Turning point

Has Microsoft conquered the demons that have plagued its SharePoint system?<@VM>Sidebar | Applications are in the Microsoft house<@VM>Graphic | SharePoint highlights

'What appealed to us was really the un-sexy stuff, the plumbing.' ' Col. David Belcher, Joint Forces Command

USJFCOM Photo by Staff Sgt. Joe Laws

Four years in the making, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 might just dispel SharePoint's longtime reputation as a lightweight groupware tool.

The company claims the upgrade ' often called MOSS, for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server ' has seen the fastest sales ramp-up of any Microsoft server platform. Few organizations have actually deployed it yet, but several Microsoft partners say a flood is coming in August and September.

'2007 is an entirely different ballgame,' said Peter O'Kelly, research director at Burton Group. 'It's really the first time they've been able to credibly assert they're doing not content management, but Web content management. Everything we've seen so far says it's worked pretty effectively and scaled pretty well.'
What's to like? Well, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Cuts like a knife

The new version of the software is certainly the first to be taken seriously by the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. SharePoint is the engine behind the Knowledge and Information Fusion Exchange (KnIFE), a portal that consolidates the latest information and know-how for dealing with improvised explosive devices, a real threat to ground troops.

KnIFE was slated to go live in late July on the Defense and State departments' classified Secret IP Router Network (SIPRnet).

'What appealed to us was really the un-sexy stuff, the plumbing,' said Col. David Belcher, deputy division chief at the command. 'Now, with the improved framework, more people can contribute to the site, and we have a lot more control over it,' he said, citing the fine-grained security and rights management of SharePoint's improved Active Directory support.

Belcher said he also likes SharePoint's integration with legacy content. 'You don't have to throw away your old Web apps ' we just tie right into those,' including Java and Active Server Pages software. 'It does allow for some custom programming, as well.' Within a month of getting its hands on SharePoint in May, his team had a near-production portal ready, he said.

The agency first started looking around for a new platform a few years ago because, Belcher said, the information technology folks were growing weary of supporting a disjointed mix of open-source and Java-based collaboration tools.

The command could not have used the previous SharePoint, though, because it employed a single database. The 2007 version allows breaking off segments at 'subsites,' which makes it easier to securely gather information from remote contributors, Belcher said. While he doesn't plan to upgrade to the Office 2007 desktop suite until fall, SharePoint 2007 is already bringing benefits to Office, sending alerts about new information through the Exchange e-mail server to warfighters' Outlook client software.

Belcher has just a few complaints, including a lack of documentation for dealing with SharePoint's quirks when running on the command's 64-bit version of Microsoft SQL Server. An attempt to import from the Documentum document management application wiped out a SharePoint protected field and 'the whole thing' along with it, requiring direct assistance from Microsoft, Belcher said.

He also wants a more robust search engine because the present one can't handle a critical 10 percent of the content and requires running two additional search engines.

Featured attractions

Despite Belcher's qualms, others feel that the new, Microsoft-developed enterprise search engine could be reason enough to buy the upgrade. 'We had search capability, but we didn't have a lot of the security and contextual capabilities that people were looking for,' said Joel Cherkis, Microsoft's director of collaborative technologies for the U.S. public sector. 'That's probably where the majority of the [research and development] was put in.' He said it indexes new files behind the scenes and can include people' expertise in its purview, effectively providing a knowledge management platform. Cherkis said he fields a dozen calls a week inquiring about it. 'We were not considered an enterprise search player before.'

The 2003 search engine required additional filters to access non-Microsoft documents, said Andy Norris, vice president of the federal division at Planet Technologies, a Microsoft SharePoint partner. The new version has them built in and pairs them with a consistent search algorithm. 'Effectively, what we have in SharePoint 2007 that makes it a step above 2003 is [that] it's a genuine middleware application,' Norris said. Furthermore, SharePoint's improved integration with Microsoft's Active Directory technology brings security to the search process. 'You get hits that are only within your rights under your Active Directory profile,' he said. 'It won't show you systems you don't have authority to go into.'

One of the most-talked-about features is Excel Services, which lets desktop users publish interactive spreadsheets on the Web, where recipients can work with them from within their Web browsers instead of importing into their local Excel. It is the basis of an improved dashboard feature that lets executives view graphical summaries, including key performance indicators (KPIs) and allows nontechnical users to create reports. The dashboard is generating much interest, Norris said, adding that the dashboard in 2003 'wasn't really worth much.'

SharePoint's InfoPath Forms Services is another new feature that speeds Web collaboration by letting power users design and post forms on the server so recipients can fill them out from inside their browsers. In the past, agencies would typically have built and shared the form in the less malleable Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF. Norris said Planet helped one agency customize InfoPath Forms Services workflows to reduce purchase approval turnaround from three months to six weeks.

SharePoint is the engine for a number of the new collaboration features introduced in the Office 2007 desktop apps last year, including a SharePoint link in the suite's new Ribbon interface that lets desktop users save documents directly to a portal, Norris said. Also new is a slide-sharing feature that lets collaborators store PowerPoint files in libraries on SharePoint and view them in their browsers, avoiding today's typical scenario of e-mailing bandwidth-hogging files back and forth.

The context of content

Microsoft discontinued its previous enterprise content-management product, Microsoft Content Management Server, and replaced it with SharePoint's independently developed Microsoft ECM, Cherkis said. The improved ECM has been one of the company's main selling points for the new SharePoint.

'Right off the bat, it has a deep understanding of how to handle documents and files,' said Greg Brill, chief executive officer at Infusion Development, another Microsoft partner with long SharePoint experience. 'Other portal vendors want to train you in their ways so that you're bound to them.'

'You need to do a lot of contortions to it to get it to work as a Web publishing platform,' said Tony Byrne, founder of CMS Watch, an analyst firm specializing in ECM that issued a lengthy report that critiqued SharePoint 2007 alongside competitors. Much of the problem, he said, resides in Microsoft's continued positioning of SharePoint in several software categories typically dominated by more specialized programs. But Norris said SharePoint's versatility is actually a strength. 'SharePoint can fit pretty much anywhere in an organization because of the wide range of things it can do.'

With its ECM module substantially improved, it competes more directly with powerhouses Lotus Notes and Xerox Docushare. It is also a document- and records-management tool, now competing with Documentum from EMC, FileNet and Open Text.

Byrne said Microsoft's preference for using its SQL Server database for SharePoint's document repositories results in a less scalable solution that tops off around 100,000 documents. That said, Microsoft has found a way to complement them by positioning SharePoint as a front end to their repositories. 'SharePoint has a very nice user interface, and people are familiar with it,' he said.

The new release is indeed earning respect from document-management players, O'Kelly said, as evidenced by their eagerness to offer desktop client software that lets their customers access SharePoint documents. 'They're seeing the writing on the wall and...don't want to compete with this thing,' he said. 'We'll just focus on adding value to it.'

SharePoint's credibility in ECM was much enhanced in May when it received certification for Defense Department 5015.2, the government's records-management benchmark. O'Kelly said much of SharePoint's ability in this area comes from synergies with Exchange server, Microsoft's e-mail platform, especially for records retention and rights management. Cherkis noted state and local governments have been emphasizing both capabilities in their requests for proposals.

Even Microsoft's partners admit SharePoint's primary purpose is collaboration. 'You don't use if for everything,' Brill said, citing e-commerce as a function beyond SharePoint's ken. 'It's about collaboration,' he said. 'If you want to share things with a lot of people, I don't know of anything better.'
Workflow might be the SharePoint sleeper. 'If anyone ever asks me what is the biggest difference ' the biggest jump ' I always say workflow,' said Kurt Guenther, Infusion's practice manager of emerging technology. It is more deeply and broadly supported, Norris said, and at three levels: user-configurable workflows within SharePoint itself, in its Designer tool and in Visual Studio, the suite programmers use to write software for all Microsoft's platforms.

Among other things, workflow helps agencies get a handle on their Web publishing process by allowing authors to route documents to line-of-business supervisors before publishing them to agency Web sites, a process that formerly had IT personnel enmeshed in the details of publishing, Norris said.

Though it is strong in portal-based collaboration, SharePoint's new wiki and blog features are playing catch-up to niche players such as Jive. Still, those technologies are probably seen as a bonus to agencies that really want the other, more powerful features. 'I don't think you would buy SharePoint just to get blogs and wikis,' O'Kelly said.

Byrne added that, as a portal, SharePoint might not be as suitable for public-facing sites as software from portal heavyweights BEA, IBM and Oracle. It is also more expensive than open-source, essentially free tools such as Jboss and Liferay, which means it is still best suited for internal portals. Of Microsoft, Byrne said, 'They're trying to have it both ways. You can't.' But he lauded the product's continuing use as an easy-to-install, accessible collaboration and document-sharing tool.

In its report, CMS Watch also criticized SharePoint for requiring customers to write additional code to get its HTML and folder-based navigation scheme to play nicely in 'more traditional Web site navigation schemes.'

Microsoft and its partners paint these charges as unfair, saying they are the flip side of one of SharePoint's main advantages: out-of-the-box applications that save programmers' time. 'Most applications that operate in this kind of template-driven development environment will have additional code that is put in place to aid the speed of development,' Cherkis said.

Playing well with others

British developer Corpora Software implemented its iOra replication technology to help military personnel in Central and South America send and receive status updates via satellite between SharePoint portals running in Humvees and United States Army South headquarters at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Before iOra, reports had to be sent directly across the network, which led to delays, especially when latencies hit the wide-area network.

If reports didn't arrive when expected, managers had to send out inquiries. 'They were getting this blizzard of e-mails and phone calls,' said Grady Tucker, Corpora's U.S.-based manager for the account. 'By putting a second portal right at the remote location, the user doesn't experience any latency.' Although the replication software was implemented with SharePoint 2003, Tucker expects the 2007 version ' soon to be installed ' will bring further benefits. 'The improvements they have made in 2007 will make our replication faster and easier to do,' he said.
By all accounts, SharePoint has been beefed up with strong development tools, closer links to popular programming tools and better integration with other software. The result could be quicker application development and fewer hassles when trying to fit SharePoint into mixed environments. But shops still expect to have to stick close to the Windows platform in order to get the most from SharePoint.

'This is a much more pure .Net product,' said Tony Byrne, founder of CMS Watch, referring to Microsoft's Web services platform. 'You can use the .Net 2.0 controls you might have [already] developed.'

Greg Brill, chief executive officer at software development firm Infusion Development, said, 'We're really spending a lot of time writing 'glue' and reporting, and not a lot of infrastructure.'

Kurt Guenther, Infusion's practice manager of emerging technology, said, 'When we're developing solutions, we're leveraging large swatches of the foundation code.' He cited Excel Services as another example. 'It's no longer a developer task, it's a user task.'

SharePoint's ability to employ user profiles from outside sources, such as Oracle and SAP human-resources software, simplifies security compared with SharePoint 2003's method, which was completely based on Active Directory, he said. 'It was a very big IT headache, especially if you wanted to use lots of external users.'

The development story appeals almost entirely to so-called 'Microsoft houses.' 'Organizations that are very into Java development tools are going to be less inclined to adopt SharePoint,' O'Kelly said. 'On the client side, they're pretty effective at working with non-Microsoft clients. On the server side, it's Windows Server, period.'

Proponents say SharePoint has more links to third-party software than ever, and with 2007's advances in scalability and features, more agencies appear comfortable moving to Windows servers. 'We're doing it right now with a number of government agencies,' Norris said. Some are tiring of maintaining open-source applications, and find they are paying more than expected to Linux vendor Red Hat and numerous small developers to build things that come with the Microsoft platform, he said.

The Infusion spokesmen said the integration process can be a simple as using SharePoint's new WebParts technology to put a 'box' around the older application's screens. 'Right off the bat, you can make something available,' Brill said. 'You can either leave it there, or buy yourself time to rewrite it.'

SharePoint allows subsets of Excel spreadsheets to be embedded in Web pages. Users can change, refine and analyze the data directly from a Web browser.

SharePoint allows administrators to set up simple workflows. For instance, when an e-mail with a certain subject line arrives, it can be routed to appropriate personnel, and the sender dispatches an automatic response tailored to the information found within the e-mail.


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