Servers

Getting started with Office Server Extensions

Rick Dobson examines the basics of the new Office Server Extensions (OSE) technology that was introduced with Office 2000.

Microsoft Office 2000 offers several new features for team collaboration over an intranet. When employees must jointly use or develop Word, rich text, or HTML files, these new features can add significant value. With Office Server Extensions (OSE), users can publish documents, participate in discussions, and collaborate on team projects. A database (either SQL Server or MSDE) is at the core of much of OSE’s functionality. This database stores discussions and subscriptions about Web documents. OSE is particularly relevant to IT professionals because users may require IT support to derive OSE benefits. OSE is an add-on to the popular FrontPage Server Extensions that enable FrontPage client workstations to administer a Web site residing on a server.

This article presents the basics of the new OSE technology introduced with Office 2000. You will gain exposure to installation, administration, and usage issues. The article relates to the functions of intranet Webmasters, network administrators, and database administrators. Most likely, Webmasters will have the lead responsibility in installing and administering OSE Web sites. Network administrators can also benefit, since OSE enables better and more flexible utilization of network resources. Since OSE must use either MSDE or SQL Server to store discussions and subscriptions, it’s possible that database administrators will need to be involved in, or even fully manage, an OSE installation.

Installing OSE
While evaluating whether OSE is right for your organization, you will want to assess its hardware and software requirements, as well as the flexibility with which you can install and administer it.

Installation requirements
Microsoft suggests a minimum of a 166-MHz Intel Pentium processor, but recommends a 300-MHz processor or higher. This understates the OSE processor demands because OSE requires both a Web server and a database server. OSE can also optionally use an SMTP mail server. Most organizations with significant collaboration needs won’t be able to run OSE, a Web server, a database server, and an SMTP mail server on the same computer. Prime prospects for OSE will already have computers supporting some of these other functions. In any event, you’ll want OSE running on the same computer that operates your Web server.

OSE doesn’t demand significant system resources. It requires only 120 MB of hard disk space and 64 MB of RAM.

Software requirements are flexible because OSE can run with either its full set of features or a reduced feature set, depending on the other software installed on your machine. You can run OSE on a computer using either: (1) Windows 2000 Premium or Server edition or (2) Windows NT Server or Workstation version 4 with Service Pack 4 or later. Although OSE supports the file allocation table (FAT) file system, you can ensure greater security of your OSE installation by running the NTFS file system.
Microsoft makes it exceptionally easy to convert from a FAT file system to an NTFS file system. Click Run on the Start menu and type convert.exe [drive letter]: /fs:ntfs. Click OK. The amount of time required for the conversion will depend on the amount of data on the drive.
Since OSE facilitates the operation of an intranet, you also must have a Web server. OSE is compatible with two options. The most preferable for an enterprise installation is Internet Information Server version 4 or later (IIS). Another option is the Personal Web Server running on Windows NT Workstation or Windows 2000 Premium. Since OSE is a collaboration product, you will definitely want IIS if your system targets collaboration support for more than a handful of users.

If you plan to install the OSE subscription feature, your system must include Exchange Server (version 5.5 or later) or another SMTP mail server. Subscriptions enable OSE to notify the members of a collaboration group that a document has changed. This makes it possible for members to return to a document on an intranet only when they know the document has been updated, rather than having to manually check for updates.

Installation and configuration
There are two sources for the OSE installation files: (1) You can load OSE with Setupse.exe from Disc 1 of the Microsoft Office 2000 Professional Edition or (2) if you have the Office 2000 Premium Edition, a graphical user interface to OSE setup is available on Disc 3. This OSE setup option uses the new Windows Installer Technology.

Running the installation program places up to four different components on a computer. They are:
  • OSE Start Page
  • OSE Administration Home Page
  • Microsoft FrontPage 2000 Server Extensions
  • Other OSE files

OSE stores the collaboration discussions in a database—by default, MSDE. If SQL Server 6.5 or 7.0 is already on your computer, the installation won’t install MSDE. Instead, it defaults to using the SQL Server database on the computer to store collaboration discussions and subscriptions (you can manually override this option). If the computer on which OSE is installed doesn’t have a database engine, you can elect to suppress the installation of MSDE. This is appropriate when you’ll be using an SQL Server running on another connected computer.

Running the installation program is a two-step process. First, the program copies a series of files from the installation CD to your hard drive. A prompt suggests a default installation location. You can override its suggestion. Second, a configuration manager prompts you with a series of questions that enable the proper configuration of OSE. These prompts control security settings, the database used to store discussions, and optionally, the mail server for providing collaborators feedback when a document changes.

You can use a text file to specify the installation and configuration options. With this "quiet mode" of installation, there are no prompts concerning where to install the OSE files and how to configure OSE. This approach is particularly convenient when you want to insure an identical OSE installation on multiple machines, such as those in remote field offices. A sample .ini file for installing OSE is on the installation disc. Modify the default settings for the purposes of your custom installation.

There are at least two types of security settings for OSE. First, you can allow anonymous entry by any user with a Windows account (or just anyone) who can browse the server. If you’re implementing OSE in a small workgroup behind a firewall where all workers are peers, this mode of security may be appropriate. With this approach, you can use SQL Server security to designate a common security level for access to the discussion and subscription database. Second, you can create local machine groups. These groups have different permissions with respect to the discussion and subscription database, and the intranet server on which you installed OSE. This second option allows you to assign Windows NT users and groups to different local machine groups. The rest of this article considers a local machine group’s installation.

Table A highlights the four local machine groups and their permissions. The group prefix is the same for all groups. By default, it’s the name of the OSE Web server. You will typically want to assign most discussion participants to the Collaborators or Authors groups. Members of the Browsers group can’t view discussions, and they can only view Web documents (they can’t edit them). Collaborators can view, create, reply, edit, and delete discussions. Unless you’re an OSE administrator, you are restricted to editing and deleting only your own discussions.

Table A
Local machine groups Permissions
Group prefix Browsers Enables reading of Web documents
Group prefix Collaborators Enables access to Web discussions
Group prefix Authors Enables creation and modification of files and folders
Group prefix Admins Enables creation and management of Web intranets
Local machine groups and their permissions

Members of the Authors group can create and manage Web documents and folders. Members of the Admins group can create and manage Web intranets on the Web server. All members of the Admins group have OSE administrator status.

Administering OSE
The Administration Home Page and the Start Page help with the administration of an OSE installation. The Administration Home Page is for IT professionals (or highly advanced users serving in that capacity). This page offers a graphical user interface for the overall management of discussions and subscriptions.

Launch the Administration Home Page by browsing to http://[server name]/msoffice/msoAdmin/. The OSE administrator will typically be a member of the Admins group. In any event, the Network Administrator will have access to this page—even without being a member of the Admins group. You can give select end users authority to access this page by assigning them membership in the Admins group.

The Administration Home Page provides a GUI (graphical user interface) to the major OSE resources:
  • An OSE administrator can manage Web discussions.
  • An OSE administrator can control the availability of document and folder subscriptions, as well as the timing for mailing messages about changes.
  • The Administration Home Page allows you to test the integrity of your discussion and subscription database, as well as switch the database server for storing discussions and subscriptions.
  • The goal of the Configure Web Discussion Settings and Manage Web Discussions options is to reduce the load of discussions on a server. For example, you can simply disable Web discussions. This can free resources on a server for other functions. This configuration setting does not affect existing entries in a discussion database. Another pair of controls permits an OSE administrator to limit entries in a discussion database to just documents on the current Web server or those located anywhere on the Web.
  • The initial installation of OSE requires you to specify a database server to store discussion and subscription entries. You can use the Database Settings link on the Administration Home Page to change the server. This link also permits verification of the database's integrity.
  • Administrators can delete discussions (created by themselves or others). The user interface on the Administration Home Page permits the removal of all discussions for a document or the removal of selected messages. The interface enables automatic removal of discussions older than a designated number of days. To delete selected messages, choose the Open Threaded Discussion for a document. Then select individual messages and delete them.
  • The Configure Web Subscription Settings and Manage Web Subscriptions options allow administrators to designate when subscription notifications originate.
OSE administrators need to be aware of two special caveats. First, enabling subscriptions introduces a potential security breach. Subscriptions will notify a user about changes to a document or folder that they do not have permission to open. Although users without permission cannot open the document or folder, they do receive subscription information about it. Second, the automatic deletion of discussions can lead to situations where a parent discussion disappears from the database before its children. Automatic deletion removes discussions based on their age—older ones are removed first. For this reason, administrators may not want to implement this feature or may want to limit its use.
Using OSE
The Start Page is useful for both IT professionals and end users. From this page, you can browse for documents on a Web server, search for documents on the Web, manage subscriptions to documents, and find help on how to use OSE.

The Start Page is a good starting point for end users to collaborate on Web documents and manage their interaction with OSE. IT professionals will want to become familiar with this page so they can manage their own collaboration efforts and serve as a coach to end users.

Point your browser to http://server name/msoffice/ to open the Start Page. Members of the Collaborators, Authors, and Admins groups can browse this page. Members of the Browsers group will not have access to the Start Page, but they can browse documents on the Web without the benefit of the Start Page. In addition, members of the Windows NT Users group, and other special groups that an organization defines, retain their access rights to documents and folders (even without membership in any of the OSE local machine groups).

The Browse Web Folders link on the Start Page opens a list of Web folders under the root directory of an OSE intranet server. These folders and their documents, depending on permissions, are available for viewing, collaboration, and publishing. Click any folder in the list to expose its documents and folders. These new items replace the original list on the Web page. You can sort a list by name, size, date last modified, and date created by clicking the corresponding column heading. These clicks toggle the sort order from descending to ascending. Open a document in the browser by invoking the hyperlink whose text matches the file name.

One of the most common uses for OSE will be the creation and maintenance of threaded discussions for Web documents. Discussions never become a part of the document (as they do with Word’s Track Changes feature). They are always stored in an external database. You can insert discussions in the body of the document as well as below it.

Use the Discuss button on the Standard Buttons toolbar in IE5 to toggle the overall visibility of discussions for any Web page in the browser. IE4 does not contain this button on its Standard Buttons toolbar. Instead, you have to type the exact URL for a Web page into the text box on the Start Page and click Go. This opens the URL with any discussions for that page. The same technique works for Netscape 4.0 browsers. In addition, the Netscape browser enables users to open a document with its discussions via the Browse Web Folders link on the Start Page. IE4 does not enable this alternate route for exposing the discussions on a document.

Clicking the Discuss button opens a custom bar at the bottom of the browser. This enables you to enter overall and in-document comments as well as filter comments. You can refresh the discussions to reflect any modifications that have been made since you loaded the document in your browser.

The custom bar at the bottom of the browser also enables subscriptions. Click the Subscribe button to open the Document Subscription dialog box. This automatically opens the dialog box for the current document. You can choose when OSE originates notifications about document changes and specify what type of document change triggers a notification e-mail. You can also designate how often you will receive update messages. The Manage Web Subscriptions button on the Start Page opens a dialog box to examine the total set of subscriptions for a user. You can also use this dialog box to delete selected subscriptions for individuals.

Conclusion
Office Server Extensions represent a powerful new addition to the Microsoft Office 2000 suite. This new capability targets team collaboration on documents, and it highlights the special contributions IT professionals can make to Microsoft Office projects. Team members can share comments about a document in a threaded discussion base. They can even have notifications sent to them when documents change. The reliance of OSE on Web servers, database servers, and SMTP mail servers creates a definite need for the participation of IT professionals in the installation of OSE. Teams with a high volume of discussions will benefit from IT expertise for determining the scale of hardware and software resources necessary to support collaboration functions.

This article exposes a fraction of the details that you need to master for the deployment of OSE solutions. The goal of this article is to showcase selected installation, configuration, and management issues to help you decide if OSE is right for your organization. Use the Office Resource Kit for drilling down further into the documentation if you find this introduction piques your curiosity.

Rick Dobson, Ph.D., and his wife operate a development and training consultancy. He is the author of the best-selling book Programming Microsoft Access 2000 for Microsoft Press. Rick is a regular contributor to TechRepublic and numerous computer periodicals. In addition, he has presented training sessions and seminars on Access and Web development topics in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and throughout the United States. Rick is a Microsoft Certified Professional and a Microsoft Certified Trainer. You can reach Rick at either of the two Web sites that his practice maintains (www.programmingmsaccess.com and www.cabinc.net ).

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.
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