As I pointed out in my first post (SharePoint: Without the Headaches – A Discussion of What is Available in the Cloud,) you don’t necessarily need to host SharePoint in your own organization.  Although I believe that most businesses should focus on leveraging the front end of SharePoint to its full extent, it is important for non-technical users to have an understanding of what it takes to host SharePoint and why one might want to do so.  Therefore, this post provides a discussion of what it takes to host SharePoint and the driving factors for hosting SharePoint.

 

Microsoft’s original intent was to build a tool that was easy to leverage by non-technical users.  Microsoft thought of this as the natural extension of Office to the web[1].  That being said, the complexities got away from Microsoft, and in order to leverage a number of features one needs access to the back end.

Before delving into the SharePoint back end, let me point out that many businesses hire SharePoint development staff, both permanent and on a consulting basis. I think that developing custom SharePoint code should be done only after thoroughly justifying the expense.  It is often a mistake.  Instead, organizations should clearly define their requirements and then leverage a high quality third party add-on.  I will mention some of these at the end of the post.

SharePoint is a fragile product and therefore custom code for SharePoint is very expensive to develop, test, and deploy. Furthermore, custom code often needs to be rewritten when migrating to the next release of SharePoint.  Finally, SharePoint is a rapidly growing product, and chances are good that custom code may soon become obsolete by new features in the next generation.

In my first post, I pointed out that inexpensive SharePoint hosting options are available in the cloud. These options tend to be limited.  For example, the inexpensive rentals do not provide much security, only provide WSS (not MOSS), and do not allow one to add third party add-ins.  It is possible to lease custom environments that don’t surrender to any of these limitations, but they come at a cost.  (Typically starting at $500 per month[2].)  I believe that robust MOSS offerings with third party add-ons will be available at competitive prices within two years. 

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[1] SharePoint is developed by the Office division.

[2] For example, FPWeb offers a SharePoint hosted environment with the CorasWorks Workplace Suite included starting at $495 per month.

SharePoint Hosting: What are the Headaches?

Hosting SharePoint comes with a number of headaches. In fact a number of very large companies have started the process of out sourcing their SharePoint environments to cloud based solution providers.

For the purposes of this discussion, you can think of the SharePoint server as a single entity, although it is really a collection of numerous different types of servers, which are often run on more than one machine.  Microsoft refers to the group of servers as a SharePoint farm.  The person who cares and feeds for these servers is the SharePoint administrator.  Depending upon the type and size of the SharePoint Farm this is usually a non-trivial job.  Microsoft downplays the complexity of this job, claiming it is often a part time job.  Competent SharePoint administrators are difficult to hire and expensive. SharePoint installations can quickly become critical to the business, so having a robust and reliable SharePoint platform is important.

What do SharePoint Administrators do?

  • Standup the original system
  •  Implement authentication: Almost always Active Directory
  • Implement security policies
  • Integrate with the email system
  • Ensure that the system and network are healthy
  • Troubleshoot the system: Often includes: firewalls, networks, SQL database, SharePoint, etc.
  • Backup the system, and perform dry-run recoveries, to ensure that recovery really works
  • Provide help to end users (Unless you have a SharePoint help desk)
  • Apply Microsoft patches to the various servers (This can be non-trivial)
  • Deploy Third Party Add-ins: The administrator must apply extreme caution, since this process can often cause instability to SharePoint.
  • Deploy Custom Software: If custom SharePoint development is going on in the organization, then the administrator must Install and configure the software.
  • When an organization upgrades between major versions of SharePoint, the administrator is intimately involved[3].

SharePoint Hosting: What are the Benefits?

This section should be named, “Why do you Need Control Over The SharePoint Backend?”  Today, access to the back end and hosting are almost synonymous.  There are a few hosting vendors that will do it all.  As I stated earlier, I believe that this type of offering will be much more ubiquitous in the coming years.

Having control over the backend server does afford some key benefits.  Most importantly:

  1. A Secure SharePoint Environment: The ability to secure the SharePoint environment in a private network setting.[4]  I am not convinced that SharePoint has been battlefield tested on the open Internet.  In my opinion, it is therefore best to standup SharePoint in a protected environment.
     
  2. Useful MOSS Features: As I mentioned earlier, Microsoft’s intent was to target all useful functionality at the end users.  In the end, they had to rush some features and one needs access to the back end to leverage these features.  As an example, SharePoint has the ability to provide a content deployment model from on environment to another.  This is useful in a large scale web site, where a staging environment is required.  MOSS provides a feature set called Content Deployment.  This allows a staging environment to be setup, and when it is ready for public exposure, the content can be deployed to the production environment.  Access to the backend is needed for the publication process.
     
  3. An Environment that Allows Third Party Add-ins: There are numerous third party add-ins that empower business users to make far greater use of SharePoint without needing a developer.  I mention just a few:
    1. CorasWorks Work Place Suite and Data Integration Toolset: Both of these packages can easily extend the functionality of both WSS and MOSS.  Many customers find that they can use the free version (WSS) of SharePoint together with the CorasWorks tools.

      Once these packages are installed, these tools allow business users to easily add sophisticated aggregate views of tables and charts that gather data from many lists throughout an entire SharePoint farm.  (Native SharePoint views only allow for data to be extracted from one list and that list needs to be in the same site as the view.)

      The Data Integration Toolset empowers end users to access data in a large variety of external data sources, including Oracle, SAP, SQL.  Again this can be done with WSS, no need for the expensive MOSS enterprise license.  In addition, if you wanted to implement this functionality using SharePoint, you would need to leverage the Business Data Catalog (BDC) which almost always involves custom software development.
       

    2. K2 and Nintex: Business users can write elementary Workflows in SharePoint (WSS and MOSS) using the free Microsoft tool “SharePoint Designer”.  However, as soon as the workflows become a little complex, the native SharePoint tools require that a developer get involved and write custom code. Two companies, K2 and Nintext, sell add-ons that allow business users to write sophisticated workflows.  These tools are well worth looking into.
       
    3. Password resets: The most common reason for calls to support is a password reset.  There are a large number of vendors providing software that allow end users to reset their own password.  To install and configure any of these, we need access to the back end.
       
    4. Creating a Good SharePoint Experience Outside of Internet Explorer: A number of key SharePoint features just don’t work on non-Microsoft platforms (OS and Browser.)  There are third party tools that help with this.  For example Telerik makes sells an excellent Rich Text Editor Component, which is a must if your users are using Safari and Firefox.

 In this post, I have summarized some of the reasons one might need access to the SharePoint back end and what sorts of headaches to expect.  In the next set of posts, I will focus on how to leverage the native front end of SharePoint, and show just how far one can go with this. 

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[3] The migration path from SharePoint 2003 to 2007, was extremely painful.  The smartest decision I saw in this space was made by Fidelity.  The IT organization told the business users that new 2007 sites would be created.  Users could continue to use both the old 2003 and the new 2007 platforms.  Users were told that they should migrate whatever data they wanted to on their own timetable.  Most users wound up using the 2003 platform without migrating data to the new platform.  Mostly new data was stored on the 2007 platform.   After a while business users had migrated themselves.

[4] This type of hosting can still take place in the cloud, it is just important that the appropriate secure tunnels are designed and deployed.
 

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