SharePoint readies data for enterprise use
THE PROLIFERATION of corporate intranets has proven to be a boon and a bust. Intranets provide employees with easy, cost-effective ways to publish information, but they also let loose a huge data flood of information. Tools such as portal software and document management systems have helped pinpoint information and organize files. Still, each product usually requires its own complex, expensive infrastructure, which has hindered widespread acceptance of these tools.
But a corporate portal server such as Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server 2001 may solve that problem. SharePoint Portal Server combines content indexing and searching, document management, and collaboration functions, accessed though a single, customizable intranet site. We found it capable of serving as the core of a company's knowledge portal initiative.
Additionally, the product integrates with Microsoft Office 2000 and the forthcoming Office XP so users can publish and manage documents directly from their desktop applications, nearly eliminating additional training and procedural changes.
If you're getting a feeling of déjà vu, it is probably because Microsoft Exchange 2000's document sharing and discussions capabilities, plus the Web publishing features of Office 2000, do intersect with SharePoint Portal Server. Microsoft's portal extends what's available in its other products while working within a company's current IT infrastructure. SharePoint also represents a better value than more expensive products such as the Lotus Discovery Server, which lacks document management functionality, a major feature of Microsoft's product. For these reasons, SharePoint Portal Server earned a score of Very Good.
We installed and configured SharePoint Portal Server within 30 minutes, guided by a simple four-step setup wizard. For our initial catalog, we searched InfoWorld.com, several intranet sites, Exchange 5.5 public folders, a Notes 4.6 database, and two Windows NT 4 file servers. In addition to text and HTML files, the software includes an Ifilter interface, which allowed us to easily index TIFF images of faxes, Adobe Acrobat PDF files, and Corel WordPerfect documents.
The portal's out-of-the-box Web interface allowed us to get right to work. The search engine, which is built on SQL Server 7 technology, quickly returned accurate results ranked in order of importance. We noticed that the time to retrieve search results decreased with time; its adaptive crawling algorithm learned where documents were likely to be updated, so it spent less time indexing stale files. We also appreciated a "best bets" function, which placed files that we deemed important at the top of search results.
Within the portal, folders were organized by categories and could be populated by the portal or by users who publish information straight into them. By configuring the system's indexing and metadata features, we automatically organized marketing, financial, and technical data, which resided on different servers, into related libraries.
In addition, we subscribed to categories and searches, a feature that notified us, either by e-mail or an indicator within the portal interface, when new content was added to our areas of interest.
To enrich the look and usefulness of our personal portal display, we easily added and rearranged a few of the 25 supplied ActiveX components, called Web Parts. For example, we added our Outlook e-mail and calendar with the MSNBC news subscription services.
Web Parts are wwritten using Microsoft's Digital Dashboard Resource Kit 2; therefore it's easy for IT staff to create native Web applications for specific company needs. Within a few hours we wrote and distributed a simple Web Part displaying data from a SQL 7 database.
This extensible design is a key differentiator for SharePoint Portal Server. A portal, by its very definition, must be flexible enough to match a user's and a company's unique requirements.
We were impressed with how easily we could further customize our individual pages. For example, we saved a Microsoft Excel pivot table as a Web Part and inserted it into our portal view. We then interacted with the spreadsheet directly from the portal user interface. Word and PowerPoint files were treated in the same way. But this feature is only available when using Office XP, which we tested in beta form during this evaluation.
Because Microsoft has elevated document management to a central position within the product and made the feature so accessible, SharePoint Portal Server becomes even more valuable. It provides most of the document management functions a company will likely require.
To open a category folder from Windows Explorer, we simply right-clicked on a document to check it out for editing. When we checked in the document, a form enabled us to easily add comments about the new version, supply keywords, and create an approval workflow. After approval, the document was immediately available to others.
Foremost, SharePoint Portal Server will appeal to organizations standardized on Microsoft desktop and server products because it offers a fast ROI without additional infrastructure or resources. Yet this package's relatively low cost, multiplatform client support, compatibility with Unix and Mac OSes through a browser-only interface, and capability to search non-Microsoft databases should also make it a solid contender in shops running competitive desktop and server systems.