What makes Microsoft's SharePoint tick?

What makes Microsoft's SharePoint tick?

Summary: For being the fastest growing server product at Microsoft, SharePoint is still largely misunderstood. There's no question its one of Microsoft's most important enterprise products, contributing more than $1 billion to the company's coffers. Yet, as CEO Steve Ballmer himself acknowledged this week, SharePoint an "unsung hero."


For being the fastest growing server product at Microsoft, SharePoint is still largely misunderstood. There's no question its one of Microsoft's most important enterprise products, contributing more than $1 billion to the company's coffers. Yet, as CEO Steve Ballmer himself acknowledged this week, SharePoint an "unsung hero."

In part, SharePoint is unsung because it's a complex and ambitious product. It's not just a content management system or an enterprise social-networking product, or an intranet search system. It's six different servers bundled into a single back-end for Microsoft Office. There are thousands of Microsoft employees working on 40 different teams contributing to the product. It has provided system integrators, consultants and other partners with a lot of business because it has been tricky to deploy, maintain and customize.

(As my ZDNet blogging colleague David Greenberg noted this week, it's not the cost of SharePoint server and the associated client-access licenses that are the biggest ticket items. He noted that a new InfoTrends survey found the biggest SharePoint-related expenditures were servers and storage, deployment/assessment services, development/maintenance services, i/o hardware (e.g. scanners, MFPs), and additional software.)

The SharePoint team is working on the fourth iteration of SharePoint, known as SharePoint 2010, which is due out mid-year next year. Microsoft has been privately alpha and beta testing SharePoint 2010 with a select group. Next week, starting on October 19, more than 7,000 SharePoint resellers, admins, users and analysts are convening in Las Vegas for the SharePoint Conference 2009 event to hear more details about the 2010 release.

I've been attempting to keep close tabs on SharePoint ever since I heard Ballmer liken SharePoint, in terms of infrastructural importance, to Windows. SharePoint has become one of those middle-tier products that gets its tentacles into everything in many a Microsoft shop. (And soon will be gaining even more arms, since SharePoint is the back-end powering the business versions of Microsoft's forthcoming Office Web Apps.)

With the 2010 release, Microsoft is rounding out SharePoint's features and tools to make it even more of a true "platform" play.

"When you look at the key areas of investment in SharePoint 2010, the very first one that we will tend to highlight next week is the fact that SharePoint -- while it's always been developed as a platform -- in SharePoint 2010 you will see it truly blossom forth as a developer platform," Stephen Elop, President of the Microsoft Business Division, told me. "We have invested a tremendous amount to make it easier for developers to build applications on the SharePoint environment, to integrate SharePoint with other back-end systems and other business applications.  We've taken steps to make sure that development tools, with which  developers are familiar, Visual Studio being the obvious example, are integrated well with SharePoint."

"So, it's absolutely the case that we think about SharePoint both as a collection of applications that can be tailored for your use, but it's also the underlying platform upon which those applications have been built," Elop said.

When I asked Elop what he thought differentiated the SharePoint team from others at the company, he highlighted the team's focus on customers. I know every team at Microsoft says it is focused on customers, but after talking to some of the SharePoint folks, I'd say that focus nearly borders on obsession. The fact that SharePoint isn't in a monopoly position and has a wide range of formidable competitors is driving the team, as well, I'd say.

Over the past few weeks, I've been interviewing a number of key members of the SharePoint team to try to get a better handle on what's made the product tick and what Microsoft is planning to do to increase sales of it, going forward. Over the next few days, I'm planning a series of posts detailing what I learned.

Come back Monday for more about SharePoint 2010 and how/why Microsoft is building, packaging and selling the product the way it does. In the interim, feel free to post any SharePoint questions you're hoping to have answered.

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Servers, Software


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Make a post explaining what SharePoint is...

    As you said, it is a complex product. I remember when Lotus Notes came out, it was difficult to pin it to a traditional category - what IS it? SharePoint may have some of the same issues of perception.
    Roque Mocan
    • what it is

      Yes, I will be doing that. In short, it is six server workloads bundled into a single product. The "donut" diagram above is how they explain what SP 2010 is. It does content/document-management; intranet search; enterprise social networking and collaboration; internet/intranet portal creation; business-intelligence; and provides business connectivity and development (that's what "composites" means.

      In trying to make SP simple, MS has somewhat masked what it is. When you go to the SharePoint site, it's hard to tell that it is six server workloads bundled in a single product. I personally think they should not be afraid to provide more technical info about it.

      The very shortest definition: SharePoint is the server-side counterpart to Office. MJ
      Mary Jo Foley
      • IT is JUNK, plain and simple

        Just another MS Money Pit(tm) for your business.
        • ITGuy08 needs to learn how to implement a project.

          Seriously, the product doesn't suck. Your office's implementation sucked. If you don't know what you are going to do with it, that is the FAIL. www.ferrari.com They are doing it right.
        • No... you are nothing but a rabid MSFT hater!

          just admit it and you're life can improve after you let go of the hate.
  • What is SharePoint:

    There are 2 SharePoint?s, WSS (Windows SharePoint Services) and MOSS 2007 or Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007.

    SharePoint is a platform, created on the .Net framework, which can do almost anything really. It's a powerful Content Management System. Microsoft, Dell, HP, music labels, and others use it to host their websites to the public:

    http://www.wssdemo.com/Pages/websites.aspx (Over 1000)

    The CMS features in SharePoint allow approval of changes, creation of master pages that can be reused on every page saving on work, and some other very cool controls.

    SharePoint can also be a document storage platform. It has document retention policies, workflows, and granular permissions. An average Joe user could easily change permissions so Jane in Marketing could see a single document in a library, but would have no access anywhere else.

    SharePoint can also be a great application platform. Because it's based on .Net, it's highly customizable and extendable. One of its goals apparently was to replace the need for low-level applications, especially those annoying Access databases. Microsoft also released 40 or so templates that solve almost any basic need in business ranging from inventory tracking, helpdesk, to company parties. You don?t need to be a programmer or hire more programmers.

    When you think of Office you don't think of social networking, but SharePoint really pulls it off. Each employee can have a personal site, "MySite", that can show a list of colleagues that share the same boss, a place to store personal and shared documents, picture library, and a biography. It also includes a blog feature. In 2010, you'll be able to search every "MySite" for employees who have skills related to a project you want to get going. A company with thousands of employees, this would not be possible, at least not easily.

    Probably the largest reason for SharePoint?s growth is the fact WSS is free with most Server licenses. This means people in organizations can toss up WSS servers and start learning SharePoint. Hundreds (If not thousands) of Microsoft Partners jumped aboard and started creating products that integrate with SharePoint.

    Another huge thing with SharePoint, which is hinted at above is the fact SharePoint, once installed, can be managed by each site owner. Site owners can be anyone with basic computer skill. They can manage their own permissions, add and remove folders in libraries, and even create surveys, wikis, new libraries, and more without the help of IT (Which is a win-win, IT can work on critical issues, and the user doesn't have to wait).

    Anyone planning on attending the conference this year?
    • Thank you

      Thank you very much for that. Still a few questions, wonder if you care to answer: 1. it appears to me that WSS or MOSS is mainly for internal corp content management. If I am a small firm, I want to create a website, and will be hosted by a regular ISP, does Sharepoint has a place in that? I am hoping it is yes. It will be great if you have example links. 2. From your description, Sharepoint's main targeting user is internal employees, what if I service clients that are internet users? Does Sharepoint do the job? Example link? 3. Is WSS enough for my first two questions?

      Again, thank you very much!

      • well....

        Yes and no. You CAN do all these things using
        Sharepoint, absolutely. BUT, it will be a lot
        of work to do so, and pretty expensive. WSS
        loses a lot of the "enterprise" functionality
        compared to MOSS, but its a lot cheaper.
        However, Vanilla Sharepoint (in any flavour) is
        pretty ugly, and you will need someone with
        some real knowledge to help you make the most
        of it.
        Personally for a small firm? i would look
        • A bit more info...

          Internally to start playing with SharePoint WSS fits the bill. It's simple, relatively inexpensive (included in the Windows Server as a service) and can be set up pretty quickly.

          When you start thinking about document management, creating business rules, creating workflow one should start to look at MOSS. To extend this further SharePoint Enterprise can expands ones view further by providing organizations with Business Intelligence in a central, easy to use, easy to understand UI. Microsoft acquired a company that made a very solid BI solution that worked in a stand alone application called ProClarity. Users could get KPT information and drill-down information much like a Business Objects. This solutions has been collapsed into the SharePoint stack as they have retired PerformancePoint into SharePoint Enterprise (minus the Forecasting capabilities.)

          To begin hosting and pushing out MOSS/SharePoint content to the internet one must look at SharePoint for Internet Sites. It is a very expensive proposition today (hopefully we see more offerings coming out of the conference next week!!)

          For smaller organizations who want to get their hands wet take a look at Microsoft's SharePoint Online offering. It offers solid functionality compatible with the capabilities one sees with an internal WSS deployment. I believe Microsoft's plans are to extend this service into the Azure platform even more creating a truely hosted offering for MOSS (hosted by themselves versus as well as continued support for partner hosting...)

          Be advised too that MOSS will more than likely be rebranded to SharePoint while WSS will just be WSS or a Windows Service. This will create confusion possibly but to be honest, the platform is one heck of an all encompassing solution! SharePoint has truely changed Office the application into Office as a system.

          Cheers and best of luck :)

      • Answers

        1. MOSS's core is WSS. The benefits for MOSS are enterprise features like search and such. WSS is free if you have Windows Server. There are companies that offer SharePoint web hosting as well.
        2. SharePoint has a special license for Internet use. Microsoft.com and many sites are actually powered by SharePoint.
        3. WSS should be enough for most tasks.

        If you Google (Or Bing) SharePoint hosting, you'll find a number of SharePoint hosts. Microsoft even uses a seperate web host for their SharePoint conference website.
        • Thanks a lot!

          By the way, I don't google. I Yahoo or Bing. goole is cancer to me.
          • Same

            Your welcome and I too don't like Google, I prefer Bing
  • Licensing for extranets and small businesses

    Can you ask them specifically about if they plan to clear up the haze around licensing? Currently, they have a CAL option and a pricey "Internet Sites" option. The "Internet Sites" edition is really geared to be a company's internet-facing website, though they say it's also the licensing for extranet solutions. Yet the "Internet Sites" edition stipulates that "all content, information, and applications must be accessible to non-employees"--seriously??? How is that an extranet??? The "Internet Sites" edition is also obviously not priced for smaller businesses, yet the CAL option would be a nightmare to manage. They really need an extranet-specific licesning option--with clear terms of use for extranet scenarios--and additionally they need licensing options that are within the range of small businesses. This is not in keeping with Microsoft's vision of a product "for the masses."
    • Internet edition

      The Internet edition is meant for public facing use. Without going into exact details, the idea for the Internet (Public facing) license is for use by non-employees (Things like authentication with the corporate network). They also don't expect you to use FBA or Forms Based Authentication.

      It's not ideal for small business to host their own SharePoint which is why Microsoft allows web hosts to offer low-cost plans, starting at $19.99 a month.

      SharePoint 2010 will also have an Online service, which is similiar to Office Online.
      • SharePoint online is not always an option

        Compliance issues, security concerns, reticent clients (and business owners) about storing their files "in the cloud," etc. The level of control is not the same, and the ability to integrate with internal SharePoint systems--and also particularly with add-on/partner software--is not great.
        • Well, that's the price

          You pay for those needs. In the end, you save from buying countless products
          to fill single needs
      • SP (WSS or MOSS) for Small Businesses

        I'm very confused as to the applicability of SP to small businesses. For now, let's forget about SP2010 (which is not RTM till mid-2010 per MS; and per Gartner will most likely not be ready for widescale adoption (by larger orgs) till 1Q2012).

        So... in the meantime, assuming a small business already has a small server farm supporing Exchange and Dynamics GP, is it really too much for to consider using SP WSS to do at least basic Team Collaboration, Doc Mgt and an Intranet? Then (here's my real question), can WSS be used to setup an Internet-facing site (as a "basic" public website for anonymnous users)? And finally, can we use WSS to setup customer-specific portals, and if so, would we have to maintain the specific customers in our (the small business') own AD?

        Sorry for such a long question, but it seem that too often the pat answer for "small buiness" is to use SP OL, whereas my mid-sized org friends tell me it's no big deal to host websites as I have described above -- even in WSS.

  • RE: What makes Microsoft's SharePoint tick?

    i can see benefits, but it seems convoluted, like data protection manager. microsoft took all these disparate parts and glued them together so you need a phd to be able to configure the things. when they work, they work great, but when you have a problem, good luck. same with exchange. when it works, it's great. but when something gets corrupted, look out.
    • It's not really that bad

      SharePoint is an ASP.NET website that is stored in a SQL server.

      It's actually almost too easy to configure - you could probably get a site up in one workday. People lose sight of the fact that a lot of planning and design should go into a SharePoint implementation.
      • soo...soo very true!

        SharePoint is easy to set up and start but it takes REAL business planning to make SharePoint a stellar solution. This offering is a break from the traditional approach with Microsoft solutions. Don't get me wrong here - other traditional solutions to require planning but few and far between require IT to really interface with the business to understand challenges and the capabilities SharePoint can address. It requires IT to be less of a cost center/operational model segment of the business and more of a value segment. IT is traditionally caught up in the day-to-day operations. When organizations have a good top-level executive, the right vision, and most importantly - a good connection with the business SharePoint becomes a valuable asset versus an ongoing IT project that never realizes it potential.