SharePoint 2010: a first look

If you need team collaboration and company-wide document management, SharePoint 2010 fits the bill, especially when you add in its social search features and integrated workflow.

SharePoint is Microsoft's secret billion-dollar business. Initially designed to simplify building and managing collaboration web sites, it has become middleware in its own right, connecting the Office productivity tools to the wider world. It has also become a content management system, a wiki, a — well, if it hasn't been produced yet, someone in the growing ecosystem of SharePoint application developers is probably working on it.

The latest version of SharePoint, SharePoint 2010, has left the cosy nest of the Office family and — now with its own branding — takes the familiar SharePoint user interface and features, and builds on the newly renamed SharePoint Foundation to deliver what Microsoft intends to be enterprise-grade features and services. Due for release in the first half of 2010, SharePoint 2010 is currently in publically available beta.

SharePoint Foundation is the new name for Windows SharePoint Services. Taking a cue from the Windows Server team and the Windows Server 2008 Foundation release, SharePoint Foundation is a free download that gives you a small-business version of the SharePoint platform, with the features you'll need to run basic team collaboration services. SharePoint Foundation uses SQL Server (or the free SQL Server Express), and requires very little administration. Using it with SQL Server Express also means that you can set up a single server collaboration instance for very little outlay — making Microsoft’s collaboration competitive with the open-source alternatives.

Getting started with SharePoint 2010
We installed our test SharePoint 2010 system in a virtual machine running on Hyper-V. Like Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010 is certified to run on virtual servers, allowing you to quickly scale out new instances in the event of demand spikes. Installation is quick and easy, although there are some prerequisites (such as the Windows Identity Foundation) that need to be in place before you start a SharePoint install. Once it's in place, a wizard manages initial site configuration, dropping you into a web browser ready to create your first SharePoint site.

You can create your own SharePoint templates with SharePoint Designer 2010, but the bundled library of site templates gets you started quickly. It can be used to add a self-service option to keep the administrative load to a minimum.

SharePoint is driven by templates, which control the look, feel and function of a site. Each template defines the lists and features you can use, and although you can customise the site once it's been created, you can't change the template. You can create your own or purchase off-the-shelf solutions from an ever-growing selection of third-party SharePoint developers, but most people will start using one of the bundled sites. You're not limited to one site per server, of course, and a SharePoint deployment is likely to have multiple sites — with as many different templates — in order to handle the many different needs of the different parts of a business.

The first thing you'll see after installing SharePoint 2010 is the Template Selection view. With templates split among four headings (Collaboration, Meetings, Enterprise and Publishing), you should find something suitable. Most internal sites will be used for collaboration, for which the standard Team Site template should work well. More ambitious deployments may want to try implementing an Enterprise Wiki, or a wholesale Document Center. Multilingual support means that templates can be reused across an international business, simplifying development and deployment of intranet (and internet) sites and content.

It can take a while to deploy a template and create a basic site, but once it's in place you can begin customising it for your business needs.

SharePoint and collaboration
Working with other people is hard. Documents need to be based around a business, shared with co-workers and other teams. It's hard to keep track of things in shared folders, and enterprise Content Management Systems (CMSs) can be expensive to implement and manage. SharePoint 2010 takes the middle road, with document libraries that can be accessed inside desktop applications and at the same time integrate with workflow and versioning tools. There's also validation support, so rules can be applied to content to ensure compliance with internal and external policies and regulations.

SharePoint 2010 retains the list metaphor of earlier versions and extends the metadata — there are also tools in Office 2010 to manage metadata without leaving a document. Metadata can then be used to route documents through SharePoint's workflow, as well as supporting content management rules for retention or to secure access to sensitive information. Along with the online tagging tools, it also ties into SharePoint 2010's search tools, making it easier to find the information you need. Metadata can be centrally managed taxonomies, using SharePoint 2010's Managed Metadata to automatically complete tags, or it can be unmanaged 'folksonomies' (which can then be harvested and used as the basis for managed metadata).

My Sites are SharePoint's personal web site element, designed to make it easy for users to share personal information with colleagues. In SharePoint 2010 they have become a social networking tool, providing tools for status updates and activity feeds. These form the basis of SharePoint 2010's new knowledge-management features, which mine Outlook's sent mail for recurring terms to add to user profiles, helping to automate the process of updating user profiles based on the mail that users are actually sending. Users can add tags to their profiles to facilitate expertise search (with the option of adding in ratings from colleague feedback), and can also use My Site to share favourite links using a browser bookmarklet.

SharePoint 2010 keeps the straightforward Team Sites of its predecessor, but they're now editable as if they were a wiki. Live-editing pages is a lot easier for users that having to use a design tool, and you can now use web parts and lists in wiki pages. There's also blog support, for both users and teams, using the integrated rich text editor or an external editing tool like Windows Live Writer.

SharePoint and Office
SharePoint 2010 may have dropped the 'Office' name, but it's still very much part of Microsoft's Office narrative. It's the host for the on-premises version of Office Web Apps, and as part of the Office suite a modified version of Groove, SharePoint Workspace 2010, makes it easier to take SharePoint libraries offline.

The Office connection is obvious in the look and feel of the default SharePoint templates. The Office ribbon is a recurring feature, with Microsoft describing it as a way of simplifying the SharePoint learning curve. Certainly it's a logical way of working, with everything in the same place as it is on the desktop, and everything in the same place on different parts of a SharePoint site. There is one key difference between the SharePoint and Office ribbons, as the former is contextual and only visible when required. Editing a page opens up the full ribbon, with access to web parts and workflow tools.

SharePoint 2010's new ribbon user interface and in-browser editor simplifies the process of editing pages, with direct access to SharePoint's Web Part libraries.

One of SharePoint 2010's roles is as a business intelligence tool. That's partly a result of new Web Parts that add extra charting features, as well as helping you produce dashboards and scorecards. You can use the Excel Office Web App to help display information, or you can deliver information directly to Excel 2010. There's also support for Excel Services, for large shared spreadsheets (including calculations that need to take advantage of server CPUs and 64-bit memory space). Like Excel Web App, Excel Services renders in the browser, and gives access to tools like Pivot Tables and slicers.

SharePoint and search
There are plenty of ways to add search to a SharePoint 2010 installation. You can start by using the free Search Server 2010 Express, or SharePoint's own built-in tools. If you've got a large amount of data there's also the option of using FAST Search for SharePoint 2010, a version of Microsoft's enterprise search tools. SharePoint 2010's search tools take into account the social nature of business networks, and rank results appropriately.

SharePoint and developers
It's sometimes hard to put Microsoft and Web 2.0 in the same space, but that's certainly not the case with SharePoint 2010. The social elements of the collaboration features echo the social networking features of popular web sites, but there's another aspect of SharePoint that takes advantage of the latest web technologies: its developer features. Although SharePoint 2010 is at last a first-class citizen in Visual Studio, with tools for building and testing Web Parts, there's also a set of web services and RESTful APIs, which mean that SharePoint-powered sites and services can be linked into existing and new web applications — both inside the firewall and on the public internet. Custom code applications can be stored in libraries — and because they now run in a sandbox, can be deployed by users rather than IT departments.

One of the more interesting parts of SharePoint 2010's developer story is the idea of composite SharePoint applications, which can be created by power users rather than developers, giving access to enterprise data and the tools need to quickly build mashup applications — without the need to bring in developer resources. You can use SharePoint Designer 2010 to design composite applications, linking them to external line-of-business applications using SharePoint's Business Data Catalog and delivering information to Office applications. This approach makes it possible to link CRM applications to Outlook address books, and ERP systems to InfoPath forms.

Dropping the Office part of the name is one of the best things that could have happened to SharePoint 2010. Despite deep links to the Office suite, this is very much a platform in its own right, with developer tools that allow end users to make their own mashups, as well as supporting custom code developed in Visual Studio.

So should you upgrade or take the plunge? If you need team collaboration and company-wide document management, then SharePoint 2010 certainly fits the bill — especially when you add in its social search features and integrated workflow. This is a much-improved SharePoint, with an enhanced user interface, your own internal Facebook-like services, a visual editor for page content, and (on release) the Office Web Apps. We look forward to the final release version.


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