The new 2013 version of SharePoint, Microsoft's all-purpose enterprise collaboration server, packs many new and improved features, including a redesign of the user interface, the addition of SkyDrive Pro for enhanced storage and sync of documents, better task management, a revamped search engine and sharper e-discovery features.
SharePoint, used primarily by enterprises to build intranets, public sites, forums, blogs and wikis, as well as for storing, searching and managing documents, now generates about $2 billion in annual revenue, and Microsoft is naturally pushing this new version hard.
However, experts say gaps and questions remain around key areas such as mobile and social.
With more viable alternatives to SharePoint increasingly coming to market, CIOs need to take a critical look at the product and make sure they will get what they need from Microsoft.
"There are gaps and people have started to look for alternatives. CIOs need to meet with their Microsoft reps and be comfortable it'll deliver what they need in a timeframe that's useful," says Forrester Research analyst John Rymer.
The SharePoint Mobile Challenges
In recent years the workplace has been invaded by tablets and smartphones, and giving employees mobile access to enterprise applications has become imperative. But SharePoint lags in this area.
"Microsoft hasn't given much attention to mobility on SharePoint, and there doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency around it, which is bewildering," says Gartner analyst Jeffrey Mann.
Currently, Microsoft provides a SharePoint NewsFeed application, designed to give users access to the people and documents they follow, for Windows Phone and iOS.
A Windows 8 version is due by the end of the second calendar quarter of this year, and later on Android.
Microsoft also has a Windows Phone application for SkyDrive Pro, the cloud storage component of SharePoint. Versions of that application for Windows 8 and iOS are due in this years first quarter.
For Mann, these apps are very narrow in scope and functionality. You can only do a small subset of what SharePoint offers with these, he says.
Forrester's Rymer holds a similar view, calling these apps "pretty limited initiatives" and saying Microsoft needs "full, no compromise support for Android and iOS -- period" in order to provide adequate mobile access to SharePoint.
He believes Microsoft is conflicted internally about fully supporting SharePoint -- and Office in general -- on non-Windows mobile OSes, in particular iOS, due to competitive concerns. "The last thing Microsoft wants to do is help Apple succeed," he says. "How do you create a policy given those two competing interests?"
The SharePoint Social Media Challenges
Microsoft's decision to plunk down $1.2 billion for Yammer last summer was an acknowledgement that the enterprise social networking (ESN) capabilities of SharePoint were insufficient.
To make up for that, Microsoft has relied on third-party add ons from companies like NewsGator, but clearly Microsoft felt a sense of urgency about beefing up ESN features natively within SharePoint.
While a level of integration exists between SharePoint and Yammer at the API (application programming interface) level, the engineering work to fuse them deeply will take time, and many questions remain about how this will be done.
At the SharePoint Conference in November of last year, Microsoft said in a press release it was "investing" in integrating Yammer and SharePoint in the areas of "unified identity, integrated document management and feed aggregation."
As of early March, these integration points remain outstanding, and Microsoft declined to provide a timetable for their delivery.
Asked for comment about how it will deal with duplicate features in the two products, Microsoft said in a statement that, Yammer will power the social experiences in SharePoint, Office 365, Dynamics and Skype without providing more details.
Microsoft has also started bundling Yammer, which is cloud-based software, with some enterprise editions of Office 365, the cloud collaboration and e-mail suite that includes SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, Lync Online and other components.
Microsoft's answer for ESN is clearly Yammer, not SharePoint 2013, says Rymer, but the plans are unclear. Yammer is a good product, but how does it relate to SharePoint? How will it come together? We don't know," he says.
SharePoint Upgrade Process Issues
SharePoint, first launched in 2001, has historically presented customers with complicated upgrades. Although its an area in which Microsoft has been gradually improving, upgrading to SharePoint 2013 involves non-trivial considerations.
For starters, there are a number of functions that have been added, modified, fused with others or eliminated altogether.
"Some features have been deprecated, and there are new ones that change the way to do certain things, so there will be a change impact," says Way Chong, a Toyota certified Kaizen coach and technology governance manager. "I recommend putting aside the assumption of backwards compatibility and planning for retesting your customization when upgrading to SharePoint 2013."
Microsoft has said that SharePoint's 2013 version will be the last of the product's "big bang" upgrades coming at 3-year intervals. Instead, both the on-premise version and SharePoint Online will be updated much more frequently. SharePoint Online will be upgraded every 90 days, according to Microsoft. It's not clear what the release cycle will be for SharePoint on premise, but Gartner believes it could be every year or two years. This could represent problems both for Microsoft and for SharePoint customers accustomed to the previous upgrade cycle, according to Mann.
"This is a huge change that completely reverses how they've developed the product in the past," Mann says.
It could be particularly problematic for customers who have hybrid deployments of SharePoint on premise and SharePoint Online if the two versions of the product have different update time-tables and get out of sync feature-wise, he says.
Also, there are still customers on the 2007 version of SharePoint, and even for those on SharePoint 2010 with plans to migrate to SharePoint 2013, the transition may not be completed until 2014 or 2015.
In SharePoint 2013, Microsoft is also introducing a new application development platform for the product which ISVs and enterprise developers must become acquainted with.
The new platform is consistent with Web application standards, and it has been designed make the creation of SharePoint Online and SharePoint 2013 applications simpler, more flexible and more secure. A new application store is also being launched along with the new development model.
SharePoint 2013 Needs Governance
SharePoint 2013 adopters should focus on governance, advises Toyota's Chong, so that policies address what users can or can't do with the product.
"Set up a governance structure to define policy for use cases, for operations. That'll help you be successful," Chong says. Toyota currently uses SharePoint 2010 and is testing SharePoint 2013.
The governance board should be made up of a cross-functional array of company managers from different departments, and it should anticipate and focus on how employees will use SharePoint, and give them autonomy, according to Chong.
The governance board should emphasize a common look and feel and uniform branding across SharePoint sites, as well as a consistent definition of data. It should also cover the entire SharePoint adoption process, including roadmap, definition of solutions, design, code approval and deployment, Chong says.
With the expansion of enterprise social features in the product, this type of collaboration and document sharing will increase, along with the number of employees engaging in it, says Chris McNulty, SharePoint general manager at Quest, a SharePoint ISV owned by Dell.
"That means a more complex security model," McNulty says.
Because of improvements in search within SharePoint 2013, it will be much easier than before "to find sensitive, obscure material if it's not properly secured," he says.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.
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This story, "SharePoint 2013 challenges and questions for IT" was originally published by CIO.