Sharepoint Comes of Age
Giving your customers a computing environment that will do exactly what they want is one of the best ways to make them happy, and one of the most effective ways to achieve this is with a combination of Microsoft SharePoint and Office.
Every business has documents. Every business needs document management. For almost any small business, SharePoint and Office are an ideal combination for delivering document management, and the latest version, SharePoint 2010, provides much more than its predecessor in terms of what it does and how you can control it.
There’s so much on offer, the tricky bit is working out just what you can do with the new SharePoint and how you make it work for your small business customers. If you have customers who have a mainly Windows-based network, and who complain they find it difficult to organise or find information such as documents or images, they will almost certainly benefit from SharePoint. If they need to organise meetings and projects, or find ways for colleagues to cooperate on projects, SharePoint could give you the tools to set up a system for them that will make life a lot easier and them a lot more efficient.
First you need to explain what SharePoint does. Microsoft describes SharePoint as ‘the business collaboration platform for the enterprise and the Web’. In more practical terms, SharePoint can be used to create corporate intranet portals, online document repositories and to manage collaboration between business users. The latest version adds Office Web apps and you can set it up to manage Web sites that face the outside world.
Many of you will have had experience with collaboration packages that took forever to set up and were well beyond the capabilities of normal mortals; SharePoint isn’t like that. It actually works, is fairly easy to get going, and you can produce impressive results that will meet the needs of your customers.
If you’ve tried previous versions of SharePoint, you first of all need to know that SharePoint 2007 was streets better than earlier incarnations, and this latest version, 2010, has improved again. It has better searching, better integration with Outlook and Excel, social network-style features like tagging, and the inclusion of the Office Web apps could mean that your customers could avoid the need for full-blown Office. The support for remote workers has been enhanced in this release, so that someone working remotely can still have access to the content from SharePoint even when offline. Once they are back online, any changes are synchronised back to the server.
From an administrative and developer viewpoint, the key facts about SharePoint 2010 start with its 64-bit architecture. As with other recent server products from Microsoft, the assumption is that servers will be 64-bit. What’s more, the minimum hardware requirements are quite heavy duty - the processor needs 4 64-bit cores and 8GB of memory. This makes life a lot easier once your customers have bit the bullet and moved to a 64-bit environment, but it is something you need to bear in mind. Of course, this does give you the opportunity to host their SharePoint sites for them, which may be another opportunity to provide value. In administration terms, SharePoint can now be administered using PowerShell scripts, giving you lots of scope for remote automated administration. You can go further when developing for it using Visual Studio 2010, and in general this is a release that is both powerful and easy to work with. There’s also a much improved SharePoint Designer 2010, and you can also develop custom applications using Access 2010.
Getting started with SharePoint 2010 is easy as it comes with a collection of site templates that you can use as the basis of your site, and in many cases the templates provided will be sufficient for your customers’ needs. You can, of course go further and develop your own templates (or more likely customise those provided) if you want. This is a good source of potential income if you have the skills.
If you want to develop applications for your customers that go beyond the pre-prepared options, SharePoint 2010 gives plenty of scope. SharePoint Designer 2010 has had a major upgrade, with stronger support for complex workflows and easier ways to reuse a workflow developed for one site in a different site. Similarly, Visual Studio 2010 is much more SharePoint aware, and the tools you can use are much stronger than those in earlier versions. This means your developers can stay in Visual Studio to create most SharePoint pages, including Web Parts.
Another improvement for developers is the ability to design forms using InfoPath 2010. Using InfoPath, you start with a simple form layout and can add validation routines and different views to the underlying data the form is built on. You can also add extra data sources. This is particularly useful when setting up lists that will be used to create custom user interfaces for your SharePoint sites. These can make the end users life much easier by presenting them with all possible choices to save them having to know what’s on offer.
Finally, if you’re familiar with Visio, you can design workflows for SharePoint in Visio then import them into SharePoint Designer (or export them from the designer into Visio for further documentation). Visio 2010 comes with a new template for SharePoint that includes most of the actions that you might need to use to set up a workflow, providing a very quick way to design a workflow process for exporting to SharePoint Designer.
Templates are key to SharePoint; the means by which you control the way your sites look and act. Getting the right template is important, because once a site has been created based on a template, you can’t change the underlying template later. SharePoint comes with around thirty predefined templates, and if this doesn’t give you what you want you can design your own or buy in one of the many customised versions available from third-party SharePoint developers. If a customer has a very small business, you may set up a single site for them, but most businesses will benefit from having several sites for different aspects of their business.
Templates in SharePoint are organised into a number of groups - Collaboration, Content, Data, Meetings and Search. Within those groups you’ll find templates for options such as meeting workplaces, work group sites, blogs and document centres. If, for example, you chose the Basic Meeting Workspace you’d get a site that your customers could use to plan, organise, and capture the results of their meetings, with lists for managing the agenda, meeting attendees, and documents relevant to the meetings. The search centre sites let you set up sites that people can use to search for information on both the Internet and corporate documents, then store the results of the searches. One template that may well get your customers interested and give them an idea of the range of options offered by SharePoint is the PowerPoint Broadcast Centre, which gives a simple way to host PowerPoint 2010 broadcasts to remote viewers – so a trainer or sales lead can run through a presentation that the people they invite can see in their Web browser, wherever they are.
Looked at in one way, the main reason for having documents and information managed in a single space is so people can find things. This makes search an important thing to get right in SharePoint, which explains why this version has a number of ways to manage searches. The most basic option is offered by Search Server 2010 Express, which is free. SharePoint comes with its own tools, and if they need to go further FAST Search for SharePoint can take you all the way to enterprise scale searches.
Whichever option your customers need, searching covers everything from finding documents managed within a site through details in SharePoint’s new social networking options to finding information on the wider Internet. This version of SharePoint has been designed so you can add power where necessary, and search is a good example of this. Searching relies on two parts; finding and indexing the information in the first place, and running search queries. You can separate these elements out onto different servers if necessary, and use multiple query and indexing servers to gain even more power, though its unlikely small businesses would need this.
If you’ve managed SharePoint in the past, you’ll find a simplified administration option in a single dashboard, and a lot of the configuration and administration of the searching tasks can be carried out using PowerShell scripts, so you can write the scripts and schedule them to run to keep the site working.
As the name suggests, FAST Search Server 2010 puts together FAST and SharePoint. If you’ve not encountered FAST, it’s an enterprise search product bought by Microsoft in 2008. Enterprise search engines take content from a number of sources such as databases and company intranets and make the content searchable as though it was a single data source. Using Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, you can set up custom search facilities for your customers taking into account information relevance, the needs of different users to see different results, and the ability to provide pre-defined queries – so users don’t need to be experts in order to find specific information.
In With Office
If you’ve developed systems for customers, you’ve probably tried a variety of software that promises to make it possible for colleagues to collaborate. On the whole, few of the products really worked. People tend to email documents to and fro with the end result of half a dozen identically named versions with different changes. There are Content Management Systems that work, but they require a lot of administration, are generally quite costly, and are tough to set up well in the first place. SharePoint’s technique for collaboration is to have document libraries that can be managed using workflows. You can make use of document versioning to keep track of which changes should be applied, and set up rules for validation. The users work in familiar Office applications so aren’t put off by an unfamiliar environment. Whether they stick within the collaboration system will probably depend as much on the firmness of the managers as it will on the smoothness of any systems you set up. What’s important is that SharePoint comes with the tools to set up collaborations in the first place.
If your customers are going to use SharePoint, it makes sense for them to use Office as well. In fact, as mentioned earlier, it comes with a built-in version of the Office Web applications. SharePoint itself also shares the Office look and feel by using the Office ribbon for its menu structure, though the ribbon only appears in SharePoint when it is required for you to make choices. If you and your customers are used to versions of Office that use the ribbon (2007 onwards), then you and they should find it easier to learn to use SharePoint because of this shared way of working.
The strong ties between Office and SharePoint show up in many ways. If your customers use Outlook as their email and communications software, then you can arrange to have information from colleagues appear in their Outlook inbox by using the Outlook Social Connector. For example, if colleagues update documents, tag Web sites, or make profile updates to their personal SharePoint site (called a MySite), then you can configure Outlook to have the information appear.
Another way Office and SharePoint can be tied together is through Business Connectivity Services, BCS. By using this you can set up the SharePoint/Office combination so that users can work on external data sources, creating, reading, updating or deleting (CRUD) documents in Office applications or SharePoint, with the changes they make then being written back to the external data source. This could, for example, give you a way to work with data held in SQL databases. The data stays securely in a SQL management package such as SQL Server; your customers view and potentially edit the information in their SharePoint portal (or in Access, Outlook or Excel), and you can leave SharePoint to ensure it is all updated correctly.
I’ve already mentioned the PowerPoint Broadcast template. For some companies, this could be the single best reason to go for SharePoint. In the past, if your customers wanted to show a slideshow to a remote business contact, they and the contact would need to use software such as Webex or Live Meeting, which increases the threshold for getting a potential sale. Instead, you can now set up a site for your customers where all their PowerPoint presentations are made available, so if they have a potential customer, there’s no need to install extra software or to have a scheduled ‘broadcast’ of the presentation. Just give the Web address and the remote contacts can view the presentation as is.
InfoPath is another Office member that fits tightly with Office, and you can launch InfoPath to edit SharePoint list forms from the SharePoint ribbon. There’s a quick publish option if all you want to do is to set up a standard list form or edit an existing list. SharePoint WorkSpace is the Office 2010 version of Groove, but as the name suggests, it now works with SharePoint as well. This is one of the most useful ways SharePoint has been improved, as you can use SharePoint Workspace to cache SharePoint content locally for offline use by remote workers. Your customers can choose to synchronise online and offline content from within SharePoint, and synchronise the entire site or just the relevant subsections.
Overall, SharePoint 2010 can turn an disorganised company where no-one has a clear view of what data and documents they own and projects happen haphazardly, into a smooth operation where everything is in its place, searchable, and users have an easy, comfortable work experience. Equally importantly, it provides you with a way to offer your customers those advantages. Get to know SharePoint; it’s a great opportunity.
Describing SharePoint 2010 in 1 Sentence, 8 Categories and 40 Feature Areas
The SharePoint Team blog view of what’s hot about SharePoint 2010:
Total Economic Impact of SharePoint 2010
Whitepaper describing the advantages of using SharePoint from the viewpoint of various industry sectors:
Volume 2, Edition 1
Using SharePoint for document management for the small business
feature finder code 2146a
Volume 3, Edition 2
Document management with Microsoft Search Server
feature finder code 3238a
SharePoint 2010 sharepoint.microsoft.com/en-au/Pages/default.aspx
SRP: SharePoint 2010 Server £3,100
SharePoint 2010 Standard CAL £60
SharePoint 2010 Enterprise CAL £53
Try SharePoint for free
If you’re not familiar with SharePoint and you want to test the waters, there’s a free version called SharePoint Foundation (previously known as Windows SharePoint Services). This provides a version of SharePoint designed for small businesses who want entry-level collaboration facilities. It can be used with the free version of SQL Server, SQL Server Express, so you can put together a collaboration system based on a single server without spending a fortune. It’s a good way to experiment so you can find out the sort of thing you could offer your customers and for very simple businesses, it may be all they need.
Workflows for business processes
You can define workflows in SharePoint to ensure documents or data is handled in an auditable, consistent fashion. Here, I’m creating a workflow to handle discussions.
The workflows are built up as a sequence of steps, actions that should be taken, and conditions to handle possible choices.
Going further, you can work on SharePoint projects from within Visual Studio. This gives almost limitless options for creating custom solutions.