Last summer, the University of Brighton embarked on an ambitious project to roll out SharePoint 2010 from scratch.
Between them, 12 servers provide both a test and production environment that will eventually deliver personal file storage for the university's 4,000 staff; departmental storage areas for all schools, faculties and central admin departments; and a fully functional staff extranet. With eight years' experience in PHP/MySQL development and teaching staff the basics of web authorship, I got the job of deployment.
What follows is some of what I've learnt in the past few months on my journey to become a SharePoint farm administrator. It explains some of the major decisions that we had to make in order to get where we are today, and why we did it that way in the first place.
For those considering a move to SharePoint 2010, what follows will provide shortcuts and tips, save pain, and give pointers for more research.
Although neither myself nor anyone involved had any experience of SharePoint, the decision was taken to go with it. We needed an industrial-strength staff extranet and portal, as well as personal document storage that was accessible from on- and off-campus; SharePoint was the only sensible candidate.
I was prepared for a challenge. Everything I'd heard about SharePoint in the past was bad. The product was huge, expensive, difficult to learn, heavy on hardware resources, confusing for users, and way more complex than it needed to be. All these perceptions proved to be true.
Why not move to the cloud? Well, we currently have a policy of not hosting staff data outside of the institution. Our student email system is outsourced to Microsoft, but everything else is currently in-house. Also, a hosted SharePoint solution on Office 365 wouldn't have given us the flexibility we needed, while a collection of empty cloud-based servers onto which we could install SharePoint ourselves was not cost-effective for the amount of data and processing power we'd require.
We also quickly rejected SharePoint Foundation (free) in favour of the Enterprise version (most definitely not free). Foundation lacks a lot of the features we'd need from day one.
SharePoint 2010 seemed to tick all the right boxes. The 'My Sites' feature could replace the personal private network shares on which staff currently store their files, and be accessible both on- and off-campus. The 'Team Sites' component supported shared document libraries on a per-department basis, and the powerful security model would allow us to devolve administration and management of each department's sites to a handful of people within each department, school or faculty.
I was prepared for a challenge. Everything I'd heard about SharePoint in the past was bad.
Longer term, our extranet could evolve into a real portal with classic portally features such as online submission of expenses claims or holiday requests, and front ends into our other internal systems such as finance or student information. Our 25,000 students could also perhaps use it as a front end to our Blackboard-based Virtual Learning Environment.
Many experienced SharePoint consultants claim that My Sites is the most controversial feature. It can be hard to reach the critical mass of users who want to maintain a personal site, which results in the loss of what little inertia existed.
The general advice is that you shouldn't actually implement My Sites unless there's a good business case for doing so. In our situation, there's a jolly good case, namely that the feature will make a great replacement for personal network shares, which will now be easier to access and also available off-site. Being able to access documents when away from the university is something for which our staff have been clamouring.
However, choosing SharePoint 2010 came with a catch: the product hadn't even launched yet. We were to be pioneers.
Next time: How to be a pioneer
Robert Schifreen has reported on and implemented online technology since the early 1980s. His latest project has been a large SharePoint 2010 installation in tertiary education. For the next two weeks, we'll be serialising his experiences, positive and negative, in getting it to the stage where it's ready for action; we'll also be making the entire series available as a downloadable white paper.
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