The Microsoft Portal Grows in the Enterprise; IT Serves the Business

Microsoft’s departmental SharePoint Portal Server is being put to good use: Companies like EMS Technologies are using portals to offer services and to demonstrate IT’s value to the business.
Written by Jim Murphy, Contributor

The Bottom Line: Microsoft’s departmental SharePoint Portal Server is being put to good use: Companies like EMS Technologies are using portals to offer services and to demonstrate IT’s value to the business.

Pilot implementations of Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server abound. In the course of discussing knowledge management, portal, or content management strategies, many of our customers mention that they’re experimenting with SharePoint. The variety and sophistication of use is already impressive: a document management system, an enterprise portal framework, a supplier relationship portal, and a repository for design collaboration. Customers ask us detailed questions about issues like taxonomy management and version renditioning; they have enough experience with the product to recognize its limitations.

Microsoft plans to release version 2 of SharePoint Portal Server and Windows SharePoint Services (as part of Windows Server 2003) by the end of the summer (in the northern hemisphere, we hope).

Meanwhile, many companies are complaining about SharePoint’s weaknesses and deem it incapable of handling their immediate needs. It lacks scalability. It lacks the publishing capability that many companies need. It lacks sufficient versioning support. Developing and deploying Web Parts is more difficult and costly than they expect. The interface is inflexible; it offers little accommodation for back-up and recovery.

But, in a way, the widespread recognition of SharePoint’s failings is good news for Microsoft, and in the long run, good news for its customers. First of all, it shows that companies are already using it. And they’re pushing it to--and sometimes beyond--its early limitations. It may not be up to par with any of the best-of-breed products in document management, collaboration, portals, or search, but it represents a better way to manage a mass of unstructured information than most companies were managing it before.

If we were talking about a dot-com start-up, the criticism would spell doom. But rather than disbanding projects, most customers are clamoring for fixes. Meanwhile, they’ll address their baseline, low-risk needs now and grow along with the product’s capabilities. They’re pretty sure Microsoft will be in business in a few years and that they or their partners will address the problem in due time.

All portal framework products have their omissions and their failings; no product prevents botched deployments. Recognizing the product’s value and its limitations is one key to a successful initial and expanding portal initiative.

And much of the reason for the criticism of SharePoint is that it is unfairly compared to portal frameworks that take an entirely different approach. But experience with corporate or enterprise portals has often been less than satisfactory, with centrally driven portals proving hard to administer and slow to garner adoption. On the other hand, giving departments a flexible environment upon which to work is an effective way of fostering adoption, driving innovation, garnering value, and growing the portal into an enterprise asset.

EMS Technologies, a Georgia-based developer and manufacturer of technology hardware products for commercial space, defense, and wireless communications, has one of the most impressive deployments we’ve seen--for SharePoint. EMS uses SharePoint to extend corporate communications, share and collaborate on documents, and manage projects across departments in five locations. Departments are given their own real estate upon which to work and extend services to other groups.

IT is one of these groups--the portal proves itself a mechanism for demonstrating IT’s value to the business on many levels. That is, not only does IT provide the portal environment for others to use, and not only does it offer its own services like expert location, software training manuals, self-service help desk support, and network status alerts (which have greatly reduced support costs for IT), it also exposes project plans and priorities to executives, business managers, and end-users, fostering a better relationship with the business.

EMS Technologies’ portal is also impressive for its low cost. The IT department has deployed the portal on its own, with no external consulting or development, and no additional administrative personnel. SharePoint’s list pricing is a mere $72 per user and less than $5K per server.

Conclusion: Surely, EMS has higher aspirations for its portal, considering SharePoint as a way to extend enterprise applications and manage more heavy-duty processes and projects like design collaboration. But by understanding SharePoint’s value and its limitations, it has established a platform upon which to build in the future. In a way, EMS Technologies is creating a services-oriented architecture that supports its services-oriented IT organization.

AMR Research originally published this article on 16 July 2003.

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