Observations from where technology meets business


Initial Impressions of SharePoint 2010

The SharePoint Conference 2009 was packed full of information about Microsoft’s upcoming 2010 release of SharePoint. This is a summary of my initial impressions of the product, which are centered on three major categories:

  • SharePoint 2010 is mostly about improving the platform
  • Microsoft's New Identity Crisis
  • Innovative Platform Features

SharePoint 2010 is mostly about improving the platform:  Microsoft is clearly focused on building out the platform capabilities of SharePoint with the 2010 release. This was initially made obvious by Steve Ballmer during the Q&A session after his keynote when he said that Microsoft views SharePoint as “kind of” operating system. This was made even clearer the following day in a discussion between Microsoft executives and analysts, when the execs shared their three priorities in SharePoint 2010:

  1. Investment in SharePoint Online
  2. Better support for Internet-facing scenarios
  3. “Platform work”

These priorities support comments made by several speakers who said many of improvements and new features in 2010 were the result of significant work "under the hood." The primary benefactors of this work will initially be SharePoint Online. However, enterprise IT departments supporting SharePoint installations should also benefit.

Microsoft's New Identity Crisis: While it is now clear that SharePoint is a platform, a new identity crisis is emerging around SharePoint. With the launch of SharePoint Online, Microsoft no longer just sells SharePoint as a piece of software, they also deliver it as a service. The question is: which of the two has the higher priority? Based on the tone of the conference this week it is clear that on-premises software is still top dog, but will Microsoft customers allow that to continue being the case?

As Mike Gotta pointed out in this blog post, Microsoft seems to be in denial about this. By keeping releases aligned around the notion of on-premises software (by even calling it “SharePoint 2010” Microsoft is saying that software comes first) and their long release cycles, the SaaS offering will be held back. Time will tell if this approach is sustainable.

Noticeably absent from the conference was any demonstration of the “Software + Services” concept promoted by Microsoft. While the tight integration between the Office applications and SharePoint could be called a “Software + Service” approach, I was hoping to see how on-premises deployments of SharePoint could be easily extended with SaaS-delivered features from SharePoint Online. This could be similar to how content filtering capabilities in the high-end version of Exchange is delivered by a Microsoft online service. Approaches like this could be a way to answer critics arguing that Microsoft’s product release cycles are too long.

Innovative Platform Features:  Here are a few of the new or changed features I found noteworthy:

Business Connectivity Services (BCS): The BCS is the follow-on to the Business Data Catalog that was introduced in SharePoint 2007, except that the BCS is now completely baked into SharePoint and Office. The BCS is an architectural framework which enables data to be pulled from external systems (e.g., databases, Line of Business applications) within the context of SharePoint (as a new object called an external list) or Office (surfaced in Outlook, Word, InfoPath, and Access).

The BCS can be used pervasively throughout SharePoint and Office 2010. The examples given in the introductory BCS session started with a database containing names and addresses. A SharePoint example used the BCS to represent this data as an external list. Standard SharePoint list management features could then be applied (e.g., sorting, filtering) and could also be programmatically manipulated like any other list. The second example pulled the same data into Outlook 2010 and was fully managed (including writing back to the external database) as these records were natively stored Outlook contacts. To show how Word 2010’s could leverage the BCS, the same database was used as a data source for custom fields in a form letter. The BCS is also used by SharePoint search (both the standard search and FAST search) for content ingestion.

Unfortunately, the BCS may still be a feature that is well before its time. As infrastructure plumbing the BCS is extremely cool. However, there needs to be applications that use this capability in innovative ways that are relevant to businesses before it can garner the attention it deserves. In my opinion, applications built using the search capabilities in SharePoint may be the most valuable candidates.

Longer term, should the BCS catch on, it may help drive IT organizations to focus more on improving the state of data management within their enterprises, since their data can now be more widely leveraged in everyday work scenarios.

SharePoint Search: SharePoint 2010 seems to have taken several steps beyond the traditional search box without requiring the development of a full blown search application. This middle ground could provide some compelling information discovery opportunities for enterprises looking to leverage both their unstructured and structured data. The quick turnaround in integrating FAST search into SharePoint is probably a testament to the architectural changes in the design of 2010. As was noted in the FAST search overview, it was only 18 months ago that Microsoft acquired FAST.

However, confusion between SharePoint’s standard search and the FAST Search for SharePoint will remain. I expect Microsoft will have to a better job distinguishing the two types of search available in SharePoint in the future.

The re-engineered relationship between SharePoint and the Office applications (e.g., Word, Excel): While the previous integrations between SharePoint and the Office desktop applications were convenient ways to open files and publish calendars, in my experience they are rarely (if ever) used by most people. With 2010, SharePoint and Office cooperate more intimately throughout the entire time the desktop application is being use, not just simply communicating when a file is opened or saved.

First, Microsoft is introducing a new protocol, called MS-FSSHTTP, which stands for “File Synchronization via SOAP over HTTP Protocol Specification.” This allows for Office applications to intelligently synchronize file changes with SharePoint. Today, if you were to open a 50MB PowerPoint file stored on SharePoint the browser starts up the PowerPoint application and then PowerPoint transfers the file from SharePoint. So far so good. However, every time the user wants to save the file the entire 50MB is transferred back to SharePoint. This is simply how the WebDAV protocol works and is a major inhibitor to working with files stored in SharePoint.

The use of MS-FSSHTTP enables SharePoint and PowerPoint 2010 to only transmit the changes made to the file, not the entire file. For example, if we were to correct the spelling of some text in our 50MB PowerPoint file, only this change would be transmitted (a matter of a few bytes). This is a huge improvement and will make editing files stored in SharePoint just as responsive (in most cases) as files stored locally. In my opinion, teams collaborating on documents should store them in workspaces, rather than simply use the workspace to periodically share a copy of “the latest version.” By keeping the master copy of a file in the workspace, it becomes the latest copy. This new protocol will make these scenarios easier to support. The MS-FSSHTTP protocol is also used to provide the co-authoring features in the new Office 2010 desktop applications as well as synchronization of changes for OneNote and SharePoint Workspace (to support offline documents).

In addition, SharePoint 2010 is extending Office 2010 applications with document management capabilities. These include:

  • Office applications can align document properties with SharePoint metadata columns. A form of this was available in SharePoint/Office 2007 but is beefed up even more with the new taxonomy and tagging changes coming in 2010.
  • Templates for new documents (when selecting File/New) can be retrieved from SharePoint content types.
  • Image files can be easily retrieved from SharePoint.

There may be other integrations between SharePoint and Office that I missed. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two is much cozier in 2010.

Monday At The SharePoint Conference

What I learned today at the SharePoint Conference:

  • What is SharePoint? Even Microsoft cannot define what SharePoint is. Ballmer said he is asked this by customers “all the time.”
  • SharePoint is a platform. However, during the Q&A Ballmer said, in answering a question regarding SharePoint Designer 2010 supporting SharePoint 2007, that this is a classic dilemma regarding “operating systems.” In addition, he said that Microsoft views SharePoint as “kind of” operating system (“platform” was used extensively this morning)
  • SharePoint will always favor Windows technologies. In the Q&A (again, best place for unscripted remarks), Ballmer made it clear that SharePoint will always support Windows technologies better. The questioner said he was using SharePoint with teachers, who love their Macs. In my opinion, perhaps the only major politically incorrect moment of the morning keynotes.
  • FAST search. This is the branding for the high-end search SharePoint will provide in it’s Enterprise Edition. This isn’t just search, its FAST search. This seems clear as mud to me. However, I cannot think of a better alternative.
  • Doesn’t Microsoft sell Visio and PowerPoint? At two "Overviews" today (Search, ECM), neither Microsoft speaker had a diagram explaining high-level concepts, instead each used screenshots of SharePoint administrator tools. I suspect the non-developers in the audience (“the masses” as in “ECM for the Masses” the title of one of the overview) were lost at this point.
  • We’re all developers, right? The Microsoft speakers seem to assume we are all developers. In fact, the first demo during the keynote this morning was the most technical one.

Tomorrow’s topics:

  • Business Connectivity Services. This may be the most innovative “new” capability in 2010. It is the evolution of the Business Data Catalog in (BDC) 2007 but appears to be more fully baked into SharePoint and can be used in many places.
  • FAST Search deep dive. I am interested in learning more about the processing FAST does as it is ingesting content.
  • Coexistence of SharePoint with file shares. SharePoint appears to be having more success replacing file shares than collaboration or document management solutions that came long before it. This topic is starting to show up in more of our client dialogues.

This Week’s SharePoint Conference

It looks like this will be a busy week. Microsoft execs announced some of the changes coming with the new version of SharePoint in their keynotes this morning (press release below). Here are some things I will be looking for in SharePoint 2010:

  • Ease of use. The current UI is clunky and takes far too many clicks. Adding the Office ribbon UI to SharePoint should go a long way to address this. But, will remnants of the old UI remain?
  • It appears that the MOSS name is gone. The successor to WSS is SharePoint Foundation 2010. Whenever someone from Microsoft said “SharePoint” they never meant WSS. Based on the agenda, SharePoint Foundation isn’t getting much attention either.
  • How much of a threat to the current SaaS WCM market will Microsoft be? From the release below it looks like SharePoint Online is expanding to handle Internet-facing websites. Should CrownPeak or Clickability worry?
  • How thoroughly integrated is the new Business Connectivity Services (BCS)? I’m especially interested in seeing if/how the new FAST-based search capabilities in SharePoint will leverage BCS. However, this has implications across the entire platform.
  • How much of a role will SharePoint play in addressing the “document as a web page” paradigm? The Office web apps are a good start but will they support wiki-style linking and management of large document bases? Or, will documents simply become cloud-based but still standalone?

Ballmer’s keynote address highlighted features and capabilities such as these:

· A new ribbon user interface that makes end users more productive and customization of SharePoint sites easy

· Deep Office integration through social tagging, backstage integration and document life-cycle management

· Built-in support for rich media such as video, audio and Silverlight, making it easy to build dynamic Web sites

· New Web content management features with built-in accessibility through Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, multilingual support and one-click page layout, enabling anyone to access SharePoint Server sites

· New SharePoint tools in Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, giving developers a premier experience with the tools they know and trust

· Business Connectivity Services, which allow developers to connect capabilities to line-of-business data or Web services in SharePoint Server and the Office client

· Rich APIs and support for Silverlight, representational state transfer (REST) and Language-Integrated Query (LINQ), to help developers rapidly build applications on the SharePoint platform

· Enterprise features in SharePoint Online such as Excel Services and InfoPath Forms Services, which make it simple to use, share, secure and manage interactive forms across an organization

· The addition of two new SharePoint SKUs for Internet-facing sites, including an on-premises and hosted offer

Microsoft Unveils SharePoint Server 2010 and Showcases New Functionality

Collaborative Online Lists

Everyone uses lists. Some of us are more serious about using lists but we all use them. We use them for keeping track of tasks we need to do, shopping for groceries, maintaining contact information, and in hundreds of other ways. We also use lists when we work with others (for example, on a project team or with colleagues in our workgroup). Lists are important for keeping track of the work we are doing together, for sharing information, and so forth. Collaborative online lists are simply lists that are easily accessible and can be maintained by multiple people.

Perhaps the most popular list-editor is Microsoft Excel. Of course, this use of Excel does not exercise any spreadsheet calculation feature. Excel simply makes editing lists easy. A quick browse through Microsoft’s online Excel template catalog reveals a number of list-only templates.

However, the problem with using Excel to manage a list, such as project team’s issue list, is that it is stored in a file and files can be black holes of information (recall that I hate files). Files tend to be treated as personal items and not easily shared. A project’s administrator may keep a list of issues and send it out just before a weekly meeting but that is about as much sharing as we see when lists are kept in files. Need to find out about a particular issue before the next meeting? Well then call the project administrator on the telephone.

Collaborative online lists avoid this problem by being stored online so they are easily accessible and the responsibility for updating them can be shared. The good news is you may already have the most popular online collaborative list solutions running within your intranet. Lists can be found in collaborative workspace products such as EMC/Documentum eRoom (where lists are called databases), Lotus Quickr, or Microsoft SharePoint.

If done correctly, collaborative online lists can support both emergent and hierarchical uses. For example, I know of a large company that was going through a significant downsizing. They were running SharePoint on their intranet and someone created a list to capture information about people leaving the company. It started filling with names and became quite popular. That is, until HR shut it down (I suppose there are other lessons to learn here). Nevertheless, this is a good example of an emergent online list.

Collaborative online lists can also support hierarchical use cases. For example, large development efforts often consist of many teams within a hierarchical reporting structure. Imagine having a workspace for each team and each one maintaining a list of issues in a common format. These lists could then be rolled up and consolidated to provide managers with a broad overview of all issues (yes, culturally, this may be challenging). eRoom provides a similar function with their “Enterprise Database” function.

If list items have unique URLs they are easier to reuse. For example, you could use social bookmarking systems to bookmark and tag an issue (or any type of list item) and associate them with other related web pages or sites on the intranet. This way an issue within a list can become part of a larger enterprise knowledgebase.

Collaborative online lists are a lot like wikis. I view wikis as replacing Word files and collaborative online lists as replacing lists kept in Excel files. In both cases, information is easier to access and uniquely addressable (and, hence, easier to share and recall).

However, there are a few things collaborative workspaces can learn from wikis, the biggest of which is security. Often times the default security of a collaborative workspace limits access to no one, except those specifically invited to the workspace. Wikis tend to be open from the start. However, wikis marketed to enterprises can also be tied down, just like the traditional collaborative workspace. So, this isn’t necessarily a technology problem.

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog

This Week’s “Well Duh!” Moment

Being a father of teenagers I try not to use too many of their idioms within my own vocabulary (I embarrass them enough as-is). But sometimes I am at such a lost for words to describe a head-shaking moment of disbelief that the phrase “Well Duh!” fits all too well.

While I know there are probably many reasons why this hasn’t been done before, the announcement on the SharePoint Team Blog (a team which works on a product that provides, among many features, web content management) that the SharePoint marketing site is now being run on SharePoint seems kind of…well…late.

Lights… Camera… Action!

Today, we launched the SharePoint marketing website on SharePoint Server 2007. 

SharePoint on SharePoint: Launch of new website

btw, I think this means that about 0.08% of the entire Microsoft.com site (based on the results of these two queries at Live.com) is managed by the company’s web content management software. This appears to run counter to Microsoft's reputation for eating their own dogfood.

Groove, SharePoint, and OneNote

In Mary Jo Foley's interview with Rajesh Jha, Corporate VP , Microsoft Office Live, we learned that Groove is being positioned "as the way that users will be able to access documents in their workspaces when they are off-line". Jha also is quoted as saying "Groove will be the way you take any Workspace offline."

Unfortunately, this still doesn't clear up Groove's future since, technically, Groove can do this today by synchronizing with a SharePoint document library. Longer-term, it makes sense to tie Groove and SharePoint together. However, I wouldn't expect this to be an easy task since there is significant overlap in function.

In addition, given the timing of the acquisition and the latest releases of SharePoint and Groove I doubt any accommodating architectural changes have taken place yet. To get these working as an online/offline duo we should see some significant changes under the hood, the least of which would be a common storage model.

However, while they have the hood up and are taking apart the engine Microsoft should consider bringing another piece of their portfolio into the mix. Microsoft OneNote is a fabulous personal information manager (a better description might be a personal information harvester). I have been using it to manage all of my "digital stuff" the past few months and have been very pleased. There is still plenty of room for improvement but, in my opinion, it does a darn good job and is arguably the best of its kind on the market.

OneNote's roots are planted in the Tablet PC. However, I don't use a tablet with OneNote. It's my understanding that 80% or more of OneNote users also do not use a Tablet PC.

One result of this heritage is OneNote's use of a freeform page in which you can embed just about any form of media including text, audio, video, images, and files in general (in addition to "digital ink" from a tablet pen). I personally make liberal use of OneNote's notebook structure to keep my growing personal database of information. I am able to consume all forms of digital information (and some non-digital via a scanner) as I come across it now that I have a place to keep it (and find it later). I also make use of OneNote's tagging capability for GTD-like task management.

In addition, OneNote has some simple collaborative capabilities. An interesting feature I haven't tried yet is the ability to host real-time shared note-taking sessions. This sounds intriguing since a OneNote notebook can become an online meeting's virtual whiteboard. After the meeting the shared notebook continues on as part of the team's normal collaborative (and personal information management) mode of work.

You can also share notebooks between computers allowing team members, for example, to work within the same notebook from different locations and during different times of the day. There are a couple of options to do this. From my experience the best way is via SMB file shares. Just point all instances of OneNote to the same file on the network. This appears to work quite well as I have shared OneNote notebooks between my personal laptop and one I take home from the office. Changes are quickly reflected between the two computers.

Teams can also share OneNote notebooks using SharePoint. This method, however, appears to be a little rough around the edges and if there are a number of changes the synchronization process is quite noticeable. It almost looks as if the entire notebook is being transferred during synchronization but I can't say for sure.

This is where Groove's P2P technology could come into play. Groove's synchronization methods are very robust and from my perspective appear to be much better than OneNote's synchronization using SharePoint. I have used Groove to share workspaces between multiple computers in various locations and I was quite pleased with the performance. This was the case even though one of the laptops involved was constantly going offline and coming back online in multiple places.

So imagine having a server back-end and web interface from SharePoint, synchronization and offline capability with Groove, and a rich collaborative team workspace and personal information management client from OneNote. Now that would be something.

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