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No, SharePoint subsites are not evil!

Ever since Microsoft has announced the release of hub sites, SharePoint community has revived the century-old debate about the best ways to organize SharePoint subsites and site collections. I even read posts and tweets calling subsites evil. I could not disagree more with such statements. Just because the new functionality has come out, does not automatically make the existing process bad. Let me try and explain this to you.

What is the argument all about?

The argument stems from the dilemma that is as old as SharePoint itself. It is whether you should create separate subsites for projects and departments or whole separate site collections for each and every department or project. To learn more about the difference between a site and a site collection, click here.

Separate site collections give a site owner more control, but, the major problem with new site collections is that each has its own unique characteristics like branding, security, metadata, and navigation. That means that if you set up your security and navigation in one site collection, you have to manually repeat this on all other ones. I think you will agree with me that this is not practical.

Office 365 Groups and Communication Sites cemented the flat hierarchy methodology. Each time you create a new Office 365 Group or a Communication Site – it provisions a separate site collection for you. So you end up with lots of site collections floating out there in your tenant.

Why subsites became popular

The reason subsites became popular is because they solved many limitations above. Not only they allowed to organize content into logical hierarchies, both they also addressed navigation, security, and metadata inheritance. You could easily configure a parent site with global drop-down navigation link and propagate through to children subsites underneath. Likewise, if you created site columns at parent site you can reuse those same columns or content types on subsites underneath.

What is the problem with subsites

I always joke that the problem with folders is that you can create subfolders. Well, with subsites, the problem is that you can create lots of levels, just like complicated folder hierarchies. It is one thing if you create 2 or 3, it is s another if your users create 5 or 6 subsites deep (yes, I have seen those scenarios).  I published a detailed post on the topic here.

Another problem with subsites is that once created, you can’t easily move them without a migration tool, in case you have a company reorg or something.

What are hub sites

Hub Sites is a new type of functionality available in SharePoint Online. The idea is that instead of building hierarchies of subsites according to your business structure/org chart, you create all sites as separate site collections and can organize them into hubs. So the structure is essentially flattened. While you could create separate site collections before, what was not possible – was the ability to bring all these scattered site collections together via common navigation. That is where Hub Sites functionality comes in. It essentially allows you to cherry pick various site collections whether they are Office 365 Group Sites, Communication Sites or just plain and simple regular classic site collections and bring them under an umbrella with common navigation and security. So if in a year there is a company reorg and department restructuring, there is no need to move sites using a migration tool or rebuild your navigation from scratch. Change is as easy as creating or changing an existing hub.

The verdict

Unless Microsoft turns off the capability to create subsites, they are not going away, in my opinion. Just like folders did not go away with the introduction of metadata. Changing human behavior is challenging and takes long time. This is how we did things for many years.

Just like eating chocolate, subsites are good with moderation. OK, bad example – if I start eating chocolate, good luck stopping me. Seriously though, subsites, just like folders, make sense if you don’t abuse the deep hierarchy. For example, if your document library has 6 level of folders – it is a nightmare. If you only have 1 or 2 levels – it is a blessing. Same with subsites. As a matter of fact, that is why I preached for many years to keep hierarchy as flat as possible with 2, max 3 levels.

One big limitation with Hub Sites (at the moment) is that you have to use PowerShell to enable and use them. There is no setting in SharePoint Admin Center (as of the writing of this post), to enable Hub Sites. For most site owners/power users (including me) – this is not practical.

Hub Sites might make sense for medium and large organizations. However, for smaller businesses, separate site collections might be a bit of overhead to manage. For example, if you do simple project management and don’t require Office 365 Groups, then you might create your project portal all in one site collection, with 1 level of subsites underneath. Check out this post for detailed instructions. Same with department workspaces.

And, just in time for this post, Microsoft announced that subsites by default now will start off with modern experience, not classic. You can read about this wonderful news here. So, I say subsites are here to stay for a while!

Suggested Reading

This post of mine, of course, provides you with my opinion and the way I see things. There is no right or wrong way here. I want you to make a decision for yourself, depending on your business process, structure, and personal preferences. I also recommend that you check out this post from another amazing and well-respected SharePoint consultant, Joanne Klein. She has a slightly different opinion on the above topic, but she published a really thorough post on the pros and cons of going with either subsites and site collections, so I suggest you check it out and make an informative and educated decision yourself!

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