Social Networks Close at Hand

Many IT departments have probably started to feel comfortable with the Web 2.0 technologies they have deployed within their businesses. Finally, they've figured out how to effectively implement, manage and use tools such as blogs, wikis and rich application development platforms within their company's Web infrastructure. But they shouldn't get too comfortable: Social networking, a Web technology once seen as suitable only on the consumer side, is becoming more compelling for businesses. IT departments are therefore charged with figuring out how to effectively create and manage social networking platforms within their organizations. This may seem like a tall order, but you may be closer to a solution than you think. It is true that there is no obvious vendor or technology provider to turn to. The big names in social networking don't really provide tools for enterprises (there's no Facebook Business Edition, for example), and there really isn't a clearly labeled social networking solution from any of the big software vendors. There are a few off-the-shelf social networking offerings on the Web, but they typically aren't geared toward the enterprise and tend to be offered only in SAAS (software as a service) models, rather than as software that can be run internally. However, a social networking solution may already be at hand: If your company has made any investment in Web 2.0 or enterprise portal systems, there's a very good chance that these same systems can be used to create a rich and robust social networking platform that is also enterprise-friendly.

Social networking with PloneMany IT departments have probably started to feel comfortable with the Web 2.0 technologies they have deployed within their businesses. Finally, they've figured out how to effectively implement, manage and use tools such as blogs, wikis and rich application development platforms within their company's Web infrastructure.

But they shouldn't get too comfortable: Social networking, a Web technology once seen as suitable only on the consumer side, is becoming more compelling for businesses. IT departments are therefore charged with figuring out how to effectively create and manage social networking platforms within their organizations.

This may seem like a tall order, but you may be closer to a solution than you think.

It is true that there is no obvious vendor or technology provider to turn to. The big names in social networking don't really provide tools for enterprises (there's no Facebook Business Edition, for example), and there really isn't a clearly labeled social networking solution from any of the big software vendors.

There are a few off-the-shelf social networking offerings on the Web, but they typically aren't geared toward the enterprise and tend to be offered only in SAAS (software as a service) models, rather than as software that can be run internally.

However, a social networking solution may already be at hand: If your company has made any investment in Web 2.0 or enterprise portal systems, there's a very good chance that these same systems can be used to create a rich and robust social networking platform that is also enterprise-friendly.

And why not? The key features of a social networking platform include personalized pages, discussion areas, content tagging and editable, wiki-style pages. These also happen to be the same features found in many portal and Web 2.0 systems.

While there are many applications that fit the bill in this area, I've decided to focus on three different systems that have won accolades from eWEEK Labs in the past.

These include Microsoft's Sharepoint Server 2007, a classic enterprise portal system; the highly flexible open-source content management system Plone; and one of the most popular blogging platforms in use today, WordPress.

All three of these platforms can provide the core functionality of a good social networking system. But each also brings unique strengths to bear that can increase their attractiveness to diverse businesses.

As an enterprise portal system, Sharepoint Server is designed to provide a platform for centralizing business data and integrating enterprise applications. But in recent releases, Sharepoint has become increasingly people-oriented.

Of course, the biggest attraction to building a social network based on Sharepoint Server is tight integration with the Microsoft stack--ties to everything from Active Directory to Microsoft Office make it possible to build a social network that is deeply integrated with current business systems.

Sharepoint also has very good personal site pages that offer functionality similar to what you would get from a Facebook or MySpace, but for business. Sharepoint Server's blogging and wiki functionality is fairly limited, but it is probably good enough for most business needs.

While Plone is often referred to as a content management system, this description doesn't really do it justice. Plone is easily one of the most flexible and extensible of any Web platform available today, and has been used for everything from enterprise portal systems to project management to Web 2.0 deployments.

Every feature needed to run a social networking site is available within Plone, from personal pages to discussion groups to wikis to tagging to deep user collaboration. Built on top of the Zope application server platform, Plone can be customized to meet a wide variety of needs.

While it is extremely extensible, this does come at a bit of a price and Plone definitely has a higher learning curve than many of the other potential social networking platforms, especially for administrators. Also, Plone is based on the Python language, which while very powerful and capable is less well known than more common web development and scripting language.

The WordPress blogging platform might seem out of place on this list. After all, how can something as straightforward and as focused as a blogging system be used to create something with as broad a functionality set as a social network?

But, over the years, WordPress has been expanded to be much more than a blogging platform. WordPress' very open and pluggable nature has led to many different add-ons that have extended its capabilities well beyond blogging.

Also key is the fact that there has been an increased focus on making WordPress more suitable for enterprise use. For example, the development of the multiuser WordPress (WordPress MU) makes WordPress capable of being used as an enterprise social networking platform.

Also, WordPress is the focus of the DiSo project, which is designed around building an open and distributed social network.

Of course there are many other portal, content management and Web 2.0 systems that can be used to build a business-ready social networking platform. So for those IT departments being tasked with providing a social networking solution, take heart: You may already have everything that you need.