Ask businesspeople what the best and most useful product made by Microsoft is, and you may be surprised to hear many skip past the more obvious choices-such as Windows and Office-and go right to SharePoint.
Introduced as a modest set of online extensions for a variety of online and collaborative tasks, SharePoint is arguably the most successful Microsoft product of the last 10 years, especially in the corporate world. In many ways, SharePoint has become the core on which Microsoft has based most of its online enterprise solutions.
Need a corporate portal? SharePoint. Want a collaboration system? SharePoint. A document management system? Web publishing system? For those and many other tasks, companies have made use of the SharePoint platform.
All of this isn’t exactly what Microsoft had in mind for SharePoint-users have continually pushed the platform past its original design goals and have used it for tasks such as enterprise content management and records management.
However, while the current version, SharePoint Server 2007, is an excellent product (and the winner of an eWEEK Labs Analyst’s Choice award), it is definitely showing its age. To put it into perspective, when Microsoft was developing SharePoint 2007 in 2006, Twitter was just starting to leave its prototype stage and Facebook was just opening up to non-college students.
I recently tested the beta of the newest SharePoint server, which is due in the first half of 2010. I found that it has definitely caught up with the times, including capabilities such as Twitter-style microblogging and social networking. However, in my tests of the SharePoint 2010 beta, I also saw a much improved interface that takes advantage of rich Web technologies (and that also works well on non-Internet Explorer browsers), and I saw many new enterprise features that take into account the advanced applications for which businesses have been using SharePoint.
Looks Familiar?ö?ç?Âat First
The beta of SharePoint 2010 requires the 64-bit version of Windows Server 2008. Also, many new features require, or work best with, the forthcoming Office 2010 suite.
When a user first logs into SharePoint 2010, it will look familiar-until, that is, the user decides to add, edit or manage content on the server. Once a user initiates this kind of action, the Microsoft Office ribbon interface is activated within SharePoint.
Users not familiar with the ribbon interface will have a bit of a learning curve when managing content in SharePoint 2010. However, I found that the interface generally worked well for the type of content management performed in SharePoint, with the ribbon always showing options relevant to the task at hand (such as showing font and text tools when I was editing page content).
Significantly, all of these tool options were available to me whether I was using Internet Explorer or Firefox (though you should be using a current version of Firefox). I was even able to carry out most tasks from a Mac running Safari.
Nearly every page in SharePoint 2010 works like a wiki, making editing and customization simple. In addition, tagging is well integrated into the product: Every user, piece of content or bit of code can be tagged, giving users better access to content and making it easier for a developer to pull content from across the entire SharePoint deployment.
SharePoint’s user pages highlight the server’s social networking know-how. In previous versions of SharePoint, a user My Site page was basically a Web page about a user. In this beta, user pages look a lot like Facebook pages. Users can add Twitter-like status updates to let colleagues know what they are doing, add notes about relevant topics, and tag and share content from across the site and the Web. These pages do a good job of applying social networking capabilities in a business environment, and adding task and project information and tools such as interactive org charts.
SharePoint 2010 also has beefed up its capabilities to work as both a content management system and a document management system. All the tools one would expect (such as check-in check-out) are available, and the in-line editing tools are very good.
Office, Offline Capabilities
A nice new feature in SharePoint adds Web versions of Office applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote). Using these versions, users can view and edit Office content on the SharePoint server even when they are using a system that does not have these applications installed.
Makers of many modern Web applications, especially those in the cloud, have been moving toward adding offline capabilities. These are often made available through the HTML 5 standard or rich Internet application platforms such as Adobe Air. In SharePoint 2010, Microsoft is making it possible to work offline, but is doing so using a more classic client/server model.
SharePoint Workspace 2010, currently available as a free download, is a desktop application that may seem familiar to some because it is essentially the old Groove application. Using SharePoint Workspace 2010, I could access and use content on the SharePoint server and continue to work on content even when not connected to the server.
The SharePoint Designer application is an Office 2010 program that also runs on the desktop. If you’ve seen the Expression Web and Blend applications, then you have a good idea of what SharePoint Designer’s interface is like. In tests, Designer proved effective for viewing and editing content from the SharePoint server, and while serious developers will probably choose to work in Visual Studio, Designer was a nice tool for controlling the look and feel of the site.
Search has also been boosted in SharePoint 2010-overall, I found search results to be much better than in previous versions of the server. SharePoint also integrates with the FAST search server, but I was unable to test that in this beta. Built-in Web analytics are also much improved in SharePoint 2010.
All versions of SharePoint have shared the same weakness: Managing the server is often confusing because tasks are split among central management consoles, settings configured from the standard user interface (if the user has administrator rights) and server-based options.
The SharePoint 2010 beta I tested has the central console and standard interface options, as well as PowerShell capabilities for management tasks. In some ways, this is a good thing, as it gives businesses more options for managing their servers and for automating common tasks. But it does increase the learning curve for administrators.
In SharePoint 2010, the Central Administration Interface has been improved, with more common management tasks in one place. For the most part, I liked this management interface, including new health-tracking features that will be useful for pointing out problems in the SharePoint system.
One very welcome aspect of SharePoint 2010 is the new Service Applications model, which replaces the SSP (Shared Service Provider) model. SSP forced admins to do a lot of upfront work and make early choices about their SharePoint deployments. With the new Service Applications model, it is much easier to pick and choose which services will be used on your server, and to enable or disable them as needed.
However, probably the coolest new management feature in SharePoint 2010 is the Visual Upgrade.
With all of the interface changes in SharePoint 2010, many businesses will rightly be concerned about the training issues. Visual Upgrade helps to address this by making it possible to upgrade to SharePoint 2010 but keep the older interfaces.
This way, a business could upgrade to SharePoint 2010 without a negative impact on day-to-day use of the server. The second stage provides a parallel test setup with the new interfaces, allowing for user training while regular work continues on the old interface. Then, when everybody’s ready, the new interface can be enabled across the server.
For more information or to download the SharePoint 2010 beta, go to sharepoint2010.microsoft.com.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at [email protected]