Mythbusting SharePoint 2010

When someone mentions SharePoint to you, what do you do? Do you think of a Document Management System? Do you think Content Management? Do you think Collaboration? Do you find somebody else to talk to? For many people SharePoint is still somewhat of a mystery, they've heard of it, but don't really know what it is. For others it is a painful memory from a few years ago, when the promise of easy web development was not fulfilled.

Yet for some, me included, it is the hottest thing in the Microsoft armoury at present. It can be a Content Management System, a Collaboration Tool, a Document Management System, a Business Intelligence Delivery System, a Records Management System, a Corporate Intranet, a Corporate Social Network and so, so much more. For me, it is the Microsoft Development Platform of the future. It is now part of many of the server products, including Team Foundation Server and Project Server (see "SharePoint in Action" sidebar).

But what really gives about SharePoint? Are you after Best of Breed in everything want to spend your efforts integrating the various products? If so then SharePoint is probably not for you. If however, you want to have a platform which can meet all of your future Document, Collaboration, Content, Records and Business Intelligence requirements and act as a launch platform for Line of Business Applications, and you want to expand the already considerable Out Of The Box (OOTB) capabilities using a common development platform across all these areas, then I'd say SharePoint is definitely for you!

A Conversation with a Non-SharePoint Developer

“Oh God, not SharePoint ...” I’ve heard this cry from many a seasoned Developer who once looked at SharePoint in 2003 or earlier and vowed never again to darken its doors. But wait! Pop quiz. Your starter for ten is:

Name the product that reached 1 Billion Dollars in Sales the fastest for Microsoft?

You can style SharePoint!

Of course the answer is SharePoint.

“Big deal” you say, “I’m a Developer, I don’t give a monkey’s about that, I need a simple framework where I can deliver rich web applications quickly and efficiently on a repeat basis.”

I say again to you “SharePoint is the answer”.

You say “I need to be able to style my pages as I want”.*

You can style SharePoint!! I say “SharePoint allows you to do that”.

“I need to be able to talk to existing databases and applications”

I say “Sure SharePoint can do that, and in addition it provides all the ASP.NET 2.0 functionality you want, it provides you with inbuilt authentication framework AD based or Forms based, data-storage, the capability to quickly create lists of data which you can sort and filter, group and publishing via RSS, oh yes a comprehensive security trimming capability based on Users and Roles and finally Search. All for free on the Windows Platform.”

“ I need to run it on Linux or the Mac”

I say “You’re out of luck! ‘Course you can still view the pages, though admittedly the out of the box ones in Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 aren’t that browser independent. You want browser independence? Get SharePoint Foundation 2010. Firefox, Safari and IE all supported.”

“Ha! I need to control my URLs.”

I say “You can do that too, though you might need to create your own URL rewriter or just use a third-party component ...”

"I need to make use of AJAX and Silverlight, as I need to provide a really sexy ... I mean ... rich experience for my users."

"Silverlight is Silverlight!" I say, "It works in SharePoint just as it works with standard ASP.NET. Ditto AJAX."

“But the install is so big! So bloated” you insist.

I say “ .NET Framework 3.5 redistributable download about 200Mb, Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 x64 about 100Mb, and last time I checked, you can’t really buy a hard disc much under 100Gb in size, your next point?”

“Accessibility! My site must be fully accessible.”

I say “Umm, you have a point there, it ain’t quick and easy to do. Nothing’s perfect though {grin}.”

It’s a conversation I’ve had on a few occasions, and a lot of it is historical.

SharePoint Beginnings

SharePoint has been around for a long time now really. Its first incarnation was around the turn of the Millennium, but it really started to gain some interest with the 2003 SharePoint Portal release. That release was based on the then relatively new .NET Framework 1.1 and the product made extensive use of XML to create the templates for the web sites that you create on SharePoint. SharePoint 2003 for the first time made the creation of websites as easy as clicking a button. The concept of personal sites or MySites was introduced, way before Facebook existed. The main issues of 2003 revolved around manipulating existing sites, which was not that easy and the fact that Forms Based Authentication (FBA) was not included in the product which meant that true Enterprise-wide applications were not really possible, as extranet capabilities were near non-existent and there were no in-built workflow capabilities. Consistent branding was difficult too, but that was more a problem with ASP.NET at the time rather than SharePoint itself. Integration with Office 2003 was limited at best and SharePoint was seen as an afterthought in an attempt to provide some kind of Office Server.

SharePoint Hits the Big-time

Things changed big-time with the next release in 2007. The term Microsoft Office SharePoint Server or MOSS was coined and put SharePoint squarely in the centre of the Office world. The whole platform was shifted onto the ASP.NET Framework 2.0 including the use of master pages to provide consistent branding and for good measure the .NET 3.0 Framework was added in to provide.

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007

Windows Workflow Foundation capabilities. Microsoft added in SharePoint Designer (to many people Frontpage rebranded, though that was a little unfair) to provide a visual editing experience for SharePoint sites which though it has its issues is still a great tool for working with SharePoint if used in the right way. Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 became a viable platform on which to build small simple websites, highly branded or stylized if necessary. If you’re unsure what the difference between WSS 3.0 and MOSS 2007 is see the panel below.

MOSS also introduced the idea of Shared Services which centralised such capabilities as Search, User Profiles, Content Targeting through a thing known as Audiences and probably most importantly Search, Excel Services and the Business Data Catalogue (BDC). Enterprise Search is a huge thing for businesses these days and MOSS 2007 is really where Microsoft started staking a claim in that market. Equally important though was the fledgling Excel Services and the BDC which were the pioneering applications for MOSS in it’s role as the Office Server. Excel Services allowed publication of Excel Spreadsheets centrally and was a first step to try to control the proliferation/diluting of data via spreadsheets sent via email. The BDC was a first step to fully integrating existing Line of Business data in existing data stores. It was rudimentary, read-only and without third-party tools fiddly to use, but it was there!

SharePoint Evolutions - SharePoint Server 2010

SharePoint Server 2010

And now we’re waiting on the first release of SharePoint 2010. Boy I am excited! I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in the Technology Adoption Programme with SharePoint 2010 and so have had some previews of what is coming. I also was lucky enough to attend the SharePoint Conference in Vegas last year courtesy of the company I work for, Ridgian where I was exposed to some fantastic sessions. So I’ll share some of those highlights with you now. If you want to try it for yourself, then go here for a Beta version, meanwhile, let’s concentrate on just a few points where SharePoint 2010 has really moved on from MOSS 2007:

  • Browser Support, Accessibility and Markup. As mentioned IE, Firefox and Safari (thereby Chrome)are all supported browsers. The markup which SharePoint 2010 produces is to be more in line with accessibility. There is even the Ribbon in the browser which really works well. Finally the use of the simple but convoluted Collaborative Application Markup Language (CAML) to produce the output of List Views is being replaced by the W3C XSLT standard, a huge step forward and removes any ceiling on what can be done regarding branding and customizations.
  • SharePoint Designer 2010. There is no doubt that SharePoint Designer 2007 has it’s issues, one of the biggest being related to the design and deployment of workflows and also trying to learn where and what to edit to get the look and feel you want. It works, but is not intuitive. SharePoint 2010 is a completely different story. It brings in a new UI, complete with Ribbon and makes the tasks of creating objects like Workflows and External Lists (connections to Line of Business applications) very simple indeed. I love the new SharePoint Designer!
  • Silverlight, REST and other Web 2.0 essentials. Yes they’re all here and most of them are out of the box. There is an OOTB Silverlight webpart, a complete REST API which allows URL access to just about any bit of data you’ll ever need from SharePoint. The REST API will come in handy particularly when developing Silverlight-based controls as it provides fantastic flexibility for the SharePoint developer, when compared to the existing set of Web Services which whilst useful have various quirks that are not always easy to work with. In addition, there are OOTB controls and WebParts for Tag Clouds, Tagging, RSS, Ratings and so forth.
  • Search. MOSS Search is great, SharePoint 2010 search is going to be awesome. Setting aside the inclusion of Enterprise Search Engine FAST as the provider of top-end search, the whole search platform has had a makeover in terms of its infrastructure which makes it completely scalable to any level you may need. Results can be styled, ordered and presented in just about any fashion and the APU is a unified one so whether you work on the Express, Standard or FAST search the development experience is identical. In addition, FAST Search offers news types of search capabilities in the Enterprise such as 'Similar Searches' which allows you to make searches which are just subtlety different to your original one, and most impressive of all, in my humble opinion, phonetic searches. So even when you can't spell the word, just type in it as it sounds, and you'll likely as not get the results you want. I saw demonstrations of this in Vegas and boy was it impressive!
  • SharePoint Development. Saving the best till (almost) last, for you developers, yes we have visual development of web parts, hallelujah! We have visual development of features, and we can deploy SharePoint 2010 onto workstations for development! Does it get any better than that? Of course.

Visio Services

  • Visio Services. You now have at your fingertips Visio Services, my favourite feature of SharePoint 2010 the ability to draw data-driven diagrams in Visio 2010 and publish them to SharePoint Server 2010 and view them as Data-Driven Silverlight Controls, fully vector scalable, zoom-able etc, etc. It is one of the slickest, coolest things ever to come out of the Microsoft Office world and will drive a whole new wave of data visualisation. You can bind your diagrams to virtually any kind of data source including legacy ones, via Web Services and easily and quickly set up KPI style visuals which illustrate your information and data so much better than words or graphs even.

It's just the Start!

So there we have it. A potted history of SharePoint, I’ve omitted tons of stuff, as there is no time here. But this is just the beginning of the story and I’ll be back with deeper dives into aspects of SharePoint 2010 as I entice you to throw off your preconceptions and your historical experiences and encourage you to dive into the world of SharePoint!

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