SPS integrates Office, personalization

SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - Portal solutions generally take one of two approaches: the centralized, "corporate" approach, or the distributed, "team-based" approach. Neither is perfect. Centralized information portals simply aren't flexible enough to meet the needs of the people who use the data. Team-based portals address the flexibility issue but create more data silos, and these portals often are not maintained or supported as a part of the enterprise's IT operations.

Microsoft Corp.'s Office SPS 2003 (SharePoint Portal Server 2003) -- the second release of SPS -- addresses the portal paradox nicely. It allows the creation of team and personal sites while giving organizations control over access and functionality. SPS 2003 takes advantage of a number of features in Windows SharePoint Services (formerly SharePoint Team Services), including document libraries and Web Parts, which reduce development, support, and training expenses by providing a common look and feel at levels ranging from the individual to the enterprise. Unfortunately, less-than-stellar management and the pricey license keep SPS 2003 from being everything it promises.

Installing SPS 2003 is simple, except for the process of selecting users from AD (Active Directory). Because SPS 2003's designers found that AD takes too long to redraw in the browser-based setup, users and groups are loaded through repeated searches of the AD database. (Some people in Utah have figured out how to access and manage large directories through browsers and even through Java, but that's another story.)

SPS 2003 is also managed through a browser; this works well, but the absence of direct links for audience management at the server and site levels is annoying for administrators. From a user's perspective, however, adding information to a SharePoint site is easy and only requires a supported Web browser and appropriate credentials.

The Office That Shares

The catchiest features of SPS 2003 come from its close integration with other Office System components and certainly justify what is otherwise a "So what?" upgrade. Applications such as Excel, PowerPoint, and Word now support collaboration around documents residing in SPS 2003; Outlook 2003 becomes the tool for creating meeting sites and document libraries, whereas FrontPage 2003 is the required developer tool for creating SharePoint site packages.

Although Office 2000 users can perform some basic file-saving operations on SharePoint sites and Office XP allows some interactivity, the only way to wring the most out of an SPS 2003 investment is to have as many users as possible running Office 2003. Applications new to Office 2003 tie in neatly to SharePoint sites; for example, OneNote 2003 notebooks can be shared and searched when parked on a SharePoint site. InfoPath 2003, meanwhile, enables the use of dynamic forms when connecting to business applications and processes.

Customization and personalization are the hallmarks of a good portal, and SPS 2003 doesn't ignore them. Web Parts galleries -- reusable bits of code that are powerful but don't require a developer's understanding of the underlying data being accessed -- are used to add information to a team site or personal view, giving less-technical users an easy way to configure their sites. If content control is an issue, particular page areas and Web Parts can be locked down by the site administrators.

SPS 2003 runs on all four flavors of Windows Server 2003 -- Datacenter, Enterprise, Standard, and Web editions -- and all servers in a SharePoint farm must run the same OS version and language. Data is stored in one of two ways: a local instance of the SQL Server 2000 Desktop Engine (unless SPS 2003 is running on a domain controller or Windows Server 2003 Web Edition), or on a server running SQL Server 2000. In other words, you've got to have SQL Server somewhere in the mix to get SPS 2003 working at full capacity. Also, SPS 2003 farms can be built from multiple servers running SPS and managed as a single entity.

None of this comes inexpensively. On top of the client and server licenses for SPS 2003, Windows, and possibly SQL Server, Microsoft demands US$30,000 as soon as the first external non-employee user -- roughly defined as someone without an Active Directory account -- connects to the SharePoint site.

Much of SPS 2003 is impressive, especially its personalization features, but customers won't be able to get the most for their money without a massive investment in other Office System components. While SPS 2003 is likely to find a home in enterprises that use Microsoft products religiously, IT managers should remember that it's not the only portal in town.

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