10 things you should know: Microsoft's SharePoint Services

<b>Microsoft's SharePoint Services</b> is a Web-centric document management technology that Microsoft is leveraging as a collaborative mechanism. But, as this document explains, there is much more to it than that.

SharePoint Services leverages Microsoft's Web-friendly product philosophy alongside its affinity for desktop apps, and does so in a way (as so many Microsoft products do) that just lulls you into going with the flow. Security is piggybacked on infrastructure already in place; the product's ancillary features are simply more convenient and (despite shortcomings) in many cases more economical to just use, since they're there anyway, than more capable alternatives.

We're inclined not to quibble. SharePoint Services gives you a lot of things you may have found yourself wishing for, things you couldn't have because you'd have to go to the trouble of rolling your own or fiddling with your infrastructure in order to achieve them. And some of them might not be immediately apparent: SharePoint Services is touted as a document management system, and there's a built-in problem with that concept, because we all have a pretty fixed and mundane idea of what a document management system is. SharePoint's Web-centric orientation, however, gives it some unexpected punch, and may change your thinking. Here are some points to consider.

1. SharePoint extends Exchange Server

If you're using Exchange Server to handle your email traffic, SharePoint can greatly simplify distribution. You can create a SharePoint site as a singular point for receiving Exchange traffic and, at a stroke, have de facto distribution of that traffic to a particular group or groups, with all the security and membership built-in. By setting up a public folder for SharePoint in Exchange, Exchange's work is done—SharePoint pulls from the folder and does the work.

2. SharePoint collaboration solutions are scalable

It's well-publicized by Microsoft that SharePoint Services is essentially a collaborative solution toolkit. Creating sites for team interaction, sharing and management of project-specific documents and files, testing, and other collaborative functions are a natural application of SharePoint.

A less hyped aspect of SharePoint is that this collaborative utility is highly scalable. What begins as a resource library shared by a team can be readily telescoped out to accommodate the entire organization or an even broader customer community—SharePoint Services can be readily deployed across multiple servers in a server farm, enabling the creation of massive data stores.

3. SharePoint sites are highly customizable

SharePoint Services comes fully integrated with FrontPage 2003, so all of FrontPage's WYSIWYG Web editing tools are available for use in crafting SharePoint sites. (If your organization swims in the deep end, development-wise, all of this comes with ASP.NET as well.)

Via FrontPage, you can leverage the utility of Web Parts, modular chunks of code you can re-use in SharePoint sites, to grab live data from a broad range of possible sources (Also see #8). You can allow users to control these modules of code by inserting Web Part zones in your sites, enabling sophisticated drag-and-drop controls. You have complete control over style through XSLT, which you can manipulate either directly or through FrontPage—and you can employ conditional formatting if it desired.

4. SharePoint extends InfoPath

InfoPath 2003 is Microsoft's desktop application technology for integrated forms management and data transport. InfoPath is a powerful and underrated technology in itself, and both its XML backbone and forms-friendliness mesh well with SharePoint.

Specifically, you’ll find it useful to publish InfoPath forms directly to a SharePoint library. In such a library, forms can be stored and (more importantly) shared, and accessible to working teams leveraging SharePoint as a collaborative tool. (The base form is stored in the library header; populated XML result sets make up the library itself.)

And with SharePoint Portal, you can leverage SharePoint Portal Web services to enhance the utility of InfoPath forms for your desktop community, by accessing information in other systems within your organization (or from outside, for that matter) and populating forms with it as needed.

5. Metadata can be used to create dynamically parsed storage systems

Metadata is critical to the SharePoint Server concept, and comes in several flavors. With metadata you can effectively create customized search arguments that permit you to organize information dynamically, and to use search criteria from one document library to retrieve information from another.

Put another way, you can forego the traditional hierarchical folders in organizing your document libraries, if it's appropriate. Instead, you can create metadata lookups that can not only be used as organizational keys for documents in one library, but can be used as search arguments to locate documents in other libraries. In this way, you can create searchable document pools with effectively dynamic organization, not only searchable but re-organizable without any physical manipulation of the documents themselves.

6. SharePoint can be a data transport mechanism

SharePoint's primary features include the ability to set up shared distribution points for data from a wide range of sources, moved by different modes of transport (see #1, #4). But its data transport role doesn't end there. Depending on what your organization's sites contain, content-wise, and the role(s) the sites are playing in your system, you can actually distribute data from server to server by means of SharePoint's site-moving utilities (see #10).

For instance, if you have SharePoint sites deployed internally to represent data in different workflow stages, the SharePoint content databases of those sites can be rotated in a de facto batch process using these utilities (which are Command Line programs and therefore scriptable).

7. Use the Task Pane to turn Word libraries into collaborative systems with built-in administration

SharePoint Services is primarily about document management. Saving Word documents to SharePoint, placing documents in libraries, and checking them in and out are SharePoint's most obvious functions.

But the extension of those functions into shared workspaces is where those features become really empowering, rather than simply utilitarian. You have a Task Pane that ties documents to libraries, and within it lie a number of important features that take you from the simple management of documents to real collaboration and administration. Through the Task Pane, you can:

  • track status and versioning of documents
  • define and track who has site/document access
  • do task monitoring
  • create alerts

You can, of course, save from all Office applications—not just Word—to SharePoint.

8. SharePoint can pull data from external databases and other data sources

Web Parts and Web Part architecture (available to your SharePoint development by way of FrontPage 2003 or ASP.NET) can become a powerful component of your SharePoint sites. In particular, Data View Web Parts allow you to add views to your sites from a variety of data sources. You can create views specific to your SharePoint sites and link views together. Data sources can be databases, Web services, or any XML source (InfoPath documents, etc.).

9. Leverage Excel for data management

Exporting data to Excel is well-supported in SharePoint and makes graphing and printing convenient (via the Print with Excel and Chart with Excel options). But it's also possible (and may often be desirable) to export data to Excel just for the sake of manageability. The Excel Export function creates an Excel Web query linking to the original data. In this way, you can create spreadsheets that will accept data, and then push that data to SharePoint.

This can be done by generating an Excel spreadsheet, then linking the spreadsheet to SharePoint (by using Export and Link to Excel from a Datasheet Task Pane). Once this is done, data can be entered into the spreadsheet and pushed from the spreadsheet to Excel with the Synchronize List option.

10. Sites and entire site collections can be backed up in a single operation

The ability to move a site, lock-stock-and-barrel (and even more so a site collection, which includes primary site, sub-sites and all their contents), should not be under-appreciated. Anyone who's migrated sites the hard way knows it can be maddeningly frustrating. SharePoint Services includes two utilities that will greatly reduce the frustration: STSADM and SMIGRATE.

SMIGRATE began life as an upgrade utility, shepherding data from old SharePoint to new. Now it's for backup/restore and for moving sites wholesale. It's a command line utility, so it's tailor-made for scripting, and can simplify the process of moving a site and its contents to the point that it can conceivably be a content distribution tool in some scenarios.

Its weakness is that when a site is moved with the SMIGRATE utility, its security settings don't all move with it. Remember to check your settings after a move or restore.

And while SMIGRATE will not preserve your security settings, STSADM will. This utility will move not only a site but a site collection, and does far more: you can use it to create sites, delete site collections, import templates, and move data (see #6).

Special thanks to my friend and colleague, system administrator Andy Paul, for discussions of his own innovative applications of SharePoint Services and suggestions for this download.

By Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...