LAS VEGAS -- Microsoft's SharePoint remains one of the company's premier strategic enterprise servers, as evidenced by the company's huge infusion of features and functionality aimed at IT managers, developers and end users this week.
But one big question that IT managers who run corporate SharePoint sites face is whether it will be easy to upgrade their existing custom applications on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 when they move to SharePoint Server 2010. Microsoft will release a public beta for SharePoint 2010, as well as Office 2010, in November.
With each passing generation, the product has changed a great deal. In the past, many enterprises had to start projects from scratch because new versions of SharePoint were so different users couldn't port data from older SharePoint sites.
New SharePoint features and functions
At the SharePoint Conference 2009 this week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laid out the complete set of features in the upcoming release. SharePoint Server 2010, which is 64-bit only, will get a handful of improvements to its interface, including addition of the ribbon concept – where various s toolbars are placed on tabs in a tab bar-- improved Office integration and some enterprise features to SharePoint Online.
Microsoft is simplifying the ability for end users to program in SharePoint 2010 so people can create their own custom applications, Ballmer said. The company is also making an effort to improve its hosted SharePoint services so enterprises will be tempted to move their collaborative sites off-site.
The new version of SharePoint will add architectural improvements so that SharePoint can handle larger lists and user libraries. "A million items in a list or folder -- tens of millions in a library -- and we will scale to hundreds of millions that you can search across," said Jeff Teper, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Office Business Platform. "All the farms in your organization will have consistent types and taxonomies."
Sites won't have to maintain multiple lists across different sites. Now they can define content types in the taxonomy and replicate them in servers throughout the world. Some places will be formal and have a top-down taxonomy, and others will have one that is informal. "In a single system, we support a top-down and bottom-up viral tagging scheme," he said.
SharePoint 2010 will offer a first round of integration with search tools from Fast Search & Transfer, which Microsoft acquired in 2008. These improvements include unified connectors, a unified programming model, improved relevance, wild-carding and queries, filtering and navigation, Teper said.
Investments for IT managers
Microsoft has designed SharePoint to run as a cloud service. Its economies of scale could give some IT shops one way to run SharePoint at a low cost. Teper said Microsoft recognizes that many IT shops are not ready to move their data off-site, but he said the design point of an online SharePoint has helped Microsoft, which uses the service itself, and the company will continue to share its experience. Down the road, Microsoft will offer integration with its Azure cloud OS but Teper declined to disclose any details.
Teper said there are at least four key areas of investment for IT managers and administrators. First are new administration features that make SharePoint easier to use and navigate. Second, there are reliability and monitoring tools, such as a new rules engine that makes it easier for managers to proactively keep applications healthy. Third, custom code can now be placed in a sandbox where it is given a set of resources to consume.
But one nagging issue for IT shops is SharePoint upgradability. IT managers liked many of the new SharePoint features but expressed concern that their custom code wouldn't make the jump from 2007 to 2010. "If I migrate from 2007 to 2010, will my code need to be changed?" wondered Alexandre Dinnouti, director of enterprise applications and IT operations at Conservation International, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit, environmental agency.
At RCN, the Boston-based digital cable provider, one IT manager wondered whether his performance management application would port from one version to the next. "That thing took a long time to develop," said Stan Gasiewski, the senior IT manager for the company's development team. Teper said Microsoft recognized that the move from SharePoint 2003 to 2007 was problematic for many. He said Microsoft now has a tool called the Visual Upgrade that allows IT managers to preview pages. In previous versions of SharePoint, data would be entered in the newer version and all functionality would be turned on at the same time. "Now IT managers can control when they want SharePoint to work in the new way," he said.
Customizing SharePoint: Pick and choose
With this upgrade being the largest release of features in SharePoint's history, Teper acknowledges that there is much detail to absorb. But like any product that bills itself as a "Swiss Army knife," there is no need to use every blade, he said. "We don't want people to feel guilt that they have to use every feature every day," he said. "They are almost overwhelmed by the breadth of the product they have, but today they are overwhelmed with all the products in their organization.
IT pros need to keep their enterprises stable and secure. But at the executive level, everyone wants their employees to be more effective. "With a tool like this, there will be some structure and a bit of chaos," he said. "If you try to stamp out the bottom-up creativity, you are missing the opportunity to take your business to the next level."
Margie Semilof is the executive editor of SearchWinIT.com Writer to her at firstname.lastname@example.org .