The Blessing & Curse of SharePoint’s “Grandma’s Attic” - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series analyzed the runaway success and genesis of Microsoft SharePoint or Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS). The article outlined the main reasons for the product’s widespread use and analyzed its evolution. So, what is it that SharePoint’s treasure trove of tools (a la “grandma’s attic”) can (and can't) do for companies?

What Can SharePoint Do for an Enterprise?

SharePoint has been implemented by many different types and sizes of enterprises worldwide. There is no one typical predominant deployment scenario because there is a variety of functionality that can be turned on or off, based on business needs (and the resultant implementation complexity level). That is to say, Microsoft SharePoint has been used in a variety of creative ways by enterprises, but the most common applications are as follows:

  • A tactical content management and information-sharing service, providing a place to store, find, and deliver documents and other content in a business process context, supported by document library services (i.e., version control, document-level security, enforced check-out) and workflow tools. SharePoint has solid document management and records management capabilities (that are compliant with the United States Department of Defense’s DoD 5015.2 design criteria standard for electronic records management [ERM] software applications), but it is not a full-fledged enterprise content management (ECM) system.

  • An internal team and project collaboration system (so-called “groupware”) combining team supporting Enterprise 2.0 tools, such as shared calendars, to-do lists, virtual meeting rooms, discussion threads, and business process management, task management, wikis, blogs, team Web sites, etc. There are some federated search capabilities and SharePoint’s Web content management system (WCMS) capabilities are suited for intranets.

  • A portal, aggregating content and application interfaces in a Web environment for legacy intranet replacements. As a horizontal portal, SharePoint is best for business-to-employee (B2E) intranets (work sites and spaces for employees), and it has limited portal interoperability. In less typical instances, SharePoint can be a single point of access and a unifying platform to other enterprise systems, exposing a company’s information to external partners.

Reducing (if not Replacing) E-mails – A Good Start

I will be the first to admit that I still use pesky e-mails (and their never-ending threads) for virtually everything: from messaging and collaboration (ad hoc processes) to document and rich-media files transfer and storage. E-mail is a tool that has been stretched far beyond its original purpose. How many times have you been unable to find some content that you wanted at that very moment, although you knew it must be somewhere in your e-mail history?

To that end, SharePoint’s collaborative content management tools typically offer team spaces, threaded discussions, lightweight process controls, some integration with e-mail, and document management options.  All of these capabilities can offload some of the all-too-common chaos that occurs in e-mail environments.

SharePoint plays a great role as a secure repository of documents and a means of enabling records management and compliance. In addition, SharePoint can bring value by fostering the increasingly ad hoc collaborative and team-based nature of the workplace. But, as hinted earlier, SharePoint is not yet a full-fledged ECM system in terms of structured and non-structured data, including multi-media integration, production imaging, document composition, flexible and dynamic workflows, etc.

Beware of SharePoint Site “Anarchy”

Because SharePoint Foundation is free to end-users, downloadable, and easy to use (as explained in Part 1), individuals, departments, and workgroups can all deploy sites without calling on IT departments’ support. End-users can obtain the tool without IT staff participation or even their knowledge. Over time, an uncontrolled proliferation of SharePoint sites can ironically replicate the uncontrolled proliferation of file servers that SharePoint was meant to replace in the first place. How long these mushrooming sites will be maintained and by whom often becomes an IT headache.

An upgrade to the latest SharePoint release is a good opportunity to get its scattered sites under control. The logical start to a SharePoint upgrade is to create an inventory and directory of established sites with a triage list of those that will be migrated, those that will be left alone, and those that will be deleted. A surprising number of sites get abandoned and forgotten about after their project life cycle is completed and their purpose has run its course.  The process should include identifying a site owner and a way to notify an IT contact person when the site is no longer needed.

SharePoint sites and their contents should be considered interim collaborative content, unless they have a specific business continuity or legal retention period. SharePoint sites can also be archived using other tools, such as integrated content archiving tools.

Gartner recommends that if the involved group in question works with content that plays a role in any regulated process or if the business users believe that the content will become business records in SharePoint, then they should get the legal or compliance departments involved when they are setting up their sites. Gartner suggest the following sensible SharePoint sites governance guidelines:

  • Inventory all sites/repositories and identify their owners and purposes

  • Set a firm policy on the life of team sites and documents within team sites

  • Develop a high-level common taxonomy and nomenclature of sites

  • Build a library of purpose-specific templates and accepted third-party add-ons

  • Identify all SharePoint dependencies with other applications (e.g., content sources)

There Are Many More Ifs & Buts

This brings us to the fact that SharePoint is not a well-rounded best-of-breed infrastructure platform. In fact, Microsoft SharePoint is often referred to as a “grandma’s attic” or “Swiss army knife” that has a number of possibly useful tools, but that one must arguably enhance via major IT development work to get where other modern ECM, business process management (BPM), and social platforms are already “out of the box.”

Because SharePoint can be used as a collaboration tool, a content management tool, an enterprise portal, and an application development platform all rolled into one, there will inherently be a compromise in some functional areas. The trend has been to use SharePoint’s portal, content, and collaboration capabilities in conjunction with many other custom applications and processes.

For example, SharePoint can be an on-ramp for other ECM systems, an employee portal for a human capital management (HCM) system, a provider custom forms and workflow integration, business analytics, reporting, and dashboard integration, and be a line-of-business (LOB) applications entry point (see Part 1 for some concrete examples, such as Duet Enterprise). Microsoft is increasingly providing SharePoint functions into its own ecosystem and enabling partners with SharePoint services within Microsoft Windows Server.

But the need to "play well with others" remains the issue, and Microsoft’s commitment to open standards support (rather than creating some alternate proprietary “standard”) is more critical than ever. Microsoft does support the OpenSearch standard and can federate searches across third-party content repositories. Many Microsoft partners, including ECM, BPM, and portal vendors, have built Web Part connectors for SharePoint. Figure 1 shows SharePoint’s strengths and weaknesses and typical third-party enhancement scenarios (as ascertained by Ultimus, a BPM provider).


Figure 1

In addition to the aforementioned risk of SharePoint sites anarchy, there is always the prospect of creeping product dependencies and escalating costs down the track. For example, in order to be able to create PowerPivot Galleries in SharePoint (document and site libraries of Microsoft Excel workbooks and reporting services), an enterprise needs a Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 license and Silverlight plug-in.

Moreover, SharePoint uses Microsoft's Active Directory as an authentication source only, since it does not store user profile information in the Directory. Instead, SharePoint maintains its own store of user profile information and synchronizes that store with Active Directory (or whatever authentication sources the organization might be using).

SharePoint relies on a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)-based connector to communicate with directories other than Active Directory. This means that, at least in theory, SharePoint can use any major LDAP directory as an authentication source for user profiles. But, as is typically the case with cross-platform LDAP access, there is a concern about finger-pointing and blame-passing support for this functionality in a multi-vendor setup. Thus, the burden of support will likely fall on the internal IT department.

Last but not least, SharePoint’s scalability and server farm replication capabilities are suspect, especially in distributed (heterogeneous) environments. SharePoint stores content objects directly in its Microsoft SQL Server database, which might create information retrieval latencies. If an enterprise needs to replicate information across geographic areas, then it will likely need to hire a partner to do it.

Hence, many partners have stepped up to supplement SharePoint's capabilities, and to fix SharePoint’s typical issues or plug its functional gaps. Some examples of supplementing partner solutions would be as follows:

  • Quest Software – IT system management solutions

  • Infonics and Syntergy – server replication and custom value-add solutions

  • F5 Networks and Riverbed Technology – wide area network (WAN) accelerators and bandwidth optimization

  • CASAHL Technology -- content migration

  • BakBone Software and AvePoint -- replication, backup, administration and integrated data protection (IDP)

The final part of this blog series will discuss whether SharePoint can be used as a full-fledged BPM platform (hint: not really). Your views, comments, and opinions about Microsoft’s platform strategy, or particular experiences with SharePoint, either on its own or within ERP, BPM and ECM solutions, are welcome in the meantime.
comments powered by Disqus