SharePoint is evolving beyond its server application role to become a full-fledged platform that could provide IT and developers alike with a powerful Internet tool while giving Microsoft new leverage against operating system foes, according to end users, analysts and partners.
The transformation of SharePoint, however, is still in the trial process with the 2010 version slated for its first public beta next month. But the feature set, revealed in full this week at the company's annual SharePoint conference, shows that what was once a server is now poised to become a platform reaching from the intranet to the cloud and out onto developers' palettes.
Microsoft is pushing SharePoint's capability as an Internet facing web server, its new integration with Visual Studio development tools, its revamped SharePoint Designer, a host of new social computing features, a more secure runtime environment for application components and a set of cloud-based APIs that open SharePoint to technology's hottest trend.
To emphasise the point, the company trotted out CEO Steve Ballmer for his first ever keynote rally cry to the SharePoint faithful and to any coder within earshot of his high energy love for developers.
"We are excited to have some developers, developers, developers jump right in there," Ballmer said mimicking his infamous rant during an exclusive interview earlier this week, as he grinned and rubbed his hands together in anticipation of the potential results.
The results, however, are far from a foregone conclusion.
"From an architectural standpoint, the proof is in the pudding and how it gets tested out by customers," said Scott Gode, vice president of product management and marketing for Azaleos, which offers a remote management service for SharePoint, Exchange and Office Communications Server.
That testing will play out over the next six to eight months or so before the final release of the software ships in the first half of 2010. Experts are pegging the ship date as May or June, although Microsoft has not discussed specifics. According to Gode: "Users will have to ask, 'What is Microsoft doing to go from departmental deployments to mission critical applications?"
But already the anticipation is building.
"I think SharePoint is finally being architected as a platform," said Rob LaMear, CEO of fpweb.net, which hosts some 1.2 million seats of SharePoint. "The 2010 version is open now for building applications with an open UI and with APIs that have the ability to tie into other websites."
LeMear's fpweb.net is rolling out in November a hosted offering called Quickstart Business Suite that will offer departmental and vertical applications that can be dropped onto the platform to create applications. When the new REST and ATOM APIs come in 2010, the suite will support calls out to other web 2.0 applications such as Twitter.
One important upgrade in 2010 is that all the integration happens without a single dynamic link library being installed, which LeMear says, eliminates stability issues.
"The cloud is stable and ready to go," he said. "2010 is going to be big."
Joel Oleson, senior product architect with Quest Software, says to see the platform pedigree in SharePoint all you have to do is look at the extensibility. "It is not just line of business apps, CRM or BI that can be built; it is a way to connect to everything."
Oleson says that provides for an alignment between developers and IT.
"IT has the knobs and controls, and developers the flexibility for their code," said Oleson, who has seen SharePoint grow from its infancy. He was the first SharePoint administrator for Microsoft’s IT department.
One control piece Microsoft is adding is a Solutions Sandbox version of SharePoint that isolates custom code, either online or deployed internally, into its own runtime to control resource allocation and protect the other parts of an application.
The change gives user more flexibility to run snippets of code and create sophisticated mashups and composite applications.
"They made the business catalog, search, and performance point into services and that is a huge difference in that you can decide where to run those individual services," says Guy Creese, an analyst with the Burton Group. "And you can keep separate the services from other services. That is a 'platformy' type of thing."
Creese also said he has felt that SharePoint is becoming like an OS in the sense that it is the foundation for running applications. And that if Microsoft lost ground on the OS front, it could potentially gain that ground back by inserting SharePoint above the OS as a sort of replacement platform for application deployment.
Ballmer hinted at the notion as early as 2007 that SharePoint was sort of a middle tier operating system and he reinforced that at the SharePoint Conference.
"Because of the extensibility and programmability of SharePoint, it really becomes a platform for a whole big set of scenarios that before were all served by special or niche or custom developed applications," Ballmer said in his keynote. "And with SharePoint 2010, we're going to increase the capabilities for compositing, mashup, rapid application development and other forms of extensibility," he said.