The market for collaborative applications has grown significantly with the introduction of Web-based solutions for gathering and sharing information within organisations. With that change, the collaborative software landscape has shifted as well, with veteran players like Lotus Notes pitted against relative newcomers such as Groove Networks (which has since been acquired by Microsoft).
There are also a number of open source collaborative platforms available, including popular Wiki software and open source groupware solutions (like Open Exchange, Open Groupware and Kolab).
In this review, we look at two of the most popular commercial collaborative platforms -- Lotus Notes/Domino 7.0 and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (Enterprise edition).
Although SharePoint isn't new, when it comes to collaboration software, it has to be considered in the buying cycle.
How we tested
We downloaded trial editions of both products and respective components, installed and configured them on separate servers. The software was then used to create a number of collaborative applications and workspaces, mimicking real-world usage.
We tested how easy it was to create a new collaborative application and what tools and templates were available to help speed development. We also looked at the development tools and skills required to create and maintain these applications, as well as how quickly the required skills could be obtained.
From the feature set, we specifically looked at features that aided collaboration among multiple users and how well they aided gathering and disseminating information. We also looked at the collaborative features included in each platform, including but not limited to features to help users communicate, collaborate and manage information.
[Click to enlarge] Lotus Notes can be used to store and track documents, and view them in different forms.
Lotus Notes/Domino 7.0
As one of the original players in the collaboration and messaging market, Lotus has made a name for itself with business users and IT professionals alike. There are actually two products in play here -- Lotus Notes 7.0, a client software application and Lotus Domino Server 7.0, which provides the back-end components, including messaging services and application services.
Developers can use Lotus Domino Designer to create custom forms and databases from scratch or by using one of the templates provided. There are a number of different ways you can deploy Notes databases and applications, including through Lotus Notes or from the Web. There are some differences between how you actually design applications for the full client vs a thin client, but during the design process you can make sure that whatever you develop can be used in either environment.
[Click to enlarge] Domino Designer can be used to create databases, forms and Web pages.
Designing collaborative applications using Lotus Domino Designer does require a specialised skill set and you won't be able to proceed very far without some form of training, whether it is investing the time in self-paced learning or instructor-led training.
[Click to enlarge] Lotus applications can be used to manage documents, calendars and projects for multiple team members.
As with most collaborative platforms, Lotus Notes/Domino supports storing and sharing documents, managing calendars and projects. There is also tight integration with IBM DB2, as well as support for accessing data from other data sources, integrating Java applets, JSP pages and more. With an advanced set of features and functionality (and the requirement for training that goes with them), Lotus Notes is well-suited for medium to large enterprises looking for an all-in-one messaging and collaboration platform.
Lotus Notes/Domino 7.0
Licensing starts at around $170 per user. Various server and client licences available depending on usage
SharePoint Portal Server 2003
Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server 2003 ships in two versions, providing a distinct advantage over most of its competitors. The first, Windows SharePoint Services, is a cut-down version of the full server and is included with Windows Server 2003. It is targeted at the team level, for groups of users who want to create sites where they can share documents and start discussions. It also gives users a taste of the technology and features available in the full product.
[Click to enlarge] SharePoint sites can be administered and customised by end-users as well as administrators.
The full SharePoint Portal Server is aimed at creating larger-scale collaborative sites and applications and includes indexing, searching, personalisation features and integration with the Windows security layer.
Developing sites within SharePoint Portal Server is quick and easy. Within a few minutes, you can create a site for a new project or initiative and start populating it with information imported from Excel spreadsheets and InfoPath forms.
There are a number of different templates and tools built into SharePoint that can be used to quickly create a discussion board or document library, for example, and instead of developing an "application" per-se, SharePoint is based on the concept of creating Web sites and Web pages.
Within those Web pages, you can drag and drop a number of "Web parts". SharePoint includes some off-the-shelf Web parts you can add to your pages, but there are also other software vendors which have jumped on the bandwagon and created Web parts specifically for SharePoint. You can also develop your own Web part, but this will require using Visual Studio and a solid knowledge of .NET programming.
[Click to enlarge] There are a number of default templates that ship with SharePoint for creating contact lists, event lists, tasks and more.
For workflow applications, there is a bit of a gap when it comes to SharePoint. This is due in part to the availability of a separate Microsoft product, BizTalk Server, that can be used to integrate systems. For anything more than basic workflow, you will need to use BizTalk server to complement your SharePoint development. This means that the two products combined offer a powerful, integrated platform, but SharePoint probably couldn't stand on its own as a true collaborative suite as far as workflow is concerned.
That said, there is still a lot you can do with SharePoint that does not require BizTalk, and for the majority of business users, it will be plenty! Tight integration with Microsoft Office and the Microsoft solution stack means that users can leverage the platform without a tremdous amount of additional training, and development of new sites and features can be delivered to users. This makes the platform more flexible and malleable as business requirements change over time.
Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003
A Client Access licence starts at $116; a copy of SharePoint through the Select Licensing Program is $6601 for one processor licence. Prices do not include Software Assurance
It is a tough call between Lotus Notes/Domino 7.0 and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003.
On one hand, Lotus Notes is a more mature platform and established itself early as the clear leader in the collaboration and messaging space. With this success, it has clung to the paradigm of developers creating collaborative applications, as opposed to users getting involved. And this is the main weakness at the moment -- it is a powerful platform for collaborative applications, but developing these applications costs time and money. There are a number of templates available to help get things started, but for anything more than basic applications, there is still a component of development that will need to be handled by a trained developer.
For the Lotus faithful, the software platform has not veered far from its roots and sometimes this legacy can mean that new features aren't as quick to appear as other collaborative platforms. Given the complexity of the Lotus Notes development tools and framework, there also hasn't been a lot of support from other software vendors for add-ons or integration with the platform.
SharePoint on the other hand is the relatively new kid on the block, and while it doesn't have the complete feature set that Lotus Notes offers, it does have a leg up in terms of Microsoft Office integration and ease-of-use. Designed from the ground-up for Web-based collaboration, SharePoint sites can be quickly created by team members for sharing documents, calendars, projects, among others.
Microsoft has made this easier by making a number of its templates available to administrators for download. Development of SharePoint portal "parts" is definitely developer territory, but there is tremendous support for SharePoint from software vendors. For example, you may find that your accounting software already has a number of SharePoint Web parts available, allowing you to slot in a Web part to display account balances or customer information.
If you are already use Lotus Notes for e-mail or if you are an IBM shop and can invest the time and money into developing collaborative applications, Lotus Notes/Domino 7.0 is a powerful framework on which to do so. However, if you don't have the resources dedicated to developing collaborative applications, don't have complex application or integration requirements or if you are focused on the Microsoft solution stack, SharePoint Portal Server 2003 is going to be hard to beat.