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Most of our readers have a pretty clear idea of what SharePoint (news, site) is. However, many people misperceive its core functions. And Microsoft's product websites -- with their broad ambitions -- aren't always clear enough for new-comers. So for the confused amongst us, here's a concise response to the simple question: What is SharePoint?

What's In a Name? A lot.

Names are important and in some cases that goes for software too. In the content, document and collaboration industry it seems that everything needs to fit into perfect categories, so that we can better understand features and capabilities and be able to run side-by-side comparisons. Some vendors define new categories in their desire to set themselves apart. Some of these are deserved, others are marketing tricks.

How should you categorize SharePoint? That depends on whether you are talking about SharePoint 2007 (see our SharePoint 2007 review) or SharePoint 2010 (see our SharePoint 2010 review). It also depends on who you ask and what your needs are.

For starters, the name SharePoint is a solid clue -- this software product is first about sharing information and secondly about finding and collaborating on information at a specific place.

The Six Pillars of SharePoint, New and Old

Microsoft has released several generations of SharePoint, but you only need to be concerned with SharePoint 2007, which has been around for roughly 3 years now, and SharePoint 2010, which was officially released in May 2010.

In the pie diagrams below you see that Microsoft divided both SharePoint 2007 and 2010 into 6 different core functional areas, and that these core concepts have evolved from the 2007 to the 2010 version.

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SharePoint 2007 and 2010 -- Core Functional Area Comparison

In SharePoint 2007, the six functional areas include:

  1. Collaboration
  2. Portal
  3. Search
  4. Content management
  5. Business forms
  6. Business intelligence

This release of the product included the first forays into both web content management and connectivity with back-end business systems. However, for the majority of users, SharePoint 2007 was really used as a glorified file sharing service, with a bit of collaboration added on.

SharePoint 2010 aims to change this -- to really move towards Microsoft's dream of SharePoint as an enterprise platform for many different information applications and information worker uses.

The 2010 release offers a number of improvements over the 2007 product, including user interface improvements, greater social capabilities, deeper business intelligence, advanced records and document management and better integration with with other systems.

SharePoint 2010: An Ambitious Enterprise Platform

In the following six sections I quickly walk you through the key parts of SharePoint 2010. As you read on, keep in mind that customers are in no way obliged to use all of these things. Some companies will use five or six of the core areas, some might only use one.

Regardless, to understand what SharePoint really is, you need to understand the highly ambitious agenda Microsoft has for the product. It is this: To become the single point for all information aggregation, search and collaboration in your organization.

That's a lofty goal. Let's look closer.

1. Sites: Building and Managing Internal and External Websites

While there have been a number of improvements related to web content management (WCM) in SharePoint 2010, CMSWire readers know that it's a stretch to call it a full-fledged web content management system. Nevertheless, Microsoft has stated that they believe SharePoint is a good platform to support your WCM needs, whether it's for an intranet, extranet or an Internet.

In short, SharePoint 2010 comes with native Web CMS functionality. Regardless of how you use SharePoint, you will likely use some of this functionality, at least for internal collaboration websites. Broader uses could include running your entire intranet on SharePoint, or running your public-facing website(s) on SharePoint. However, these are decisions you'll have to make based on thorough analyses. There very well might be other products in the market that will better meet your needs.

With that said, there are sensible people who are enthusiastic about SharePoint 2010's Web CMS capabilities. For example, Tom Resing, a Microsoft Certified Master in SharePoint, had this to say about SharePoint 2010:

"SharePoint is software from Microsoft designed to make publishing on the web as easy as using Word, Excel, Access + PowerPoint."

He went on to say that he's proving it by putting his own website on SharePoint as part of the "SharePoint WCM revolution".

Other people are more tepid on SharePoint 2010 as a Web CMS solution. Errin O'Connor, the CEO of the EPC Group, also believes SharePoint can be used for web content management, but that Microsoft really needs to sort out the licensing before we'll see it used more broadly for public-facing websites.

The 2010 release does bring a number of WCM improvements:

  • A more intuitive content authoring/editing experience, with a similar look and feel to MS Office
  • Better support for websites that need to be available in multiple languages
  • Better organizing and categorizing of content
  • Compliance with Web Standards like XHTML and WCAG 2.0 AA to ensure a wider range of users and devices can view your website
  • Improved search, particularly via FAST Search, including more relevant results and more ways to view the results
  • Integration of Web Analytics to see how your website is performing
  • Personalization via Audience targeting
  • Cross browser Support -- view your site on most of the popular browsers today

Here is an example of a multi-national company which decided to run their website on SharePoint 2010:

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An Example of a Public Website Powered by SharePoint 2010 (KraftFoods.com)

For more information on SharePoint 2010, see our recent article WCM is Better in SharePoint 2010 - Is it Enough?

2. Communities: Creating a Social Collaboration Environment

If you are on Facebook it's probably to keep in touch with friends and  family, and stay mildly horrified by the lives of your old high school classmates. If you are on Twitter, it's about jabbering with friends and tracking topics or people of interest. We'll side step the online stalking dating aspects of these things for the moment.

Social capabilities like Facebook and Twitter are becoming normal for many of us, and for the youngest generation of workers, status updates and micro messaging have long been part of la vie quotidienne.

Now all this social media stuff is moving into the workplace, as part and parcel of the typical information worker's desktop. It all boils down to providing a modern approach to working together, collaborating and sharing knowledge.

So these capabilities need to be a component of every piece of software we use. SharePoint 2010 works towards this goal by supporting:

  • The ability to create detailed user profiles (think employee Facebook pages)
  • Use of modern tools for sharing and collaboration including blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and activity streams
  • The creation of special interest groups (Communities) to share knowledge or work on projects (these often map directly to your company's org chart)
  • Interactivity and engagement via commenting and discussions around content items, and social tagging/bookmarking of content 
  • The creation of separate personal spaces or dashboards called MySites where you can keep track of your own content, and the work you are doing in certain communities, projects and more

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SharePoint 2010 -- Rich User Profiles, Similar to Employee Facebook Pages

The most successful people in organizations rely on the talents and knowledge of other people to help them get their jobs done. Social tools like those listed above help people find the right resources -- people, information and conversations -- so they aren't always starting from scratch.

It is the integration of these capabilities with other functionality within SharePoint that points to its ability to deliver a full platform of capabilities. 

3. Content: Managing Your Documents, Information and Records

In the 2010 release Microsoft greatly improved the functionality for creating and managing business documents. Organizations typically have two types of content: documents and information used to complete tasks and activities, and records. Records differ from the previous category in that they are documents and information that must be frozen and stored for compliance and/or regulatory purposes.

SharePoint 2010 provides the tools to help you work with both:

  • Manage all of your organization's documents and other information including controlling who can read and update them
  • Categorize them for easier search and retrieval
  • Mark them as official records and lock them down from further changes

As part of Content functionality in SharePoint, you have direct integration with your MS Office environment, so you can work on your documents in a familiar environment.

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SharePoint 2010 -- In place Records Management with Disposition

Microsoft has greatly improved the usability of both document and records management within SharePoint 2010. They have evolved the platform from document storage system to a truely collaborative working environment.

4. Search: The Google for Your Organization's Private Info

It doesn't matter how large or small your organization is, when you need certain information or documents, you want it now. Rarely does that happen. Information is typically scattered around and often your internal search engines are not very effective at finding it.

In short, Google often makes your IT department look bad. That's why a strong search facility is critical to the success of a product like SharePoint -- Google has raised our expectations and made search look easy.

SharePoint 2010 has two levels of search: the built in functionality which is greatly improved from SharePoint 2007 and FAST Search, offering additional functionality. Out of the box SharePoint search includes the ability to:

  • Search for information and people, including particular expertise
  • Index content and data stored outside of your SharePoint database
  • Use your Windows 7 desktop search to find information within SharePoint
  • Refine search results based on taxonomy and metadata (how content is organized and classified) 

The addition of FAST Search brings enhancements, including:

  • View thumbnails and previews of content within the result set
  • Refine results based on user profile or audience
  • The ability to refine search results with filters like Site, Author, Result Type and more

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SharePoint 2010 Search Results Using FAST Search

5. Insights: Digging for Business Intelligence

A key goal in any business is staying ahead of the competition. Increasingly, the class of software called Business Intelligence plays an important role here. Business intelligence software is all about helping you make decisions and find problems.

There was a time when you needed a special role in your organization for someone to do all this data gathering and analysis. But times have changed and SharePoint 2010 provides a number of tools that put this capability in the hands of the average employee.

With this release you can:

  • Use tools like Excel to gather and analyze data that is stored in SharePoint
  • Use SharePoint's native Excel Services engine to crunch data and build web-based reports
  • Pull together information from different systems and present it in SharePoint
  • Create dashboards, scorecards, and other views -- making key performance indicators widely accessible to information workers and process managers

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SharePoint Business Intelligence Dashboard Using Native Excel Services

The key to remember is that everyone in your organization can have a hand in how well your business does -- if you provide them with the information and tools to do it.

6. Composites: Integrating Your Business Systems

Another big improvement for SharePoint 2010 relates to its ability talk to -- pushing and pulling data -- your other business systems. Instead of having to work in multiple systems, you can create composite applications -- mashups, if you like that term -- on the SharePoint platform that pull together various data and content from different systems, including SharePoint content, to provide a single location for an employee to work.

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SharePoint 2010's Business Connectivity Services (BCS) -- Tying Information Together

Using SharePoint you can create web-based forms that update SharePoint databases or update external databases. These forms can even feed into Word or Excel documents -- the disparate data can become a composite right inside your MS Office applications, or in your browser.

Data integrations are key for management dashboards and project management, but also for employees who may not need full access to the business application. It's important to note that SharePoint 2010 can both view and update external data via its Business Connectivity Services (BCS).

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SharePoint 2010 -- Business Connectivity Services

One thing we've all learned about enterprise collaboration tools is that for them to succeed, they need to be integrated with the productivity tools we already use on a daily basis. By tying SharePoint closely to things like MS Office 2010 applications and with email clients like Outlook, Microsoft is working to improve the probability of employee adoption of these new tools.

SharePoint As A Cloud Platform

In the era of the cloud, we're obliged to mention Microsoft's Software-as-a-Service (a.k.a. the cloud) strategy. Along with the on-premise version of SharePoint 2010, Microsoft will also be upgrading their cloud based version, known as Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS).

A number of improvements are expected, including:

  • Completely customize the look and feel of your hosted SharePoint site
  • Connect SharePoint data into your external apps via its web services
  • BCS (business connectivity services), formerly BDC, will be available to connect external busienss applications
  • Create applications that exist on the desktop and connect to the server for SharePoint Online

With the increased growth in the use of the cloud for applications like SharePoint, BPOS may be a way for you to get up and running quickly at a cost that would be much less then implementing SharePoint on premise.

Enterprise Collaboration -- Vision, Tools and Reality

Microsoft has referred to SharePoint 2010 as a business collaboration platform, a kind of one stop shop for all your information worker needs. It is nice to think that you could come to work in the morning and only have to open the browser and merrily work away in perfect collaborative harmony with your most capable coworkers.

This is the vision of Enterprise 2.0 and the one Microsoft seeks to enable via their SharePoint platform and tools.

Understanding Microsoft's vision and SharePoint's capabilities is important. This article helps there. Moving your organization towards a more engaged and collaborative daily routine is a much more complicated task. Towards that end you might want to read our article: Architecting Participation with Enterprise Social Media. Tools without vision and vision without reality, neither combination will go far.