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Eric Swift on SharePoint 2010’s Value for Developers and Admins

Cuing up BCS, BI, cloud, mobile, and more

On a cloudy day in late summer, I caught up with Eric Swift, General Manager of SharePoint Product Management at Microsoft, for an exclusive interview on SharePoint 2010—the value for developers and admins, customer reaction to the product, and what the road ahead looks like. We met in the Great Room of the SubMixer building on the new Microsoft campus. The Great Room is a cavernous “living room” where guests of Microsoft can try out cool new stuff from the Entertainment and Devices division. We contented ourselves with sitting around a table and talking SharePoint, which is more business-critical cool.

For a late breaking update on Microsoft’s SharePoint activities, including fall product announcements see the web-exclusive sidebar, “Update on SharePoint Product Announcements,” Instant Doc ID 126013. For a list of SharePoint product statistics check out this issue’s editorial, “Amazing SharePoint Facts,” Instant Doc ID 125948.

 SharePointPro Connections Magazine: You’re relatively new in your role on the SharePoint team. I know SharePointPro Connections readers would like to get to know you better. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

 Eric Swift: I started my career working in data warehousing and sales force automation, and I worked on integration software. I jumped at an opportunity to move to Microsoft and started on the e-business server team: BizTalk Server, Commerce Server, and Content Management Server, at that time. I worked closely with the SharePoint team because Content Management Server moved over to the SharePoint side. We strategized about how the SharePoint offering would cover both internal collaborative apps and intranet sites in addition to external dotcom sites and extranet sites. Then I moved to Unified Communications and worked on Communications Server and Exchange Server. In February of 2010 I was asked to come back over to SharePoint. This was a great opportunity because it connected some of the things I’ve done in the past with that passion for making business more effective with software.

 SP Mag: That sounds like a logical path to SharePoint. It’s been a few months since SharePoint 2010 has been released. Tell me how it’s doing in the marketplace.

 Eric Swift: The SharePoint Conference \\[October 2009\\] where we first made the disclosure was a tremendous success. That took us by surprise. We knew it was going to be a great product, but we had no idea how much interest and enthusiasm there would be in the marketplace. There were a tremendous number of early adopters and customers who put the product in production--doing everything from the core workloads for their content management portals and dotcom sites to building innovative collaborative apps on top of them. So when we released the product, in the late spring \\[of 2010\\] we had a tremendous amount of customer and partner evidence about people who were using the product.

 SP Mag: Folks in the SharePoint vendor ecosystem are telling me their research indicates a wave of SharePoint 2010 uptake coming in 2011. Are you seeing a wave coming?

 Eric Swift: Definitely. We have a tremendous amount of customers who have licensed the product and deployed it for just the base workloads—document sharing and storage. Now we’re seeing a couple of different areas of growth. New customers are joining every day, but also those who have purchased the product already and who have deployed it for those base workloads are building more collaborative applications on top of the platform. SharePoint is moving beyond being just a place to store your documents and collaborate, to a place where you can add document workflow, collaborative workflow, and connectivity in the back-end systems—everything from dashboards to extended search capabilities across SharePoint information or corporate file shares, line of business (LOB) data, and business intelligence (BI) applications. So we’re seeing growth with the new customers but also the depth of capabilities with our existing customer base.

 SP Mag: Are you seeing a lot of interest in migration from WSS or MOSS?

 Eric Swift: Yes, definitely. We worked hard to make sure that we had the right migration tools, and a good documentation experience, so that organizations move there as effectively as possible. We gave guidance early on about what you can do to optimize your experience. And almost every conversation we’re having with SharePoint 2003 or 2007 customers includes looking at a migration strategy.

 SP Mag: Migration is something our readers are very interested in. Do you see a lot of interest in organizations moving from other collaborative platforms to SharePoint 2010?

 Eric Swift: We see a lot of people replacing competitive offerings because SharePoint offers a better solution in a specific area. SharePoint is a broad platform, so now they can have a common infrastructure, a common set of tools, and a common development environment where they can not only replace those individual point solutions, but have a complete platform for building additional capabilities on top of them.

 SP Mag: We’ve heard that SharePoint is one the fastest growing server products in Microsoft history. What are your plans for reaching your next growth milestone?

 Eric Swift: We’re looking at growing the SharePoint opportunity by adding more value to customers. In SharePoint 2010 we added more capabilities around Internet sites. That’s one area of growth. We took the advantages of using SharePoint internally and pointed them outside in extranet scenarios, to partners and close customer groups, and dotcom sites. We utilized content management capabilities to create a better publishing environment for external websites. Another growth area is deeper workloads—things like building out BI solutions such as dashboards, KPI reports, and using Excel services to provide deep and robust analysis of very large data sets right in the SharePoint environment. A third growth area is with Business Connectivity Services (BCS) providing the ability for the developer to connect to a LOB system, surface that system within the SharePoint environment, and then build the interfaces into the collaborative app. So that, for example, you could take customer data from the CRM system, and the invoicing data from the ERP system, then put that data with the documents and other information you’re using to collaborate on those accounts and invoices.

 SP Mag: Our developer readers are very interested in BCS. We’re starting a series on it in this issue.

 Eric Swift: That’s great. In 2007 we saw SharePoint’s potential to do that. Developers started building Web Parts that connected into all these back-end systems. But, with SharePoint 2010 BCS, the underlying connectivity constructs allow people to connect a non-native LOB app directly and make it appear to SharePoint as a native element. So, via the external list and other technologies, a developer can now bring that data into SharePoint and it can operate as if it were a SharePoint list or a SharePoint content type. The developer can provide the core building blocks and people can then configure collaborative apps, such as workflows, on top of them. As if they’re just developing in SharePoint. Previously, if you built Web Parts, they were standalone.

 SPMag: Since the release have you learned anything about SharePoint?

 Eric Swift: We did a survey of people who deployed SharePoint and asked them what was most satisfying and what had the most business value. We found a high degree of satisfaction across all users of SharePoint. But the ones who were the most satisfied were in organizations that decided to use SharePoint as a platform for collaborative applications. When the IT department built specific applications for users in the SharePoint environment and trained their users how to configure those applications, we found that they were the most satisfied of all customers.

 SPMag: We’ve been hearing about “the consumerization of IT” from Microsoft as workers bring their expectations from home into the workplace. How do you see the consumerization of IT playing out in the SharePoint space?

 Eric Swift: SharePoint, especially 2010, really delivers with social capabilities we’ve added. We can bring the best of what people are used to in consumer environments but also provide it within a corporate environment that’s managed, that’s scalable, and that provides those security protections that IT demands. So you can store your documents, collaborate, have conversations, build out wikis, tag content, rate it, and yet do these things in a way that isn’t outside of IT’s visibility and searchability.

 SP Mag: Do you see a significant uptake of SharePoint 2010 among ISVs?

 Eric Swift: Yes. At the Worldwide Partner Conference for Microsoft there was tremendous enthusiasm from software vendors. First, we saw systems integrators who build vertical solutions on top of SharePoint. These collaborative applications meet the needs of their customers in a customized fashion, such as configuring SharePoint for the specific needs of heath care or financial services. Then we have the organizations that use SharePoint as a basis for applications. And we see software vendors who are migrating from the proprietary environments that they are built on, implementing their application directly on top of SharePoint, and using SharePoint as the foundation for their application. These applications tend to be more collaborative in focus—applications that benefit from the core collaborative capabilities of SharePoint, in addition to the ability to manage workflow and tie into back-end systems and do BI reporting.

 We also see ISVs who have an existing software product, maybe a LOB transaction system, and they’re exposing their data and their underlying business logic into SharePoint. So some people work within their product, say it’s a CRM system and you’re working with call center records, but then the rest of the organization can access that data via the SharePoint BCS connector. The rest of the organization can take advantage of the data without having to learn the specifics or have that particular application installed on their desktop. This allows that ISV to broaden the reach of their application to more users in the organization without having to roll out software and train people. The developers within the organization can do further configuration and customization on top of that.

 SPMag: What are the key elements that have contributed to the growth of SharePoint 2010 as a developer platform?

 Eric Swift: We did a lot of investment to make the development environment more robust, and we aligned it with Visual Studio. One example that gets applause is Web Part development. Now that we have integrated debugging, you can identify the issue or the piece of custom code. People are also excited about enhanced Silverlight integration and the Silverlight programming model. Developers are excited about BCS. We see a lot of people expanding their portfolio from development to moving more into the data side—building out websites that have a BI capability.

 On the content management side, we see a lot of SharePoint developers pointing their skills outward to the dotcom sites and working with a design agency and the other people who manage the external websites. They’re extending their usage of content management services to create an external website with visual appeal, functionality, and all the capabilities. And they provide the ability for business users to update it directly.

 The integration of FAST is probably the fourth area. The FAST capabilities that we acquired and have now integrated into SharePoint allow a robust search capability. We see FAST used for both external websites and for internal search. So you can search in a very effective manner, not only your SharePoint content but also your file share content and your BCS—you can search your LOB content.

 SP Mag: What have you been hearing about the developer uptake of sandbox solutions?

 Eric Swift: That’s another very popular item. Everyone wants their code to be very popular, but if you become too popular you’re not ready to scale for it. By creating a sandbox solution we can govern and restrict resource utilization, and that allows people to more aggressively roll out their code in a more confident way. People are really excited about being able to deploy to sandboxed solutions and have that contained environment. It makes it a lot easier to check in code, and the IT administrator feels much better about letting the developer play, so to speak, in the sandbox. We’re hearing from customers that it makes the cycle of innovation go much faster. It creates a positive relationship between the developer and the IT administrator. That’s a feature that has really made a difference in getting developer code into production and into the hands of users.

 SP Mag: Are you hearing that developers are using sandbox solutions on premises or in the cloud?

 Eric Swift: Right now they’re using it on premises. As we roll out the next version of our online services we’ll be adding new capabilities and we’ll be talking more about that in the fall. \\[See the web-exclusive sidebar “Update on SharePoint Product Announcements,” InstantDoc ID 126013, for the latest information.\\] I’d love to tell everything to this audience in that time frame.

 SP Mag: What technologies should SharePoint developers become familiar with to prepare for the future?

 Eric Swift: Obviously .NET and Silverlight and the core capabilities of SharePoint. Within SharePoint look at BCS, the data connectivity for the BI solutions, and the FAST search capabilities. Then, look at the longer term for where Microsoft development is going, paying close attention to the innovations that we’ll be doing in the cloud—Azure or our online offering.

 Inside SharePoint, look at InfoPath Forms Services, which give you the ability to create rich online forms and, as you’re building out collaborative applications, (whether those are contained within SharePoint workflows, documents, lists, or pointing to external data sources, BCS) build robust and highly designed forms that contain data logic and validation. That’s another important thing we added in 2010 to improve the ability to build collaborative applications. In addition, with Windows Phone 7 coming right up we have a great development environment. We look forward to seeing developers point that innovation back into SharePoint.

 SP Mag: Are there any good customer or partner implementations of BCS you can share?

 Eric Swift: The best partner story is the work that we’re doing with SAP. At the recent SAP Sapphire event we announced the next version of our Duet offering, which is called Duet Enterprise; that’s a joint offering between SAP and Microsoft. Duet Enterprise is going to be built on top of SharePoint. It’s a way to surface SAP data inside SharePoint. Then you can use that to extend your SAP information and allow your users to access SAP data right from the SharePoint environment. This will allow developers, who might not know SAP, but who know SharePoint, to build collaborative applications leveraging that SAP data. We’re also doing that with Microsoft CRM, and we’re talking with many other partners that are well along the path to doing similar types of things. You’ll hear about that in coming months, as the ISVs build out BCS and surface application data right in the SharePoint environment.

 You want to bring these LOB and business transactional applications out to the users that need the data. With previous versions of SharePoint, customers and partners built Web Parts to bring that data into the SharePoint environment but that contains that data to that Web Part. By bringing it in through BCS, it looks and acts more like a native component of SharePoint. And then somebody using SharePoint Designer and doing configuration, workflows, forms, and logic can manipulate and create applications on top of that data. They don’t have to get into the underlying guts of back-end legacy systems because that connectivity is already created and presented up into SharePoint, a familiar environment.

 SP Mag: Visual Studio has recently announced developer products geared toward non-developers such as LightSwitch. There’s a trend at Microsoft toward technically empowering business people. Down the road do you see more SharePoint admins and business people developing on SharePoint?

 Eric Swift: We definitely see that as one of the major opportunities for growth in SharePoint solutions. When an organization decides to make SharePoint their platform for collaborative apps, their developers can then create the basic building blocks whether they are workflow actions, connectivity to back-end systems, and connectivity for search connections. It really works out positively when IT and developers get together to create the right underlying infrastructure components, and then work with the business teams to design applications. Business users can do a lot of that development without having to know the details of the back-end systems and the details of .NET development because they’ve got the components right there. They can just configure in SharePoint Designer and other tools in the design environment.

 SP Mag: Are you seeing a lot of interest in SQL Server PowerPivot for Excel and PowerPivot for SharePoint among business people in SharePoint 2010 environments?

 Eric Swift: Business people wanted to end up in Excel because that’s one of the most common tools for financial analysts and other types of business analysts to manipulate, view data, do calculations, do reports, do analysis. With PowerPivot you can put large data sets into the SharePoint environment where they can be shared across multiple users and groups.

 SP Mag: Now that there’s a common developer IDE for SharePoint, how can BI developers take advantage of it? Is there potential for new classes of applications?

 Eric Swift: We have an environment where we can bring BI information, capabilities, and insights to everyone. It’s not limited to the few people who have access to the high-end specialized tools or directly to the data back end. We’re seeing people get very aggressive in terms of creating those reports, those analyses, and those charts and getting them out to people and that’s one of the big areas of value that SharePoint 2010 brings.

 I spoke to a large consumer goods manufacturer, and they actually started with BI in their SharePoint rollout. They didn’t know anything about SharePoint, and they looked at different BI solutions. They needed robust, high-end enterprise business capabilities, but they also needed a way to get the data out to the people who were using it, whether it was the financial analysts, the CFO, the people in the CFO’s department, the CEO, or the brand managers of the product lines. They looked at the different options and said, “Well a lot of BI products out there have these robust capabilities.” But when they saw that Microsoft not only had that but also had that ability with the SharePoint platform to bring it out to everybody in a very straightforward way, that made it a hands down winner and their choice for a BI platform.

 So when they rolled it out, their CFO was thrilled. He said, “It’s fantastic. It’s exactly what I needed.” But the IT department was thrilled because they no longer had to manually generate reports. They said, “I have a person whose full-time job two weeks out of the month was to make reports for the CFO, and now we set it up once and the CFO is in there manipulating the data, working with it directly, and when there is something new needed, the CFO can actually suggest it and make it himself or have the SharePoint people make it, and then it can be made available to everybody else.” Interestingly this customer used a BI project to justify the entire cost of the deployment of SharePoint because it was that much value to the organization.

 SP Mag: What’s next for search in SharePoint?

 Eric Swift: We’re not communicating specifics on the road map right now, but we are seeing that that ability to search all your content and have a single place regardless of where it’s located has just been a tremendous value. We worked with a technical company that was highly distributed and incredibly siloed. Knowledge about specific product lines, technical specifications, recommendations, and architecture was spread across the company. They used their SharePoint rollout to break down those walls, starting with the value of search, both people search and content search. Once you find what you needed, you could find out who worked on it, who the expert was, and then you could start collaboration from that point forward. We’re looking to continue our investment in search and take the solid foundation we have and the innovative FAST technology to the next level both inside the firewall and for search on outbound sites.

 SP Mag: How do you see the SharePoint marketplace shifting over the next five years?

 Eric Swift: There are a couple of places where we will see a shift. One is the move to consumer-driven demand. As we drive to the next generation of the web and the next generation of mobile devices, we see the market continuing to shift that way. Another area is online. Organizations that previously haven’t had the staff and resources to provide all of the capabilities to their end users now can use an online service to provide the base capabilities and the base applications. In the next five years we’ll see a major shift of work that has been done traditionally by IT at the infrastructure level moving online, which will allow IT to expand and increase the depth of their expertise and their value by focusing on those higher-level capabilities.

 Another big shift will be to bring the consumers’ experience in mobile into the corporate environment. Many of us use mobile devices to access our email and our calendars—that will continue to be invested in and improve, but also other types of applications will be corporate-focused.

 SP Mag: Do you have any advice for IT pros and developers on getting started with SharePoint 2010, if they’re not already there?

 Eric Swift: There are a couple of things I’d recommend. Look at what you’ve done in previous versions of SharePoint and see how that can look in SharePoint 2010. You can do a straight migration. But you may want to enhance or modify what you’ve done so that it takes advantage of the full power of SharePoint 2010.

 There’s a couple of areas that will be of really high value to SharePoint professionals going forward—BI capabilities because they’re important in corporations and organizations for understanding and analyzing business data. Then there’s connectivity into back-end systems with BCS, and that includes not only the core capability, but things like InfoPath that use it for Forms Services. Then take a look at mobile capabilities and how they will be developing over time. What can you do to stand out and show SharePoint in a different light than has been done traditionally?

 SP Mag: Do you have any final thoughts to leave with our developer and IT pro readers?

 Eric Swift: Coming over in the last six months to the SharePoint business has been exciting and energizing. It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm for SharePoint among the developers and the IT professionals who have taken it to the next level. Their feedback has driven the growth of this product since its early incarnations to where it is today. You’ve asked me several questions about what I’ve seen: I think we’re just beginning, and developers and IT Pros will be showing us how far they can take SharePoint 2010 in the coming years. That will continue to motivate us to create great capabilities and keep moving the product forward.


Related reading:

SharePoint Online is Turning the Microsoft Tanker Around Very Fast, by Caroline Marwitz.

SharePoint on a Cloudy Day (SharePoint and Azure), by Steve Fox

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