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Understanding the SharePoint Hierarchy

One of the most confusing subjects for me to grasp early on was understanding the SharePoint hierarchy. I couldn’t tell a web application from a site collection. It confused me to no end. Well, after much study it seems rather simple now! Here’s a diagram with a short explanation.

At the top of the hierarchy are server farms. This encompasses all the physical servers that comprise your SP installation. It may consist of one server or twenty. When you run the SP configuration wizard after installing MOSS/WSS you either create a new server farm or connect to an existing one. It’s done once.

Once you have your server farm you must set up a web application. This is what creates a corresponding website in IIS to host the site. This is where it gets its application pool and other IIS properties. You can create multiple web applications on a server farm.

Now you have a hollow web application but nothing else. Enter site collections. It is simply a collection of SharePoint sites inside the web application. Here you define a top-level site. You can have multiple site collections.

From your site collection you have a top-level site that will have multiple sites underneath it. This is the common SP interface seen by end users.

And finally we have the content inside the sites. This includes (but not limited to) lists, libraries, web parts, etc.

It’s worth mentioning that in the SharePoint 2007 world, Shared Service Providers (MySite, Excel Services, BDC) in MOSS are at the web application level and are for all site collections underneath it. You can, however, have different Shared Service Providers for individual web applications. In the 2010 world, there are Service Applications that can be used in a more reusable and granular fashion than in 2007.


  1. Bill

    Excellent Post.  This is exactly what I needed at this point in my development. I am going to create a diagram for my own purposes to expand on what you have to reflect the Enums for feature scope plus the WSS object model types.   Let me know if you want a copy when I finish. Thanks for putting this up.

  2. @Bill: Thanks for the kind words.  I would like to see something when you’re finished.

  3. shoolive

    very helpful. Having understood what the diagram shows, I was still a bit iffy about the site collection ‘top level site’ thing and this post helped out. this clarified.
    Also, can someone answer how to get sites/subsites tabbed(not breadcrumb/not quick launch) along the top level site (if u wanted to)?

  4. @shoolive: Thanks for stopping by! You can manage the navigation at the top (if you have access) by going to Site Actions – Site Settings – Modify All Site Settings, and in the Look and Feel column choose Navigation.


  5. Jalpa Pathak

    very good post.

  6. sohail

    Excellent article. Exactly what i needed

  7. Subathra

    Excellent post.. Very helpful information.. thanks

  8. Penny

    This simplifies everything. Great info.

  9. ThatThatGuy

    great post…. you wont even find such clear explanations… in any of the books

  10. Jamie Gleeson

    Thank you, a good post to help clarify the difference between Web Application and Site Collection.

  11. Sundaravel Arunachalam

    Thanks for such simple explanation. Useful.

  12. hasan asani

    very clearly >>>>

    but I need more information about sharing files and how to add data layer or new file.cs to sharepoint solution

  13. andy goudie

    I have been playing with sharepoint and have created some forms using Infopath that I would like others to be able to open from the sharepoint site. I can access the site on my work pc which is running the sharepoint but cannot access the site from my laptop or other devices. Do you have to have sharepoint installed on all devices that need to access the site? Why can’t a standard internet browser do this? Am I missing something? Thanks Andy

    • Are you trying to access SharePoint from other computers that is installed on your computer? Um you need to install SharePoint on a dedicated server or set of servers.

      • andy goudie

        My it dept have installed it on a server and given me access to set up a page and add docs into a library. When I try to access this site from my work pc I get in no problem. B ut when I try to open the same url on my personal laptop page not found message comes up.

        • Do you need a VPN maybe? It’s hard to diagnose without looking at it.

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