SolutionBase: Understanding the differences between SharePoint Portal Server and the Windows SharePoint Services

Ok - there's SharePoint Portal Server and then Windows SharePoint Services. They sound a lot alike, but they're not. Brien Posey sorts out the two and explains the differences.

Lately, Microsoft has been placing a much heavier emphasis on its SharePoint line of products. SharePoint will eventually take over the public folder functionality currently found in Exchange Server and Microsoft is also pushing to make SharePoint the file server technology of choice. Unfortunately, many of the people that I have talked to say that they find SharePoint to be confusing. What makes SharePoint even more confusing though is that it comes in two different flavors; the Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server. In this article, I will discuss the differences and the similarities of these two products.


If you are shopping for SharePoint products, the first difference that you are likely to notice between the two versions of SharePoint is the cost. SharePoint Portal Server tends to be a bit pricey. The retail price of SharePoint Portal Server with five client access licenses is $5,619. This price is the tip of the iceberg though. You must also figure in the cost of a Windows Server 2003 license, the Windows Server client access licenses, and the cost of the hardware that SharePoint will run on. SharePoint Portal Server also requires SQL Server. The software comes with MSDE (Microsoft Database Engine), which is a watered down version of SQL Server, but most organizations will have to use a full blown SQL Server deployment.

Furthermore, if you need additional SharePoint client access licenses, those licenses cost $71 per device or user. Since SharePoint is a Web based technology, it is conceivable that some organizations may make a SharePoint site available to external users or non employees over the Internet. In order to do so, you must purchase an external connector license. An external connector license sells for $30,000 per server.

As you can see, SharePoint Portal Server can be very pricey to deploy. In contrast though, the Windows SharePoint Services are free! Actually, they aren't completely free. You still need a Windows Server 2003 license and the Windows Server client access licenses. Even so, Microsoft offers the Windows SharePoint Services as a downloadable feature pack for Windows Server 2003.

To put it into prospective, both SharePoint products require you to buy a Windows Server 2003 license and the necessary Windows Server client access licenses. After doing so though, you could deploy the Windows SharePoint Services at no additional cost, whereas deploying SharePoint Portal Server will cost you thousands of additional dollars in software licenses.

Windows SharePoint Services

Since the Windows SharePoint Services are so much less expensive than SharePoint Portal Server, I will talk about it first. As I mentioned earlier, the Windows SharePoint Services are downloadable as a free feature pack for Windows Server 2003. You can download the Windows SharePoint Services at Microsoft's Web site.

The Windows SharePoint Services are primarily focused around workgroup level collaboration. The idea is that the Windows SharePoint Services can be easily deployed in a matter of minutes. Once the Windows SharePoint Services are up and running, it is simple to set up a workspace for a small group of users, with minimal effort. This allows a group of users to share a small collection of documents among themselves.

Even though small seems to be the operative word here, don't be fooled. The Windows SharePoint Services can be scaled to support thousands of users and multiple terabytes of data. In fact, SharePoint Portal Server (an enterprise class product) is built on top of the Windows SharePoint Services.

The truth is that even though the Windows SharePoint Services are free, the Windows SharePoint Services are no slouch by any stretch of the imagination. While it's true that SharePoint Portal Server offers features and capabilities that the Windows SharePoint Services don't offer, the Windows SharePoint Services is a very powerful application.

When you install the Windows SharePoint Services, there is next to no configuration that has to be done. I have to admit that when I installed the Windows SharePoint Services on my test server, I didn't take notes regarding the installation process, but I honestly can't remember having to do anything other than accepting an end user license agreement. Once the installation was complete, Windows opened Internet Explorer and displayed the Windows SharePoint Services Web site, shown in Figure A.

Figure A

This is what the Windows SharePoint Services Web Site looks like.

As I mentioned earlier, SharePoint Portal Server costs thousands of dollars while the Windows SharePoint Services are free. In order to understand what you are really getting for your money if you decide to invest in SharePoint Portal Server, you need to have a good idea of what you can and can't do with the Windows SharePoint Services. Unfortunately, there is no way that I can talk about all of the Windows SharePoint Service features in a single article, but I will give you a brief tour so that you can see how SharePoint Portal Server differs.

If you look at Figure A, you will see that the Home page contains a list of announcements, events, and links. Each of these sections is made up of a separate Web part. A Web part is nothing more than a block of HTML or ASP code. In a SharePoint environment, multiple Web parts can be joined together to create a Web page like the one that you see in Figure A. In fact, you will notice in Figure A that there is a Modify Shared Page link directly above the Windows SharePoint Services logo. You can use this link to add additional Web Parts, remove unwanted Web Parts, or to rearrange the position of the Web parts on the screen.

What this means is that the SharePoint Web site is completely customizable. The reason why this is important is because the default Web site is usually only used in the smallest organizations. As you will recall, earlier, I mentioned that the Windows SharePoint Services were designed to allow small groups of users to share small groups of documents.

If a user were to click the Create link, they would be able to create a dedicated Web site for the group or the project that they are working with. The fact that SharePoint sites are nothing more than a collection of pre-defined Web parts means that when users create dedicated Web sites, they can custom tailor the new site to fit their specific needs. Furthermore, they can accomplish this without having to do any coding.

That being the case, you might be wondering what users can use these Web sites for. Well, if you go back to Figure A, you can get a bit of a preview. If you look in the menu bar on the left portion of the screen, you will see links for shared documents, contacts, tasks, discussions, and surveys. There is actually a lot more that users can do with the Windows SharePoint Services, but I don't really have the space to talk about everything, so let's pretend that these were the only options available.

To see how these particular Web parts are useful, imagine that you are working as a part of a team that's assigned to develop a new product for your company. In such a case, you could start out by creating a contacts list containing contact information for everyone on the team. You could then go on to add contact information for parts suppliers and other non-employees that you might interact with as a part of the project.

You could then use the task list to assign tasks related to the project to various members of the team. The Discussion area is basically a message board that can be used to discuss specific issues related to the project. You could use the Pictures library to store blueprints or design ideas, while the document library can be used to store text documents.

The document library is one of the key pieces of SharePoint and is worth discussing for a moment. The idea behind the document library is that users can check documents in and out of the library. Essentially, what this means is that a user can check out a document, make changes, and check the document back in. This prevents users from making simultaneous, possibly contradictory changes to a document, but it does something else too. The document library allows you to retain multiple versions of documents. This way you can see who has made changes to a document and when. If necessary, you can even revert to a previous version of the document.

Another thing that the document library does is that it allows users to be alerted to changes. Users can be alerted immediately if a new document is added to the library or if an existing document is modified. If users don't want to be bothered by constant change notifications, they can receive a daily or a weekly change summary message.

In case you are wondering, the Windows SharePoint Services does have built in user management. You can easily specify which users are allowed to create Web sites. When a user does create a site, they can decide who can access the site, and what level of access various users should receive to the document library and to other areas of the site.

SharePoint Portal Server

It's impossible for me to talk about all of the capabilities of the Windows SharePoint Services because the application is so intricate. Hopefully by now though, you have a pretty good idea of what the Windows SharePoint Services are and what they are used for. Now, I want to move on and talk about SharePoint Portal Server. As I mentioned earlier, SharePoint Portal Server was built on top of the Windows SharePoint Services. This means that anything that the Windows SharePoint Services can do, SharePoint Portal Server can also do.

The main difference between the two applications is their focus and intended usage. As I have said numerous times in this article, the Windows SharePoint Service's primary focus is to create workspaces that small groups of users can use to collaborate on projects by sharing a small collection of documents and other data. Certainly, SharePoint Portal Server can be used for this as well, but why spend thousands to do something that you can do for free with the Windows SharePoint Services?

The main purpose for SharePoint Portal Server is to act as an enterprise level portal. One of the areas where this is the most obvious is in SharePoint Portal Server's ability to manage documents. SharePoint Portal Server's document library is very similar to the one found in the Windows SharePoint Services. The main difference is that SharePoint Portal Server is designed to index huge numbers of documents that exist across multiple locations.

For example, you could start out by indexing all of the documents that exist on your company's file servers. You don't have to stop there though. You could also index the public folders on your Exchange Servers. If there are Web sites that your company frequently references, you could even index pages on those sites. It doesn't even matter if the Web page is in secured by SSL. SharePoint can use the HTTPS protocol to index secure Web content.

The point is that large companies typically have huge amounts of information on file, and that information often exists in many different formats (Microsoft Office documents, PDF files, public folders, HTML, text files, etc.). What SharePoint Portal Server does is to make it possible for users to use a single search engine to search for information regardless of where the information is located and what format the information is in.

SharePoint Portal Server also differs from the Windows SharePoint Services in its ability to search document indexes. SharePoint Portal Server offers some very rich search capabilities. For example, users can search for specific key words and tell the search engine that they only want to search for items that have been added since their last search. The results of the search can then be arranged by document author, site, date, and category. SharePoint Portal Server also offers hierarchical search scopes that allow users to perform searches from within specific topics, categories, or content sources.

Similar names, but different

As you can see, there are many similarities between the Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server. Where the two products really differ is in that SharePoint Portal Server allows you to index the contents of huge numbers of documents, in a variety of formats, both inside and outside of your company. SharePoint Portal Server also offers advanced query tools that make it easier to locate specific content within a vast store of indexed content.