TFS and VSO guidance – Area path

Team and organizations that are new to TFS almost always struggle with how to structure their hierarchy for the Area Path field.  The documentation might seem straight forward: “Area paths allow you to group work items by team, product, or feature area”. However, most teams quickly discover that this is easier said than done.

First of all, do not use area path to track teams unless you have to (currently no other way to do it in VSO). I’ve explained why in a previous post.

Second, start small with broad areas and add more detail (child nodes) as needed. I’ve seen too many teams getting stuck on implementing a “complete” area path hierarchy thinking the field wont be useful unless they have it all in place. Most of the time that is a real waste of time, usually resulting in a way too detailed hierarchy where many nodes are never used. Use an agile approach instead and add detail where needed, when needed.

Third, keep a user centric view. A very common scenario is that the area path hierarchy is defined by the development team usually resulting in something relating to the software architecture. Unfortunately this is rarely useful to non-developers, e.g. Product owner, stakeholders, end users. Product features or workflows are usually more useful as it makes more sense to the non-developers (typically the ones creating new requirements and bugs) and for reporting purposes. One of the most interesting solutions I’ve seen, and personally feel makes a lot of sense, is to map the area path hierarchy to the user manual’s table of content.


This is the second post in a series where I will try to give you some solid guidance on TFS/VSO or point you towards existing solutions and recommendations.

TFS and VSO guidance – Teams

I often get questions along the lines of “How do we do this in TFS?” It can be anything from setting up teams to choosing the best process template or how to structure a useful area path tree. My answer is always “Well, it depends…” because that is the truth. It really does depend on quite a lot of things. Fortunately, most of the time, you can change how you do things as you gather more and more experience from working with TFS in your organization. On the other hand, if you start out wrong it might require quite a lot of work to rectify that mistake. This realisation quickly turns the original question into “Ok, so how are we supposed to do this in TFS? Are there any recommendations or best practices? What does Microsoft say?”

Well, if you take a quick look at MSDN Library you will quickly realize that Microsoft actually has quite a lot to say. But over the years they have become less and less prescriptive. Which is good. Unless you are looking for some solid pointers… As far as recommendations and best practices goes these golden nuggets of information can sometimes be difficult to find.

So, this is the first post in a series where I will try to give you some solid guidance on TFS/VSO or point you towards existing solutions and recommendations. These posts will be based on my experience from working with TFS over the last 10 years.

Setting up Teams

What you need to know here is that the default way of setting up Teams in a Team Project is flawed. It works, but it is flawed and it will often cause grief down the road. Why? Because it uses the Area Path field to define your teams. This is not what the field was originally intended for. The Area Path field is intended to categorize work into product areas. The team is not a product area. Having multiple purposes for one field is bad design and this will quickly become apparent when you want two teams to work on the same product as you suddenly find yourself maintaining two identical area path structures in TFS, one for each team.

A much much better way to set up teams in TFS is to add a separate Team field, which is actually fully supported by Microsoft and opens up a hidden Team settings interface in WebAccess. It will require some customization of your TFS but it is definitely worth the effort.

Team field settings page

Unfortunately, for those of you who are using VSO it is currently not possible to do the necessary customizations in VSO. You’re stuck with the default. This might change in the near future though as VSO process customization is coming.


Starting with TFS 2012 we are now faced with the options of using either Team Foundation Server or Team Foundation Service as our ALM platform of choice. The big question is which one to choose. One is installed locally while the other is hosted in the cloud. This is an important difference but not the only one you need to consider. I’ll list the most important points to consider here.

The cloud

If for some reason you are not allowed to handle your work items or source code in the cloud then Team Foundation Service is out of the question as it is based on Microsoft’s Windows Azure platform.

Installation and administration

Installing Team Foundation Server has become much easier than it was back in 2005 but can still be a bit tricky. Using Team Foundation Service is basically a matter of supplying a name for your instance. If you dont want the hassle of server installation and administration then you should consider Team Foundation Service.


Process templates are not customizable in Team Foundation Service. If you think you will have to make adjustments to the process template (like adding new fields to work items) then you probably want to go with Team Foundation Server instead. Unless you are ready to wait, because this will change in the future.

Document management

If you want solid document management features then Team Foundation Server is the way to go as it includes Sharepoint. Team Foundation Service currently has no document management features. This will change in the future with Office 365 integration (see Brian Harry’s first response in the comments).


One of the many nice features of Team Foundation Server is all the reports you get out of the box. Apart from sprint burndown charts you get no reports at all in Team Foundation Service. This might be perfectly fine for some or a complete deal breaker for others. This will probably change in the future but I’ve been unable to find anything to support this claim. Windows Azure SQL Reporting is available though so hopefully only a matter of time before it is integrated into the Team Foundation Service offering.

Price tag

There is actually a pricing preview for Visual Studio 2012 (and Team Foundation Server) but very limited information about Team Foundation Service pricing.

There are other differences but this should cover the most important aspects. If you want to dig deeper, have a look at the Team Founation Service whitepaper.

Bug fix for SharePoint document links in VS vNext

Submitted another bug to Microsoft, this time regarding the fact that you cannot edit a SharePoint document opened from a work item in the VS IDE. After I submitted a screen capture of the bug yesterday Microsoft has confirmed that this is a bug in VS ALM 2010. The good news is that they will fix this in VS vNext where “we now launch the external browser rather than the internal VS browser when opening hyperlinks”. Until vNext arrives we will have to use work arounds. Fortunately there are several of those. Because the source of the problem is the VS internal browser opening the document in any other way you can think of does not cause this bug to appear.

TFS Power Tool bug fix

Back in October I submitted a bug to Connect regarding the Process Editor and the fact that it makes background changes to the WIT xml files without notifying the user. Yesterday Microsoft posted a reply that this will be fixed in the next version of TFS Power Tools. When the next version will be released is not known, but February and Q1 2011 has been mentioned. I can’t wait, it is going to save me some serious headaches when editing work items!