Smacking SharePoint into shape

Shops often need to add functionality to the core software.

For many enterprises, Microsoft's SharePoint is a great basic platform for collaboration and file sharing. But the software can't always do everything customers would like without getting an assist. In fact, according to a Forrester Research survey, some 65% of all SharePoint shops add functionality to the core software.

SharePoint extensions include code that's generated in-house, or with help from contractors and consultants or with specialized, purpose-built add-ons from a wide range of third-party vendors. (These are not the same as the SharePoint add-ons available in Microsoft's store.) It's the same kind of ecosystem that surrounds a myriad of large applications, from IBM's Lotus Notes to Oracle's databases and SAP's business suites.

SharePoint debuted in 2001 primarily as a portal platform for enterprises, and it powers many a corporate intranet. According to a January 2013 study of 651 enterprises by consultancy Prescient Digital Media, Microsoft "continues to dominate" the enterprise collaboration or intranet 2.0 market, with around half of the organizations reporting SharePoint use "in some shape or form," the study said.

Common add-ons

Scott Jamison, CEO and chief architect at Jornata, a consulting company that has developed SharePoint extensions and customizations, says these are the most popular areas where customers ask for help:

  • Social media add-ons to enable employees and partners to find better and broader ways to interact with other people. The recent addition of Yammer is intended to fill most of that need.
  • Scanning capabilities, to more effectively use SharePoint for document management or records management. Users "just want to put [the document] into a scanner and have it automatically fed into right place," Jamison says. "SharePoint will do a good job with the storage but it won't allow you to easily get them scanned in."
  • Interaction with the desktop. Since SharePoint is mostly a browser-based Web application, it needs some help when people want to use it along with desktop applications, says Jamison. "There are tools out there that help enable that rich desktop experience, for offline work, to take content out of SharePoint and use it on local machines or the desktop."
  • Mobile apps. SharePoint, particularly prior to the 2010 version, needs add-on tools to do this, he says. "SharePoint 2013 gets much closer to not needing those specific applications because it includes support for HTML5," Jamison says.
  • Management tools, especially when large organizations are managing multiple SharePoint deployments for various business units or departments. "That is not uncommon," says Jamison. "You might have one installation for document collaboration, another one for business applications that people are building on top of SharePoint and then a third for the company's intranet. You might have them separated due to different SLAs or due to a plain vanilla installation for Web content management and a more customized deployment for something else."

"I like to say that SharePoint is a jack of all trades and the master of very few," says Toby Ward, Prescient president. "It has so much there. It's a mile wide, but it's not that deep."

That said, the new SharePoint 2013 is much more complete out of the box than earlier versions such as SharePoint 2010 and especially 2007, Ward says, with vastly improved collaboration and social media capabilities, as well as enhanced search and publishing features.

But even the 2013 version is "a starting point; you have to make it your own and you have to make it do what you want it do," Ward says. That's not a big surprise in enterprise IT, where many large applications have to be customized to meet the needs of demanding corporate customers.

In SharePoint's case, some of these added tasks include enhanced collaboration, enterprise search, analytics and business intelligence, social networking and document, asset, workflow and content management. (See sidebar, above.)

A study of 153 enterprise SharePoint users by Forrester Research in August 2012 found that 65% augmented their original deployments using third-party add-ons, according to analyst Rob Koplowitz. Of the 100 who were using third-party extensions, 43% said they had expected to bring in such help all along, while 40% said they brought them in because SharePoint didn't meet their initial expectations. Another 13% said expanding SharePoint wasn't part of the original plan, but they did it as their SharePoint strategies changed.

In the survey, workflow and administration were the most popular third-party add-ons.

"Microsoft invests in the areas in SharePoint that are used by the highest number of users," Koplowitz explains. "They've always left a lot of white space for third-party companies to fill a niche. It's very much a part of their strategy."

And that's where third-party add-ons or extensions come in. "This product is not just an application or a platform -- it's both," Koplowitz says.

That flexibility is what makes SharePoint a good platform on which to build, he says. "If you want a specific document management process for specialized employee evaluations, SharePoint isn't going to do that niche thing on its own," says Koplowitz. "On the other hand, it might be the perfect place to build it on -- and you already have SharePoint deployed."

Bring on the extensions

At Eastman Chemical Co., a Kingsport, Tenn.-based specialty chemical firm, SharePoint has been a key application since the company first implemented it in 2005, says Jim McGuire, supervisor of the global collaboration and portal architecture team.

At Eastman Chemical Co., "most of our extensions are in-house and come in as advanced development requests," says Jim McGuire, supervisor of the global collaboration and portal architecture team.

Eastman uses SharePoint for asset management, workflow management, application development and other tasks for its approximately 13,500 global employees.

Since that first deployment, Eastman moved from SharePoint 2003 to SharePoint 2007, then to the 2010 version, each time adding new capabilities but still looking for other key features that weren't available right out of the box.

"Most of our extensions are in-house and come in as advanced development requests," McGuire explains. "As more people are being introduced to the framework we have, more people are understanding that it's not just a place to place documents but that it's also a place where they can get more work done."

Rebecca Dietrich, an Eastman senior systems analyst and SharePoint developer, says the company's users can often extend the application on their own by using extensions created by Eastman developers that are made available to employees, usually without the need for outside help.

Rebecca Dietrich, an Eastman Chemical senior systems analyst and SharePoint developer, says the company's end-users can often enhance the application via extensions created by Eastman developers that are made available to employees.

Much of the customization is done with the SharePoint Designer tool, which comes as part of the basic SharePoint package and is used to write code for many workflow and other processes that aren't included in the basic SharePoint application, she explains. "The ability to create small applications using lists and workflows has been huge for us," said Dietrich. "Our users are able to create applications without the need for IT intervention."

One area where Eastman did bring in a third-party product to extend SharePoint 2010 was in workflow management, where K2's Black Pearl helps with advanced projects that can't be added via SharePoint Designer, says McGuire.

"Anytime you make a change in a workflow there are many approvals that need to take place," she explains. "We use some of these extensions to enable us to do that."

Adding integrations, customization

Another longtime user of SharePoint is Fitness International, which runs LA Fitness clubs in some 500 locations in 22 states and in Canada. LA Fitness uses SharePoint for its intranet, workflow tasks and collaboration. The company has been using every version of SharePoint since 2003, and is scheduled to complete its deployment of SharePoint 2013 by the end of May.

Over time, Fitness International has had to push SharePoint to extend beyond the capabilities it has straight from Microsoft, says George Bedar, CIO of the Irvine, Calif-based company.

Some of the areas where the out-of-box product fell short for Fitness International related to its integration with databases and with customizations of forms for employees in their fitness clubs, says Bedar. The software also needed assistance in handling workflow tasks beyond just creating lists, he explains.

Improving asset management and more

Black Elk Energy, an oil and gas exploration and production company in Houston, has been running SharePoint 2010 Enterprise for about 240 users but needed more out of it to fully serve the needs of its staff, says Ronald McAdams, formerly the company's SharePoint administrator and now a business and software analyst.

One major requirement was the ability to use SharePoint as an asset management repository, starting with its content management functions, says McAdams. Assets needing management include file folders, boxes, binders, legal records, phones and laptops -- both in the company's main office and in branch locations. "We're also beginning to work on managing assets like production rig platforms and vessels, and extending records management to well heads, which is expected to be completed within a year," he explains.

Microsoft's view on extensions

Jared Spataro, senior director for SharePoint product marketing at Microsoft, says that since its debut a decade ago, SharePoint has been a product that users adopt and then grow into, expanding it as they require more functionality.

Only around 9% of customers use SharePoint 2010 "for a single scenario" -- that is, for a single use inside their business -- according to a survey of 1,000 users around a year ago, says Spataro. "About 50% use it for more than five scenarios. And about 15% use it for more than 10 scenarios."

The add-on market for SharePoint extensions "tends to be a growing part of the business," as third-party vendors add specialized functions needed by users, he said. "The ecosystem has often times looked at where the market is moving faster. Extensions will take SharePoint into areas that were never imagined when we built it."

Microsoft claims 125 million global individual users of SharePoint in total, and says that more than 62 million SharePoint 2010 licenses were sold.

To help SharePoint handle the load, Black Elk added extensions from FileTrail. Included in the purchase was an RFID tagging application, RF Express, which allows Black Elk to tag items so they can be easily tracked and located.

The RFID tagging has helped solve a problem with expensive equipment that sometimes just disappears, says David Cantu, the vice president of IT at Black Elk. "$25,000 valves would just walk off," says Cantu. "We brought it in to solve this one particular issue but then we identified other places where we could use it," including tracking high-value physical assets, such as industrial materials and "things that are big and rusty and heavy but also very expensive. It's beyond just the records management" that came built-in with SharePoint.

Other, home-built extensions are being created to connect SharePoint with accounting and energy production applications that are already being used by the company to improve business intelligence, says Cantu. "There are internal and regulatory requirements to report the oil and gas we produce for royalty and accounting reasons," he says. "We're trying to streamline that process because as it is now it's a very manual process" that is inefficient.

Another key area where Black Elk needed help was in managing its huge volumes of data, says Cantu. "One of our pushes for 2013 is to eliminate the alphabet soup of our shared network drives and to put most of that data into the SharePoint platform," he explains.

As more extensions are needed, the company will add them, says Cantu. "We'll really never be done," he said. The projects that are underway now should be completed by year-end.

Extending SharePoint via the cloud

Alex Alexandrou, vice president of global information services and Web technology at D&M Holdings, a global wholesaler of high-end audio and video equipment, got some help for his SharePoint deployment when the firm wanted to make some collaboration and workflow improvements starting in May 2010.

The company previously had been using Google Apps for file collaboration and workflow online, but that caused concerns about governance, he says. "We found that thousands of pages weren't being managed properly. We needed it to be more structured." Security and version control and tracking were among the issues.

To accomplish this, D&M extended its licensing agreement with Microsoft to bring on SharePoint Online, which added much of the needed technology, he says. "We found another way to get value out of our SharePoint investment."

Alex Alexandrou, vice president of global information services and Web technology at D&M Holdings, says his firm "found another way to get value out of our SharePoint investment" by bringing on SharePoint Online.

In August 2012, D&M moved entirely from Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS), including SharePoint, to Microsoft's new Office 365 cloud-based version, which features Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online.

Not everything that D&M has done with SharePoint needed extensions, he says. Sometimes projects just require looking at SharePoint in ways that hadn't previously been considered. That was the case when D&M decided to completely revamp the management of its many product websites around the world. Using the built-in content management tools in SharePoint, D&M was able to consolidate the Web content and the sites themselves to make it all easier to update, manage and modify, explains Alexandrou.

The firm wanted to use SharePoint and not a separate content management application because the platform is already a dependable and proven base, he says.

Dozens of the company's brand websites from around the world, which previously had been administered separately and inefficiently, were pulled into one content repository so that they could be centrally managed.

"We used the same templates for the sites, regardless of what country they were in, so they would look and feel the same." While no major third-party extensions were needed for the website consolidation project, Alexandrou says that he and his team gained a new appreciation for the SharePoint investment they had already made.

Advice: Use caution

Chris Beckett, a Microsoft Certified Master in SharePoint who has written two books on the 2013 version of the suite as well as a blog about SharePoint, advises users to be cautious and plan ahead when considering add-ons.

The problem is that customization, including add-ons, can make it tougher to upgrade cleanly to the next version, he says.

Adopt a deployment strategy of careful progress and small steps, he suggests. Pilot the add-on installation and, when making changes, know why you are doing them, he says.

One big piece of advice that LA Fitness' Bedar has for enterprises looking to extend their SharePoint deployments: Get your own people trained as experts in SharePoint so you can do most extensions on your own.

"Don't hire consultants," he says. "Get something set up and learn from it. Gain some experience. Then you might want to spend some money to do something that you can't do out of the box. That's what we did here."

SharePoint 2013 beckons

Customers say they're excited about SharePoint 2013. Eastman Chemical is evaluating the new version and plans to deploy it later this year, McGuire says. With the latest version, Eastman is looking to expand the reach of its SharePoint investment into more social media and mobile worlds for its users.

"We cannot get to SharePoint 2013 fast enough because we want to be able to deliver documents" via mobile devices more easily, through features such as SkyDrive Pro, which replaces the Work Space functionality that existed in SharePoint 2010, says McGuire.

SkyDrive Pro is a special library or folder that allows users to link to it from multiple mobile devices. It can be synched with other libraries and files to be shared with other users. "We think our users are really going to take advantage of that opportunity," says McGuire. "It really will help our mobile workforce."

Ramping up its 2010 usage

Cruise ship company Holland America Line is using SharePoint 2010 as a better way to move data and collaborate inside the company, says Carl Henthorn, a senior business intelligence developer. Some 40 divisions inside the company had been running and using their own individual instances of SharePoint in the past, but now they are being brought together through an enterprise version that will let users see what is being achieved on other ships, says Henthorn.

So far, the new capabilities are available to about 40 people today in a portal called HomePort, but the features are expected to be rolled out to the company's 15,000 global employees, he says so everyone can collaborate and view shared results and content.

In the past, spreadsheets were sent back and forth between people and divisions with information about trips, sales, performance and more. But the collaboration capabilities in SharePoint 2010's enterprise version are streamlining and improving on that, says Seth Brickman, director of onboard revenue and tour operations for Holland America Line.

Some custom coding extensions were needed to achieve the goals, Henthorn explains.

One area was in trying to solve the problem of getting user-maintained data out of the systems they were created in, and into the company's data warehouse, he says. SharePoint workflows "allowed us to use an Excel file stored in SharePoint to get the data into the data warehouse and create a report," Henthorn says. "We had to use custom code to do it, as well as working with built-in SharePoint workflows."

Custom extensions were also required to add informational banners across the portal pages, which allow administrators to broadcast messages to users through the portal, says Henthorn. The messages can communicate status reports and other information to employees, including such things as when the data warehouse isn't working or other system advisories.

LA Fitness is working on a project to renovate and rebuild its intranet for more than 25,000 users using SharePoint 2013, and the IT teams needed customized coding for extensions on layout and master pages, says Jim Zhang, manager of SharePoint development. One major benefit LA Fitness has seen already with SharePoint 2013 over 2010 is that custom coding and extensions in general are much easier to accomplish in the newer edition, says Zhang. They're still needed in 2013, but they are easier to do.

Custom extensions have also been made to connect SharePoint 2013 with other Microsoft applications, such as the financial management and ERP product Great Plains. That wasn't easy to do directly out of the box with SharePoint 2010. "We had to build a lot of Web services and work flows" to make it possible, Zhang says.

Another area where extensions were needed was in controlling content availability for users as they log in to the intranet, to be sure they can see only the content they are authorized to view.

Similar extensions and additional code were needed to provide custom search of the intranet and of the data available within SharePoint to users, says Kathleen Cramm, director of business intelligence for the company.

In addition, creating very sophisticated workflows, including things that are based on a series of conditions, requires extensions that are built by the LA Fitness IT teams, says Bedar. "It's easy to do some limited workflows out of the box, such as alerting somebody that something has been changed. But if you actually want to put some Boolean logic in there ... then that requires more sophistication."

Overall, big design changes in SharePoint 2013 make it much safer to run with extensions, consultant Beckett says. Now, instead of the extensions running within SharePoint, they run alongside it, making them less problematic for the main application.

"This is better," says Beckett. It appears to be fairly well-integrated, but the actual code is running somewhere else. "That mitigates a lot of the quirks and makes it much simpler for organizations to manage and control it."

Even with the new version, however, there are always going to be cases where users will need to extend SharePoint's built-in capabilities, Beckett says. "Companies are always going to push the boundaries."

This article, Smacking SharePoint into Shape, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking, or email him at toddrweiss@gmail.com.

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This story, "Smacking SharePoint into shape" was originally published by Computerworld.

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