When Microsoft presented the customer preview of Office 2013 as well as SharePoint 2013 and Project 2013 in July, CEO Steve Ballmer made a point of personally presenting the strategy underlying the new versions, calling the 2013 releases the most ambitious projects Microsoft has undertaken in the last decades.
A glance at the product pipeline of the software company helps to furnish a little perspective regarding that statement: The next generation of operating systems is waiting in the wings with Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Windows Server 2012. Microsoft has announced that it will (re-)enter the highly promising tablet market with the Surface. The rebranding of the Hotmail e-mail service in Outlook.com moves cloud services and client software closer together. The idea behind these concerted efforts: Microsoft wants to create a uniform user experience — beginning with the operating system, to client and web applications right up to cloud applications for all types of end devices (desktop, phone, tablet) and for private and business customers alike.
Due to its widespread use in private and professional environments, the Office suite constitutes a major component of Microsoft’s economic success. The same goes for SharePoint in the area of business customers, which has morphed into a cross-company IT platform. SharePoint is the presentation layer for business data via the business connectivity services; in addition, it can connect ERP systems to the Office world, for instance.
SharePoint 2013 - Four key investment areas
The new version of SharePoint 2013 is the response to current IT trends. Microsoft is more an early adopter than a trendsetter in this context. Major developments here concern leading-edge forms of collaboration that have been established via social media such as Facebook and Twitter yet also through apps and corresponding digital marketplaces like Apple’s iTunes Store. Cloud services and the usage of mobile end devices are already common practice, especially with private customers. Microsoft takes up such trends with SharePoint 2013, focusing on four key investment areas:
- Cloud readiness: The architecture was geared to efficient interaction within and with the cloud.
- Social collaboration: Functions for modern forms of collaboration were provided.
- Mobile devices: Collaboration when using mobile end devices is supported.
- Web content management: The focus is on the efficient provision and user-friendly presentation of contents in the intranet and internet.
Microsoft has systematically carried forward the basic SharePoint functions, so that from a user’s point of view SharePoint 2013, like SharePoint 2010 8, is more of an evolution than a revolution.
Major changes in the architecture
Although Microsoft already offers SharePoint 2010 in the cloud, the system has been hardly suitable for complex scenarios. The reason: In order to be able to guarantee efficient cloud operation, the functionality of the architecture had to be limited. Microsoft tackles this problem with SharePoint 2013, systematically banking on modular and service-oriented architectures as well as open web standards. Services have been outsourced to their own servers such as the Workflow Server or Office Web Apps Server. Other functions have been bundled in their own services, like the App Management Service for the provision of additional features. The data transfer has been further optimised: on the one hand, by separating BLOBs (binary large objects) and transferring only the deltas between the database and web frontend. On the other hand, by way of a new request management that makes it possible to grant priority to requests that are critical to system performance. End users profit from it by tangibly improved response times.
The open OData and OAuth Web standards — the latter are, among other things, already deployed at Facebook and Twitter — facilitate a cutting-edge connection of third party systems. With OAuth, the authorisation management of user and functionality can be separated. It’s no longer required that, the a web service has to know the user’s account and password or has potential access to the user’s entire SharePoint data in order to be run. The business connectivity services now support, in the standard mode, access via the OData protocol. Thus a simple connection is facilitated to external data sources, e.g. from SQL Azure databases and by way of the Azure marketplace. In addition, SharePoint supports different clients like web browsers or mobile phones.
Expanded functions via apps
Microsoft has tackled another core issue with SharePoint 2013. Up to now, the custom code — the addition of functionality via programming, which one frequently runs across in practice — was responsible for a major part of the problems in the operation of SharePoint. Additionally, the concept of sandboxed solutions (execution of program codes with dedicated and limited resources) constrained the options for functions expansion too severely. So a fundamentally new concept especially for cloud scenarios was necessary and was found with the apps known from the consumer and mobile area. In SharePoint 2013, additional functions are isolated in apps and made available separately from the SharePoint life cycle: either in an extra app web with dedicated domain or on external systems in the cloud. This ensures that apps will not have a negative influence on the SharePoint operation. The deployment of SharePoint apps can be done in two different ways. In-house, developers can provide apps through the corporate marketplace. Subsequently, SharePoint administrators have the option of controlling the distribution of the apps within the company. Microsoft offers a second option in the form of the global marketplace, a digital, public marketplace, similar to the one known from Apple’s iTunes Store, for example. Developers can upload their apps here and price them. Subsequent to quality assurance by Microsoft, the apps are available, then, publicly for downloading.
The scope of an app may vary heavily in both cases. Thus in principle, apps are possible that cover a complete business scenario, e.g. an application for vacation or a CRM application. The other extreme are apps that add technical functions, e.g. custom action for the direct printing of a document stored in SharePoint.
SharePoint 2013 - Facebook and Twitter for the Intranet
In the area of social collaboration, SharePoint 2013 offers pivotal functional innovations by adapting concepts known from Facebook and Twitter. “MySite” is presented with a definite structure and, following Facebook’s example, makes a clear-cut separation between the public and the private area. The user can present himself to his colleagues with a personal profile in the “About me” public area as well as share documents and other information. In addition, his activities such as “following” a document, evaluating inputs or current status reports are shown to his network here. What information is to be displayed to whom can be centrally established or done by the employee himself. A vastly improved newsfeed supplies the user with information relevant to him. “Relevant” in this context refers to information from the user’s personal profile as well as his activities in SharePoint — e.g. the following of a document, a person or a SharePoint page, tags used or the mentioning of one’s own person. The idea behind it: The user purposefully controls his supply with information via his personal usage behaviour. User-friendliness has also been vastly improved. Micro blogging functionalities known from Twitter, e.g. hashtags and mentioning, are now available; the insertion of pictures, videos and links into one’s own posts has been simplified.
What is brand new on MySite is the aggregated presentation and processing of tasks allocated to the user. What’s special here: The aggregation does not only include all tasks stored in SharePoint lists but can also contain tasks from MS Project or MS Exchange in the standard mode. Likewise, the so-called Mybrary, a personal document library, is new on MySite. The user can enter documents and share them with other users as needed. Moreover, an automatic synchronisation with Windows Explorer facilitates offline functionality.
Via communities, SharePoint 2013 is finally offering the functionality known from internet forums that makes it possible to swap ideas on certain topics in a group. Contributions, answers and evaluations are presented as neatly as group members and moderators are. An evaluation system that can be defined individually for each group facilitates the transparent determination and presentation of the group members’ standing or the value contribution on the basis of their activities. Hence the deployment of communities becomes an attractive option, especially in knowledge and innovation management scenarios.
Better support of mobile devices
With regard to mobile devices, Microsoft is also following the general trend, enabling the comfortable use of SharePoint 2013 on various types of devices as well as on mobile browsers and operating systems, among them Android, Safari or Windows Phone. The standard mobile view was upgraded: It is easier for users now to navigate to and edit SharePoint contents such as list entries or documents or add new entries. In interaction with the Office Mobile Web Apps, which have been outsourced to their own server, the editing of Office documents has been improved. Thus Word, Excel or PowerPoint files do not have to be stored locally anymore prior to editing. The application behaviour for mobile end devices has also been optimised; so that in PowerPoint, for example, an aggregated or a detailed depiction of the presentation is displayed depending on the alignment of the mobile end device. Navigation in BI contents (charts, dashboards, etc.) based on the new versions of Excel services, PerformancePoint services and reporting services was improved for touch-based end devices, so that interactive evaluations with the iPad, for instance, will be possible in the future. The concept of the channel was introduced in SharePoint 2013 for web content management scenarios (provision of contents by way of websites for the Internet or Intranet), which typically make the greatest demands on the presentation of the contents. Depending on the type of mobile end device, one’s own master page can thus be defined with it; hence the unhiding and hiding of elements in the page layout can be established. Depending on the end device, this makes possible an optimised presentation of contents.
Web design without SharePoint skills
While design layouts for SharePoint had to be provided via appropriate developing tools such as Visual Studio 10 up to now, SharePoint 2013 now makes possible the separation of layout, functionality and contents, familiar from other web content management systems. Web designers can provide layouts in their familiar environments, e.g. Dreamweaver or Microsoft Expression; developers or administrators can import them, then, to SharePoint by way of the new Design Manager; they can have master pages and page layouts automatically created there, step by step. The expenditures for the provision of professional layouts are hence dramatically reduced, and web designers as well as SharePoint developers can focus on their core expertise.
Professional WCM functions in SharePoint 2013
In addition, Microsoft has improved the provision of contents in WCM (web content management) scenarios regarding details and basic aspects alike. Editors will be delighted that the content transfer from Word to SharePoint now also supports formats such as caption formats or that an automated resizing with a selection of picture sections is now available with picture uploads. What is fundamentally new is the decoupling of the navigation from the actual structures in SharePoint. Navigation can be organised in SharePoint 2013 based on the allocation of contents (websites) to one or more term stores (hierarchically-formed metadata). Once again, Microsoft has availed itself of tried-and-tested concepts here — web shops like Amazon or eBay work according to a similar principle. The search functionality plays a pivotal role for presentation of contents in SharePoint 2013. It decouples the contents from the structures in which they are stored in SharePoint and makes them available in a central index, catalogued and with the describing metadata. This way, the contents can be presented dynamically and across the site collection. In order to avoid time delays when making the index available, the search engine was adjusted. While it still worked in SharePoint 2010 with periodic or manually initiated crawls, the crawls can also run continuously in SharePoint 2013. SharePoint 2013 shows that Microsoft is serious about its positioning as a WCM system for internet presences: Beyond the above-mentioned improvements in the area of content provision and content presentation, the new version offers the option of establishing clear URLs for the website in question. Parameters relevant for search engines such as Bing or Google can now be configured in the standard mode as well (SEO).
With SharePoint 2013, Microsoft takes up established trends and carries forward its development as an enterprise platform. Nevertheless, there will still be software in the future that delivers a few percentage points of functionality more for dedicated applications such as document management. SharePoint 2013 is eminently very suitable as an IT platform, however, for the efficient collaboration in companies. If one expands the perspective to the uniform user interface for all types of applications, end devices and customer segments, for which Microsoft is aiming, the actual potential of the platform becomes apparent.
With the introduction of apps, a new dimension of “Consumerisation of IT” in the business customer segment is opening up. It still remains to be seen whether apps will prevail for the provision of business applications or whether the mini applications will be used simply for additional functions. In any case, the new SharePoint version has created the technical and infrastructural conditions for it. One downbeat note for IT managers: Fundamental changes in the architecture turn the migration of earlier versions to SharePoint 2013 into a challenge, especially in the case of installations that have been heavily adapted to company needs. A migration is inevitable, though, if companies want to use SharePoint in the future for complex scenarios in the cloud or in hybrid forms. IT decision makers should also contemplate swift migration to SharePoint 2013 if the intended deployment scenarios are close to the key investment areas of the new version: cloud readiness, social collaboration, mobile devices and Web content management.
Applications of SharePoint 2013
- Web content management: provision of Internet or Intranet presences
- Collaboration: support of collaboration and knowledge management
- Document management: management of documents across their entire life cycle
- Business applications: automation of structured processes based on forms & workflows
Other new features in SharePoint 2013
- Access apps: automated provision of SQL databases and forms for simple business applications
- Excel forms: usage of Web-based Excel forms for the retrieval of data and further processing of data of diverse types via OData
- External lists: link of external data sources by way of OData and export functionality to Excel
- eDiscovery: extracting contents from SharePoint and Exchange and compliant safekeeping for legal cases
- Workflow server: dedicated Windows Azure Workflow server with visual workflow modelling based on Visio and expanded functionality (e.g. stages, loops)
- Office apps: integration of dynamic contents from SharePoint or the Internet into Office 2013 applications
This article originally appeared on Computerwoche.de