Smacking SharePoint Into Shape

More than half of all SharePoint shops have had to add functionality to the core software, which came as a surprise to a number of them. Here's what they're doing.

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Alex Alexandrou, vice president of global information services and Web technology at D&M Holdings, says his firm "found another way to get value out of our SharePoint investment" by bringing on SharePoint Online.

In August 2012, D&M moved entirely from Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS), including SharePoint, to Microsoft's new Office 365 cloud-based version, which features Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online.

Not everything that D&M has done with SharePoint needed extensions, he says. Sometimes projects just require looking at SharePoint in ways that hadn't previously been considered. That was the case when D&M decided to completely revamp the management of its many product websites around the world. Using the built-in content management tools in SharePoint, D&M was able to consolidate the Web content and the sites themselves to make it all easier to update, manage and modify, explains Alexandrou.

The firm wanted to use SharePoint and not a separate content management application because the platform is already a dependable and proven base, he says.

Dozens of the company's brand websites from around the world, which previously had been administered separately and inefficiently, were pulled into one content repository so that they could be centrally managed.

"We used the same templates for the sites, regardless of what country they were in, so they would look and feel the same." While no major third-party extensions were needed for the website consolidation project, Alexandrou says that he and his team gained a new appreciation for the SharePoint investment they had already made.

Advice: Use caution

Chris Beckett, a Microsoft Certified Master in SharePoint who has written two books on the 2013 version of the suite as well as a blog about SharePoint, advises users to be cautious and plan ahead when considering add-ons.

The problem is that customization, including add-ons, can make it tougher to upgrade cleanly to the next version, he says.

Adopt a deployment strategy of careful progress and small steps, he suggests. Pilot the add-on installation and, when making changes, know why you are doing them, he says.

One big piece of advice that LA Fitness' Bedar has for enterprises looking to extend their SharePoint deployments: Get your own people trained as experts in SharePoint so you can do most extensions on your own.

"Don't hire consultants," he says. "Get something set up and learn from it. Gain some experience. Then you might want to spend some money to do something that you can't do out of the box. That's what we did here."

SharePoint 2013 beckons

Customers say they're excited about SharePoint 2013. Eastman Chemical is evaluating the new version and plans to deploy it later this year, McGuire says. With the latest version, Eastman is looking to expand the reach of its SharePoint investment into more social media and mobile worlds for its users.

"We cannot get to SharePoint 2013 fast enough because we want to be able to deliver documents" via mobile devices more easily, through features such as SkyDrive Pro, which replaces the Work Space functionality that existed in SharePoint 2010, says McGuire.

SkyDrive Pro is a special library or folder that allows users to link to it from multiple mobile devices. It can be synched with other libraries and files to be shared with other users. "We think our users are really going to take advantage of that opportunity," says McGuire. "It really will help our mobile workforce."

Ramping up its 2010 usage

Cruise ship company Holland America Line is using SharePoint 2010 as a better way to move data and collaborate inside the company, says Carl Henthorn, a senior business intelligence developer. Some 40 divisions inside the company had been running and using their own individual instances of SharePoint in the past, but now they are being brought together through an enterprise version that will let users see what is being achieved on other ships, says Henthorn.

So far, the new capabilities are available to about 40 people today in a portal called HomePort, but the features are expected to be rolled out to the company's 15,000 global employees, he says so everyone can collaborate and view shared results and content.

In the past, spreadsheets were sent back and forth between people and divisions with information about trips, sales, performance and more. But the collaboration capabilities in SharePoint 2010's enterprise version are streamlining and improving on that, says Seth Brickman, director of onboard revenue and tour operations for Holland America Line.

Some custom coding extensions were needed to achieve the goals, Henthorn explains.

One area was in trying to solve the problem of getting user-maintained data out of the systems they were created in, and into the company's data warehouse, he says. SharePoint workflows "allowed us to use an Excel file stored in SharePoint to get the data into the data warehouse and create a report," Henthorn says. "We had to use custom code to do it, as well as working with built-in SharePoint workflows."

Custom extensions were also required to add informational banners across the portal pages, which allow administrators to broadcast messages to users through the portal, says Henthorn. The messages can communicate status reports and other information to employees, including such things as when the data warehouse isn't working or other system advisories.

LA Fitness is working on a project to renovate and rebuild its intranet for more than 25,000 users using SharePoint 2013, and the IT teams needed customized coding for extensions on layout and master pages, says Jim Zhang, manager of SharePoint development. One major benefit LA Fitness has seen already with SharePoint 2013 over 2010 is that custom coding and extensions in general are much easier to accomplish in the newer edition, says Zhang. They're still needed in 2013, but they are easier to do.

Custom extensions have also been made to connect SharePoint 2013 with other Microsoft applications, such as the financial management and ERP product Great Plains. That wasn't easy to do directly out of the box with SharePoint 2010. "We had to build a lot of Web services and work flows" to make it possible, Zhang says.

Another area where extensions were needed was in controlling content availability for users as they log in to the intranet, to be sure they can see only the content they are authorized to view.

Similar extensions and additional code were needed to provide custom search of the intranet and of the data available within SharePoint to users, says Kathleen Cramm, director of business intelligence for the company.

In addition, creating very sophisticated workflows, including things that are based on a series of conditions, requires extensions that are built by the LA Fitness IT teams, says Bedar. "It's easy to do some limited workflows out of the box, such as alerting somebody that something has been changed. But if you actually want to put some Boolean logic in there ... then that requires more sophistication."

Overall, big design changes in SharePoint 2013 make it much safer to run with extensions, consultant Beckett says. Now, instead of the extensions running within SharePoint, they run alongside it, making them less problematic for the main application.

"This is better," says Beckett. It appears to be fairly well-integrated, but the actual code is running somewhere else. "That mitigates a lot of the quirks and makes it much simpler for organizations to manage and control it."

Even with the new version, however, there are always going to be cases where users will need to extend SharePoint's built-in capabilities, Beckett says. "Companies are always going to push the boundaries."

This article, Smacking SharePoint into Shape, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking, or email him at toddrweiss@gmail.com.

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This story, "Smacking SharePoint Into Shape" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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