Upgrading from Classic to Modern SharePoint

Who says once you move into the cloud that upgrades and migrations can’t be fun? In this blog post I will discuss the advantages and challenges of upgrading from Classic to Modern SharePoint.

As a long time SharePoint admin I chat with other SharePoint admins around the water cooler and we discuss important matters like whether pleats are acceptable on khakis (turns out they aren’t), and what we seasoned admins will do once everyone has migrated away from SharePoint Server to the Shangri-La that is SharePoint Online. I assure them our skills are still needed and we have plenty of fun tech adventures ahead to look forward to.

One of the examples I give is the next SharePoint upgrade frontier; Classic to Modern SharePoint. Being an early adopter means getting the newest, coolest things first, which also brings the respect and admiration of your peers. But there’s a dark side to early adoption, too. You can get stuck in old tech when new tech comes along. In this blog post I’ll talk about what it means to be in Classic and how to bring the bliss of Modern SharePoint to your users. 

The first part of migrating from Classic to Modern SharePoint is understanding exactly what Modern is. In SharePoint Online there are three objects that can be Modern; lists, pages, and sites. And they all do it in different ways. Knowing which items you have that can be Modernized and how they get there helps you plan your migration more wisely. Let’s dig into each object that can be Classic or Modern and what that means for each. 

Modern SharePoint Lists

We’ll start our discussion of Classic vs. Modern SharePoint with the smallest and most understanding units, lists and libraries. Unlike the pages and sites we’re going to discuss later, lists and libraries aren’t Classic or Modern, per se, only the view of them is. Since the list or library itself doesn’t change during the Modernization process, you can change back to Classic any time if you get cold feet

New lists or libraries are created with that Modern shine, but if you need to switch them back to the Classic view you can. To do that go into the settings for the list or library, Advanced Settings, and hidden all the way at the bottom is “list experience”. You can select Classic, New (Modern), or the tenant default setting. Changing that setting doesn’t change any of the content of the list or library, only how it is presented in the browser. 

Modern SharePoint Lists Office patterns and practices

Image Credit: Microsoft.com

It stands to reason that upgrading existing Classic view lists and libraries to Modern is the same operation and it is just that easy. However, that technique doesn’t scale well. Later in this blog post I’ll cover some ways to reduce the burden of both discovering which lists or libraries need that switch flipped and flipping it.  

I’ve talked about Classic and Modern lists and libraries, but I haven’t covered what the differences are and why you’d want to go through all that hassle to move to Modern. You can think of the Classic look to be what we’ve had in SharePoint Server since SharePoint 2007 or so. There have been little tweaks here and there, but overall, if you used SharePoint 12 years ago you’ll feel right at home with the Classic lists and libraries in Office 365. Modern lists added some much-needed new functionality to the list viewing experience. 

This article on the Office Support site has a comprehensive list of the differences between the two. Some of my personal favorites are being able to pin documents to the top of the document library and how easy it is to slice and dice the contents easily with the filters, sorting, and resizing of columns that the Modern view lets you do on the fly. I’m also a fan of how easy Modern makes it to copy, move, and rename documents. Moving to Modern is a wise idea because that’s the future of lists and libraries in SharePoint Online and I’ll get all of the new functionality there.

Classic is like a time capsule. It doesn’t get any of the shiny new things that Modern does. The bottom of that article does mention a few features that only exist in Classic like JSLink code, ScriptBlock, and the much-maligned Ribbon. If any of those are important to you you’ll need to leave your lists in Classic mode until you can find a Modern way to get that functionality. But trust me, you want to upgrade to Modern. 

Modern SharePoint Pages 

The next type of Classic to Modern upgrade you can do in SharePoint Online is pages. For better or for worse, they’re less forgiving and flexible than their lists counterpart. Unlike lists and libraries, Classic pages can’t be transformed to fancy new Modern pages, nor can Classic pages be seen through Modern tinted glasses. Instead, Modern pages are created new and the content and configuration of a Classic page are copied there.

If the Classic page is a wiki page or a web parts page, they can be transformed to Modern pages pretty easily by creating new Modern pages and putting Modern web parts where the corresponding Classic web parts were. Classic publishing pages are a bit more of a challenge due to their complexity. But take heart, they can be transformed with the help of a mapping file. 

Since the Modernization of pages is so much more work than Modernizing lists and libraries there are various tools that can help you out. Each has its strengths and you’re able to mix and match the tools and use whichever one is best for the site or pages you’re transforming. The easiest to use is the SharePoint Page Transformation UI, currently in beta. The SPTUI is an open source community project hosted in GitHub.

Modern SharePoint Pages

Image Credit: support.office.com

After you deploy it, it adds a “Create Modern version” button in a Classic page’s ribbon. This creates a Modern version of the page and allows the user to keep it or discard it. This tool is a good fit for sites where the site owners can be responsible for upgrading their own pages. 

For bigger migrations, the Patterns and Practices PowerShell includes cmdlets that transform Classic pages to Modern. PowerShell is a little scary for end users, so these cmdlets are better suited for SharePoint admins. They allow automated transformation of pages and have support for Modernizing publishing pages. The tools allow for a mapping file to map the customized parts of the Classic publishing page so the transformation engine knows how to create the Modern version of it. 

Finally, both of the above tools take advantage of a page transformation .NET API. This is for hardcore developers and only necessary for complex or specific migration situations. 

Once you get into Modern pages you’ll be able to take advantage of all the newest web parts that come out, faster page loads, and pages that look much better on your mobile devices. They’re also easier to customize for you and your users.  

Regardless of which method you use, you need to know where those pesky Classic pages are hiding. We’ll cover that in a bit. 

Modern SharePoint Sites 

Sites are the third and final destination in our Classic to Modern Transformation journey. Like their page brethren, Classic sites cannot be upgraded or viewed through a Modern lens. Instead, though, we can add some Modern flourish to our existing Classic sites. This includes flipping the Modern switch on all of the site’s lists and libraries, transforming your Classic pages to Modern, and connecting your site to an Office 365 Group.

Microsoft has documented these steps for easy reference. This upgrade couldn’t be more accommodating. You can perform as many or as few of the steps as you’d like, and you can complete them in any order you’d like. Upgrade your pages in a particular site or don’t, SharePoint doesn’t mind. Want to attach to a Group before you upgrade your lists and libraries? Go for it! It all works.Modernize Microsoft SharePoint Site

Image Credit: Microsoft.com

If you have a Classic SharePoint site that you’re not too attached to you might be better off creating a new Modern SharePoint Team site or Communications site instead and migrating your content over. But you have all the flexibility you need to do it however works best for you and your users. 

How to find the Classics 

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to do the various Modernization steps, but the problem remains, how do you know where all the Classic resources are, and how do you know whether you’ve gotten them all or not? Fortunately Microsoft has lovingly provided us a tool to meet that need, the SharePoint Modernization Scanner.

This tool will scan all the sites in your tenant and report back where your Modernization opportunities are. It will also report back any issues that may block your upgrade. Of course, you don’t need to run this scanner before doing your upgrade, but it’s a good idea. It’s pretty cheap insurance against missing out on some ugly Classic artifacts in your tenant. 

Don’t forget your users 

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our dear friends, our users. The people we pour all of this love into SharePoint for. While the upgrade to Modern is more productive for them, and probably inevitable, it’s going to be a tough ride for them at first. Make sure you let your users know what’s coming, and get as many of them to help test as you can.

Also, don’t forget training. You and I live and breathe SharePoint, so some of these changes come easier for us then they do for the people out there that use SharePoint. Take this time to educate them on the new list and library interface and all of the new functionality it has. Show them how easy it is to customize a Modern SharePoint page.

Be there to answer any questions they have, or just provide a shoulder for them if they’re having trouble. As SharePoint admins, it’s easy to get excited about the technology and lose sight of why we do it all. It’s to help our users be more productive, so make sure to keep them in the loop. 

Who says once you move into the cloud that upgrades and migrations can’t be fun? Not me! Upgrading from Classic SharePoint to Modern SharePoint is fun and a very rewarding task. In this blog post I’ve scratched the surface on what areas can upgraded and how you can upgrade them. I hope it’s gotten you excited about upgrading your own tenant. If you have any good migration stories, tragedies or triumphs, reach out and let us know.