Understanding the SharePoint Server Roles

1/16/2011 3:09:52 PM
What an end user of a SharePoint environment sees on a SharePoint page is the result of a complex interaction that occurs on one or more servers performing varying tasks. Information is stored in complex databases, web rendering is displayed courtesy of the web role, and searches and processes are driven by the Search service application role on servers.

Depending on the size of the environment, these roles may be on one or many servers. In very small environments, all roles may exist on a single server, whereas in very large-scale farms, the roles may be spread across tens or even hundreds of servers. These server roles are the base architectural elements in a SharePoint farm, or collection, of servers that provide for SharePoint services in an environment. It is subsequently critical to understand what these server roles are and how they are used in a SharePoint farm.

Understanding the Database Server Role

Nearly all SharePoint content is stored in databases, including all document library content, list items, document metadata, and web parts. There are only two exceptions to this. The first is if the database server uses a concept known as Remote BLOB Storage (RBS), which allows for the storage of the documents, or BLOBs (binary large objects), in another storage medium such as a file server or an archive. The other exception to this rule is the full-text search index, which is stored in flat-file format (see the following sections on the Search Service Application role). In some rare cases, certain web part solutions may store flat files on web frontends as well, which is a good idea in any case, but in reality the vast majority of SharePoint content is stored on the database server role, making it highly critical both for High Availability (HA) and for Disaster Recovery (DR).

The only supported database format for SharePoint is Microsoft SQL Server, and at least one SQL Server database role server must exist in a farm for SharePoint to function.

Supported versions of SQL Server for SharePoint 2010 are as follows:

  • SQL Server 2005 SP3 x64

  • SQL Server 2008 x64

  • SQL Server 2008 R2 x64


Although SQL Server 2008 Express is supported, it is not recommended for most modern SharePoint environments because it does not scale well. Any production SharePoint environment should consider using either the full Standard or Enterprise editions of SQL Server.

There may be more than one database server role in a SharePoint farm, because a SharePoint administrator can define where a particular SharePoint database resides. In large environments, for example, there may be multiple SharePoint database role servers, each serving multiple databases as part of the farm.

Understanding the Web Server Role

The Web Server Role is the most obvious of the SharePoint roles, as most people understand the concept of a server running an application that serves up web pages to users that request them. In SharePoint’s case, that application is Windows Server’s Internet Information Services (IIS) application. A SharePoint farm member running the Web Server Role is responsible for rendering SharePoint content, including web parts, page layout, and all other information displayed to the user.

A SharePoint Web Server Role runs on either Windows Server 2008 x64 IIS 7.0 or, preferably, Windows Server 2008 R2 x64 IIS 7. In both cases, SharePoint 2010 requires specific roles to be installed in advance of installation, including the following components:

  • Application Server Role

  • Web Server (IIS) Role

  • Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Native Client

  • Windows Identity Foundation (KB974405)

  • Microsoft Sync Framework Runtime v 1.0 (x64)

  • Microsoft Chart Controls for Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5

  • Microsoft Filter Pack 2.0

  • Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Analysis Services ADOMD.NET

  • Microsoft Server Speech Platform Runtime (x64)

  • Microsoft Server Speech Recognition Language—TELE

Each of these components can be installed using the SharePoint 2010 media by clicking the Install Prerequisites link on the initial splash screen. This operation requires Internet connectivity. If Internet access is not available, each individual component needs to be manually installed.


Multiple web role servers may be set up in a SharePoint environment to scale out the number of users that can use the platform or to provide for high-availability access to the environment. In this case, load balancing of the connections made to a SharePoint environment allows for a larger number of users to access the content. Load balancing can be either hardware-based or software-based using Windows Network Load Balancing (NLB), fully supported for SharePoint web role servers.

Service Application Roles

The most significant architectural change in SharePoint 2010 is the addition of service applications, which replace the SharePoint 2007 concept of Shared Services Providers (SSPs). Service applications are independent services that can be shared across web applications or, in some cases, across farms.

Table 1 lists the service applications available with SharePoint 2010 and which version of SharePoint 2010 software they are available in.

Table 1. Examining a List of SharePoint 2010 Service Applications
 SharePoint Foundation 2010SharePoint Server 2010 Standard EditionSharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise EditionOffice Web App Services (Can Be Added to SharePoint Farm)
Business Data Connectivity ServicesXXX 
Usage and Health Data Collection ServicesXXX 
SharePoint Foundation Subscription Settings ServiceXXX 
Managed Metadata Service XX 
Search Service XX 
Secure Store Service XX 
State Service XX 
User Profile Service XX 
Web Analytics Service XX 
Word Automation Services XX 
Access Services  X 
Excel Services  X 
PerformancePoint Service  X 
Visio Graphics Services  X 
Excel Calculation Services   X
PowerPoint Service   X
Word Viewing Service   X

Service applications can be resource-intensive and are often deployed on their own dedicated servers to separate their impact from the web role servers.


Just because you’ve purchased access to a service application does not mean that you should turn it on. Every service application running on a server consumes a significant percentage of that server’s resources, and turning on all the available service applications is a bad idea unless you’ve planned accordingly. Turn on only those service applications that need to run a service that satisfies a specific business need.

Search Service Application Role

One of the most commonly used service application role in SharePoint 2010 is the search service application role, because it is responsible for running the Enterprise search functionality that enables you to search both within and outside of SharePoint.

The search service application is different than the way it was in SharePoint 2007. Gone is the need to separate the indexing from the Query capability; in SharePoint 2010, these roles are combined into one. In addition, SharePoint 2010 has the capability to have multiple redundant indexes, something that was not possible in SharePoint 2007.


The native search service application in SharePoint 2010 is different than Microsoft’s other search offering, known as FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint. FAST Search Server enables thumbnail views on search results and automatic metadata tagging, among other improvements. The architecture of FAST Search Server is vastly different than the native search.

Notice a few key things when architecting for the SharePoint search service application role. First, the index corpus used to store the full-text copy of all documents crawled can grow large in size based on the amount of content being indexed. The size of the corpus is directly related to the size of the actual document data being crawled. Depending on what is being indexed, and how much actual text is included in that data, the index corpus can range from 5 percent to 30 percent of the size of content being indexed, so be sure to include a large enough index disk drive for your index server.

There are a few things to note about SharePoint search:

  • Search in SharePoint is security-trimmed for supported content, excluding some external content sources. This means that end users will get search results only from content that they have rights to access. This is a highly useful feature that prevents users from seeing content to which they don’t have access.

  • Although search is security-trimmed, the permissions are reevaluated only after performing a full crawl of content. Subsequently, if someone is removed from having permissions to a document, she can still see the text of that document as part of a search until a full, not an incremental, crawl has been performed.

  • Because SharePoint 2010 allows for redundant search and indexing capability, any one server being down does not take down the entire environment, assuming the search service application is running on more than one server.

Inbound Email Server Role

For scenarios where SharePoint is configured to be email-enabled, various SharePoint servers can be assigned to the inbound email server role. Servers with this role have the SMTP service installed directly on them and are configured to enable inbound emails to be sent directly into SharePoint document libraries and lists. This functionality is critical for an environment looking to use SharePoint for records management or enterprise content management. For more information on how to configure SharePoint for inbound email functionality.


Don’t forget to load balance the SMTP Service across multiple inbound email role servers in environments with HA requirements! If this is not done, inbound email functionality will not be redundant and will be down for users if an outage of the primary server occurs.

SharePoint Central Admin Server Role

Although more of a minor role, the server or servers that hold the SharePoint central administration service, the main management application for SharePoint, are also considered a server role. In some large environments, this role may be separated onto dedicated servers to provide for central administration functionality without affecting existing server functionality.


It is best practice to make the central administration role highly available by installing it on multiple servers, typically on multiple servers that also run the web role. Not doing this runs the risk of a server outage causing a loss of access to the tools necessary to troubleshoot the outage.

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