Review: SharePoint Server eases collaboration

With the release of Office SharePoint Server 2007, Microsoft has made some dramatic changes to its popular collaboration software. Our Clear Choice Test of the SharePoint collaboration and content-management server found the new version easier than its predecessor to install and use.

Installing SharePoint Server was very straightforward. The only prerequisites are a Windows 2003 server, Internet Information Server (IIS) and Version 3.0 of the .Net framework. It took only one mouse click to get the first server in our SharePoint "farm" up and running. A single server with plenty of disk space could be a large enough environment for most small to midsize businesses.

For large SharePoint deployments, a customized installation might be preferable, so that portions of the software can be installed on different servers. The SharePoint installation program automatically installs and configures a version of Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 and then configures IIS for use with SharePoint Server 2007. Once that's done, you're ready to go, as long as your IIS Web server can be seen on the network.

SharePoint is managed through a Web browser. For the majority of our administrative work, we used Versions 2.0 and 1.5 of Mozilla's Firefox. Internet Explorer's new Version 7.0, as well as its previous versions, is a little better at performing some of the drag-and-drop functions and selection boxes. However, all of SharePoint Server's features are available using a variety of browsers. You just have to work a little harder when using something other than Internet Explorer.

A sprinkling of data

Once installation is complete, the next task is to create the first SharePoint "site." SharePoint is now driven by templates, which lets site owners choose from a variety of predefined page layouts. There are four basic template categories: collaboration, meetings, enterprise and publishing.

Collaboration templates facilitate sharing of files and ideas, including new wiki and blog functions -- Microsoft calls functions "Web parts." The meetings templates include calendaring functions, as well as places to record events, decisions, agendas and tasks. The more business-oriented enterprise templates include functions for storing and searching for documents, tracking project status and showing key performance indicators (KPI), which provide a visual status of conditions being monitored. Finally, the publishing templates are for managing Web pages, and include functions for document management, approval workflow, version control and history.

In our test, we created a collaboration site and used the team site template. We added a calendar function to display upcoming appointments but removed the links function because we didn't need to share any site addresses. Finally, we put a link to the document library on the top page and added a dashboard status indicator. This took a little time to set up but provided a customized space where documents could be stored, shared and tracked; deadlines listed; and the overall project status displayed.

Also, SharePoint users can create individual profiles, which represent their personal SharePoint Web space. These pages have various permissions set to display different information to different people. For example, perhaps you want your office phone number displayed only to those you define as colleagues. Or maybe you want to track when certain people make new blog posts, but you don't want others to see whose posts you are interested in seeing.

Each site is customizable, letting users build a site that will help them track their own work and information. It is also possible to create tools that only the individual uses, such as a private document store. The administrator can limit the size of these profiles and decide who has permission to create them, but the users ultimately control what these pages contain and their layout.

Microsoft has also added some navigational aids to the SharePoint screens. Along the top, the sites most recently visited are represented with clickable tabs. This makes it easy for users to return quickly to the sites they use the most. Along the left side is the Quick Launch bar. This lists all the content on the site, even content on different pages, and categorizes it by type. Among the items listed are calendars, task lists and document stores.

On larger sites, these aids make finding a particular object easier. For example, users looking for a project calendar buried deep within a site can navigate to that page with a click. Near the top, a navigation feature helps users visualize where they are in a site's hierarchy. It starts at the top level and displays the title of each subpage that the user traversed to get to a particular function. This allows quick navigation to a site's higher levels or even an escape back to the top.

Serving up the info

Excel Services let all or part of an Excel spreadsheet be displayed as part of a Web page. Using Excel Services eliminates having to install Excel locally on a user's machine. More important, it lets site owners display information without revealing the details and formulas behind the cells. For example, a sales forecast model can be set up within a workbook. With Excel Services, the results can be displayed without people seeing the formulas responsible for creating those values.

Another useful function is the KPI. A simple dashboard status symbol quickly summarizes an Excel worksheet, entries in a database or other information. For our test site, we created two KPIs. We had created a spreadsheet to track our project expenses. The first KPI turned from green to red if we bought too many doughnuts. With the second KPI, we tracked task due dates. Normally green, it turned red if a task needed immediate attention.

Although SharePoint can be accessed via a browser, there is some real power to be gained by using Office 2007. Calendars can be created within a site and accessed directly from Outlook. Tasks also can be tracked directly from Outlook, as well as document stores. Information is kept in sync automatically as files are checked out and updated.

These synchronization features don't have to be specific to Microsoft products. Each uses standard Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) calls to authenticate, retrieve and synchronize the files. We did not test this feature, but any application that uses SOAP should be able to access the stores within SharePoint. That said, many of SharePoint's features rely on file formats specific to Microsoft Office 2007. For example, Excel Services work only with worksheets formatted in Excel 2007. Even Excel 2003 will not work.

Overall, SharePoint Server 2007 is simple to set up and has the tools that let users become proficient with it in a short time. It is also flexible enough to configure and modify virtually any way users see fit. SharePoint can be accessed by a wide variety of browsers and platforms, making it an easy fit into any company. It provides a convenient place to store, organize and find business data, and should go a long way to making organizations more efficient. All in all, this product is definitely worth a look.

Bottom line: Office SharePoint Server 2007

Price: Server licenses start at $4,300. Standard Edition client access licenses start at $93 and Enterprise Edition client access licenses start at $76; both are required for the full array of business-intelligence functions.

Pros: Easy to install and use; compatible with many Web browsers; now is template-driven.

Cons: Server runs only on Microsoft Windows; works better with Internet Explorer than with other browsers; many features rely on Microsoft Office 2007 file formats.

Sidebar: How we tested SharePoint

We installed SharePoint on a Hewlett-Packard DL365 server with a 2.6 GHz Opteron dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM and 54GB of disk space. (Special thanks to HP for the equipment loan.)

During the creation of our test site, we tried all of the available templates within SharePoint. Document stores were created, files checked out, edited and submitted for approval. Calendars were created, appointments made and tasks assigned. Profiles were created, colleagues tracked and pictures were attached.

We used different operating systems to test with, as well. On Windows XP, we used Mozilla Firefox (Versions 2.0 and 1.5) as well as Microsoft Internet Explorer (Versions 7.0 and 6.0). For Mac OS 10.3, we checked things out using both Safari 1.2 and Firefox 2.0.

On Red Hat Linux, we accessed SharePoint via using Firefox 2.0. While we didn't spend a lot of time on these platforms, the experience was equivalent to running Firefox on Windows XP.

Berkley is the associate director of networking and telecommunications services at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at berkley@ku.edu. Berkley is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry.

This story, "Review: SharePoint Server eases collaboration" was originally published by Network World.

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