, there are times when the tenant admin may want to control this process more granularly.

Although tenant admins can upgrade all site collections immediately using PowerShell or the tenant admin user interface, we do not recommend it, particularly in large tenancies, for the following reasons:

  • You risk that some sites have unforeseen issues that could create or prolong an outage due to incompatibility with customizations made in 2010 experience that must be reworked to operate in the 2013 experience.
  • A high volume of issues could arrive at your helpdesk or troubleshooting process when users start to work with upgraded sites at the same time.

When a SharePoint Online upgrade is available for a site collection, the site collection admin will be notified via status bar. He or she can choose to upgrade the site collection right away or be reminded later. Tenant admins who want to maintain tight control overs site collection upgrades can disable the upgrade notification and the ability for site collection admins to upgrade their site collections. The benefit is that it would allow for thorough testing prior to upgrade. However, if the tenancy includes many site collections or if the site collections have minimal customizations applied, it’s best to leave the upgrade evaluation and testing to site collection admins.

To disable upgrade settings for all site collections:

  1. Sign in to Office 365.
  2. Go to Admin > SharePoint > Settings.
  3. In the Global Experience Version Settings section, select Allow creation of old version site collections, but prevent creation of new version site collections. Prevent opt-in upgrade to the new version site collections.
  4. Click OK.

To disable upgrade settings for individual site collections:

  1. Sign in to Office 365.
  2. Click Admin > SharePoint > Site Collections.
  3. Select a site collection.
  4. In the ribbon, click Upgrade > Site collection upgrade settings.
  5. In Allow Upgrade, choose No.
  6. Click Save.

About site collection versions (modes)

In order to make it possible to upgrade site collections separately from upgrading content databases, SharePoint Online 2013 introduces the concept of site collection "modes" (also known as compatibility levels or versions). In SharePoint Online, your content databases are upgraded for you. Site collections are in 2010 mode in the new environment until they are specifically upgraded to 2013 mode. You can create new site collections in either mode. Although tenant admins can configure this setting, the default setting is to create sites in 2010 mode. When a site collection is in 2010 mode, the user interface resembles the SharePoint Online 2010 interface, and only features that were available in SharePoint 2010 are enabled. In 2013 mode, the interface and features are updated to SharePoint Online 2013.

 Important    Before upgrading your site collections, you have to make sure that any custom components are available for both site modes. For more information about testing customizations before upgrading a site collection, see Customized files found during site collection health check.

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Identify customizations in your environment

New in SharePoint Online 2013 is the ability to run a health check on existing site collections and create evaluation sites in a 2013 preview environment as a way of identifying and evaluating any customizations, incompatibilities, or rendering issues that should be addressed prior to upgrade.

As part of the upgrade planning and testing process, you should create an inventory of the customizations in your environment (solutions, Web Parts, master pages, page layouts, CSS files, and so on). You can get a list of the files that have been unghosted (changed from their original default state) in a site collection by running a site collection health check before upgrading a site collection. The health check will not tell you anything about new files or changed settings that can affect the visual customizations of the site, such as themes, CSS, master pages, JavaScript, etc. For more information about site collection health checks, see Upgrade a site collection.

Here are common things to look for when creating your inventory and running the health check. After you have identified all customizations in your site collection, create an evaluation site and test them in the new environment.

 Note    While reviewing customizations in your environment make sure that the environment is not using any features or elements that are deprecated in the latest upgrade. For more information, see Discontinued features and modified functionality in Microsoft SharePoint 2013.

Customization type Recommendation
Branded sites

Branding includes:

  • applying a custom style sheet to your site that overrides the SharePoint default styles
  • applying a custom theme (THMX file) to your site
  • copying and modifying the SharePoint default master page
  • creating a completely new custom master page in a publishing site, where the custom master page uses custom styles and is referenced by custom page layouts

During an upgrade from SharePoint Online 2010 to SharePoint Online 2013, all site collections will convert to the new 2013 master page. Any master page customizations you had in 2010 will be lost. Therefore, if you have branded your site in any of these ways, you must plan to re-create your custom branding by using the new styles, themes, or master pages available in SharePoint Online 2013 and then apply the newly re-created design to the upgraded site collection. It is strongly recommended that you resist customizing the master page and use themes for branding instead. This way you can reduce the amount of potentially costly rework resulting from new features being rolled out in future upgrades. For more information about upgrading branded sites, see Branding issues that may occur when upgrading to SharePoint 2013.

Custom site templates If you have custom site templates (a site template that has been customized and saved as a WSP template) that you want to continue to use after your subscription has been upgraded to SharePoint Online 2013, then you must plan to recreate them SharePoint Online 2013 mode before upgrading your site collection. Re-creating is necessary because custom site templates are version specific and don’t always look or work the same way in subsequent versions. Furthermore, if you made various 2010 sites using a template they could all require manual adjustments to ensure they work and render properly in SharePoint Online 2013. For the steps to recreate your custom site templates in SharePoint Online 2013, see Upgrade site templates.
Data structure customization Data structure customizations include custom content types, lists types, and web templates. These customizations can affect upgrade if content or list type names conflict with new content or list types in the product, or if templates or definitions have been deprecated in the new version.
Web Parts Identify all custom Web Parts in your environment. Make note of any external data sources being used. Test to determine whether any actions are required. You might have to adjust the Web Parts to work with strict XHMTL mode. Test to verify that there have not been changes to any object models or Web services that you call from the Web Part. If a Web Part is located on a page but not in a Web Part Zone (so that it is, basically, HTML code embedded directly in a page), it will not work if you reset the page to the default template. There is a site collection health rule that will identify files in this status inside a site collection. There is a link from that rule to the page where they can reset to template.
Custom search solutions that use SQL syntax Search in SharePoint Online 2013 supports FQL syntax and KQL syntax for custom search solutions. You cannot use SQL syntax in custom search solutions using any technologies, including the query server object model, the client object model, and the Search REST service. Custom search solutions that use SQL syntax with the index server object model and the Query web service that were created in SharePoint Online 2010 will not work when you upgrade them to SharePoint Online 2013. Queries submitted via these applications will return an error. For more information about how to use FQL syntax and KQL syntax, see Keyword Query Language (KQL) syntax reference and FAST Query Language (FQL) syntax reference.
Workflows and server controls Depends on the solution. Contact the vendor to check for an updated solution. If a workflow is compatible with the new version, redeploy.
Event handler Most event handlers will continue to work without changes. However, if the code for the event handler makes calls to APIs which were deprecated, you should rewrite it, and then redeploy it as a feature.
Large lists Identify any large lists in your environment and the site admins who own them. New views or filters might be required to support large list query throttling in SharePoint Online 2013.
Sandbox solutions

Sandbox solutions are upgraded with the content databases and activated once upgrade is complete. If your solution includes customizations, however, you’ll need to evaluate them individually to ensure they work as expected in the new environment.

Note that code-based sandboxed solutions are still supported in SharePoint Online 2013 but, no further investments in that infrastructure are planned. We recommend you consider the Cloud App Model as an alternative. See What’s new for developers in SharePoint 2013 for information.

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Evaluate the customizations

Now that you know what customizations that you have, and what type that they are, you can decide what to do about them. The following questions can help you evaluate the customizations:

Is the customization still valuable?

  • Does it serve a useful business need?
  • Is it widely deployed and used?
  • Does it do something that you cannot do with standard features in the product?

Is the customization well-designed?


As you evaluate every customization, you can also think about your overall approach for customizations. You can choose from among these options:

Keep the customizations; don't upgrade the sites    You can continue to run the site in 2010 mode in the upgraded environment. Although you can use this approach to keep the same functionality, you will be unable to take advantage of the features and capabilities that are available in the new version. Use this approach only temporarily - eventually you must address the issue (such as before an upgrade to the next version of the product).

Replace or redo the customizations    If you want to use new functionality, plan to redesign your sites, or are significantly changing the information architecture, the upgrade is your opportunity to start over with new features, a new look, or a new organization. When you replace or redo customizations, you can take advantage of the new capabilities, change your design slightly if you want, or move to a more manageable design.

Discard the customizations    Replace the customizations by using default functionality. You can reset pages to the default site definitions and remove any Web Parts or features that you no longer want to support. In fact, the site collection health-checker checks for unghosted pages and can reset the pages to the default versions. If you decide to discard any customizations, you must fix any issues that result from removing the customizations in the sites that used them. You can use your customizations inventory to determine which sites require this kind of attention before or after upgrade.

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Ensure that future customizations follow best practices

Ensure that your environment performs well and follows best practices. Deploy only those customizations that follow the best practices as described in Plan customizations, solutions, and apps for SharePoint Online.

  • Avoid putting custom placeholders in your master page. In general, use themes instead of master page customizations whenever possible in order to avoid rework each time new features and upgrades are rolled out.
  • Rework custom client-side code solutions to take advantage of the new app model.
  • Use themes to enable implement custom branding. If you want to use custom branding, and if you want that branding to work after future upgrades, we recommend that you use themes to implement your design. Themes will have upgrade support when future updates occur to Office 365. If themes don’t work for your scenario or you require more extensive branding, we recommend using a publishing site with Design Manager. However, understand that if you invest in building custom master pages and page layouts, you may be required to rework or update your design files during and after each upgrade to Office 365.

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Train site collection admins

It is important to train site collection admins about how to upgrade their site collections and how to review their sites in an upgrade evaluation site collection. Educated users are prepared and know what to expect, which will minimize helpdesk support and frustrations.

Inform site collection admins about changes and new features. Also, let them know about possible issues that they can expect. For instance, they might have issues with customizations, such as pages that do not display correctly. For information about general upgrade issues, see Troubleshoot site collection upgrade issues.

Explain to site collection admins that their upgrade evaluation sites are temporary intended for testing purposes only, and that no content or other changes will persist to their upgraded sites. A notification bar in the preview site indicates the site is temporary.

We recommend that you create a plan and set a time limit for site collection admins to upgrade their sites. By default, each evaluation site will be deleted after 30 days so site collection admins should evaluate their sites and be prepared for upgrade within that timeframe. Ensure that you communicate the time limit to the users, and that they know that you can force through an upgrade of all sites.

It is important to tell site collection admins that as long as sites use the 2010 mode, new features will not be available. However, as soon as sites are upgraded to the new version, application features automatically appear.

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See also

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Applies to:
SharePoint Online Enterprise (E1), SharePoint Online Enterprise (E3 & E4), SharePoint Online Midsized Business, SharePoint Online operated by 21Vianet - Enterprise (E1 & E2), SharePoint Online operated by 21Vianet - Enterprise (E3 & E4), SharePoint Online operated by 21Vianet - Midsized Business