“SharePoint 2010” was presented to the general public by Steve Ballmer at the SharePoint Conference last year, and its market launch announced for the first six months of 2010. SharePoint 2010 represents more an evolution than a revolution.

Whilst the release upgrade from SharePoint Portal Server 2003 to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (in brief, to avoid tongue-twisters: MOSS) still involved numerous fundamentally new functional areas and areas of application, such as Business Intelligence and Workflows, this does not apply to the latest release upgrade.

SharePoint 2010—like the forerunner version—provides companies with an IT platform to:

  • implement Internet and Intranet presences,
  • enable collaboration focused on documentation and information and
  • automate business processes.

Based upon the initial experience that Campana & Schott has gained with the different release statuses of SharePoint 2010 available since spring 2009, the following can be said in advance: The right homework has been done at the right time. The real surprise lies in the harmonious interaction of so many improvements.

Important SharePoint capabilities:

  • Sites: sharing information securely with co-workers, partners and customers
  • Communities: enabling modern forms of collaboration
  • Content: administering contents across their entire life cycle
  • Search: simple searching and finding of information and persons
  • Insights: making decisions on the basis of relevant information
  • Composites: making dynamic business applications available in a simple way

Surprisingly systematic development

Whilst Bill Gates sketched out the idea of SharePoint being in the centre of collaboration among the so called information workers as early as 2005, the 2007 version still lacked the level of maturity requisite in practice in various areas—less in relation to the solution’s stability, more in terms of numerous functional details. There existed, for example, a powerful full text search for all intents and purposes—yet adjustment of search parameters like document type, as well as processing of the search results, became feasible only through programmed extensions.

These weaknesses have been acted on now. A look at the acquisitions made over the past few years—whose products have been fully integrated, for the first time, into a harmonious whole in SharePoint 2010—reveals just how systematically Microsoft has been implementing existing ideas. In doing so, the strongest components of the acquired technologies were first dismantled and then re-integrated in the SharePoint platform. Here are a few examples:

  • Groove: The takeover was partially greeted with surprise in 2005, since now another collaboration platform was coming into the portfolio alongside SharePoint. Groove as a “SharePoint Workspace” is an elementary component today and assumes functions it has always been best doing: to make web-based data available offline.
  • ProClarity: Acquired in 2006, this technology constituted Microsoft’s entry in the high end range of Business Intelligence. The “Performance Point Services” that have derived from it form the basis today for professional data processing and interactive data analysis with SharePoint 2010.
  • FAST: Microsoft secured for itself a state-of-the-art search technology with this acquisition in 2008. Today, it provides functions that have been urgently missing up to now, like wildcard search and the interactive, step-by-step refinement of search results.

Ease of use and compliance with standards

At first glance, the most visible innovation of SharePoint 2010 is the new user interface. The “Ribbon UI” interface, first seen in Office 2007, has also moved onto the web. Functions and program commands will always be displayed dependent on context. Its huge impact becomes apparent when you think outside the SharePoint box: the experience will be uniform for the end user. Differences between client and web applications are hardly noticeable anymore. This will be particularly interesting for user acceptance, as data from SAP and Siebels software can be processed in the new SharePoint 2010 without the user having to abandon his familiar Office look-and-feel. The use of Ajax and Silverlight technologies throughout facilitate more fluent working. The integration of audio and video elements is an easy option.

What is absolutely critical for IT executives is that essential standards have been implemented in SharePoint 2010. The application now complies with WCAG 2.0 and XHTML as industry standards for web developments. Microsoft has accepted that there are other web browsers beside Internet Explorer, such as Firefox 3.x and Safari—they receive (nearly) full-fledged support. The parallel administration of multilingual content has been greatly simplified and—something we’re particularly happy to see—extended to all relevant areas (user interface, navigation, menu items, list fields and library fields).

An altogether new path has been followed in terms of offline capability. With the press of a button, the “SharePoint Workspace” can take the entire contents of a SharePoint page offline. Also new in SharePoint 2010 is the support of an online scenario in which the user is not working from his computer with the relevant Office client applications. Their functionality is made available in the browser through the Office web applications for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, so that one can view files on the web or edit them directly online. In addition, Office on the web supports the simultaneous, controlled editing of one file by several persons. Here it is important to bear in mind that Office Web Applications are not a full-fledged substitute for Office clients, because they provide merely the most basic editing functions.

Usability improvements:

  • Ribbon UI: uniform user interface for Office and web applications with context sensitive functions
  • Standards & Compliance: accessibility and multi-browser support through compliance with established standards (WCAG 2.0, XHTML)
  • Multilingual UI: comprehensive support of multilingualism for user interface, menus, navigation and lists
  • SharePoint Workspace: takes along offline SharePoint contents, including external data, with the press of a button
  • Office Web Applications: shared editing of Office documents, without Office client

Web 2.0 functions at last

One major point of criticism of the previous version was the missing support for features that Internet users are used to from applications such as Facebook and Xing. Here Microsoft has truly done its homework. Basic functions like indexing and evaluation of contents (so-called tagging and rating) are provided. Entries in blogs and Wikis can be made intuitively thanks to the new Rich Text Editor. Pictures are capable of being integrated directly in SharePoint without requiring upload. The locating of items is simplified through the integration of metadata in the navigation. The latter does not have to be administered manually anymore.

The version management of Wikis has been vastly improved, distributed and shared creation of content is now easier and versions can be compared against each other with text changes highlighted. If necessary, an older version can be restored with the press of a button.

The MySite function has been systematically advanced too and ought to gain greater weight in SharePoint 2010. The focus here is on a user profile, expanded by “Activity Feeds” showing what subjects, content or users the user is connected with. The Organisation Browser for displaying the organisational hierarchy, available in SharePoint 2007, gets a Silverlight makeover: profile photographs and organisational data are displayed at a glance.

Content management:

  • Managed metadata: a centralised directory for a uniform classification of terms within a SharePoint farm as well as across farms
  • Document IDs: the allocation of a distinct document ID, by means of which a document can be easily found even after a change of the filing location
  • Document sets: the merging of various documents into an electronic file with uniform metadata and processes
  • Records management: the simple creation of unchangeable documents within areas of collaboration
  • Search refinements: refinement of search results by means of available metadata by dint of the left navigation bar

The end of the folder structure?

The concept of sorting and/or multidimensionally arraying contents in different ways by dint of metadata (for example: author, customer or division) has become the established standard in the area of document management. Nonetheless, the folder structures hailing from the file system have obstinately persevered despite the one dimensionality and disadvantages entailed in them in practice. This might be changing with SharePoint 2010, because it doesn’t just enable the description of contents with metadata but also, in fact, navigation by means of metadata. Thus the end user continues to navigate through a tree structure to the contents—not based anymore on a one-dimensional folder structure, but on multi-dimensional metadata.

Through a new component, the “Term Store,” metadata can be centrally administered. A hierarchical classification of terms (taxonomy) can be applied, as well free indexing (folksonomy) deriving from the tagging of content by users. Taxonomy and folksonomy can be linked to each other by controlling terms deriving from the free indexing in a centralised way, and transferring them into the taxonomy. The Term Store can be used to propagate uniform metadata and/or classifications within the organisation.

Term Store data can be exported to Excel, so that the functional work, ie the formulation of a uniform terminology, can be performed separately from the technological implementation. SharePoint 2010 provides the technology—now it is up to the companies to deliver a uniform terminology to facilitate the locating of documents and information.

The potential for a universal ERP frontend

The simple provision of “No code” applications for the automation of business processes (such as ideas and innovations management, HR processes, IT demand management and so on) was already one of the strengths of SharePoint in the 2007 version. Frequently, the core element is a browser-based form based on “InfoPath” to collect and process data. How does it look in terms of simplicity, performance and footprint?

One example: By dint of the parameter-based filtering of data that is available now, loading and memory requirements can be reduced, as only the data actually required must be loaded. Forms can enable cascading drop down lists (region = Europe / country = DE, ES, FR and so forth).

The old Business Data Catalog allowed only a reading (elementary) linkup of data. With the new Business Connectivity Services, data can be displayed directly from SAP software, for instance, and be edited in SharePoint. Even without add-ons, SharePoint 2010 provides methods like Read, Create, Update and Delete to link simple systems—SQL databases, for instance.

Features for business applications:

  • Business Connectivity Services: linking external data sources bi-directionally for continued use in SharePoint as well as Office
  • InfoPath Forms Services: improved performance and reduced use of resources
  • Excel Services: visual, interactive data analysis by dint of Slicers and SparkLines on the web
  • PerformancePoint Services: completely integrated in SharePoint 2010
  • SharePoint Designer: importing process models from Visio and exporting workflows into Visual Studio, if needed
  • Sandboxed Solutions: simple deployment of solutions with Custom Code and secure implementation with dedicated resources

More methods can be programmed in addition for more complex applications with Visual Studio. Once the link has been created, standard functions like export to Excel or use within Word are also available for external data. Mobile executives can take SAP data with them offline when they are travelling, for example, because external data and the relevant forms or Word templates can be synchronised through SharePoint Workspace.

A workflow component is required for the automation of business processes. Previously, the user had to decide whether to generate workflows himself through the SharePoint Designer by drag and drop or, for more complex requirements, programming in Visual Studio. Now workflows in SharePoint 2010 can be initially modelled with Visio functionally, and then be imported to SharePoint Designer. Should there be a need for more sophisticated technical operations, export to and further processing in Visual Studio is possible. Initial experience by customers who have worked already with SharePoint 2010 indicate that the separation of roles and work between the process manager in the specialist division, the IT architect and the programmer has been considerably simplified.

Considerably more Business Intelligence

In connection with Microsoft Office, SharePoint 2010 constitutes a platform to prepare and analyse data graphically in many ways. The new release improves interactive and graphic data analysis: Visio diagrams can be presented on the web, providing the possibility of visualising the data in real time—for example, to visualise the status of servers in a data centre. The new Excel functions for the graphic visualisation of pivot filters as well as the display of trend curves in a cell (Slicers and Sparklines) are likewise available on the web. Thus interactive dashboards can be provided in a centralised way.

PerformancePoint Services, formerly a separate product, has been integrated into SharePoint 2010 as a high end application for Business Intelligence. Thus Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), for instance, can be freely calculated and displayed graphically across several aggregate levels. SharePoint has grown into a powerful BI tool.

The consequences for business

SharePoint 2010 is quite a success. An IT platform has evolved on which numerous scenarios will develop that are not even conceivable today. With it, though, the demand for an appropriate IT strategy as well as one’s own governance is magnified as well. On the CIO level, it is advisable that a medium-term definition and application planning should be prepared that stakes out Office and ERP applications as well as Internet, Intranet and Extranet applications for one’s own company. An approach, still often to be found today, to make a SharePoint infrastructure available initially and subsequently to try to meet demands from the specialist divisions in a relatively uncoordinated manner, has to be deemed inadvisable. In the best case, potentials are not fully exploited; in the worst case, uncoordinated use leads to expensive information silos and resistance within the company.

More Campana & Schott insight on Sharepoint 2010 is available here