Big companies need more than SharePoint, expert says

SharePoint Portal Server has its strengths, but large companies considering a SharePoint implementation should think twice. According to one author and consultant who spoke at Comdex, even though SharePoint has strong out-of-the-box functionality and is cheaper than its competitors, companies with more than a few hundred employees will face scalability and performance problems.

LAS VEGAS -- All the good things that Microsoft has said about its SharePoint Portal Server 2001 are true, but it may not be the right platform for the largest enterprises, said one consultant who works closely with the product.

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  • At the Comdex Fall 2002 conference this week, Bill English, an author and principal at Networknowledge, an Elk River, Minn., consulting firm, gave an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of SharePoint, Microsoft's platform for portal building, document management and internal searching.

    English said that SharePoint has plenty of strengths, such as its search engine and out-of-the-box capabilities, but it is best suited for companies with up to a few hundred employees because of dramatic scalability and performance problems.

    "I have one client, a company in Minnesota with about 1,500 people, and I think they're going to get through [a SharePoint implementation] okay," English said. But generally, companies of that size will not succeed with SharePoint.

    One reason is SharePoint's inherently slow dashboard rendering. The software lets individual users customize their portal interfaces, also called dashboards. However, the hardware load increases with each unique dashboard requested, meaning that a company with more than a few hundred users would be forced to add more hardware to support SharePoint.

    Another problem for SharePoint is its document-approval limitations. English said even though the product can be programmed to publish a document online after certain individuals have given the OK, that mechanism can't be customized.

    For instance, it can't be told to post a document after the majority of a group has approved of it, so a large company with complex document-approval process would likely have difficulty programming SharePoint to work with its business processes.

    English also said that SharePoint's backup and recovery functions are raw at best. The fact that SharePoint doesn't integrate with the Windows backup API and lacks a per-item restore capability means that additional programming and third-party software from companies such as Veritas Software Corp. or CommVault Systems Inc. are needed to make it work.

    The patchwork system may do the job, English said, "but it feels like 1988, where we used to use scripts" as workarounds for everything.

    English said that SharePoint 2.0, which is due to ship in 2003, should address some of the product's current shortcomings, but he could not provide details because of a non-disclosure agreement with Microsoft.

    Attendee Dave Simione, a software engineer with Cutting Edge Media Inc., Elizabethtown, Pa., said his company is considering SharePoint, but he expressed concerns about its limitations. Simione's company has grown from 30 to 80 people in the past year, and he said that if it continues its expansion it could quickly outgrow SharePoint.

    Despite its shortcomings, English said SharePoint should be lauded for its strengths. He said that its Web storage system, also known as its extensible storage engine, does a remarkable job of taking a database and exposing it as a virtual file system.

    He said that SharePoint is easy to customize as well, adding that someone without any development experience can easily create a corporate portal with robust functionality and interchangeable Web parts consisting of news, announcements, links and Web mail.

    English also said that Microsoft deserves credit for giving SharePoint its best search engine. He said SharePoint's engine is capable of crawling Web pages, file shares, Exchange folders, Lotus Notes databases, FTP sites and any number of SharePoint pages or work spaces.

    Finally, English said SharePoint has the best mix of features for the lowest price. He said that a company with about 100 employees can deploy SharePoint for $11,000, but a firm of the same size would have to spend $50,000 on Oracle 9iAS or $250,000 on IBM WebSphere.

    "Competitors offer more, but Microsoft has enough functionality at a price point that most small companies can afford," English said, "and if you can't afford something, it doesn't matter how great it is."

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