SharePoint 2007 Demystified: How to Cash in on Collaboration Tools

Previous versions of Microsoft's collaboration tools lacked management prowess. SharePoint 2007 fixes that problem and packs in a sometimes confusing array of features from workflow to search. Here's how smart IT leaders are making this often-misunderstood product work for them.

As the technology partner (head of IT) at global law firm Bryan Cave , John Alber saw increasing resources being devoted to keeping multiple information systems integrated and the data flowing among them. Over time, the law firm brought in what it considered the best tools to handle tasks such as document repositories, e-mail management, conflict-of-interest databases and calendar management, to help attorneys and support staff research, collaborate and stay abreast of case developments. And keeping those tools working together was a necessary price to be paid. But now, Alber is implementing a different approach: He's using the new Microsoft SharePoint 2007 platform as the common system for many of these tasks.

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Until the new version's October 2007 release, Alber wouldn't have considered SharePoint, since its previous incarnation didn't have the management chops he needed. Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server 2003 was widely considered a departmental tool good just for non-critical intranet sites and project-based file sharing, says Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst at Forrester Research . But the new version brings in much of what an enterprise needs to manage documents, create project workspaces, manage information repositories and tie into content management, analytics and search tools—all with IT-based control over security, access management and data structures.

Sharepoint, Explained

If you're confused about just what's in SharePoint and what it can do, you're not alone. Here's the scoop. Most enterprises, if they use SharePoint, use the 2003 version that came with Windows Server 2003. Officially called Windows SharePoint Services 2.0, this software lets you set up intranet sites and websites and create shared project portals called workspaces. Within workspaces, you can store documents, contacts, calendars, and chatlike discussions for workgroup use. SharePoint 2003 lets users search within their site or workspace, and it lets IT add functionality through custom .Net applications.

Microsoft sold a separate product called Windows SharePoint Portal Server 2003 that let IT administer security and access settings for the individual SharePoint sites from a central location.

The typical SharePoint deployment was for a specific project or department, says Forrester Research analyst Rob Koplowitz. But most companies didn't centrally manage SharePoint instances.

SharePoint 2007 retains the SharePoint Services components (now at version 3.0.) They are included with Windows Server 2007. New to version 3.0 are e-mail and directory integration, alerts, RSS publishing and templates for building blogs.

Available separately, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 effectively replaces SharePoint Portal Server. Known as MOSS, the new server has gotten enterprise CIOs' attention, says Burton Group analyst Karen Hobert.

The reason? It provides enterprise-class management tools for user administration, policy-based access and security management, relying heavily on Microsoft's Active Directory identity and policy management tool. Unlike the previous server, MOSS allows management of identities and security across workspaces and sites, not just at the individual site and workspace level.

MOSS also adds cross-SharePoint search tools, basic business intelligence (BI) capabilities that use Excel 2007's new analytics tools. Microsoft also now portrays SharePoint as an enterprise content management (ECM) system, citing the SharePoint Services 3.0 enhancements and the greatly improved management features. Also new is the ability to create .Net-based workflow applications for Office-compatible documents, such as expense reports, that can be deployed and managed via MOSS. Koplowitz and Hobert say that the search, BI and ECM capabilities likely won't meet larger enterprises' needs but could meet the needs of smaller enterprises and departments.

"We're all used to Microsoft getting it wrong, wrong, wrong and then getting it right," notes Alber, "but SharePoint 2007 is a much better advance than you would expect even in that usual Microsoft pattern." Bryan Cave is not a Microsoft shop, so Alber was open to options from a variety of providers. But he found that SharePoint 2007 was much less expensive—and often more capable—than legal-information management offerings from SAP and Oracle, and he judged it much more capable and user-friendly than IBM's Lotus Notes-based collaborative tools such as Domino and Quickr (a Notes wiki tool.)

But there's also a lot of confusion about SharePoint 2007, notes Karen Hobert, an analyst at Burton Group. Part of that is confusion over the SharePoint name, which used to refer to the Windows SharePoint Services that come with Windows Server 2003 and let people set up intranet sites, document-sharing workspaces and project schedules for individual projects.

These services remain part of SharePoint, but new under the SharePoint umbrella is Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), which handles the central management of sites, data repositories, access and security policies, workflows, search and other functions. MOSS is what shifts SharePoint 2007 into the enterprise class, Hobert says. "Together, these provide an information-management middleware for enterprises to use across departments, not just within them," she says.

Auto pricing publisher Kelley Blue Book is a typical example of why the management functionality is important, analysts and consultants say. Kelley's IT staff had deployed the previous version of SharePoint to create departmental intranet sites and workspaces as needed for various projects—and within a couple years, about 100 separate sites had arisen. (Forrester analyst Koplowitz says he's seen some companies with tens of thousands of SharePoint sites in place. "'Wild' is the polite word for that situation," he says.) The sheer number of siloed locations made information management difficult, as people no longer knew where to look for information or where to place it, recalls CIO Justin Yaros. But SharePoint 2003 didn't allow for cross-site search or access management, so IT had no way to assert control over the proliferation. MOSS now brings that control, he notes, which is why he plans to adopt the technology.

But now there's also confusion among IT professionals regarding what SharePoint actually does, since Microsoft has stuffed in analytics, search, Office-based forms and workflow automation, and content management capabilities into the previous file sharing, calendar management and site management features. "You can work it into almost anything," says Trent Parkhill, director of IT services for consultancy Haley & Aldrich, which makes it hard to know where to start.

In examining SharePoint's fit, CIOs also need to consider a few downsides to the product. The new SharePoint search, enterprise content management (ECM) and business intelligence (BI) functions may not be robust enough for large enterprises. Also, using SharePoint most effectively requires much other Microsoft baggage , including Office, Exchange and Active Directory.

Strategy Should Be Incremental

CIOs should resist Microsoft's pitch for SharePoint as a solution for everything and instead match specific issues they have to specific SharePoint capabilities, then start with the most pressing of those, says Paul Hernacki, CTO of consultancy Definition6. "You quickly get overwhelmed if you try to build a strategy around all its capabilities," says Joe Mildenhall, CIO of Apollo Group, an education provider best known for the University of Phoenix. "It should be a phased approach," advises Forester's Koplowitz.

In practical terms, that means starting small with SharePoint, using it first to corral any existing SharePoint sites and workspaces and take advantage of cross-site search, then integrate it with Active Directory for security and access controls, says Andy Lin, ECM senior director at consultancy Primitive Logic. Then consider building out new sites and workspaces with SharePoint, perhaps replacing existing sites over time to provide a common user interface and reduce IT's support burden, suggests Haley & Aldrich's Parkhill. Analysts and consultants agree that the core SharePoint capabilities—file sharing, site management and other collaboration aspects—are where most companies will and should focus their SharePoint efforts.

After that, companies' deployment strategies will likely diverge, based on the tools they have in place. Many will take advantage of SharePoint's workflow automation capabilities to reduce labor across forms-oriented processes such as expense reporting. You can also use its Excel 2007-driven analytics capabilities to bring basic BI to more employees, says Burton Group's Hobert.

Apollo Group is following just such a strategy, notes CIO Mildenhall, using SharePoint first for its intranet sites and workspaces, and then exploring the workflow and content management tools' capabilities. So is Kelley Blue Book, notes CIO Yaros. Bryan Cave's Alber calls this an incremental approach: "We reveal a little SharePoint at a time until we have exposed it all," he says. He expects his SharePoint strategy to span several years and fully expects Microsoft to have a new version shipping before he is done.

Where SharePoint Falls Short

Note this, however: Despite the enthusiasm for SharePoint from CIOs such as Alber, Mildenhall and Yaros, none see themselves adopting all of its pieces. "It's not an end-all, be-all even though it can do a lot of things," says Yaros. "It gets you 70 percent of the way there really fast, but for the remaining 30 percent, you should look at purpose-built [third-party] tools," he adds.

Analysts and consultants agree that Microsoft's search, ECM and BI capabilities are not likely to meet enterprise needs, at least not as the main tool in use. Smaller companies may find them to be good enough. Alber came to this conclusion for Bryan Cave's search technologies, so he uses Recommind instead. Likewise, Haley & Aldrich's Parkhill uses Coveo's search engine instead of SharePoint's across the consultancy's 21 offices, even within the SharePoint intranet sites and workspaces. "It's even better to use Google Desktop to find e-mails and so on rather than use SharePoint's search tools," says Primitive Logic consultant Lin. Similarly, Bryan Cave's Alber has decided to not replace his ECM tools with SharePoint's, "though I can see eventually displacing them."

Even if you use third-party tools for such functions, you may find value in adopting SharePoint as a front end, since its familiar Office interface can make ECM, search and BI tools more accessible to users, says Burton Group's Hobert. Kelley Blue Book's Yaros isn't sure if he'll ultimately adopt SharePoint's BI technology, but he's fairly certain he'll have SharePoint be the front end to whatever he does choose.

Likewise, Primitive Logic's Lin says many companies will find that SharePoint 2007's Office-like interface makes a good front end to sophisticated but hard-to-use ECM tools such as EMC Documentum and IBM FileNet.

Beware Microsoft Baggage

Although SharePoint 2007 supports Web services and has hooks to data sources such as SAP R3 to pull information into central repositories (which it calls business data catalogs), using SharePoint fundamentally requires that you have a strong Microsoft core in place, notes Apollo Group's Mildenhall. "Even if you're not a Microsoft shop, you still need to use Office and Exchange," he notes, and not using Active Directory will limit your security and access management controls as well.

The upside to buying into Microsoft's goal of becoming a strategic component of your enterprise infrastructure is that "nothing else leverages Office and Active Directory as SharePoint does," he says. And SharePoint also ties in well to Microsoft's .Net and Visual Studio development tools to let IT make enhancements, says Definition6's Hernacki.

As you connect non-Microsoft technologies to SharePoint, you can expect a bumpier ride. That's a big downside for many IT shops. For example, at Bryan Cave, it "took a lot of work" to get SharePoint to integrate with the Recommind search system, notes Alber. Primitive Logic's Lin says his consultancy "struggled to get EMC Documentum working with SharePoint because the SharePoint interfaces are not so good." But Lin notes that IBM's FileNet integrates more easily with SharePoint. Christopher Martini, Primitive Logic's Microsoft practice head, adds that SharePoint alternatives such as SAP's MySAP portal also require reliance on a proprietary core or lots of custom code.

Ultimately, CIOs must ask themselves whether they want to bring Microsoft to the core of their collaboration and perhaps content management, BI, and search strategies, says Forrester's Koplowitz. It's clear that the advances in SharePoint 2007 have caused many CIOs to look at that question again. "Any CIO should be cautious. There's a lot to MOSS that we don't know yet—for starters, how well it will scale in the real world. We'll know in the next year what its real quality is as people put it through its paces," Koplowitz says.

At Bryan Cave, Alber is not waiting. Impressed with the "robustness" of Microsoft SQL Server's recent release, he says, "Office 2007 is coming off the bus really quite advanced—there's no need to wait until Service Pack 2, as is usually the case with Microsoft." Despite having misgivings about Windows Vista, he sees these recent enterprise apps as proof that Microsoft is ready to play in the big time, and his early experiences with MOSS reinforce that belief. "I'm not seeing the same hiccups as with Microsoft in the past," he says.

Despite that enthusiasm, Alber doesn't just swallow the Microsoft Kool-Aid. "I've really tried to cherry-pick; I really try not to buy Microsoft's promises wholesale." The promise of SharePoint 2007 is strong, but the strategy of "trust but verify" remains essential, he says.

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