Making sense of SharePoint's new technologies and editions
Microsoft’s SharePoint “wave” promises to swell to epic proportions as enterprises begin to recover from the economic downturn. The myriad new features, new products, and new messaging offer a lot for any IT pro or developer to interpret and digest. Let’s take a look at what Microsoft SharePoint 2010 has to offer and try to make sense of it all.
The king of SharePoint SKUs is SharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise Edition and the corresponding Enterprise CAL. The Enterprise edition enables the full capabilities of SharePoint Server for intranet usage. It gives you full interoperability with line-of-business (LOB) applications through Business Connectivity Services (BCS) and the Business Data Connector (BDC), and the ability to use that external data along with SharePoint data to deliver business intelligence solutions through Excel Services and PerformancePoint Services (PPS). The latter service application represents the unification of PerformancePoint Server 2007 with SharePoint 2010. Through PPS you can establish enterprise-level BI using advanced analytics, business intelligence scorecards, dashboards, dashboards, and key performance indicators (KPIs).
The Enterprise edition also delivers the new Visio Services, which can render Visio diagrams to users in a web browser, much like Excel Services renders Excel worksheets. And Visio can retrieve data from a back-end data source, so you could have a diagram of your supply chain with up-to-date information about the supply chain displayed inline in the diagram. Visio diagrams can also be rendered in web parts that integrate with other web parts. Imagine a Visio diagram of your network that pulls data from back-end monitoring tools. The diagram is rendered on a SharePoint page in a web part, and when you select a computer in the diagram, another web part displays detailed information about the selected computer. The Visio product team posted a screenshot of such an example in their blog (blogs.msdn.com/visio/archive/2009/10/20/announcing-sharepoint-2010-and-visio-services.aspx). Finally, Visio Services lets you create SharePoint workflows from diagrams, so that you now can use Visio for workflow management.
As it did in Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 Enterprise edition, InfoPath Forms Services gives you the ability to create robust forms-driven solutions. But in SharePoint 2010, InfoPath Forms Services also lets you customize the standard list and library forms pages, so you don’t have to try to customize pages like EditForm.aspx with SharePoint Designer—InfoPath makes it easy.
The Enterprise edition introduces Access Services, as well. Access Services renders Access tables, queries, and reports in a rich, browser-based experience and can even run a subset of macro code. With Access Services, you will be able to move some or all of your important, decentralized Microsoft Access applications to the web.
Perhaps most compelling is the new Office Web Applications feature, which delivers Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel in a surprisingly rich and responsive, browser-based experience. I foresee the apps fitting a number of useful scenarios. The first scenario is what a colleague calls the “Office 2010, Granny Edition,” referring to the stripped-down, “just the basics please” feature set. A lot of people don’t use more than this level of functionality. Second, and most obviously, users on a variety of platforms and browsers can now use Office 2010, including Mac users and users of mobile devices, because SharePoint now supports Firefox and other browsers. Third, users at public computers can work using Office Web Applications.
The apps also expose some of the great new collaborative capabilities of Office 2010, including concurrent editing and real-time updates, so multiple users can work on a document at the same time. I foresee this replacing some online meetings which, today, are simply a way to share a PowerPoint presentation or work on a shared document. Speaking of PowerPoint, SharePoint 2010 now supports PowerPoint presentation broadcasting—yet another way to reduce the number of online meetings.
There’s no doubt that SharePoint 2010 Enterprise Edition packs a lot of punch. I believe that the Office Web Apps and Access Services will probably be the biggest driver for businesses. Of course, the Enterprise edition includes all of the functionality of the Standard edition and of SharePoint Foundation 2010, each of which are described below. Minor changes may be made to the feature set of each, so check out Microsoft’s SharePoint site (sharepoint2010.microsoft.com) for the latest info.
Standard Edition and Social Networking
Social networking has been greatly improved since MOSS 2007, and I believe that SharePoint 2010 will be the tipping point for social networking in the enterprise. In SharePoint 2010, users have the ability to create content and to provide feedback on content through ratings, tags, and note boards. Users can tag just about anything they see: sites, pages, lists, items, and documents. Tags can be managed and controlled in a variety of ways, allowing an enterprise to expose a managed taxonomy while allowing user-generated tags (folksonomy). Tags can also be marked as private by a user (“My Tags”). Ratings are also pervasive. Note boards are like posts on a Facebook wall.
All of these types of social content are exposed through search and in Office clients. For example, Outlook shows activity and status update from users’ My Sites, and Word, Excel, and other clients show tags and notes for documents stored in document libraries. A particularly interesting feature is “Inbox mining,” which uses the contents of your Outlook Inbox to establish a feed of content of interest to you.
SharePoint Foundation 2010
Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) has been rebranded SharePoint Foundation 2010, and the new name better represents the fact that it’s both a subset of SharePoint as well as the core code upon which other SharePoint products and technologies are built. SharePoint Foundation now provides some of the functionality handled by MOSS 2007—most importantly the management of service applications (formerly part of the Shared Services Provider).
Like WSS, SharePoint foundation can be installed free on Windows servers, but (like the rest of SharePoint) requires 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2008 or Windows Server 2008 R2.
Also like WSS, SharePoint Foundation can support basic collaboration scenarios, so it’s well suited to provide Team Site and similar functionality for small and remote offices, while the enterprise is serviced by a centralized SharePoint Server 2010 farm. And as with SharePoint 2007, Microsoft will no doubt be pushing organizations into for-fee licenses of SharePoint Server 2010. Though I believe there are truly compelling reasons to deploy SharePoint Server 2010 in any enterprise, I also believe there are numerous places where SharePoint Foundation will satisfy requirements. Be smart about which edition of SharePoint you apply to each of your requirements—they play together quite well.
SharePoint Server 2010 Standard Edition delivers an impressive baseline of enterprise search functionality, with improved algorithms, refiners, performance, and user experience. Search Server 2010 provides the same search functionality in a dedicated product, so that you can deploy Search Server for search-only scenarios to reduce your total cost. Search Server Express 2010 will be a free product limited in scalability and functionality.
The richest enterprise search experience comes from Microsoft FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, a separate product that relies upon and integrates with the Enterprise edition of SharePoint 2010. This product is the fruition of Microsoft’s purchase of FAST Technologies in 2008. FAST includes contextual search (like the ability to recognize departments and geographies), allows you to tag unstructured content with metadata, and increases scalability. To see the type of search experience that FAST delivers, check out Microsoft’s SharePoint site and its Enterprise Search site (www.microsoft.com/enterprisesearch).
Microsoft is also offering SharePoint Server 2010 for Internet Sites, Standard Edition and SharePoint Server 2010 for Internet Sites, Enterprise Edition. These editions differ from intranet editions by allowing access without user-based CALs. The exact details of functionality differences and licensing weren’t available at press time. A FAST Search Server 2010 for Internet Business will sit on top of the Internet Sites Enterprise Edition to power sophisticated search-based web sites.
As if there weren’t enough editions for you to consider, you must also determine which of your business requirements to satisfy with internally hosted SharePoint farms and which to host externally in the cloud. Microsoft offers SharePoint Online as a hosted, per-user service and as a bundle called the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). You can also acquire dedicated SharePoint Online servers, in which case your SharePoint service is not multi-tenant (or “co-hosted”). Dedicated SharePoint Online service is typically provided to companies with 5,000 or more users.
Each of these services will be upgraded to SharePoint 2010 within a few months of RTM, allowing current users to immediately take advantage of new functionality. Easy, quick upgrades are just one advantage of a hosted service. SharePoint 2010 supports multi-tenancy across most of its feature set, including search and social networking, so it is expected that SharePoint Online will begin to include these features.
SharePoint 2010 also provides an isolated environment in which custom code can be executed without interfering with other code. These sandboxed solutions should allow SharePoint Online to support much more customization than the current version, even in multi-tenant versions of the service. SharePoint Online in its 2010 iteration will introduce SharePoint Online for Internet Sites, allowing companies to build their public-facing web sites on Microsoft-hosted SharePoint servers.
We’ve already discussed many of the major new features of SharePoint 2010. But as you’ve no doubt learned with previous upgrades, sometimes the smaller features make the biggest difference.
The SharePoint UI has been completely revamped. Many operations now appear as pop-up windows, preserving the context of the action and reducing confusion. AJAX enables multi-select operations and much peppier response. And the entire UI is now compliant and accessible (WCAG 2.0) XHTML and supports browsers including IE, Firefox, Safari, and mobile browsers.
As with Office 2007, the Ribbon will require some getting used to, but it makes you far more productive, reducing the number of clicks it takes to complete a task and making it easier to discover commands and capabilities. For example, when I first installed SharePoint 2010 and went to a list, I discovered, thanks to the Ribbon, the new ability to customize list forms (DisplayForm, EditForm, and NewForm) in the browser. Because I had done a lot of page customization in MOSS 2007 using SharePoint Designer, this feature leaped out at me and is, in fact, another great feature.
One of the things I was able to do quite easily by customizing the DisplayForm page of a list was to add “related items.” SharePoint 2010 lists are now relational, so it’s easy to establish and present related lists, such as a list of employees and projects to which they are assigned. The relational list capability also makes it easier to show information in forms without cracking open SharePoint Designer or Visual Studio. If you have an order form, for example, you can pick the customer from a lookup column and then other information about the customer—a phone number for example—can be displayed in the DisplayForm automatically. I can hear a lot of readers saying, “It’s about time!” right now.
When you add content to SharePoint, metadata is pervasive. That metadata is not only useful for search and social features mentioned earlier but can also be used to provide metadata-driven navigation. For example, I can locate documents in a document library using navigation folders dynamically built using the documents’ metadata. I can also route a document to a specific location in SharePoint based on its metadata.
Speaking of documents, it’s now possible to work with “compound documents” consisting of, for example, a Word document, a PowerPoint presentation, an Excel worksheet, and a PDF. They can be bundled together using a new content type called a document set, and the document set can be managed, versioned, and controlled with workflows as a single entity.
Records management features are now available in every library, so archiving and compliance can be established without needing specialized records management libraries. An official “record” can live alongside a document, and the record can be managed through its lifecycle. It’s also now possible to associate a unique document ID with each document, which allows you to create links to documents that “follow” the document regardless of which library hosts the document. This is a common feature of some other enterprise content management tools, so it’s welcome in SharePoint.
Users often want to “publish” content directly to the web. SharePoint 2010’s wiki features are much stronger. Each and every page is a wiki, allowing in-line editing of content; and the Enterprise wiki capability supports a richer wiki syntax, templates, and other enterprise-caliber features. Web content is easier to create, publish, and manage. And it is richer, with full support for multimedia including video and a Silverlight control.
Microsoft has introduced the term “composites” into the SharePoint vocabulary. These are code-free and lite-code applications created by Office clients, including the aforementioned Access Services, as well as SharePoint Designer 2010. SharePoint 2010 offers amazing possibilities for integration with Office 2010 client applications, including using SharePoint Workspaces 2010 (formerly Groove) to work with SharePoint content online and offline.
Riding the SharePoint Wave
The list of SharePoint features goes on. If you’d like to keep riding the SharePoint 2010 wave, check out “SharePoint 2010 Revealed,” and follow me on Twitter @danholme. Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions as your organization dives into the task of identifying how SharePoint 2010 can help you.