11 December 2007

SharePoint 2007 Service Pack Update

Microsoft has finally released the new service pack for SharePoint 2007.  The individual downloads for WSS and MOSS can be found here:

We will be upgrading our own servers and will post our findings shortly.

03 December 2007

SharePoint Service Pack (SP) 1

If you haven't seen it, Microsoft recently released some information on the upcoming service pack 1 for SharePoint (both WSS and MOSS).  This new service pack not only includes a number of hot fixes for both platforms, but introduces some new functionality.   In addition to Server 2008 support, Microsoft is now officially supporting AJAX-enabled web parts.  They've also included some new STSADM commands (and who doesn't like STSADM).

Unfortunately, Microsoft has only really stated that it will be released by 2008.  Recently, Arpan Shah posted in his blog that the service pack could be released "anytime between now and Q1 of 2008."  So, for those of you waiting for your issue to be corrected or some of the new features, you now have a potentially four month window to sit patiently...

12 November 2007

Using SharePoint Search as a Research Content Source

Back in Office 2003, Microsoft introduced the concept of the "task pane."  The task pane was a panel that appeared on the right side of the Office interface (at least for the "first class" Office products).  The task pane represented a few different functions -- from showing the status of a document in SharePoint, to allowing you to manage permissions on a document.   Included with these functions was something called the "Research" task pane. 

The Research task pane allows you to search various information sources using basic keyword-type searches.  For example, if you highlight a word in a document and right click, you see a function called "Look Up."  When you select that option, the feature searches through the dictionary (for example) for the definition of the term you highlighted.  You can see this function in figure 1-1.


Figure 1-1 The context menu allows you to lookup a term in Office 2007

When you execute this function, the Research task pane dutifully appears on your right.  By default, the task pane appears to the right and displays the search result. In addition, it exposes a number of other sources that the search can be executed against (shown in figure 1-2).


Figure 1-2 The task pane and the content sources.

When I first saw this feature, I thought it was a way to extract additional dollars out of buyers of Office, since a good number of the research sources were premium sites that wouldn't allow you access to the content without a subscription.  However, I then noticed a link at the bottom of the task pane labeled "Research Options."  Clicking on this link allows you to control what sources are included in your task pane, as well as allowing you to add addition sources as shown in figure 1-3.


Figure 1-3 The Research Options dialog

As it turns out, it's easy to add your own sources, in addition to enabling ones already defined within Office.  In fact, one of the best sources of "research" is SharePoint.  SharePoint's own search web service is already setup to be included as a search source (MOSS, not WSS). 

To add your SharePoint site as a search source, follow the instructions below:

  1. Click on Add Services button
  2. Type in the URL of the SharePoint search service.  The default URL for the search web service is: http://[server_name]/_vti_bin/search.asmx.  Simply replace [server_name] with the host of your SharePoint site.
  3. Click on OK and Office will validate the selection to determine whether there's a compatible search service.  
  4. Once Office validates the search service, it will show you the name of the search service available to be included.  The service name will be the name of the primary MOSS site where search is hosted.

  5. Simply click on Install and your MOSS search service will be added to your research source.

Once you've added your own internal search as a source, any lookup done within first class citizens of Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Access), can use that source to look up terms and return search results, just as any other source.   When users click on a search result, Internet Explorer automatically opens, preserves the search results in pane on the left side of the interface and show the specific, chosen result in the main window (as shown in figure 1-4).  Now, all users have to do is navigate the various results until they find the one they feel meets their requirement.


Figure 1-4 Search results preserved in IE

This feature is particularly valuable for organizations that need to connect employees with content throughout the enterprise.  In addition, it adheres to a good rule of thumb about portals: don't make your employees leave the applications they're comfortable using -- surface the functionality in the applications where they do their work

08 November 2007

IIR/SharedInsights Portals, Collaboration and Content Management Conference

[UPDATED: 25 November 2007 - Slight flow changes to the content]

I've just returned from the IIR/SharedInsights Portals, Collaboration and Content Management conference.  While I've been speaking at this conference for a few years, this year's conference was a bit unique.  Unlike past conferences, where the vast majority of the attendees were more business oriented and "non-denominational" when it came to technology, this year's attendees were more technical and were very interested in specific technologies -- a good many of them interested in SharePoint.  It seemed that many of the attendees were either starting to implement or had implemented "phase 1," a smaller percentage were making their final decisions around what portal platform they would implement in the coming months -- almost universally, SharePoint was in the product mix, if not the chosen portal platform (hence the interest).  However, there still seemed to be a lot of basic questions about how SharePoint would fit in the enterprise.  To that end, I wanted to recommend a book written by some former colleagues of mine.  It's called Essential SharePoint 2007. 

What makes this book somewhat unique in the space (since there are absolutely tons of book on SharePoint 2007) is that it takes a less technological route.  The book focuses on business usage more than technological implementation.  I would recommend it as good starting point for anyone interested in SharePoint -- whether or not you're technically inclined.  In addition, CMSWatch also has a number of reports which compare SharePoint to other tools in the ECM/Portal space.  These reports would also be valuable for anyone considering SharePoint.

Now, even in the SharePoint 2003 days, there was great interest in SharePoint -- organization's interest in 2007 is not really unique.  In a good majority of the cases, the Windows SharePoint Services component was and is a very big leap in accessible (easily obtained and easy to install) collaborative technology, but it is also just darn easy to use for the vast majority of typical Office users.  Contributing to this ease of use is the fact that the technology is directly integrated with Office -- even people with older versions of Office can use it (you don't have to match SharePoint's version with your Office version).  However, the 2007 version (and WSS v3) seems to have created a great deal more buzz.

From what I heard from attendees, most organizations were hoping to leverage the portal capabilities found in MOSS.  There was a slightly smaller group interested in pure team collaboration management -- project teams need a place to deposit assets and work from one "song book."  Finally, there were those groups who felt that SharePoint was almost a "blight," but needed to figure out how to manage it (my guess is that these individuals got caught in the WSS explosion that occurs in many organizations). 

If I were to identify the biggest changes/advantages, it would be in two categories: 1) expanding content management capabilities and 2) improved extensibility.  On the content management side, web content management tops the list.  This feature allows you to manage traditional web sites using SharePoint.   In addition, Microsoft has added new forms of contribution with the addition of Wiki and Blog templates.    When you add these capabilities to the business intelligence and forms processing features, Microsoft has taken SharePoint native content management function to a whole new level.

For the developer types, 2007 represents a leap forward in extensibility, where almost everything inside of SharePoint is accessible through the object model.   For example, you can write your own authentication provider, to enable SharePoint to use something other than Active Directory to authenticate users (unheard of in SharePoint 2003).  It's also now possible to easily add new interface elements to native SharePoint administrative screens using the "features" capability.

For those of you who might be interested in some of the content at the conference, IIR has posted some podcasts on their web site.   More podcasts will be posted as time goes by (include my own).  If you're interested in attending the spring conference, you can find more details on the IIR web site (you may want to wait a few days before searching around, since the current conference is still running as of 8 November).

11 October 2007

More on Remote Access

As a follow-on to my post on the remote access tool GoToMyPC, I recently discovered another service called LogMeIn.  This service provides similar functionality, but has a free subscription option (a price most people can live with).  The free subscription does not allow file transfers, remote sound or other bells and whistles found in the premium subscriptions, but does provide basic remote control options.  Here's the service comparison page on the LogMeIn web site, which provides a detailed breakdown of the functionality offered through the free and "pro" versions of their service.

During the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to use LogMeIn extensively -- remote controlling a client server -- and found it to be reliable and easy-to-use.  In all cases, I had good bandwidth available, so I can't speak to its performance over lower bandwidth connections.  That said, if you're looking for a quick and easy tool to provide basic remote control of either a desktop or a server, you should give LogMeIn a look.

27 September 2007

Interesting Excel 2007 Bug

I came across a blog entry from from Lori Pearce's "All Things SDK" blog regarding an Excel calculation bug. Turns out there is what appears to be a serious flaw in certain calculations in Excel. The actual calculation is irrelevant, it's the result that matters. Calculations with results that should be 65,535 and 65,536, in addition to about 10 other results produce very strange and highly inaccurate results. For example, if you multiple 77.1 x 850, the answer should be 65,525, but instead yields 10,000. However, the real problem, as explained by the Excel team (specifically David Gainer) is the following:

"This is an issue in a function that puts numbers in cells, so the values in Excel's memory are actually correct. Imagine A1 contains =77.1*850 ... Excel actually calculates the correct answer, and you can see that if you use VBA to check the value for A1 - it will be 65535. But in the function that takes that value and formats it to be displayed on the screen, for the values described above, there is a bug. Any calculations based off that cell will be accurate too."

Here's an example of the bug shown in Excel 2007

In all, there appear to be 12 results in 9 quintillion that produce flawed output in Excel.

From what I can tell, Microsoft is working on a patch and this bug does not affect earlier versions of Excel. Here's an entry from the Excel and Excel Services Team Blog with a more in-depth description of the issue and what they're doing to address it (also written by David Gainer).

The original blog entry for Laurie's post can be found here. More background on the generally difficulties in executing math functions in a computer can be found in the following blog entry on Wolfram's blog by Mark Sofroniou "Arithmetic Is Hard--To Get Right."

18 September 2007

SharePoint 2003 SP 3 Released

A new service pack has been released for both SharePoint Portal and Windows SharePoint Services (2003/v2). The KB article on the update can be found here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/923643.

Thank you to Ian Morrish at WSSDemo for posting a link to the KB article.

27 August 2007

Recycle Equipment to Save Capital

Many small businesses are increasingly pressured to upgrade their systems -- spending money on both hardware and software -- to keep their technological systems running smoothly. Unfortunately, there is also pressure to conserve funding and manage cash. Consejo, like many of our customers, faces this challenge as well. However, we've found one small way to do both -- upgrade our hardware while spending less.

As a consulting firm, we perhaps have more hardware and software demands than the average small business -- technology is literally our business. As a result, we're constantly upgrading, changing and moving hardware and software. However, we do not have always have all of the funding necessary to meet our immediate needs. To balance our need for faster hardware and our ability to "pay for it," we suppliment our new equipment with used and/or refurbished equipment. The sources of this equipement tends to be varied, depending on our needs and expectations, but the cost discounts over the equivalent new equipement help us manage our funds more effectively and give us the needed hardware performance boost.

For those of you who might interested in some of the places you can find refurbished and/or used equipment, I have provided a list the categories below. In each category, I have tried to provide an example. Please understand that any vendor listed in this blog entry does not imply a specific endorsement. In addition, you should absolutely do you own research to ensure you find the right vendor for you firm.

  • Off Lease Equipment
    Lots of medium and large organizations lease their equipment to help them manage both cash and keep their infrastructure current. Once the equipment comes off lease, the financing companies that held the note will auction off the equipment. Occassionally this is done through the equipment manufacturer or sometimes through a used equipment dealer. Either way, smaller firms can acquire this equipment, which is typically 2 to 3 years old, for 50% to 70% off the original pricing (sometimes more). On example of an "owned" (owned by a financing company) reseller of off lease equipment is 2nd-Byte.
  • Vendor "Factory Outlet"
    Major hardware manufacturers often have a refurbishment program. Refurbished machines ("refurbs") come in two varieties: a) equipment that was damaged or flawed during the manufacturing process and repaired or b) equipment that was purchased by a customer and returned (once the equipment is unboxed, it can not be sold as new). Typically, refurb customers can save 20% or more off the cost of similarly configured new equipment. Also, this type of equipment tends to be more technological current when compared with other sources of "not new" equipment. One example of a factory outlet is Dell's Factory Outlet.
  • Used Equipment Dealers
    The name says it all -- previously used equipment being resold. Used equipment dealers market all sorts of used equipment and their sources for this equipment are varied (unlike the off lease companies). However, they tend to be a good source of "quality" used equipment, meaning that they tend to ensure the equipment is operational prior to being shipped to their customers. Further, some vendors offer warranties on the equipment of varying lengths -- sometimes as long as new. One example of a used equipment dealer is Stallard Technologies.
  • EBay
    Good old EBay. What can't you find there? Ebay tends to host a lot of used equipment "stores" as well as being a source for individual sellers of used equipment. Obviously you should check the seller feedback scores before buying, but you can find some great deals on equipment. In most cases, the sellers offer a DOA ("dead on arrival") warranty, but that is usually it. As a side note, Dell officially sells some used and/or off lease equipment through EBay through the member ID dell.computers.
While keeping up with the technological Jones' can be difficult, judicious purchasing of used or refurbished equipment can lessen the investment, but provide most or all of the value of new equipment. The next time your firm needs to upgrade equipment, you should consider these or other sources before you buy new immediately. As an additional benefit, buying used or refurbished equipment will keep that machine out of a landfill that much longer and help reduce the global landfill footprint for old computer equipment.

13 August 2007

REVIEW: Remote Access with GoToMyPC

Often being involved in or running a small business requires you to be in many places at once. You need to take a meeting with a customer, but you're meeting at their location, not yours. However, you still have to access data that may not be portable, simply not loaded on the laptop you have with you or you don't have your own machine immediately accessible. Alternatively, what if you're home (not actually working) and need to access a file on your computer in the office? What do you do? If you're like many customers I meet, you either have to anticipate your need (loading that valuable data on your laptop or a USB thumb drive) or you do without (in many cases this really isn't an option, but more a consequence). You could also turn to a "corporate" solution of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that allows you to remotely connect to your businesses network to retrieve your data. Certainly a VPN is the ideal solution for true remote network connectivity, but it also comes with the burden of being somewhat complex to setup/configure and requires you to spend more money on equipment and/or support. Further, VPN-type connections are frequently blocked by corporate networks and, sometimes, your local coffee shop's WiFi network. So what can you do? The answer could be a web-based technology like GoToMyPC.

GoToMyPC is a technology that was aquired by a Citrix a few years ago, but has been around for quite some time. Essentially, it enables a user to remote control a PC using a web-based Java application. What does this really mean? Well, no matter where you are, if you have an Internet-connected computer and a web browser, you can access that machine at home or work or somewhere entirely different. GoToMyPC allows you not only to control the machine, but also transfer files between the "guest" (the machine that is controlling) and the "host" (the machine being controlled). Having tested this service under a number of different circumstances (and connection speeds), I can attest to the utility of the service. The following is just a partial list of some of the ways I've used the service:

  • Remote access to files stored on my office desktop
    I travel a great deal and occassionally will put something on my desktop while I'm in the office, but forget to pull it off of that machine before I leave. With GoToMyPC, I just connect to that machine and transfer the data I need.

  • Accessing applications not loaded on my laptop
    I have been using QuickBooks to manage my business since Consejo started. While I've recently started using the Online version of QuickBooks, I had previously used the Professional version. Since the data can only realistically exist in one place, I needed a way to access the application when I wasn't in the office. I could have loaded it on my laptop, but I also didn't necessarily want sensitive financial data "out in the world" where something bad could happen. Using GoToMyPC, I was simply able to "dial in" to my office desktop, do what I needed to do in Quickbooks and get out.

  • Remote Support
    When you're the "technical" guy in the family, you tend to get a lot of "help desk" calls from relatives. In my case, I get these kinds of calls frequently enough to warrant a solution where I didn't necessarily have to step my relatives through a troubleshooting process. It's often much easier for them to simply call, tell me they're having a problem and I remotely connect to their machine. Once I've connected to their machine, I have the option of "showing them" how to correct their problem, simply fixing the problem for them or scheduling a time when I can connect later to do some more investigation.

This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it is a realistic picture of what I've used the service to accomplish. I can honestly say that I use the service a few times a day for almost all of the applications in my list. While it is clearly targeted at controlling a single machine, once you're connected to that single machine, you have the option of using a Windows-included technology like Remote Desktop to control other machines within the remote network (this is good for remote network administration of servers or other machines connected to the same network as the host). For me it has been well worth the $179/year subscription fee (you also have the option of paying around $20 monthly).

In short, GoToMyPC is an excellent technology for providing secure and relatively reliable (as reliable as the Internet connection you have) remote access.

25 July 2007

Access Denied when trying to Schedule a Crawl in SharePoint

While I'm not a huge fan of simply re-posting content originating on other individual's blog, this particular re-post is warranted, if for no other reason that it was a bear to find the solution. My hope is that more references to the posting will increase the likelyhood that someone else will spend less time finding the answer in the future.

Now, effectively the problem I encountered was an "Access is Denied" message when trying to schedule a search crawl in Office SharePoint Server 2007 (RTM). While, I could manually start a crawl and it would successfully complete, I was not able to create a schedule for either an incremental or a full crawl. Apparently, the trouble was missing permissions on the Tasks folder in the Windows directory; the "WSS_WPG" group (created by SharePoint during installation) needed read and write access to the folder.

It totally makes sense that SharePoint would leverage scheduled tasks to kick off scheduled crawls, but I would have hoped that the installation process set this for you. In my case, the server I dedicated to the index function was a "recycle" and was never reloaded with the OS -- the prior implementation of SharePoint was uninstalled and I re-installed the new implementation over top. In hindsight, this may not have been such a good idea, but we live and learn.

Here's the article that saved me the trouble of rebuilding my machines (yes I was that frustrated): http://www.folin.se/index.php/category/microsoft-office-sharepoint-server-2007/

Many thanks to Michael Folin for posting such a great tip!

08 July 2007

Effective Project Management in Small Organizations

I've had the good fortune to work in a number of different organization sizes, in addition to working with a wide array of individuals, project types and technologies. In large part due to this broad experience, I've seen my share of successful, mostly successful (in spite of team member actions to the contrary) and failed projects. In all cases, I've learned a good deal about what makes project successful and not so successful. Particularly in small organizations (either in terms of employees or revenue), making projects successful proves to be challenging, since mistakes can't simply be brushed aside by adding more money, resources or both. As a result, smaller organizations need to be especially careful how they manage their IT projects. Unfortunately, these are the very same organizations that have little or no discipline around managing projects and, generally, think a bunch of really smart people simply "get it done."

Most recently, as Consejo was completing a series of projects for a medium-sized customer, I found myself helping them think a bit differently about managing projects -- gathering requirements, deciding what functionality "get in" to what phase, how to assign resources, how to perform solid on-going management and how to test and deploy the project once complete. While Consejo won't be involved in this next project phase, the information we shared with them is relevant for a great number of companies. As such, I thought it would be worth sharing what I shared with them. To that end, here are some general best practices we have developed at Consejo to help us and our customers manage projects to a successful conclusion.

  • Make sure you understand what you want to build
    Another way of saying this is "make sure you document, review and validate requirements." I suppose this goes without saying, but Consejo has done work for more than one customer who felt that the business users (the folks who create requirements for applications or IT projects) simply needed to "tell" the IT group what they want. Often words and/or phrases like "simple," "shouldn't be hard," and "this isn't rocket science" creep in to those descriptions. Unfortunately, these customers often give requirements like "needs to be easy to use." While this is truly a requirement, what's missing are the details like: what is "easy" in the context of this requirement, what metrics do we use to measure successfully meeting this requirement and, most importantly, who's the audience for this "easy" application? Don't get me wrong, a reasonable person could arrive at approximations of "easy" on their own, but as the project starts to get close to finishing up and folks are rushing to meet deadlines, both IT and the business tend to get pretty picky about requirements; (over generalization coming) business users want to continuously tweak the application and IT simply wants to establish that they've met a particular requirement and move on. So, be sure to document, review and validate requirements up front -- before the coding or development begins.

  • Establish a good change control system
    Almost no one can argue that requirements are fixed once they've documented, reviewed and validated. Even in the best case scenario, requirements change -- the business climate changes, the audience changes, new insight emerges or the Earth starts spinning in the opposite direction. Ultimately, something always changes. However, the difference between a well-run project and one that will spin out of control, is how the collective team developing this solution manages changes. Consejo recommends having a well-established and formalized process for defining, submitting, validating and approving changes to an in-process project. Project teams must understand precisely what the new requirements is, how it fits with the existing requirements (e.g. what changes and what doesn't), the impact to the project effort and/or duration and, if applicable, the cost of the change (which is usually tied to increases or decreases in effort -- but not always). More often than not, a bad project is the result of an unending set of changes, mid-project, that no one (including the folks providing the requirements) keep track of well enough to be able to establish whether the new application meets the modified requirements. This situation usually results in a very heated back-and-forth discussion at the end of the project, where no one is happy with the final outcome.

  • Set project scopes so that you can meet requirements quickly
    Very long projects tend to yield the most defects and the most dissatisfied end users. Especially in IT, where the underlying technology changes rapidly, long projects simply aren't practical. Consejo recommends that customers define project scopes that can be accomplished (start to finish) in three months or less. This may seem unreasonably short, but consider that projects that take six months or longer suffer greatly due to changes in business climate (e.g. external to the organization) and organization needs (e.g. internally driven requirements). Having personally worked for organizations that had a "13 week year," a three month project allows organizations to quickly realize benefit without being unreasonably sidetracked by either internal or external forces. In addition, having such a tight project delivery schedule forces both IT and the business to focus on the highest value requirements and/or features, pushing other features or requirements out until later phases. To illustrate this problem, consider projects that take six months or longer. Businesses typically make changes to any number of aspects of approach in the market -- be it advertising, new product launches or competitive advantages. Making the business wait for a six to twelve month project to complete, just so that business changes can be integrated into this new application is an unreasonable expectation (especially if IT doesn't want to get a flood of change requests). A three month time line is much easier to manage and provides more immediate opportunities to improve the application once the development cycle has been completed.

  • Use the "metrics for success" to test the project outcome
    Testing anything seems to be counter to corporate culture. This statement may seem overly dramatic, but I've been involved in more than one project where the customer expected less than a week's worth of testing for a project that took three months to complete (I've also worked for firms that understood testing to be the period immediately after the application was completed and place into production -- when real customers were using the tool). Further, these same customers are the ones that tend to "tell you" the requirements, without documenting and validating them. If an organization truly wants to be successful, it takes the time to document requirements and indicates what success means in terms of satisfying a requirement. They then use this documentation to craft a testing strategy to ensure success. For example, if "easy" to the customer means that a user can get to or access a particular function within two clicks, then there should be a corresponding test scenario that allows a tester to validate the application has met this metric. If there isn't a formalized approach to testing, you end up with developer-test solutions and developers inherently know where not to go to break their own code.

  • Find the right people, not the convenient people
    In today's market, it's tough to find qualified candidates, get them involved in your project and/or find a candidate willing to work for what you can afford. Most often, the best resources are busy, stretched to thin and/or asking too much. If anyone has recently tried to find a good SharePoint resource, you understand what I'm describing. However, finding the right resource to lead, manage or participate in your project is critical. When describing the "right" resources, I want to be clear: the right resource isn't necessarily the most technically savvy, but the best well-rounded individual. The right resource, beyond being technically qualified to participate in the project, should understand and adhere to good project management practices (even if they're not a project manager), they need to be a good team player (I've met many "smart" and technically superior resources who were terrible team players) and, most importantly, they need to be able to find the answer if they don't have it themselves. In short, they need to be flexible, resourceful and have good "people skills." Some companies make the mistake of reallocating resources who are underutilized to projects when their short of team members -- either out of convenience or ignorance. This was common in the mid-nineties, when administrative assistants were made into "web masters" because they were enthusiastic and the web was thought of as a "toy" (this was especially true when companies were starting to create intranets). These admins may have understood HTML, but they didn't understand what the impact was to the organization or how to make the intranet work for the organization. In addition, However, consider this: the better resources in the market can often find faster ways to get your project done -- even if their per unit cost is higher, the project will likely cost you the same. In addition, these resource also understand how to make this new application "real" for your organization by being able to interact with the business and, potentially, end-customers.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it covers the points that are often overlooked by organizations taking on IT projects. I hope it's useful to you and I would certainly appreciate any feedback you may have.

13 June 2007

Is SharePoint the "Right" Solution - Part 2

In a previous post, I described a panel that I participated in where each of three consultants presented what they liked an didn't like about SharePoint. In that post, I gave you my "likes;" in this post, I'll continue the discussion with what I think are SharePoint's disadvantages or shortcomings. While the product is quite good, there are definitely areas where it could improve -- some of those areas have more to do with the way Microsoft markets the product than the product itself; none-the-less, they are disadvantages.

SharePoint Disadvantages

  • Accessible to a wide range of skill levels
    You'll notice that this particular bullet point is listed twice -- once on my "like" list and once here. The reason for it appearance here is simply this: SharePoint is almost too easy to setup, configure and use. Normally, this isn't a bad thing, but in SharePoint's case, it has led to trouble at many companies. At a recent SharedInsights conference, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of professionals who were interested in SharePoint. One of the attendees described a situation in his company where a non-technical, non-IT employee downloaded the SharePoint bits and spun up his own Windows SharePoint Services environment. The issue isn't so much about the actual instance of the WSS server as it is a matter of management; since this installation was done with out IT's knowledge, it's impossible to control and ensure operational integrity. Most of us, I'm sure, have either used a tool or created one that was widely distributed in the general population and provided great value, but did not come with the official support of a larger corporate group. These tools, if they're good, quickly become "mission critical," and a nightmare to support if something goes wrong. My own experience was with a really useful expense reporting system built in Access -- it was created in my division, but as folks from other groups saw it, they also wanted to use the same tool. In much the same way, SharePoint is like the expense reporting application -- pretty easy to use and distribute, but it can lead to headaches for groups responsible for keeping the technology lights-on as it were.

  • Rigid architecture
    Microsoft has made great strides in providing a fairly flexible architecture that is both easy to use and able to be extended to fit individual organizational needs. Unfortunately, this flexibility isn't universal in the product. Very key areas of the tool are horrifically rigid. To make certain kinds of changes, you're required to modify, what is in effect, the based product interfaces (all of which could, as Microsoft constantly reminds us, be changed through a service release). The best example of this rigidity is the out-of-the-box interfaces for adding, editing and deleting list items. As you might already know, everything in SharePoint is a list. As such, these contributor interfaces are quite important to the product. Let's take an event list. Try scheduling an event for a time not on a 5 or 10 minute increment -- say 7:11 am/pm. Now, this may seem trivial, but I know of a baseball team that recently signed a deal with 7-11 convenience stores and now start their night games at 7:11 p.m. If that baseball team wanted to use a SharePoint event list to keep track of all of their games, they'd have to modify the out-of-the-box list item entry interface to insert additional values in the minute drop-down box or change the drop-down to a text box. Think this is an unrealistic example? Consejo just finished delivering an intranet solution, on SharePoint, for an MLB team (thankfully not the one in this example). Granted, if the solution were an Internet solution instead of an intranet solution, the team could have simply written a custom field control (great flexibility), but the out-of-the-box interfaces for these more internally facing solutions simply aren't as flexible... which brings me to my next point....

  • Really great at too little
    I've always heard that Microsoft identifies commodity features in a space and produces products that meet 80% of those needs. While I can't take credit for this position, nor do I think it's entirely accurate, I do see the wisdom in it. SharePoint, in particular, suffers from the Jack-of-all trades problem: it isn't really good at any one thing. It's document management features aren't as good as Documentum. It's web content management features aren't as good as Ektron (or even the product it replaced -- MCMS 2002). The wiki and blog templates that ship with the product are passable, but don't compare with SocialText for wikis or Community Server for blogs. It's collaboration features and integration with Office are admirable, but you can't take content offline easily (even though Groove can). All-in-all, it's good at a bunch of things, but not great at any. As a result, I constantly run into customer needs that can't be met as well as either the customer or I would like. The counterpoint to this complaint really comes down to the sheer combination of features in a single package: if you need a good all-around product that can handle many common information worker content management (broadly) needs, SharePoint is usually a good fit -- being good at a lot is SharePoint's strength.

  • To many partner-based solutions
    Like the first bullet in this post, I've listed the broad partner community as both as asset and a liability for SharePoint. It is true that no one software company can realistically produce a perfect solution. However, I get concerned when a product has to consistently rely on a partner community to lend features or functions not found in the base package; this usually means that customers must a) spend additional dollars to get the solution they need and 2) deal with multiple parties to support their solution (finger pointing between Microsoft and their partners has been elevated to a sport). One could certainly argue that a broad partner community is an asset, since it does give customers additional flexibility in finding the right solution through the coupling of "best of breed" features. True... this is why I'm on the fence on this one. As it stands though, Microsoft seems to market SharePoint as it's content management platform (effectively the only content management platform for Microsoft). However, there is an absolute ton of bolt-on solutions for SharePoint. They run the gamut from scorecard solutions like Alegri CIO Scorecard to work management to point solutions like Automated Well Lifecycle Solution for the Oil and Gas Industry from geniant. In addition, Microsoft (to its credit) recently released a set of "application templates" for MOSS 2007 and WSS 3.0. Each of these templates support the management of information for a given "vertical," such as a help desk, a baseball team , projects and clinical trials (there are almost 40 templates available). The trouble is that these templates are generic; just like the templates shipped with the product. If you really want to address very specific needs you need to turn to a partner like CorasWorks or Quest Software (who recently acquired Workplace Architects) for both templates and new web parts that address customer needs specifically. Ultimately, you almost always have to implement a partner product, in concert with your SharePoint implementation, to get the solution that will meet your needs. The easiest example of situation is in the search space -- I almost always recommend Mondosoft's Ontolica suite to improve search functionality.

  • Inconsistent feature lifetime
    Anyone who has been working with SharePoint since the 2001 days, knows that various features have come, gone and come back again. Some examples of here today, gone tomorrow and back again are items like workflow (started in 2001, almost non-existent in 2003 and back with a vengeance in 2007), versioning (major and minor versions in 2001, only major versions in 2003 and major/minor versions reintroduced in 2007) and meta data enforcement (2001 would force meta data entry through all interfaces, 2003 only enforced meta data entry when using the web or Office interfaces, and 2007 re-introduced end-to-end meta data enforcement - albeit not as thoroughly as 2001 - controlling content meta data through workflow). As a result, customers who have implemented solutions across the three versions are whipsawed from one feature set to another -- loosing functionality and, in some cases, gaining it back again as they upgrade. Not only does this approach make it very difficult for IT to support the platform, but it creates training nightmares for end users. I can certainly sympathize with the product team at Microsoft -- it takes a great deal of effort to rebuild an entire product (as they did between 2001 and 2003) -- but you can't simply eliminate features that are useful to customers between versions; you must keep what you have and add on (unless there's a really good reason to phase out a feature).

  • Microsoft’s "Go-To-Market" for Web Content Management
    Microsoft made the decision, with this version of SharePoint, to discontinue it's web content management server product, Content Management Server. In its place, it added features to SharePoint (specifically MOSS) to support web content management. Unfortunately, instead of mimicking the features provided by MCMS (or other dedicated WCM tools), they made the WCM features fit inside of what SharePoint natively understands: lists and libraries. While Microsoft can point to a number of public sites running on SharePoint, I just don't think SharePoint is the right tool for managing content in a public web site. Perhaps it's the weird URL patterns created by SharePoint (since web pages sit inside of a special document library -- a "pages" library -- every URL has "pages" in it) or changes they need to make to SharePoint to force WCM into the platform (see this blog post from Tyler Butler on the SharePoint team regarding anonymous access sites on SharePoint as an example) or the restrictions around how you can use master pages and/or themes in SharePoint (you can only have one master page per site for example) or simply the fact that navigation is really just enumerating every site in the site collection (using the site hierarchy to display the various navigation levels), the platform just doesn't really "fit" the WCM model almost every other vendor in this space uses. Being different isn't a bad thing if it works, but I don't think WCM in SharePoint works; it's close, but not totally there.

Ultimately, I must admit that I like SharePoint. I think it's a great product, despite what I perceive as its failings. The Office product team at Microsoft should be commended for producing a tool that is quite broadly useful. I would encourage anyone who hasn't used SharePoint to download the trial version of MOSS or simply install WSS on their Windows server. I think you'll be impressed with its ease of use and tight integration with Office; as a colleague of mine was famous for saying -- it just works. That said, you need to understand how you'll use the product and in what context; understanding both what SharePoint does well and what it doesn't will help you avoid a bad implementation that doesn't add value to anyone's work day.

Give me feedback. Tell me I'm wrong or simply give me more examples for either list. I would love to hear from you.

07 June 2007

Is SharePoint the "Right" Solution?

Since this is the first post on Consejo's blog, I thought I'd start by digging into a topic we often discuss with our customers -- does SharePoint fit their organization or should they look at other technologies. The "easiest" and most consultant-like answer is: it depends. Now, after you've stopped rolling your eyes, you'll (hopefully) realize that this answer is the only one possible with a such a generic, blanket question. However, what most people want is a quick comparison between what they need to accomplish and where SharePoint might fit.

As it happens, I've just returned from the Gilbane Group's conference (in partnership with CMSWatch) on Content Technologies for Non-Profits and Government Agencies. My role at the conference was to be a panelist discussing "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about SharePoint 2007." While this is a pretty broad topic, given only the hour for the discussion, the format allowed each of the three SharePoint consultant 15 minutes to discuss what they liked and disliked about SharePoint; in effect, we could discuss how SharePoint fit or didn't fit into various business scenarios. The other two panelist were Randy Woods, President of non-linear creations and Russel Stalters, Chief Technology Officer of Applied Information Sciences. Each consultant primarily focused on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS), but a great deal of content could equally apply to Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), since MOSS incorporates everything that is WSS.

I can't take credit for either Randy's or Russ' presentations, so I've not provided their comments herein. However, I am providing the list I presented during the panel, with a summary of my verbal comments. Since a single post would be pretty long, I've broken it up; this post contains the "what I like" list and the subsequent post will contain the "what I don't like" list.

What I like about SharePoint

  • Accessible to a wide range of skill levels
    By far, one of SharePoint's strengths is ease of use. While some may disagree, the real determining factor (for me) is the tight integration with the desktop. When any application pushes its features down into the tools that most people feel comfortable using, like Office, you immediately make it accessible to just about anyone, whether or not they they know how to use the enterprise package or not. In SharePoint's case, whether you're using Office 2003 or 2007, you have a fairly rich set of SharePoint features embedded right inside the Office products. For example, using the Research task pane, you can execute a search against SharePoint and return results from your intranet or Internet site right inside of the Office product you're using. Want to create a new collaborative workspace? All you have to do is open the Shared Workspace task pane and create one. The functionality surfaced is limited by the rights any given user may have inside of SharePoint, but the point is that users don't have to leave the comfort of Office to use SharePoint.

  • Flexible and extensible
    From a developer point of view, most software packages don't live up to the promises most manufacturers make. This, in part, is why I think open source is so attractive -- if the package doesn't operate the way you want, just change it. While Microsoft is not rushing out and posting SharePoint source code to SourceForge, they have created a pretty robust framework that .NET developers can extend to meet needs Microsoft didn't anticipate. For example, Microsoft created a "feature" framework that allows developers to add all sorts of extensions to SharePoint and surface those extensions directly in the out-of-the-box administrative or user interfaces. Do the out-of-the-box workflows processes not fit what you want, simply create another one. Microsoft built SharePoint workflow on top of Windows Workflow Foundation (another fabulous framework) and provided both developer centric (through Visual Studio) and power-user centric (through SharePoint Designer) interfaces to allow for customization and extension.

  • Easy to own and operate
    At a very basic level, a SharePoint-based web site is just like any other database driven web site. This, of course, is a fairly big over simplification. However, from a maintenance perspective, maintaining SharePoint is similar to maintaining any other web site, driven by a database. To keep SharePoint healthy, just follow the rational steps you've hopefully already established in your company to keep other web-based applications healthy -- monitor the site, monitor the database and make frequent backups of both. Now, maintaining the applications is one thing, but what happens when something bad takes place -- like a drive failure or, worse, a server failure. The answer is pretty much the same as other web-based applications -- spin up a new server (or drive), re-install SharePoint (if necessary) or restore the databases (that you've of course backed up) and all should be right with the world. There are certainly lots of moving parts to SharePoint -- like the search engine, the crawler, various data connections and the like -- but Microsoft has done a pretty good job of providing out-of-the-box maintenance tools like the backup utility in Central Administration and STSADM (and who doesn't love command line utilities in Windows...). Finally, Microsoft provides a Microsoft Operations Manager management pack for SharePoint to enable users of MOM to monitor all of those moving SharePoint parts -- hopefully avoiding a more expensive adverse event.

  • Connected to core Information Worker (IW) toolset
    As I mentioned earlier, all of the Office products have a built-in connection with SharePoint. Obviously, Microsoft wants to encourage users to migrate to Office 2007, but even older Office versions are compatible with SharePoint 2007. Microsoft was kind enough to author a "fair, good, better, best" document, which describes how each version of Office "plays" with SharePoint 2007 (and SharePoint 2003). They clearly have more insight into their own product than I do, but it suffices to say that most users can get a great deal out of SharePoint without ever looking at the web-based SharePoint interfaces Microsoft created for the product and a good deal of that functionality is available in Office versions most users already own. In addition, Microsoft took additional time, in this version, to ensure cross-browser compatibility -- using Firefox or Safari gives you the same or a very similar experience as using Internet Explorer (yes, even on a Mac).

  • Large community of developers
    One of the major draws of open source is an extremely large community of developers all contributing tasty bits of code to some common application. To their credit, Microsoft has certainly encouraged that same sort of collaboration around their product sets and this is especially true of SharePoint. A quick look at CodePlex and you'll find all sorts of SharePoint extensions, in addition to general .NET controls, extensions and applications that one could easily integrate with SharePoint (NOTE: when a developer uses the word "easy," it usually means that they could do it given time and space, but it doesn't necessarily translate to "cheap" in dollar terms). Often, we'll suggest that customers check out these community sites for code that may provide the needed functionality or, at least, get them started before beginning a new development cycle; there are lots of well-written and valuable components contributed by this developer community and organizations large and small can take advantage of the collective efforts as an answer or a good beginning.

  • Publicly available support documentation
    Interestingly, one of the disagreements the panelists had was on the availability of documentation for SharePoint. This was referring to both end user and developer documentation. To his credit the individual who made this statement had slogged his way through the Beta product, where documentation is typically pretty light; it's not uncommon to have CHM files be filled with statements like "document is not complete" or "need to complete content." That said, I think most folks will find that the current set of documentation on SharePoint is fairly robust. Just looking at what's available on MSDN alone, most developers should be able to find what they need. Of course, there are always holes, since creating documentation for such a "large" product is no easy task. However, there are also loads of non-Microsoft sourced books on SharePoint; some of them were written in the Beta time frame and, as a result, may have errors due to changes between beta and Release to Manufacturing (RTM), but the bulk of the content should be relevant. The combination of Microsoft and non-Microsoft source content really provides a very deep knowledge well upon which to draw as you start your own SharePoint project.

  • Base platform included with server OS
    As I mentioned earlier in this post (and for the benefit of folks new to SharePoint), there are really two distinct products call "SharePoint" -- Windows SharePoint Server (WSS) v3.0 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007. WSS is the base collaborative platform that provides document collaboration, basic document/list management and the underlying base feature set for MOSS. To Microsoft's credit, they provided WSS as a free add-on to the Windows Server operating system. Even though WSS does require a database, Microsoft ships WSS with SQL Express, which is a "lite" version of the full SQL Server 2005 product. What this means is that anyone who wants to use SharePoint simply needs to have a licensed copy of Windows Server to begin taking advantage of SharePoint collaborative features.

  • Broad partner community
    Most technologists innately understand that no software package can solve every business problem. In fact, most packages require some amount of customization or extension to be truly useful to organizations. SharePoint is no exception. After this realization, most companies begin to look to the vendor of the software package to provide these extensions, write them in-house or hire consultants to make the changes. The alternative is to turn to partner communities (companies that sell add-ons for a given software package) for assistance. One of the great assets that Microsoft has in the marketplace is an absolutely horde of ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) that provide add-ons to a great number of their packages. SharePoint, by proxy, benefits by having this broad ISV support. Do you need a specialized backup solution? Look to AvePoint. Do you desire an integrated and holistic management solution? Look to iDevFactory. Wish you had a web part that enabled your users to change their password through the portal? Check out Bamboo Solutions. In fact, there are tons of vendors that provide all kinds of solutions that bolt on to SharePoint. Some of these solutions enhance existing functionality, like K2's workflow solution or Mondosoft's Ontolica solution for search. Other vendors have created tools to cater to specialized needs like employee performance management from Jakoba Software (DISCLOSURE: I am Jakoba's Chief Technology Officer). Beyond commercial solutions, Microsoft occasionally contracts with system integrators to product add-ons they often release for free. A good example is the DOD 5015.2 records keeping add-on.

The list I've provided above is just a few of the areas where I believe SharePoint really shines as product. SharePoint is certainly packed with lots of features that I haven't mentioned here, but this list represents the majority of what I've found is most valuable to customers.

In a follow-up post, I will give you the counterpoint to this list. Interestingly, some of what I've listed here as strengths can also be weakness, as in the broad partner community, but that is for a different discussion.

I'm interested in your thoughts. What do you think are SharePoint's greatest assets? What makes the platform valuable to your organization or what do you see as its best features?