There are few people who have not heard of SharePoint, but understanding what SharePoint has to offer is another story.  The best way to understand SharePoint is to use it.  This series of posts will provide an overview of the product, and explains how a non techie can get started.

SharePoint is currently in its third incarnation (SharePoint 2007) and within 9 months Microsoft will be deploying the fourth version, “SharePoint 2010.”  There are three distinct SKUs:

  1. WSS (Windows SharePoint Server)
    – Comes with the Windows Server and is free.
  2. MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) Standard Edition
    – An extension of WSS, and is licensed per server as well as per user.
  3. MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) Enterprise Edition
    – An extension of the Standard Edition, and is licensed per server as well as per user.

It is also possible to buy a “Public Connector” for MOSS, which is a license  that allows SharePoint to be used as a publicly facing site with no limit on the number of users .

Although Microsoft is trying to showcase SharePoint as an excellent platform to build publicly facing sites, there is general agreement that SharePoint is best used in a closed community where users must login.  Microsoft touts SharePoint as a product that supports six pillars: (These pillars are about to be rebranded in SharePoint 2010, see SharePoint 2010 has new pillars.)  The six pillars are:

  1. Collaboration
    – Allowing members of a closed community to share documents, tasks, calendars, contacts, etc
  2. Portal
    – Providing a single web site that is the gateway to an organization’s web based functions.
  3. Enterprise Search
    – Competing with Google for the enterprise,
  4. Web & Enterprise Content Management
    – A publishing platform that allows for simple workflows among authors and editors.
  5. Forms Driven Business Process
    – Allows for easy development of electronic forms and associated automated workflows.
  6. Business Intelligence
    – Allows organization to build dashboards summarizing data that reside in disparate electronic repositories.

The original intent behind SharePoint was to empower business users to control their own destiny without being dependent on IT and Development staff.  In the author’s experience, SharePoint often requires much more planning and maintenance than business users can provide.  Thus one often finds that specially trained SharePoint IT and developer personnel are required to stand-up and support in-house SharePoint deployments.

Although still quite limited, it is now possible to lease robust versions of SharePoint that reside in the cloud and truly are managed without any hidden costs.  This series of articles will summarize three services that were tried by the author:

  1. SharePoint Online – Part of the Microsoft Business Online Productivity Suite.
  2. Apps4rent – A robust SharePoint and Exchange online implementation.
  3. WebHost4Life – Similar to  Apps4Rent’s SharePoint implementation with a non-Exchange email system.

The discussion will focus only on SharePoint.  In all cases, the environments are WSS (Not MOSS) and are hosted in a joint tenancy model, meaning that you are sharing computing resources with other SharePoint sites. Although people will tell you there could be a number of reasons why this may be problematic, the author never experienced any issues due to joint tenancy.  Microsoft does offer an expensive service in a dedicated environment.  This service requires that a minimum of 5,000 user licenses are being leased.

Both Apps4rent and WebHost4Life have a simple model that is easy for an end user to understand. In contrast, the Microsoft environment is quite confusing with poor documentation.  Both Apps4Rent and WebHost4Life offer immediate support with chat sessions, and the customer service staff was knowledgeable and helpful.  Again, in contrast to this, Microsoft’s support was poor.  Microsoft communicated via a secure email channel, responses took 4 to 6 hours, and the support personnel did not understand the product well…

Microsoft is trying to provide a replacement for the suite of Office servers that organizations install on premises (Exchange and SharePoint). To accomplish this it requires trained IT staff to understand the Microsoft online offering and to figure out how to leverage this across an organization. For example, Microsoft requires the use of a logon application that must be installed and configured on every desktop.  The logon application looks and feels a little bit like the MSN Messenger application and must be carefully installed so that it does not conflict with an existing Active Directory infrastructure. The logon application then becomes the launching point for the Microsoft Suite of Online Applications. The Logon Applications can only be installed in a Windows environment, thus connecting to your environment from a Mac, iPhone, Linux machine, etc. are not supported.  As part of the whole logon environment, it turns out that the URL that your SharePoint environment is based upon, is a really long and ugly string.  The thinking is, that since you navigate to the site from the Logon Application, there is no need to have a simple and memorable URL.

Note that the Microsoft environment is not friendly to an extranet situation, where one wants to invite partners into the SharePoint environment, and does not allow for anonymous users.  It turns out that Microsoft has written a white paper that describes how to host SharePoint in the cloud.  Both the competing vendors, Apps4Rent & WebHost4Life, have followed Microsoft’s recommendations, but the Microsoft Online offering has strayed far from this prescription.

Both competing offerings, Apps4Rent and WebHost4Life, do not use a login client.  They both allow for anonymous access.  Thus one can easily stand-up a collaborative and transaction based environment for authenticated users, while allowing non-authenticated users access to the brochure portions of the site. For example, the author is working with a non profit “eco” organization to standup a site that showcases the progress city residents have made in reducing their carbon footprint.  The site allows people to view the site and find out information about what is being done by the residents, and at the same time it allows city residents to logon and enter their “before” and “after” impact on the environment. This is all being done using WSS.

SharePoint Administration is generally performed through a SharePoint site called Central Administration.  In all three online services, there is no access to the traditional administration.  All three provide a simple administration panel that allows the site owner to add and remove users. Because access to the back end of SharePoint is not permitted, it means that one cannot add any third party products to any of the online versions of SharePoint.  Many people will consider this a show stopper. This being said, the three online offerings can still be quite useful, and the upgrade to SharePoint 2010 is sure to be much easier.

Microsoft has created a set of 40 templates, which are affectingly referred to as the “Fabulous 40” and they are publically available.  Interestingly enough, the Microsoft online service does not provide the Fabulous 40, but the other services do.   The Fabulous 40  provide a decent start to sites like: Classroom Management, Clinical Trial Initiation and Management, Competitive Analysis Site, Discussion Database, Disputed Invoice Management, Employee Activities Site, Employee Self-Service Benefits, Employee Training Scheduling and Materials, Equity Research, Integrated Marketing Campaign Tracking Manufacturing Process Management, New Store Opening, Product and Marketing Requirements Planning, Request for Proposal, Sports League, Team Work Site, Timecard Management.

Table 1 summarizes the points that have been highlighted in this post.  The next article will provide some examples of the kinds of things that can be done using Apps4Rent.

Table 1: Summary of Entry Level Online WSS Service Offerings by Three Vendors.