Filed Under:Technology, Tech Management

Third Time's the Charm for SharePoint

NEW YORK--May 12, 2010--Today, Microsoft Corp. announced the worldwide availability of Microsoft Office 2010 and Microsoft SharePoint 2010 as well as Microsoft Visio 2010 and Microsoft Project 2010 for business customers worldwide.

The preceding press release is hot news as I write this. It will be less newsworthy as you read this, but still will be relevant to corporate IT managers. Microsoft finally has released the third version of its portal/document management/BI/collaboration suite, and there are significant changes and some very cool new features.

Rather than simply list the features of SharePoint 2010 in a structured manner, I am going to arbitrarily discuss some of the things that in my opinion make this product exciting.

Cross-Browser Compatibility

In this day and age, cross-browser compatibility may not seem like a big deal, unless you have been a MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) 2007 administrator. Browsing MOSS or SharePoint v. 2.0 sites in other browsers was doable, but performing routine administrative tasks required the correct version of Internet Explorer. Two days ago, I was able to demonstrate editing a 2010 SharePoint page using Firefox and Safari browsers. It is refreshing to see one of the software giants embrace support of rival products. Even if the motivation for cross-browser compatibility is self-serving, the end result is good for all of us.

Microsoft has achieved some of this compatibility by taking a page from certain competitors and using AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). Not only does this force it to use commonly accepted standards, it also has the added benefit of pushing some of the processing to the client side, making the whole process of delivering Web pages more efficient.

Silverlight, which is Microsoft's Web application framework capable of delivering multimedia and interactivity using HTTP over TCP/IP, is used extensively in SharePoint 2010. Silverlight also is compatible with multiple operating systems and browsers. The video streaming capabilities in SP 2010 use Silverlight. Configuration is simple: Add the appropriate Web part, and reference the video.

Office Web Applications

One of the coolest new features available in the SharePoint 2010 suite is Office Web Applications. Once the server-side Office Web Applications feature is installed, the user has the ability to select a Microsoft Office document and edit that document in the browser. The full power of a fat-client Office application is not available, but the Web user has a fairly extensive range of editing available. Fully functional text editing and formatting is provided as well as the ability to insert and edit images, clip art, tables, and hyperlinks. Similar functionality is available across the suite of Web Applications. The implications are enormous. I no longer need to lug around my working laptop if I need to edit a document on SharePoint. If I have Internet connectivity, I can access my SharePoint collaboration (or other) site using my lightweight netbook and perform all my editing in a Web browser. Theoretically, I could use my iPad to access my document library and edit using that device. Talk about cross-platform compatibility!

Office Web Applications aren't free. There is a client-access-license cost associated with the service, but that cost will be substantially less than the cost of the client application. I am not sure where this is all going to end. At this time, there is uncertainty surrounding the whole Microsoft Web Applications' future, at least as far as pricing and availability are concerned. According to a recent press release, in June, users with Microsoft Live IDs will be able to use free Office Web Applications. Presumably Office Web Applications are intended to compete directly with Google Applications, which are growing in acceptance in the corporate world.

Microsoft also is replacing Works with an Office 2010 Starter edition, which will be provided free on new Windows PCs. The word on the street is the starter edition will have limited functionality and will include advertising. From my perspective, I would rather use the free Works suite than the free 2010 suite if it includes advertisements. The intrusion of advertising on Internet and iPhone applications is becoming tiring. I purchased my first video recorder years ago just so I could avoid television advertising. I recently had to change my preferred Internet news service when it started blasting me with full-page commercials that pushed the content completely off the page. You can slam it in my face day after day, but I never am going to buy a $65K SUV, and until providers of Web applications understand that, I am going to find the one that is least intrusive.

Back to the Office Web Applications. (I presume Microsoft will need to rename the Outlook Web Client, which until now has been known as OWA.) Microsoft has taken a step in the right direction. Bloated fat-client productivity suites are becoming pass?. Ninety percent of the functionality the average knowledge worker needs is provided in the Web application. Perhaps with the release of free Web applications this month, Microsoft will back off the CAL licensing for its use in SharePoint.

Common Look and Feel

The editing and formatting tools for the Office Web Applications are provided in a "ribbon" immediately above the document pane. If you are familiar with Office 2007 (or 2010) applications, you already know what the ribbon is: a context-sensitive toolbar with tools of like functionality grouped together. It is, in fact, called the "Office Ribbon." It is context-sensitive in that the ribbon will change based upon the task you are performing. If you are editing text, you are provided with common text editing tools: font selection and formatting, alignment, bulleting and numbering, etc., grouped so like tools are with like tools. If you are editing an image, appropriate image tools are made available, including the ability to size the image for online display.

Microsoft has applied the ribbon concept to editing and management functions in SharePoint 2010. If you need to do something to a page, chances are very good you can do it using just the ribbon. Once a user or an administrator selects an action item in SharePoint, the ribbon appears, and it is populated with appropriate tools. No longer do site administrators or designers need to migrate their way through layers of arcane commands to perform a simple task. If you need to make your modified page the home page, you simply can click "make this page the homepage" in the ribbon, and it is done. Having a common user interface across Office applications and SharePoint serves only to emphasize and enhance the tight collaboration across the entire line of Office products from client side to server side.

Business Intelligence

BI certainly is one of the prime drivers for corporate IT. Executives and managers need easy access to business data in order to make appropriate, informed business decisions. Interactive personal computing has changed the way we do business, but until recently, it hasn't provided much in the way of providing actionable business data. Spreadsheets are powerful tools but, for the most part, are used as slick, interactive ledger sheets. SharePoint 2010 has raised the bar for external data access and analysis.

Interestingly, Excel 2010 is positioned as the primary BI analysis tool for SP 2010. Excel Services and Excel itself have been enhanced to provide the ability to access external data and transform that data using pivot tables. Once that data has been imported, it can be further transformed by using ETL (Extract, Transform, and Load) techniques. By the way, Excel 2010 is now scalable--we no longer need to live with the row and memory restrictions of previous versions. Data imports and transformations can be configured and accomplished by end users; no need to involve IT or to write any code.

Read--and Write to External Lists

Code-free access to external data also is possible using Business Connectivity Services (BCS), which replaces the old BDC (Business Data Catalog). Unlike the BDC, the BCS provides the ability to read and write data to an external data source. I recently demonstrated the use of a BCS Web part connected to a one-dimensional table in SQL Server. Users with the appropriate rights were able to read the data from the SQL database table but also were able to select a single record and modify that record. A quick query on the SQL Server side using management studio verified the data was in fact modified. That is impressive. While it makes sense to keep some data in a SharePoint list or Excel spreadsheet or Access database, there are valid reasons to keep other data in an external database such as SQL Server. Data in a SharePoint list cannot be easily used to build an OLAP (online analytical processing) cube to provide further analyses. OLAP cubes are data structures that can be used to slice and dice and drill down into data. You can think of them as multidimensional spreadsheets. Once the cube--the data structure--is built, a user can drill down into the data, effectively providing multidimensional analysis.

PerformancePoint is a BI product that now is included as part of SharePoint 2010. It previously had been available as an add-on for MOSS 2007. Performance Point began life as part of a SQL Server-based BI suite from ProClarity (ProClarity was acquired by Microsoft in 2006). PerformancePoint is a performance management tool that makes it easy to create dashboards, scorecards, and key performance indicators (KPIs). It makes extensive use of SQL Server Analysis Services as well as OLAP cubes.

Add in SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), which itself is tightly integrated with SharePoint, and you begin to see the depth of the business intelligence capabilities Microsoft has put into this product.

If that isn't enough, SharePoint 2010 has a little feature called "Access Services," modeled on Excel Services. Access Services allows users to publish Access applications to SharePoint, including all forms and reports. I find it highly ironic after attempting to deprecate Access for years, Microsoft now has embraced it. You will need to use Access 2010 if you want to publish an application to SharePoint, but it looks like we now have a place where we actually can use all those nasty Access applications IT has been trying to shut down.

Tip of the Iceberg

I have only scratched the surface of the SharePoint 2010 suite. The product also includes Visio services, which can be used to provide a visual depiction of workflows. A Visio diagram can be connected to data sources. SharePoint Designer has evolved into a powerful development and workflow tool. Visual Studio 2010 now is fully integrated with SharePoint. There are numerous enhancements and new features (tagging and rating, for example) revolving around Web 2.0 and social networking. The product is easier to deploy and upgrade. Sandbox solutions on production or production-like solutions are supported (which will make SP 2010 easier to use in the cloud). Large lists are now supported. Multiple authentication methods are supported, including claims-based authentication. There are enhanced and upgraded management, logging, and analysis tools. Search has gotten a major improvement with out-of-the-box enhancements such as easy-to-use search refiners such as "author," "content type," "content location," etc., as well as the ability to configure relevance, contextual search, and BI search using the FAST search for SharePoint.

Forgive my enthusiasm, but this product really is a quantum leap. SharePoint version 2.0, which sometimes is known as SPS 2003 or SharePoint 2003, was an ungainly product whose main success came from the use of online collaborative work spaces. MOSS 2007, or version 3.0, added significant enhancements, including support for publishing and improved document management capabilities and some BI, but still was kludgy in many respects. SharePoint 2010 appears finally to have brought the whole suite together. It is definitely worth a look.

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