Conference Notes

Notes on "Evaluating SharePoint from a Business Perspective" (Tony Byrne)

Tony Byrne from CMSWatch presented a web seminar earlier today entitled Evaluating SharePoint from a Business Perspective. The call was set up within the context of giving a critical review of SharePoint … because there is so much interest in the product, because there is a lot of hype in the market, because it is a major change in many markets.

– Eight business services in MOSS
– MOSS as a development platform (a business view)
– Final Advice

Eight Business Services in MOSS
Tony showed the “MOSS pie” slide, showing the six parts that make up SharePoint: collaboration, portal, search, content management, business forms, and business intelligence. With the middle part (platform services), you get seven pillars … and once you add “development platform”, you get to eight services in total.

SharePoint for Collaboration
Some comments:
– the terms are very broad. Eg, “we need collaboration” … what does that actually mean? You need to ask the business user, “what do you mean by this?”
– in terms of collaboration (and based on the CMSWatch report on SharePoint), Tony said that the key strength of SharePoint is in file sharing. Other types of collaboration — project/task tracking, social networking, enterprise knowledge management, collaborative authoring and review, discussion and collaborative filtering, and synchronous collaboration and communication — have varying degrees of out-of-the-box capabilities vs. custom development required.

– Tony notes that SharePoint is part of a wider family of products from Microsoft, eg, Office Communications Server, Groove, and more.
– Office 2007 has good integration with SharePoint for opening files, checking in and out, and starting workflow. Tony said that the integration with Office 2003 is also really good.
– There are some issues with integrating SharePoint calendars with Outlook.
– Tony asked whether SharePoint is a collaboration “portal”? He noted that in theory, you can connect to other best-of-breed services via Web parts, but this way of doing things is not the same as operating those services natively.

Summary on Collaboration in SharePoint
– collaboration has been in SharePoint for a long time.
– there is a wide breadth of collaboration services in SharePoint

– it is less oriented towards project-oriented collaboration
– its Web 2.0 services are comparatively clumsy
– there are no real-time collaboration features in SharePoint … you have to look to other Microsoft tools to do this.
– a tendency towards disposable silos of information … which is really bad from a KM perspective

SharePoint for ECM
There’s a variety of services required from an ECM platform … including document imaging and capture (immature in SharePoint), document management (in SharePoint), records management (in SharePoint, but only for SharePoint information), digital asset management (in SharePoint, but limits on file size of 2GB reduces usefulness for video files … which is a limitation per FILE, not for the site), COLD/ERM (not in SharePoint), and content integration (not in SharePoint).

Summary on ECM in SharePoint:
– optional RM services
– handy Office integration
– useful collaboration emphasis

– poor metadata and taxonomy support
– limited folder processing functionality, eg, applying taxonomy to documents put into a specific folder
– bottom-up provisioning mitigates against enterprise governance. Tony said that natively in SharePoint, there is no way of managing across all of the sites that get created “virally”.

Summary on Web Content Management in SharePoint:
– built on top of core SharePoint services
– can build content-oriented applications

– poor support for web standards and accessibility
– poor fit for multi-lingual environments … generally have to rely on partner solutions
– service is less polished than others in MOSS … so you need to rely on lower-level coding and other tools

SharePoint for Business Intelligence
– offers basic reporting services
– Power Excel users can create lightweight dashboards (“low hanging fruit”)

– no native BI services beyond simple reporting
– reports tend to be static … can’t do “what if”
– will need to go to other tools from Microsoft (Performance Point or SQL Server) to get more advanced things.

SharePoint for Business Forms
Tony thinks that Microsoft has been quiet about forms, but that this is the hidden gem of SharePoint.

– routing services meet most departmental needs, eg, expense authorization
– very easy to create forms and customize workflows

– workflow is SharePoint centric
– there are unexpected behaviours when not using a Web client, eg, Outlook

Conclusion: What is SharePoint Really?
Myth … “out of the box product” to fit most information management needs
Reality … the most “finished” pieces still revolve around file-based collaboration. And it’s very user-friendly for this.
When you get beyond that, it becomes a development platform … or “consultant friendly”

MOSS as a Development Platform
Development in SharePoint requires a developer … to use something like SharePoint Designer, an integrated development environment.

SharePoint is really a stack of technologies … lots of different parts to understand, change, and maintain over time.

Tony noted that they are seeing more and more work needing to be done with configuration files in the “12 Hive” area. These require a developer, and all of the things in here are not managed code, are not subject to workflows, etc. Danger … tread carefully.

It’s easy to roll-out and propagate SharePoint sites (based on templates), but it is much harder to manage those once they are in the wild.

Some Final Advice
– SharePoint is NOT “free”.
– Recognize the technical complexity of SharePoint. It may be easy to use, but it is complex to extend.
– Do not over-engineer your environment. There aren’t mature best practices for SharePoint yet, it isn’t clear what Microsoft plans to do with the next edition of SharePoint, so need to be careful about what you do.
– Do consider working with a Microsoft Partner to speed your deployment … but don’t get carried away with a Partner’s enthusiasm. If you do work with a partner, ensure that they have expertise in the area of SharePoint that you are interested in.
– Do plan any migration very carefully. Eg, from WSSv2 to SharePoint 2007.

Looking forward to seeing many of you at the upcoming Enterprise 3.0 Conference in San Diego in May 2008.

Questions and Answers from the Floor
There were hundreds of questions:

1. “How does SharePoint compare with other tools?”
– this wasn’t the purpose of this call. Go look at the other ECM reports from CMSWatch.

2. “On migration, should we migrate from Documentum to SharePoint?”
– “it depends” … we have seen some migration from Documentum to SharePoint.
– it depends … on what you were doing with Documentum … if you were just doing basic management of Office files … then migrating would be fine.
– … but if you were using Documentum for regulatory compliance, SharePoint isn’t there yet.
– look at using SharePoint as the interface to the Documentum repository, or using SharePoint in the creation phase of content development and Documentum for lifecycle management.

3. “How do we define ECM, and in comparison to ERM?”
– there is lots of confusion between analysts and vendors as to what ECM actually means.
– “ECM” … from Microsoft’s perspective, seems to be “a set of ECM services that may or may not be integrated”.

4. “Why is the wiki functionality so poor in SharePoint?”
– the wiki and blog capabilities in SharePoint came late in the day, and so they feel rushed.
– Microsoft has partnered with pure-play wiki vendors to make wiki services better.
– Microsoft has also put out a community kit for building “a better blog, a better wiki” for SharePoint. There is no support for this from Microsoft, however.

5. “On WCM, is SharePoint Tier 1, 2 or 3?”
– Tony is inclined to rate it as “Tier 3” … the lowest one. Out-of-the-box it’s not there … you will need to do a lot of custom development.

6. “On lists … is this a useful structure?”
– it’s a long time construct in SharePoint … it’s not a bad way of exposing types of information.
– it’s a simple way of showing information
– however, when you need more hierarchical ways of showing information, SharePoint starts to strain to do it.

7. “Are there any XML tools for SharePoint?”
– Tony … “what do you want to do with this?”

8. “On calendaring on SharePoint … how does the SharePoint calendar work with Outlook?”
– The calendar in Outlook is a true calendar … it understands free-busy
– The calendar in SharePoint, it is a list of events … no concept of free-busy. You can’t integrate the calendars easily (unless you have a lot of development resources).

9. “How easy is it to migrate information out of SharePoint?”
– we haven’t run into this a lot yet. Tony thinks that it won’t be easier or more complex that other systems.
– because of the storage in SQL Server, it will be a data migration.
– will still need to migrate the application logic.

10. “Do I need the Business Data Catalog thing?”
– It is included in the Enterprise license, but you don’t have to have it.
– It’s a useful tool, with some limitations. Eg, read-only of other information, not read-write.

11. “What your opinion as SharePoint as a portal for external customer-facing sites?”
– not a strong point of SharePoint. More build for intranet scenarios.
– better to look at the heavy-duty Java based tools.
– there’s quite an expense to doing this.

12. “We have 2000 employees … and we’re a Microsoft shop. So SharePoint is a foregone conclusion. But what you’ve said about SharePoint makes me worried … should I still proceed?”
– Most organizations assume that MOSS is a given … but that’s a problem.
– Tony’s core question … “what do you want to use SharePoint for?”
– Have to look at what you want to do … across the 8 services … and see whether SharePoint is the best fit.

13. “We are an education organization, we want to deploy SharePoint for file and print services?”
– depends on what you mean.

14. “Is there workflow capabilities in SharePoint?”
– Yes, through the Windows Workflow Foundation … there are some useful services.
– If you need basic approval workflows, and where all of your information is in SharePoint, then go for it.
– If not, look for a business process management solution … simulations, cross-SharePoint work, etc.

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