Kicking the tires on SharePoint 2010

The latest version of SharePoint offers some revolutionary improvements with just a couple of disappointments.

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SharePoint 2010 offers big improvements over its younger sibling Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007. In this newest iteration of SharePoint, Microsoft has spiffed up some existing features in ways that are likely to bring smiles to IT departments and end users everywhere. But even though Microsoft worked hard in SharePoint 2010 to fix some of the biggest and most irksome problems left over from MOSS 2007, it would have been...

nice if it could have taken care of some nagging smaller issues in this latest version.

In any event, SharePoint 2010 gets kudos for some major improvements. Let's start with them. One of the biggest changes in SharePoint 2010 has been the fixes made to SharePoint Designer.

SharePoint Designer gets a facelift

In MOSS, SharePoint Designer has had a rocky reputation at best. Although it's a powerful tool, SharePoint Designer suffers from more than a few drawbacks.

Despite SharePoint Designer's power in MOSS, it has been underused. That's partly because MOSS limits enterprise-scale development to highly trained IT staff who live in a world of Visual Studio projects. Some IT departments have even prevented anyone from using SharePoint Designer for several good reasons:

  • No proper software development lifecycle: When working with SharePoint Designer in a site, changes you make are tied to that site. They can't be easily packaged and transferred to a production environment. It's not impossible, but it's extremely difficult and not well supported. To do that properly, you need to prototype with SharePoint Designer but use Visual Studio for proper implementation.

  • Possible to badly damage a website: Even an experienced user can make a harmful change to a master page. A user might delete an important component from a site, and that might require the SharePoint administrator to execute a tedious restore operation to bring the site back from the dead.

Well, it's a whole new game now. In SharePoint 2010, Microsoft has solved the first problem and provided some relief to skittish IT departments for the second. At the same time, Microsoft has added an enormous amount of functionality to help SharePoint Designer get out of the shadow of its big brother Visual Studio for mainstream SharePoint development.

The most revolutionary change is that SharePoint Designer 2010 now supports solution deployment. That means developers, business analysts and even power users can take advantage of SharePoint Designer's functionality to create their own business tools and then easily create a portable deployment package. They take that package, do their testing and sign off on it and then move it to production. They can even hand the deployment package off to developers who can load it into Visual Studio for advanced customization.

This is revolutionary. With SharePoint 2010, SharePoint administrators can now build real tools that are portable from one environment to the next. Now, business analysts and power users can actually design and implement their own tools from white board to production. So in SharePoint 2010, developers may have to do less heavy lifting because their users will be empowered to implement a wide variety of tools that were once out of their reach.

In addition to providing powerful features in SharePoint Designer 2010, Microsoft has also provided new ways to lock it down. In MOSS 2007, there is relatively little granularity with SharePoint Designer. It's either "on" or it's "off." In SharePoint 2010, IT departments can implement more sophisticated "who is allowed to use it" and "what are they allowed to do" functionality.

Workflow for the masses

Visual studio is still the top tool for developing workflow solutions, but SharePoint Designer workflow is vastly improved. Like SharePoint Designer's new and improved deployment process, workflow improvements are a close second in terms of practical day-to-day impact.

First, there are more actions. SharePoint Designer 2007 provides a nice library of functions, but there are still some serious limitations to which we would gladly like to say "good riddance." Here are some actions to welcome in SharePoint 2010:

  • String management. Those include substring, length and so on.

  • Managing permissions. You can detect and assign permissions to documents and list items directly from SharePoint Designer workflow.

  • Modifying out-of-the-box workflow solutions. In MOSS, you can't change the behavior of out-of-the-box workflows. Now you can.

  • Creating tasks. Improvement all over the place here.

More actions are nice, but this is the real gem: portable workflow solutions. In SharePoint Designer 2007, workflow solutions are always tied to a list, causing all kinds of heartache and frustration. This is no longer the case with SharePoint 2010 workflows created using SharePoint Designer.

Last but not least, SharePoint 2010 has a strong integration story with Visio. Using Visio, business analysts can actually create a workflow solution visually, load it into SharePoint Designer and voila -- you have a functioning workflow solution.

Some nice additions

Here are several other improvements in SharePoint 2010 that are likely to become favorites for MOSS users everywhere:

  • Metadata managed services: Content types can now span site collections. In fact, they can span Web applications and even farms. For the first time in SharePoint's history, it's possible to not only design that perfect information architecture you always dreamed of, but you can also get good tooling support from SharePoint to back it up.

  • Large lists: The infamous "2,000-item limit" has had a stake driven through its heart once and for all. Lists and libraries can manage 1mm+ rows of data efficiently, quickly and with a user-friendly navigation interface. We shall never speak of 2,000-item limits again.

  • External lists: How many times have you wished you could surface information from a SQL database or other external system in your SharePoint environment right alongside your regular lists and document libraries? After all, your users don't care if the data is in SharePoint's database or your custom SQL database. They just want to see the data in a consistent manner.

    SharePoint 2010 brings you the notion of an "external list." It looks and feels like a SharePoint list, but it's not in SharePoint. There was a version of this capability in MOSS Enterprise called Business Data Catalog. In SharePoint 2010, it is superior.

That's just a sample of the good stuff. There are a dozen or more high-impact changes such as improvements in records management and shared services -- you can create our own. Other improvements include sandboxed solutions, pervasive and improved InfoPath -- every new/edit item function can be made into an InfoPath form with a few clicks -- Visio services and major improvements in Excel Services to name just a few more.

It looks like Microsoft has clearly heard its customers. But for the all the improvements in SharePoint 2010, Microsoft has left out some obvious fixes that still leave SharePoint administrators scratching their heads and asking "why?"

Still unresolved in SharePoint 2010

A lot of people will be disappointed to learn that list and library views cannot be secured. This issue seems to be a fairly easy technical problem to solve, yet it hasn't been fixed in SharePoint 2010.There is no field-level security. This is ameliorated by the fact that InfoPath forms can easily replace the standard New and Edit item web forms.

Site collections are still an annoyingly strong barrier. For instance, the content query Web still can't cross site collections. Sure, there are some third-party tools to assuage this need, but it would have been nice to see Microsoft step up and provide this out of the box.

Finally, Microsoft -- at least as of now -- won't support any kind of upgrade from the November public beta to the final RTM version released next year. That's obviously going to give pause to organizations as to whether they adopt this technology early. But SharePoint 2010 is so easy to use, a cave man could do it. The thing is, though, that you don't want cave men building your applications. Training is essential to harness all of SharePoint 2010's strengths.

Organizations need to bring all of the skills of experienced business analysts and IT professionals to be successful with the platform. So starting preparing now to position your organization so that your human assets -- be they highly trained IT people or enthusiastic users -- are ready to use SharePoint 2010 to its best advantage.

Paul Galvin is a SharePoint MVP and co-founder of Arcovis, a SharePoint consulting organization providing services to clients in the New York metro area. Galvin has worked in the IT industry for more than 15 years in areas such as software development, consulting and SharePoint solutions design, where he works with clients to create business solutions using the SharePoint platform. He contributes to the SharePoint community through MSDN forums and his blog at http://paulgalvin.spaces.live.com.

This was first published in April 2010

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