Review: SharePoint Server 2010 beta pulls it all together

Microsoft's SharePoint Server 2010 is a significant improvement over SharePoint 07, providing IT execs with multiple ways to streamline their infrastructure and cut costs.

[ Ten things you need to know about SharePoint Server 2010 |Slideshow: Inside SharePoint Server 2010 beta ]

Based on our hands-on testing of the beta version of SharePoint Server 2010, this product allows IT departments to run applications such as enterprise search, content management, collaboration and business intelligence on a single platform.

Together with improved Internet site capabilities, SharePoint 2010 means companies can avoid the licensing and training costs associated with separate apps. SharePoint 2010 also offers improved developer and administration capabilities, which will likely speed application creation while easing server management.

We tested beta versions of SharePoint Server, and two related apps, Visual Studio and Office 2010, in a virtualized environment and found that SharePoint Server 2010 is faster and more intuitive than the previous version, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007.

The now-familiar ribbon user interface, introduced with Office 2007, is integrated throughout SharePoint 2010. The beta let me take a complex Word 2010 document with tables and paste it into a SharePoint Web site without losing any of the original design – and then use identical formatting commands in SharePoint to further refine the layout. By contrast, MOSS offered very limited formatting options.

Microsoft has woven Silverlight (a tool for creating interactive Web apps) and AJAX functionality throughout, giving business users easy ways to add rich media and interactivity.

I dropped a Silverlight Web Part onto a page to display a Windows Media Video file (contained in the new video asset library) – something that wasn't possible in the past. Companies can employ this capability to build You-Tube-like sites, but without the need for programming or additional applica-tions.

According to Microsoft, accessibility was a highly requested new feature, and from my testing the company listened. I had no trouble viewing my SharePoint sites and editing them using Internet Explorer 8 on a PC and Safari on a Mac, and viewing them through Safari on an iPhone.

SharePoint Workspace 2010 (formerly Microsoft Office Groove) worked without problem in transferring my documents offline (or creating new ones), letting me make edits, and then synchronizing changes once I connected back to my network.

Getting social

Community applications are all the rage, as enterprise software vendors try to emulate the success of Facebook behind the firewall. Microsoft has done a good job improving the community features of SharePoint 2010. User Profiles now let you include colleagues, interests or expertise. There's social tagging and ratings, making it easier to share content. And activity feeds help you keep up with what colleagues are doing.

Blogs and wikis are improved, too. As an experiment, I built a Wikipedia-style table of contents in my enterprise wiki, a common task that you couldn't easily do in the past.

To sift through all this data, Microsoft offers two search options, SharePoint's refreshed standard search engine and the optional FAST Search for SharePoint. Both offer very good navigation based on taxonomies, spell checking and wild card searches. My testing returned the results I expected on the first page of results. However, many larger organizations will opt for FAST because it adds functionality such as previews of PowerPoint presentations and lets you feature content in results.

Additionally, people search appears to be much improved. I found colleagues based on information in their social network feeds and expertise they entered in their profiles. There's also a very accurate phonetic search for times you don't know the spelling of a person's name.

Connecting the data

Some of the more interesting features involve new Representational State Transfer (REST) support along with improved Excel and Visio Services. Imagine creating an Excel spreadsheet and publishing the data as a chart within a SharePoint site. Then, as you update the spreadsheet, the published chart almost instantly reflects the changes. There's also new technology called SQL Server PowerPivot for Excel and SharePoint, which Microsoft claims will quickly render millions of rows of data in a browser.

I successfully tested Visio services – creating complicated diagrams in Visio, rendering them within a SharePoint site, and having edits appear without additional publishing steps.

InfoPath Forms Service is also enhanced. It was much easier to build interactive forms (requiring little or no code) and publish them on the Web. Finally, there's something for Microsoft Access users. Access Services let me create a database application (with forms and views) and publish it to a site; accessing and updating the data was very quick through a browser.

These data features empower business users to publish information from Office Applications. The expanded Business Connectivity Services do much the same for Line-of-Business information. In the past (with the old Business Data Catalog), you could read data from, say, SAP applications. Now, it's possible to read, update, delete and search repositories.

In a simple test, I connected directly to a SQL database – and was able to update tables from a SharePoint site. Creating this test scenario was very straightforward using the improved SharePoint Designer 2010 (which will continue to be free). For instance, the Office Ribbon and a simple form for connecting to the SQL database enabled me to build the required functionality in about five minutes.

IT managers may cringe at allowing business users this type of power. Recognizing this concern, Microsoft includes a number of "safe" out-of-the-box customizations within SharePoint Designer, so sites can be tailored with little risk. Administrators can further lock down the type of site changes users can make with SharePoint Designer.

For developers, new SharePoint tools in Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 should reduce the work of designing Web Parts and other advanced customization. I used one of the new SharePoint 2010 templates to create a data query Web Part – which was debugged and uploaded to my SharePoint Server with a few keystrokes in Visual Studio.

In MOSS 2007, these types of modifications meant the farm administrator had to trust your code. But SharePoint Server 2010 introduces a new Sand-box Solutions feature. Put simply, it isolates code and restricts resources, such as memory, SQL access and CPU. So there's little concern that poor coding will degrade the server farm's performance.

Administrators can celebrate

Even with extensive planning, upgrades are never easy – at least not in my experience moving to MOSS 2007 from earlier versions. But stepping up to 2010 will be far less of a hassle. For starters, existing sites can convert with the existing MOSS 2007 user interface, including any customizations. Then, site stewards can preview and switch to the new user interface when they're ready. There's also an upgrade checker that helps you identify custom code that might be replaced with out-of-the-box SharePoint 2010 features.

For day-to-day management, the streamlined Central Administration console provides new tools for throttling activities, such as bulk jobs or asynchronous tasks, to help prevent the server from slowing. Additionally, I liked health reporting, which pointed out where my server configuration could be improved. This information is available from a much improved Web-based administration interface. On the flip side, the new PowerShell command line interface automates common steps. It ships with hundreds of "commandlets" for doing most anything from creating sites to updating user permissions.

It's mainly good to go

Given that I was running beta code, SharePoint Server 2010 was fairly complete and solid. Be mindful that it's 64-bit, so you need Windows Server 2008 and 64-bit Microsoft SQL Server 2005 or 2008. And you'll have a better experience with Office 2010. Otherwise, exercising the beta should give you a head start on planning your migration.

Heck manages portals for a large pharma company and writes about enterprise applications. He can be reached at mikeheck@comcast.net.

This story, "Review: SharePoint Server 2010 beta pulls it all together" was originally published by Network World.

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