SharePoint: Love It, Leave It, Or Hope For More

by Jacqueline Emigh

Microsoft gets top marks for its Sharepoint vision from the same analysts who turn around and report the software is still years from 'workable.' What's up with Microsoft's portal solution? Jacqueline Emigh reports.

Now on the market since mid-2001, Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) has already attracted millions of users and more than 300 third-party applications. Proponents praise its relatively low pricing, easy installation, and intranet functionality. The same product, though, has also drawn heaps of criticism from industry influencers like GartnerGroup and Meta Group. Why the discrepancies?

"SharePoint has a lot of capabilities for small companies," contended Bill English, a consultant, trainer and author specializing in .NET platforms. In a recent presentation, English estimated SharePoint licensing costs at just $11,000 for a company of 1,000 employees. In contrast, a deployment of IBM WebSphere might easily weigh in at $250,000, including the price of IBM Global Services, according to English.

"Intranet-in-a-box is beautiful," he added, citing SharePoint's document management capabilities, in particular. English likes the way the Office XP client makes it easier for administrators with some programming skills to create Web parts. "Users can come in and create their own dashboards if you give them a gallery of Web parts."

On the down side, though, English pointed to weaknesses for SharePoint in areas ranging from deployment to backup and recovery, security, and integration with other .NET servers.

English is hardly the only one who appreciates SharePoint's strengths. "I am building an intranet for my company, and I'm considering SharePoint Team Services and/or Portal Server. We are a computer training company in California with two branches and about 40 employees. I would greatly appreciate your assistance in helping me review SharePoint so that I can decide whether it is the best solution for our needs, and if it is, which SharePoint product(s) to use," wrote one administrator, in a posting to the Microsoft.public.sharepoint.portalserver newsgroup. The administrator wanted to "build a good intranet from scratch."

An industry consultant responded: "A key objective in most of the projects I've been involved in has been to create a system which is user maintainable. SharePoint Team Services would provide a good platform. You should talk the company into using it for document management. The benefits are huge."

In its first year of existence, MSSP sold seven million licenses, said Jeff Raike, Microsoft's group VP of productivity and business services, during the Microsoft Fusion conference last summer.

Meanwhile at least 300 third-party vendors have taken the time of create third-party apps for SharePoint.

Industry reaction, though, as been a mixed bag all along. When SPS1 was still in beta, Gartner released a report drubbing the product as "a first generation portal."

"For more than a year, Gartner has expected that Microsoft would announce a better-defined KM and collaboration strategy, and anticipated that Tahoe/SharePoint would form the cornerstone for it," according to the report.

"Microsoft planned to position Exchange-based collaborative services against those of Lotus Development, whereas SharePoint brings Microsoft more directly into competition with enterprise portals. In announcing SharePoint, then, Microsoft de-emphasized KM as a strategic initiative but introduced language that could confuse enterprises."

The authors of the report, Denise Carrau and Debra Logan, conceded that SharePoint has some of the functionality needed to support KM, such as workgroup-level document management. "(But) Microsoft has blurred the lines between KM and enterprise portals and tries to stretch SharePoint to cover both. It does not have greatly enhanced functions to support KM, nor does it have particularly robust application integration capabilities, which are essential to portals. Furthermore, Gartner does not believe that SharePoint will easily scale to support enterprise-wide document management."

More recently, Microsoft has been trying to reposition itself away from KM and toward the portals space. In announcing SPS2 last spring, Microsoft pointed to three general directions: integration with SharePoint Team Services (STS); with Windows .NET Server; and with other .NET platforms.

Since then, though, Microsoft officials seem to have drummed most heavily on STS/SPS integration.

"You guys have bashed us all over the park on what you think about our SharePoint Portal Server. Okay, that's fine, but at the end of the day, the ability people have today to really share and find information inside corporate intranets is not what most people want it to be. We recognize that. We think we have a good initial set of offerings between SharePoint Team Server and SharePoint Portal Server. We've got to take it to the next level," said Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, during a Q&A at Gartner's recent IT Expo.

Meanwhile, other observers have pointed to weaknesses in STS, and in current integration between SPS and STS. STS does not provision sbwebs correctly when trying to install onto other Virtual Directories, noted another news group participant. "The Wizard fails to complete. Perhaps later revisions or patches will allow other Virtual Directories to function properly."

"Search is a major feature of SharePoint Portal Server, but it does not support search of SharePoint Team Services-based Web sites, i.e. material created using Office XP (or 2000) and placed in IIS/SQL Server. We expect Microsoft to fix this in upcoming upgrades," according to another report from Gartner.

In a report issued two months ago, Meta Group applauded Microsoft's .NET vision as "the broadest vendor articulation of portal user impact" to date. Meta also predicted, however, that Microsoft will be unable to produce a "workable portal solution" for some time to come.

"Until Microsoft resolves internal product group struggles (e.g., collaboration distributed across several Microsoft groups; content smeared across different broadly overlapping products; lack of a strong portal-oriented integration story), we do not expect it to provide integrated .Net Framework Web services reusable across several different application categories."

In fact, although more than 50 percent of Microsoft-oriented organizations will use SPS, "most will use it as an application-centric environment (specifically, SPS will be used as a mechanism to build 'intranets on steroids,')" according to Meta's Ashim Pal.

By 2004/5, the SPS product base will blossom to 50 million users, forecasted Pal. Many enterprises, though, will delay adoption of SPS2 till then, due to SPS2's need for Windows .Net Server, according to the analyst.

Where, then, does that leave administrators - in small companies, enterprises, and branch offices -- who like some of the capabilities of SPS1, and who want to deploy it over the interim? Next, we'll drill down into some of the biggest problems posed by SPS1, and some of the available workarounds. We'll also take a look at some of the new features to look forward to in SPS2.

» See All Articles by Columnist Jacqueline Emigh

This article was originally published on Tuesday Dec 24th 2002