SharePoint is unique amongst information management systems in that it is rarely purchased with any specific purpose in mind. It is most often bought bundled in with other products when an IT department negotiates an enterprise agreement with Microsoft.
This creates a challenge for such organisations. What should they use it for? What shouldn’t they use it for?
Giving people out of the box SharePoint team sites and hoping that they do something useful with them produces very variable results. Some teams will make their site work. Many others will either decline to put the effort in to tailor the site to their needs, or will tailor the site but make a bad job of it and the result will be unpopular with their colleagues. SharePoint team sites are most effective when they are targeted at (and restricted to) those areas of the business whose importance justifies the configuration of a template team site targeted specifically at their work.
The SharePoint Symposium in Washington DC that I attended last week brought together analysts such as Tony Byrne, Alan Pelz-Sharpe, Rop Koplowitz and Mark Gilbert; together with SharePoint implementers such as Shawn Shell and Richard Harbridge
SharePoint is a platform, not an application
Tony Byrne said SharePoint was best described as a platform rather than as an application. It had a great many features which provided organisations with the potential to build applications.
An application is a set of features that have been combined together to provide an organisation with a useful capability (a contracts management capability, a social computing capability etc.). SharePoint is feature-rich, but in most areas these features have not been knitted together in a way that provides an organisation with a useful capability.
For example in social computing SharePoint has every feature that you might ask for – blogs, wikis, microblogging, discussion boards etc. The features may be variable in quality (Tony said that the microblogging ‘sucks’), but they are all there. However you could not roll out vanilla SharePoint blogs, wikis, discussion boards, activity streams etc. and expect any significant uptake of these features. If you wanted a social computing capability that people would actually find useable, interesting and lively then you would either have to build a customised user interface on top of those features, extend SharePoint with a third party tool, or use a separate application entirely.
A member of the audience asked whether SharePoint could be used for business process management. Tony said that SharePoint had good routing features, and if all the work in a particular process was to be done within SharePoint itself then it could fit the bill. But a business process management capability implies that a system is orchestrating a complex process across several different applications and SharePoint lacks the ability to do that.
The SharePoint ecosystem
Tony told us that consultants, ISVs and developers liked SharePoint because it ‘meant never having to say no to a client’. Given enough time and resource SharePoint could be made to do almost anything. SharePoint extends the .Net framework (Microsoft’s answer to Java, which is in itself a platform). It offers an object model and services on top of .Net that developers can make use of. It is better documented than most other enterprise applications, and it’s codebase is remarkably stable considering the scale of the product. It also has an enormous ecosystem, and Microsoft themselves estimate that for every €1 spent on SharePoint licences €6 are spent with the SharePoint ecosystem.
Tony warned organisations against trying to use SharePoint to meet every technological need. Most organisations have SharePoint licences, and when a technology need arose someone, somewhere will ask the question ‘why not use SharePoint for that?’. Tony advised organisations to turn this question on its head and ask ‘why SharePoint?, ‘Why would customising and/or extending SharePoint be more effective than getting a tool that is already optimised to fulfil that purpose?’
Mark Gilbert said that organisations were getting frustrated at having to implement third party tools in order to do things that they expected SharePoint to be able to do natively.
Alan Pelz-Sharpe described the SharePoint ecosystem as being a very crowded market, full of small companies. There are lots of start-ups and many companies are operating on venture capital funding. Some of the companies will last but many won’t. Some will go-under, some will get acquired. When buying a third party product to extend SharePoint, organisations should consider the financial stability of the company and their road map for the future. Will they still be around to update their product every time a service pack is issued or a new version of SharePoint is released?
Using SharePoint to provide a user interface to data held elsewhere
Shawn Shell described some powerful uses of SharePoint’s Business Connectivity Services (BCS). Organisations often have databases that contain valuable data (for example cusomer data in a customer database) that is not available to all staff because the organisation is reluctant to pay for extra user licences. SharePoint’s BCS allows you to set up a connector to the database, and to surface the customer data as a SharePoint list. This data can then be used to improve the findability of customer data in SharePoint. A column from the list such as ‘Customer ID’ could be used as a controlled vocabulary within the SharePoint environment, to be added as metadata to documents held in document libraries within the SharePoint implementation.
Tony Byrne said that Microsoft seemed to have settled on a three year release cycle for SharePoint. This three year wait was fine for steady areas like document management, but in quicker moving areas like social computing it put SharePoint at a disadvantage compared to more agile competitors.
Shawn Shell said SharePoint Online (a component of Microsoft ‘s cloud based Office 365) could give Microsoft the opportunity to introduce new features on a rolling basis rather than waiting for the next product release. Shawn described SharePoint Online as a ‘weird mixture’ of the core SharePoint features (lists, libraries, sites etc.) available in SharePoint Foundation, together with some, but not all, of the features of the paid-for SharePoint 2007.
Rob Koplowitz said that early adopters are having a really hard time with SharePoint Online, but he thought that over the long term it would be the way that most SharePoint clients will go.
Mark Gilbert said that at the moment Office 365 was geared to small and medium sized organisations. At the Office 365 product launch Microsoft used the example of a dog grooming company.
SharePoint versus Box.net
Alan Pelz-Sharpe said that SharePoint is huge business and it is not going to go away any time soon, but cloud based file share services such as box.net, Huddle and others are the first to start to firing arrows across SharePoint’s bow. The reason why they are a threat is that filesharing is the core of SharePoint’s capabilities. Filesharing is the one thing SharePoint does really well out of the box.
Alan said that SharePoint Online would find it hard to compete with born-in-the-cloud competitors. Companies like Box.net were cloud based from the start. They have optimised their product architecture for the cloud, all of their development effort goes into their cloud offering, and their partner channel is geared for the cloud. In contrast SharePoint ‘s history is as an on-premise product. Its architecture is geared to on-premise, the vendors in its ecosystem were mostly geared around on-premise.
Mark Gilbert said that SharePoint is an environment that organisations are used to tweaking and fine tuning, but you cannot do that to anything like the same extent with SharePoint Online.
Rob Koplowitz said that SharePoint was a Swiss army knife of a product that had a huge array of different features. A service like Box.net was like a screwdriver – it did one job (filesharing). But if you only want a screwdriver, why buy a Swiss army knife? The threat to SharePoint from Box.net and others would come if organisations decided that they wanted a way to tackle the fileshare problem without engaging with the complexity of SharePoint.
The analysts noted a trend in attempts to tackle the filesharing problem. Early attempts to get away from shared drives came from powerful systems like Documentum that imposed rigid disciplines on users and gave strong central controls. SharePoint upstaged these products by providing a product that was simpler for end-users (at the expense of weaker central control and a more sprawling, less coherent repository). Now Box.net comes along and offers a solution that is even more simple for end-users, and has even less central controls.
Rob Koplowitz pondered whether organisations were doomed to forever repeat the shared drive scenario on different products (SharePoint, Box.net etc.) with content sprawling on systems that are always beyond the organisation’s control.