Using SharePoint for document management for the small office
Project management, version control, group calendars, no more duplicates… SharePoint offers the small business a lot more than fancy file sharing and often it’s free. Julian Jordan from London based IT support consultancy Network Fish shows them how to get the most from it.
Managing documents is a key task for any office. Your customers need tools for document sharing, archiving, organisation, versioning, collaborative authoring, protecting confidential documents, backing up anything important, and maintaining an approval process for critical documents such as project proposals or quotations. The traditional small business solution is shared folders on a server, supplemented by the common habit of circulating documents in email attachments. It works after a fashion, but it is a crude approach that can easily become unmanageable. There is also the problem of dealing with the paper documents that flow in and round the organisation and integrating these with electronic documents.
Document management products attempt to bring order out of chaos by centralising document storage in a repository and adding features that go beyond simple permissions on shared folders. Document capture converts paper to electronic records, which must then be stored and organised.
The obvious document management choice for small businesses is SharePoint, not least because in its basic version it is a free add-on for Windows Server. It also forms part of Small Business Server 2003 and 2008. SharePoint’s strength is that it is a broad platform with many possible uses. Unfortunately it is also complex, and often not well understood by its users who can easily miss key features and processes. This means there’s an opportunity for you to explain its benefits, offer training and manage its implementation.
Exactly what is SharePoint?
SharePoint is built on ASP.NET and SQL Server, which means it requires a Windows server. The base platform is called Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), currently at version 3.0, which is free. Small Business Server 2003 comes with WSS 2.0 (you can upgrade to WSS 3.0); Small Business Server 2008 comes with WSS 3.0.
Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS) is a commercial product which extends its capabilities. Earlier versions of MOSS were called SharePoint Portal Server, and the word Portal is a clue to these additional features, which include personal Web sites, additional templates and Web parts, business document workflow, browser-based content authoring, and Enterprise search. Microsoft covers the differences at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/products/FX101758691033.aspx: you can also download this as a document from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepointtechnology/HA101978031033.aspx?pid=CL100636421033.
There are hooks between SharePoint and the Microsoft Office client applications. For example, you can open and save documents directly to SharePoint libraries, and you can link SharePoint libraries to Outlook 2007 to make documents available off line, in a familiar way – the library looks just like an email folder.
Search Server 2008 is an enterprise search solution which is also based on SharePoint. Search Server Express is a free version with some limitations, such as living on a single server rather than a server farm. Search Server Express is a useful addition to WSS but should not be needed if you have MOSS, since search is already part of MOSS.
Assessing the value of SharePoint is tricky. WSS offers a lot for almost nothing, while MOSS can soon get expensive. MOSS is only worth the investment for businesses that will use it intensively.
SharePoint is an extensible platform. SharePoint pages are composed of Web Parts, which in WSS version 3.0 are based on ASP.NET 2.0 Web Parts. You can also include standard ASP.NET pages on SharePoint sites. There is a dedicated SharePoint page design tool called Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer (earlier versions used FrontPage), and there are Visual Studio add-ons that support SharePoint projects.
Installing SharePoint creates a new site in IIS along with databases in SQL Server. SharePoint can be installed on a single server, or as a farm potentially spanning multiple servers. If expansion is a possibility, it is best to configure it as a farm from the beginning, as conversion is tricky. With a single server installation, most options are automated, though they can be amended later.
After installation, you will find several new tools. The SharePoint Products and Technologies Configuration Wizard is in Administrative Tools, and normally only needs to be run for initial configuration or for repairing a system. Note that for a clean reinstallation you should start with empty databases as well as deleting any remnant SharePoint sites from IIS.
The SharePoint Central Administration
site is for global administration and runs on a different port from user sites. It has three tabs: Home, for a system summary and task list; Operations, for settings that affect all SharePoint sites; and Application Management, for creating and configuring specific sites. SharePoint uses the term Site Collection for the content of a site. Many settings for individual sites can also be accessed in the Settings pages on the site itself.
Exploring SharePoint features
Although SharePoint can be intimidating, it also delivers high business value. Here are some features to highlight when pitching SharePoint deployments.
Strong out of the box templates
Even the free WSS has immediately usable templates for team sites, document workspaces, wikis, blogs and meetings. Built-in features of MOSS include instant personal portals (called My Site), discussions, surveys, calendars, picture libraries, tasks and issue trackers, and workflows for document approval and feedback. SharePoint is the easiest way to introduce Web 2.0-style collaboration into a Windows-based environment.
SharePoint makes most sense in an environment where Microsoft Office is deployed (though not all features work with all versions of Office. See Office versions and SharePoint integration.)
You can link SharePoint items such as document, calendars and tasks to Outlook and get offline access and synchronisation. For example, visit a SharePoint document library and choose Actions > Connect to Outlook. Internet Explorer will prompt for access to Outlook, and then create a new entry under SharePoint Lists, containing the documents. These are actually stored in a .PST file on the user’s machine, not in the Exchange mailbox, although they are nevertheless synchronised across Outlook installations on several machines if a user has more than one, so they can take them out of the office on a laptop as well as always working against the most recent version in the office. Size can be an issue, so this is most suitable for smaller libraries of key documents, not large archive collections.
Office 2007 has support for editing SharePoint items off line. For example, you can double-click a SharePoint document in Outlook and it opens in Word, with a button inviting the user to edit off line. When the edits are complete, the user can save the document either to a SharePoint Drafts folder on the local machine, or directly back to the server if available. If check-in and check-out are enabled, the document may be saved but checked out, in which case the edits are invisible to other users until it is checked in.
Workflow is a feature of WSS, but in MOSS it is surfaced fully in the Web user interface and with several workflow templates. One of these is document approval. Here is how it works in a simple case. In a document library, choose Properties to see versions, workflow and alerts for that document. Click Workflows to review or create workflows for that document. Click Approval to start a new Approval workflow. One or more users can be added to the Approval list. MOSS creates a new task for each user, asking them to approve or reject the document and to make comments. As they do so, these are updated in SharePoint.
Document versioning and approval
WSS maintains document history when it’s configured to do so. Versioning is a setting for a document library, found by visiting the Document Library home page and choosing Document Library Settings. Here you can specify whether versions are retained, limits on the number of versions to keep, and who can see drafts. SharePoint distinguishes between major and minor versions (also called draft versions), so you could optionally keep all major versions, but discard minor versions. You can also require document approval. Distinct from workflow approval, this is similar to moderation in an online forum, requiring that submitted documents be approved by an administrator before becoming visible to other users.
Office versions and SharePoint integration
A downside of the tight integration between Office and SharePoint is that the features available vary according to which version of Office or SharePoint is deployed. In a nutshell:
Office 2000: Open and save documents to SharePoint, receive alerts in Outlook.
Office XP: Export SharePoint lists to Excel, view metadata for SharePoint files.
Office 2003: Integration with team meetings, analyse SharePoint data, create Web Parts in FrontPage.
Office 2007: Two -way document synchronisation, support for Open XML formats.
Unfortunately, upgrading to SharePoint 2007 on the server while not upgrading Office clients to Office 2007 is detrimental to some existing features.
For full details, look at the Microsoft Office and SharePoint integration white paper (www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=e0d05a69-f67b-4d37-961e-2db3c4065cb9) which describes how features degrade with older versions of Office, beginning with Office 2000.
For further information contact Julian Jordan at IT Support consultancy Network Fish
Alternatives to SharePoint
Snags with SharePoint include high cost in some deployments, dependency on Office and Windows, complexity of customisation, and a tendency to become an undisciplined sprawl of content if not carefully managed. There are several alternatives although because of the range of features which SharePoint covers, you’ll usually need several products to handle the same range of tasks.
One options is hosted SharePoint, which can be cheaper than a local deployment and simplifies maintenance. Microsoft Office Live www.officelive.com incorporates elements of SharePoint document management and collaboration, many ISPs offer hosted SharePoint with varying levels of cost and features or you may want
to set up hosted SharePoint offerings of your own.Documentum (www.emc.com/products/family/documentum-family.htm) is a high-end Enterprise content management platform. It is possible to link SharePoint with Documentum so it becomes a user-friendly interface to Documentum repositories.
Alfresco (www.alfresco.com) is an open-source content management system with both GPL (open source) and commercial licensing.
Flax (www.flax.co.uk/index.shtml) is an open-source document search platform, licensed under the GPL.
SharePoint Alternative (www.sharepointalternative.com) is an anything-but-SharePoint site with a focus on cost-effective and Web-based alternatives.
Document capture is the process of scanning paper documents, optionally using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to make it possible to read and index them as electronic documents, and storing them in a repository, whether SharePoint, some other document management system, or a simple file share.
Both hardware and software are involved, and small businesses are well supported by scanner vendors such as HP (see www.hp.com/large/ipg/docmanage/doc_capture.html), Epson (www.business-solutions.epson.co.uk/Document%20Management.htm) or Canon (www.canon.co.uk/For_Work/solutions_services/Solutions/Document_Management_Intelligence/Index.asp).
An example is IQMFP from Informa Software (http://informasoftware.com/iqmfp.php) which links with HP multi-function devices and scanners, and offers OCR, indexing, simplified routing, and storage as Adobe PDF. Key issues with this type of solution are how well they integrate with other content management solutions that are in place. If SharePoint is in use, it is worth looking for specific SharePoint integration.
Instant Intelligence Archiving (www.instantintelligence.com) is a Web-based service with reseller options, for archiving documents online and managing them through a Web browser or via Outlook integration, with SharePoint integration. Scanning services are also on offer.
It is possible to set up a workflow in SharePoint that is triggered by the arrival of a document in a specific folder. Using this in combination with a scanner or incoming fax you can automate the handling of new documents and get your customers away from paper all together.