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SharePoint deployment: Pitfalls of a pioneer

In the second part of Robert Schifreen's diary of implementing SharePoint 2010, he examines the pitfalls of being a pioneer and the problems Microsoft have in talking about the software
Written by Robert Schifreen, Contributor on

I have been tasked with deploying SharePoint 2010 to the University of Brighton's staff and students.

In part one of my diary, I outlined the decision to use SharePoint, which was taken in early 2010, shortly before the formal launch of the product.

A group of around a dozen people had previously been evaluating all of the major players in the market, and looking for a solution to both our lack of a portal product and our need for a new content management system for our main public-facing website at www.brighton.ac.uk.

In the end, it was decided to split the two. SharePoint would be our portal of choice, and a separate group would be convened (and is still running) to continue looking at CMSes. 

Pioneers

Being an early adopter has its problems; we found that out the hard way. Good documentation and real-life experience was incredibly hard to come by. At the time we chose the product, Amazon listed not a single SharePoint 2010 book that was available for delivery within the next three months.  

We spent a long time with a highly respected SharePoint consultancy, but progress was a lot slower than we'd hoped for. The consultants were clearly more familiar with the 2007 incarnation than 2010. They also seemed more like designers than techies. Before I was formally appointed to the SharePoint Administrator post, I was mostly interested in its CMS side of things.

Despite weeks of trying, the consultants never managed to get their beta of SharePoint 2010 to allow me to create a basic web page. Once I had my official SharePoint hat on and had played with the product on a test server for a couple of months, I had basic web publishing functionality up and running in an hour.

What exactly is SharePoint, anyway?

For all SharePoint's failings, its greatest one is that Microsoft's marketing people don't actually know how to describe it. There's no natural strapline or slogan for it, as there is with Excel, Word or Windows.

Microsoft's marketing people don't actually know how to describe it. There's no natural strapline or slogan for it, as there is with Excel, Word or Windows.

To some it's a corporate collaboration tool that does everything you need straight out of the box. To others it's a development platform upon which, with the addition of tools such as SharePoint Designer and Visual Studio, you can build a 'portal' (whatever that might mean). Microsoft really needs to come up with an accurate, punchy description in order to persuade more people to give it a try.

Not that there's a shortage of SharePoint users out there. Microsoft reckons that the product is a billion-dollar business. However, I speak to far too many people who have failed to make it do anything beyond acting as a shared network drive for document files. Sadly, these aren't the sort of case studies that Microsoft likes to publicise.

As to the question of whether SharePoint is a product or a framework, my experience so far leads me to suggest the latter. Sure, it can do a lot of things out of the box, but it won't be long before you need to customise or tweak it beyond simply adding a logo or changing the default colour scheme.

In our case, for example, each user's personal site (what Microsoft calls a My Site) is created with two default document storage areas called Personal Files and Shared Files. We needed to remove the Shared Files library in order to discourage users from sharing their personal space, so that they would use instead the departmental sites feature that was also to be provided.

Also, the Personal Files library included the string 'personal%20files' in its URL, which caused problems for some users on certain hardware and software platforms. I had to write a program to delete all the Personal Documents libraries and create a replacement (which we decided to call MyFiles).

While Microsoft likes to shout loudly about the fact that SharePoint 2010 embraces not just Windows and IE but also other browsers and other hardware, the relationship does indeed stop at a mere embrace. Some of the rich editing controls don't like non-Microsoft browsers.

Using WebDav to upload files from a Mac to one's SharePoint document area doesn't work, because there's no reliable way to prevent the Mac from trying to upload the legacy resource fork files too. And because they start with a dot, SharePoint rejects them (and the document file to which they refer) outright.

Clearly, there was going to be much to learn. 

Next: Building the farm

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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