Microsoft SharePoint popularity comes with issues
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Microsoft's SharePoint Server 2007 may be taking off in the enterprise, but comes with a variety of issues that need to be addressed in any corporate deployment.
Users will find weaknesses in all six areas that SharePoint focuses on — collaboration, portal, search, enterprise content management, business process management and business intelligence — along with custom coding needs, dependencies on other Microsoft products, a weak selection of social networking tools, a lack of offline support, challenges integrating identity management/provisioning, lack of centralised management tools for global operations and trouble finding qualified SharePoint developers and support staff.
"Recognise that a really good SharePoint installation is as much organisation as it is technology," advises Burton Group vice president and research director Guy Creese, who took part in a recent evaluation of SharePoint. "Be clear what you are expecting from SharePoint -- it might be exactly what you need. But in some cases, SharePoint as shipped can leave huge holes."
The evaluation was presented during the annual Burton Group Catalyst conference.
Creese says users should be aware that custom work and additional software may be needed to bend SharePoint for specific needs.
"We have been finding that a highly tuned SharePoint installation needs custom coding and third-party add-ons."
Burton Group analysts say corporate management needs around content and records, and easy-to-use user tools, helped create a perfect storm for the sudden rise of the seven-year-old SharePoint product line.
SharePoint is the fastest growing enterprise software in Microsoft's history and provides the vendor with 100 million licenses and more than a US$1 billion (NZ$1.3 billion) in revenue.
But the numbers clearly don't tell the entire enterprise story.
SharePoint's six core areas of functionality all clearly have cons to go with their pros. The issues range from search features that have not been proven to scale to poor Web 2.0 tools to content management shortcomings.
The software also has some deployment, application development and resource issues that will need to be addressed during a corporate rollout.
With SharePoint often included in enterprise licensing agreements, it has grown into many corporate networks. It has created the same IT management and administrative challenges that always come when users lead deployment projects.
Microsoft also includes some 40 templates for task such as bug tracking or competitive analysis, but users who want to stray from those paths find themselves with custom coding projects, according to Creese.
On top of that, the SharePoint Designer development tool is not integrated with Visual Studio Team System, which provides an application development workflow and feedback loop.
In addition, SharePoint lacks good access control integration, which is a critical issue when the server begins to take on sensitive data. SharePoint maintains groups in its own database and does not synchronise with Active Directory. While internal users can tap their Windows log-ons to access SharePoint, authentication for external users will require separate tools. And SharePoint access from a web browser is handled differently than from Office applications such as Word and Excel.
Third-party identity management tools for provisioning, authorisation and auditing also will be add-ons that will impact overall deployment costs.
"Everything would be fine if you were not trying to hook up SharePoint with your identity management tools," says Gerry Gebel, vice president and services director in Burton's identity and privacy group. "SharePoint is going to be a critical application and granular access controls will be a necessity and Microsoft's tools are insufficient for all usage scenarios."
Users are trying to work through the issues with integrating SharePoint, but it is a process.
"The goal is to treat SharePoint like any other application," says Tim Callahan, chief information security officer at People's United Bank, which has been involved in an identity management project for the past year. "We want to put SharePoint into our full monitoring process but we are not there yet."
Gebel says the perfect SharePoint environment from an access control perspective is a single department with all its users in one Active Directory domain, but unfortunately that configuration won't support an enterprise rollout.
On the positive side, Gebel says Microsoft is hinting at many changes in the future through Office upgrades, Windows 7, Identity Lifecycle Manager 2.0 and claims-based authentication via CardSpace.
On top of all that, Craig Roth, Burton's vice president and services director for its collaboration and content division, says IT needs to figure out definitions and policies around SharePoint implementations, including how to drive users to the system, how to govern usage, how to define service levels and how to design the system.
Roth says governance is a critical factor in determining SharePoint success. That includes combining people, policies and processes to determine who can do what, when and how.
All that will minimise confusion, establish goals and help resolve conflicts, he said.
"The real challenge from an enterprise point of view is to make sure you have all that functionality available to users so they can help themselves but also have balance so you can centrally manage," says Roth says.