This week, I’m at Windows Connections in Orlando Florida, presenting sessions that reveal how to achieve very cool solutions to major problems that face most businesses. I just spent some time chatting with an overflowing room full of IT pros about SharePoint document libraries. The doclib scenario is obviously a major one for enterprises today—it is consistently a "big draw" discussion.
I asked this room full of folks which of the several Connections events they were registered for. Several were here for Office Connections, a number for Exchange, a few had expertise in SQL or development, and the rest were Windows IT pros. Have you stopped to think about just what a “unifying force” SharePoint is? Consider:
• SharePoint is a .NET application and exposes a rich platform for building .NET solutions
• sitting on top of SQL and IIS
• absorbing functionality formerly provided by Exchange
• relying heavily on the Windows infrastructure
• delivering capabilities to information workers often using Microsoft applications
Who isn’t affected by SharePoint? As you consider, plan, design, and implement your SharePoint infrastructure, be sure to include players from each of those disciplines so that you consider the expertise and support the needs of those constituencies! It’s really kind of amazing to think about a technology that has the potential to create discussion, and to require participation, across so much of your organization. Perhaps that is the biggest sign that we’re finally getting to technology that most directly supports our business?
SharePoint Sour Notes
Over recent weeks, I’ve been delivering report cards about SharePoint’s core scenarios. The collaboration scenario is well supported by SharePoint, as suggested by the huge crowds that choose to attend technical discussions about collaboration with SharePoint. The search story is also pretty rosy.
Microsoft talks about “Forms” as one of the scenarios, which limits the discussion to InfoPath Services in MOSS. I prefer to examine the business process automation (BPA) scenario, which is a bit broader and includes workflows, which don’t require MOSS. The BPA report card for SharePoint is respectable.
There are other scenarios that leave more room for improvement. What I call the “people and personalization” scenario (Microsoft calls it the “Portal” scenario), delivered through My Sites, provides interesting and useful functionality but falls far short of consumer-level social networking and portal sites on the Internet. I know there’s a lot of passion about social networking and the value it can deliver in an enterprise setting, so I’m confident that the next version of SharePoint will up the ante quite a bit. Microsoft should have something to show for its investment in Facebook!
Document and records management is also a weaker link. This scenario is all about supporting compliance and information policy. SharePoint itself provides decent core functionality, but reporting and manageability is not stellar, and there is no support for hierarchical storage management, where certain classes of documents can be moved to other stores. The bigger problem with Document and records management is that most enterprises that need it have very specific requirements to meet. For example, health care organizations in the US have to worry about HIPAA. If you’re planning to use SharePoint for Document and records management, I’d suggest you make sure to examine third-party solutions that sit on top of SharePoint and provide the industry-specific capabilities you need.
Finally, the business intelligence (BI) scenario is lacking. SharePoint has Excel Services, KPIs, and the Business Data Connector (BDC). Excel Services renders Excel worksheets (cells, charts, or pivot tables) in a browser, providing secure views of information to users without requiring Excel. But it has limits. For example, you can render a pivot table but users can’t “drill down” through data as they can in the Office client. There are lots of other limits. The problem is that Excel is Microsoft’s intellectual property, so Excel Services will evolve to solve those problems only at Microsoft’s pace—there won’t be any third-party solutions that enhance Excel Services. And the BDC, while potentially quite powerful, is notoriously difficult to configure.
One SharePoint MVP said it best: “BI in SharePoint is like a diving board into an empty pool.” He went on to suggest that Microsoft may have a “water budget” (to fill that pool) in the next version of Office, but we shouldn’t put on our swimsuits until we see what they deliver. What does that mean? Well, it means that you are almost certain to need third-party assistance to achieve rich BI solutions with SharePoint. Luckily there are a lot of great products out there that enable easier connections to back-end business systems and data sources, and that present that data in rich ways. The fact that so many companies are providing BI solutions for SharePoint should be a major indicator that what’s in the box just ain’t “all that” quite yet.
So this wraps up our SharePoint scenario report card. Earlier weeks went into more detail on the happy stories. This week bundles the weaker scenarios into one discussion. No point in beating a dead horse, particularly when we’re dealing with a dynamic and exciting product that is being revised for Office 14 as we speak, and that is creating a vibrant community of third-party add-ons. Even the weakest of SharePoint’s scenarios can become shining success stories with the right help.