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SharePoint brings app challenges to Windows shops

Users love Microsoft's Office SharePoint Server, but the application brings fresh responsibilities to IT managers accustomed to infrastructure issues.

Most SharePoint sites begin life as departmental projects, but the viral popularity of the tool this year has made it an important part of many IT managers' enterprise strategy.

And if it isn't already in your enterprise, it probably will be soon enough.

Microsoft's executives have often said Office SharePoint Server 2007 is the fastest growing product in the company's history. Windows shops are finding that Windows SharePoint Services, the free portal software, and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007,

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the broader infrastructure tool, create plenty of new technical and managerial concerns for IT.

Many of those issues will likely be the subject of debate in early March when Microsoft hosts SharePoint Conference 2008. It's the first event held by Microsoft where managers in enterprise shops can swap war stories about building and maintaining SharePoint sites.

Problems to solve: Architectural, technical and strategic

There are architectural issues to consider, such as how to secure sites across an internal Active Directory while making them visible to external partners in such a way that IT does not have to manually add every new partner or user.

"There are a lot of technical problems that need to be sorted out relating to identity management because SharePoint leverages LDAP," said Craig Roth, a senior analyst in the Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah-based consulting firm. Because SharePoint administrators and Windows administrators are not usually the same person, it's not likely this person is knowledgeable about Active Directory. The identity management experts probably don't know much about SharePoint either.

There are strategic decisions to make, such as whether to sync up from the DMZ or from the internal Web site. IT managers also have to decide how to set access rights for content and figure out whether that content should be in the DMZ or the internal Web site.

Roth said he advises clients to think of MOSS as an enterprise tool, not a departmental Web site. They need to figure out how it interacts with other systems, such as ERP or any competing business intelligence or content management system. The main thing is to set governance ahead of time, so department managers know when to use one over the other.

Roth said users need to ask: Does it replace something? Does the data sync up? "It's a matter of each organization having to figure out what its answer is, and there is no universal answer," he said.

There are ownership issues as well. Who builds, owns and controls the application? SharePoint is a set of capabilities, not a ready-to-go application.

Ownership of SharePoint data becomes even more crucial as IT becomes more deeply involved in the creation of corporate strategy for e-discovery of data in cases of corporate litigation. Often, the focus is on securing data in email, but, increasingly, data resides on SharePoint sites.

"We put the responsibility on the administrators of each site," said Deneen Jacome, a SharePoint administrator at Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp., in Memphis. Just like in the early days of email, Jacome said, if policy is not set in the beginning, there will be problems down the road.

Also, Jacome's responsibility is for the SharePoint installation but she said she works closely with Exchange Server and Windows Server administrators. SharePoint access is determined by the departmental manager who oversees content for the site.

Bottoms up

The most successful SharePoint sites are usually those that emerge from some departmental need and then are embraced by IT management. It's trickier when management installs SharePoint in the enterprise and then expects departments to go looking for uses.

"A company must be sure it has created a proper business analysis and then defined how SharePoint will play in an organization," said Tisson Mathew, chief technology officer of Aivea Corp., a consulting firm in Hillsboro, Ore., which specializes in SharePoint.

Mathew cited one example of a federal agency that wanted to install MOSS for 50,000 users. The decision to use SharePoint was made by executives but no one bothered to survey or collect business requirements from the individual business units. It turned out that the overall organization and the departments had different goals.

"When the application was rolled out there was low adoption and the CIO was wondering why no one was using it," Mathew said.

IT involvement in SharePoint delivery is important because often there needs to be a proper investment in network architecture, such as adding a SAN, improving data access or even WAN optimization. One of Mathew's projects, the multinational site for troops, Operation Iraqi Freedom, required enormous scalability due to its large size and need to support multiple languages.

Mathew said it's best to test large sites by simulating some of the underlying technology, such as SQL Server access. "SQL Server is the single bottleneck in SharePoint," he said. "If it goes down, everything goes down. Rather than look at the system as one unit, simulate a portion of it."

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