IT shops beware – define SharePoint parameters before installing

One of the biggest mistakes IT shops make with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is that they often install with little forethought.

Apart from email, no other technology in an enterprise is touching as many end users as Microsoft's SharePoint. And as interest in this technology grows, there comes a need for customer education, says author, consultant and training specialist Bill English, who has offered SharePoint expertise since 2000 through Mindsharp, a Minneapolis-based educational firm he co-owns.

English says many corporations still don't tie corporate business processes to SharePoint features. The need was big enough for the firm to launch its own best practices conference next month, with a bevy of SharePoint experts and Microsoft executives. English likens SharePoint to a mobile that hangs over a baby's crib. Touch one part and the whole thing moves. Alter one area and it makes changes across the board.

With so much complexity, it's easy to take a misstep. English recently spoke with about some common SharePoint pitfalls. So what are the problems that crop up in most SharePoint installations?

Bill English, Contributor
Bill English
Bill English: The flexibility of [Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007] leads to confusion about how to implement the product. Unlike Exchange [Server] or SQL Server where there are hard and fast rules, there is a lack of understanding on how to install SharePoint in a given environment. A best practice in one enterprise may be a worst practice in another. We never end up having the same set of examples.

So most corporations are installing Microsoft Office SharePoint Server [MOSS] without proper planning?

English: It's astounding to me how many companies have made a semi-emotional, semi-technical decision to put in SharePoint to solve a problem. Let's say I have a collaborative environment for my customers and we want to use SharePoint. We install MOSS and it seems OK for the collaborative environment. What do we do with the other 80 million things MOSS does?

It might be overlapping with other [applications]. So there is a lack of definition of where SharePoint fits in with the overlying enterprise matrix.

For example, one government agency I worked with already has [EMC] Documentum in place.

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They wanted to know if they should move from Documentum to SharePoint for their long-term document solution. They like Documentum, it works, and they paid for it. They asked if there was anything that SharePoint did that Documentum can't do. They were asking me to define where SharePoint stopped in the matrix.

Some other examples? A hotel is putting in SharePoint but has overlap [with existing products] in document management, application deployment, search and indexing and collaboration. A bank is moving away from Autonomy [Corp.] and putting in SharePoint. But all the business requirements were written for Autonomy, and SharePoint's search cannot meet the business requirements. So the IT guys had to jury-rig SharePoint into an environment where it wasn't ready.

What advice do you give your clients about how to avoid this duplication?

English: The best a company can do is write a clear set of business requirements, turn them into technical requirements then get a charter in place. If a company has already rolled out SharePoint, then it can go back and define where SharePoint starts and stops in their enterprise. Most of the angst we see is a lack of definition. Why are you putting it in, and what are you using it for?

Why do most companies want MOSS?

English: They want a portal, aggregated search and indexing, [business intelligence], Web content deployment, document management. The list is different for each company. I've done 40 different designs for 40 companies in the past two years and not one looks the same.

What are some of your favorite third-party SharePoint management tools?

English: Well, CorasWorks [Corp.] helps end users aggregate content and data in an end user friendly way. It's good for companies that need end users to customize the aggregation of data without having to loop in IT.

K2 is good for workflows. Infonic [Plc] is good for offline solutions or long-term disconnected solutions. Syntergy [Inc.] has a bulk upload tool and replication tool which is useful. I have a vested interest in DeliverPoint 2007 since I own it. This is a permissions management tool that is embedded in the UI.

AvePoint makes good backup tools because backup in SharePoint is not good and you almost always go third-party there. Metalogix [Software Corp.] has some good tools for bulk movement of data, whether you're moving from [SharePoint] 2003 to [MOSS] 2007 or [MOSS] 2007 to [MOSS] 2007.

I would recommend for faceted search and relevance rankings. And Microsoft has a lot of good freebies out of CodePlex.

What features are not in MOSS 2007 that you would like to see in a future version of SharePoint?

English: We don't have a good failover solution from one data center to another for the entire farm. The SQL Server people will say, 'well, you can log ship,' but that doesn't take into account your GAC [global assembly cache], binary changes, service pack upgrades, etc. It's not a good way to get it replicated.

Another scenario that doesn't really exist is the ability to have different farms in different parts of the world and have an amalgamated index. Microsoft says federated querying is one way to solve this problem. This is not so much of an issue since SQL Server 2008 [available August 2008].

And I wish you could run a workflow on an entire set of documents instead of running documents through a set on its own workflow.

What are some of your own thoughts on how an enterprise should approach the challenges of SharePoint governance?

English: There are two ways to do governance. Some presentations focus on how to manage governance through the [user interface]. Others may focus on policies and procedures. I tend to be more on the latter side. I like for people to manage people.

Lots of managers expect the technology to manage their employees. They want to lock it down so you can only do x, y or z. But SharePoint can't be locked down. One of the hallmarks of a highly collaborative environment is that the collaboration spaces are self-organizing. The self-organized spaces can do it quickly and easily so no one has to loop through IT. And the users own these collaborative spaces. Lots of IT shops don't like that. They like control. The other way to manage SharePoint is to do it through policies and procedures.

You need both, and a proper mix of both will be different for different companies because of the cultures and the technical savviness of users.

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