Microsoft’s SharePoint Team Services might not have made as big a splash in the business world as some of its other products, but its use is steadily growing. More team-oriented organizations are discovering the advantages of using this technology to manage and organize projects that are spread among multiple users. The Web-based interface makes it easy for team members to collaborate from any location.
I'll discuss what SharePoint Team Services is, who’s using it, and how they’re using it. I'll also address security issues, cost factors, and the relationship of SharePoint Team Services to SharePoint Portal Server. This information will help you decide whether Team Services could enhance the productivity of your project teams and what you should consider before taking the plunge.
What is SharePoint Team Services?
A glance at Microsoft’s SharePoint product site may leave you a little confused about what Team Services actually does. There are lots of buzzwords, such as “personalize and customize the intranet and extranet portal experience” and “collaborate with internal and external team members in one consolidated view,” but you have to dig a little deeper—or better yet, actually use SharePoint’s features—to fully understand how it works.
Version 2 of Team Services, now in second beta, has had a slight change of name; it’s now called Windows SharePoint Services.
What you can do with SharePoint Team Services
The purpose of SharePoint is to improve communication and information sharing among team members. Members can share calendars that can be continuously updated and immediately available to everyone to keep up with meeting dates and deadlines. They can share organized contact lists and take part in discussions that are available to the entire group. They can also collaborate on the creation of documents, with granular control over who has access to which documents and the level of access (Read Only, Author, or Make Changes). Because all of the shared information is hosted on a Web server, team members can access it from any computer. There’s no need to install special software.
The SharePoint Web site can provide areas for announcements, events, tasks, contacts, calendars, links, and shared documents. New entries can be added or documents uploaded to the document library with a few mouse clicks. You can create and manage the site using FrontPage, and you can easily customize its appearance and layout. To see SharePoint in action, check out this sample site.
What does SharePoint Portal Server have to do with it?
Team Services can be implemented in two ways, either with or without SharePoint Portal Server. Essentially, SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server are two separate products that work together. SharePoint Services can be used to create information sharing and collaboration Web sites. Portal Server enhances the functionality of SharePoint Services, especially in a large enterprise environment. It provides single sign-on and allows you to easily manage multiple SharePoint sites and present them across the entire enterprise. You can also use it to create portal sites (called dashboard sites) that act as centralized points for searching for and managing documents and information stored both within and outside the organization’s network. Portal Server provides sophisticated search capabilities across multiple data stores, including the ability to search the full text of documents (and document properties).
Portal Server provides role-based security, so that you can assign a set of permissions to each role and then assign roles to users. Users can be denied access to specific documents, as well.
For detailed discussion of the features and functionality of Portal Server, see the Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2001 Resource Kit Web site.
Who's using SharePoint Services?
Large- and medium-size organizations are using SharePoint technologies in situations where fast and easy communication of information among people and groups is necessary to accomplish the business goals. For example, the Rural Internet Access Authority in North Carolina set up a SharePoint Web site to expedite its mandated job of providing local dial-up and affordable broadband access to everyone in the state. Check out its SharePoint Portal Web site for more information about how it incorporated SharePoint into the project.
What is the latest version and should I wait for the next version?
SharePoint Team Services and Portal Server 2001 v1 are the current final release products. The second betas of v2 are available in a time-limited edition that will expire in November 2003. Version 2 is expected to be released in mid-2003. SharePoint v2 will integrate with Office 2003, providing for live data linking from Excel and Access and other new features.
Microsoft promises that Portal Server v1 users will be able to upgrade from v1 to v2, and it will provide content migration tools and documentation. If you’ve customized the visual elements of your Team Services v1 Web sites, however, you’ll have to redo the customization.
An easy and cost-effective way for you to evaluate whether SharePoint is a viable option for your organization is to set up a limited pilot program using the free beta products on a test network. You can have selected individuals participate in a typical team project using the SharePoint beta and report on their experiences. You can use this feedback to determine the benefits of SharePoint for your personnel and project types.
SharePoint Services considerations
To decide whether SharePoint would benefit your organization, consider several factors, including hardware and software requirements, administrative considerations, how your personnel prefer to work, and the types of projects that your teams work on.
One factor in deciding whether and how to implement SharePoint is whether your current server(s) will support it or would have to be upgraded. If you want to host a SharePoint Web site, your server’s hardware and software configurations must meet the following requirements:
- Pentium III or better processor
- 256 MB minimum RAM (512 is better)
- At least 550 MB of disk space (This is required to install the product, but depending on the amount of information that will be shared on the server, you may need much more.)
- Windows Server 2003 (any edition), with the latest service pack, for SharePoint technologies v2 (now in beta) and Windows 2000 for Version 1
- Web Application Server with ASP.NET and IIS 6.0 running SMTP, WWW service, and common files
- SQL Server 2000 for databases
- Windows 98 or above for Clients and IE 5.01, IE 5.5 with Service Pack 2, or IE 6.0 for the browser
Office integration features depend on the version of Office that clients have installed. Team Services users can build and contribute to team Web sites from within Office XP applications. For v2 products, file save integration is supported with Office 2000, basic data integration with Office XP, and full collaborative services with Office 2003.
If your organization doesn’t have a full-time IT team or administrative talent is in short supply, Team Services alone is easier to implement. Portal Server requires more sophisticated technical support and is designed for centralized management.
Personnel and project considerations
Team members who are familiar with Microsoft Office applications and comfortable with e-mail and other electronic communications will find it easy to transition to using SharePoint. Those who are used to face-to-face meetings and less experienced with Word, Excel, etc. may have a steeper learning curve, but SharePoint was designed to be as user-friendly as possible and to make it easy, even for users with less technical expertise, to create and contribute to sites and use collaboration features. While SharePoint can help cut down on the need for in-person meetings, it is not designed to take their place. You'll find that it can serve to supplement your team’s preferred methods of working together.
Small teams that work more informally can share information using only Team Services. For large, more complex groups working on projects that require a more structured approach, especially if they involve formal publishing and a need to search and aggregate information from a large number of sources, Portal Server is an appropriate solution.
Where to get SharePoint Services
SharePoint Team Services v1 and SharePoint Portal Server v1 are available for purchase. You can download the second beta version of SharePoint Services and the “v.20” beta of SharePoint Portal Server from the Microsoft Web site.
Both are also included in the Office System Beta 2 Kit 2003 on CD, which you can order for $19.95 at the Microsoft Office Beta testing Web site. (The kit also includes Office 2003, FrontPage 2003, OneNote, InfoPath, Publisher 2003, Windows Server 2003, and Exchange Server 2003.)
You don’t have to host your own Web servers onsite to take advantage of SharePoint services. Registered Microsoft SharePoint Team Services Web presence providers offer Web hosting that includes SharePoint support for a few extra dollars per month.
Where to get help with SharePoint
There are a number of resources online that you can turn to for help with SharePoint Services and Portal Server. For example:
- A large community of users and developers share information at SharePoint Experts.
- Tek-Tips Forums operates a SharePoint discussion board.
- DotNetWired.com hosts a SharePoint Technologies section.
- You can join Microsoft’s public newsgroup for SharePoint discussions by connecting to the msnews.microsoft.com news server and adding the group microsoft.public.sharepoint.teamservices.
- You can join the SharePoint mailing list by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
SharePoint security issues
If you decide to implement SharePoint, be aware of some common security issues. SharePoint sites can be made available over the Internet, but for better security they should be hosted on Web servers that are available only on your intranet or extranet.
Another security problem arises if you don’t want all SharePoint users to have access to every item in the news, announcements, and quick links sections. This is because the default configuration uses a single cache for all users for these items. The problem can be solved by changing the configuration to have this content cached on a per-user basis instead of a program-level basis.
You should also be aware that Web discussions pertaining to documents aren’t secured in the same way as the documents themselves. Even though your staff may set permissions so that a particular document can’t be accessed by certain users, the discussions that are linked to the documents can be seen by everyone. Also, by default, Web discussion searches are disabled, and you should consider the security implications before enabling this feature.
It is important to limit who can use the local administrator account on the server running SharePoint Services. This account has access to SharePoint security, so everyone who can access that account can add themselves to the role of coordinator.
Third-party software vendors, such as Trend Micro, make add-on products to enhance SharePoint security.
Alternatives to SharePoint
Several companies offer Web services designed to provide functionality similar to that of SharePoint. These include Ramius CommunityZero and Intranets.com’s Intranet Suite. Your company may want to investigate these services if you don’t have the technical personnel and/or the proper equipment to implement SharePoint in-house. Such services offer free trials and flexible pricing plans (monthly rate based on number of users) that may fit your needs. Check out all your options before committing to a particular solution.
For a small organization with only a few team members, subscribing to a service may be more cost-effective (and easier) than purchasing SharePoint Portal Server or upgrading to Windows 2003 to get Windows SharePoint Services. On the other hand, monthly subscription rates for large organizations (500 to 1000 members or more) can run into several thousand dollars per month. In that case, you may find it less expensive and more secure to implement SharePoint on your own servers.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.