Chomping at the SharePoint Bit

Partners say that customers are eager to deploy the 2010 release of the Microsoft collaborative computing platform.

Mauricio Duran is among numerous Microsoft partners who are counting the days until the company releases SharePoint 2010 -- the first major upgrade of the software giant's rapidly growing collaborative computing platform in three years.

Duran, who is president of Sieena, a Gold Certified Partner based in Los Angeles, is already working on three SharePoint 2010 implementations that will go into production as soon as it is released. And he has 10 more in the near-term pipeline.

"People usually just wait until a product is formally released but the expectation around SharePoint 2010 is amazing," says Duran, who has worked with Microsoft-related technologies for more than 13 years. "I can tell you I have never seen anything like SharePoint 2010 as far as adoption is concerned. I don't even have to call on customers, they're calling me."

Todd Klindt, a Microsoft MVP and senior consultant with Certified Partner SharePoint911, a solutions provider based in Maineville, Ohio, is also seeing unusual early demand.

"They're like rabid dogs in a butcher shop, they can't get enough of it," says Klindt, who like Duran is working with some early Technology Adoption Program (TAP) customers. "We have customers that are so excited about SharePoint 2010 that they're doing the test phase on the beta right now, so when the RTM comes out they can drop it into production immediately."

 "I can tell you I have never seen anything like SharePoint 2010 as far as adoption is concerned. I don't even have to call on customers, they're calling me."

Mauricio Duran, President, Sieena

The wait for both SharePoint 2010 and its front-end companion Office 2010 is about to end. Microsoft plans to RTM both products in May. On May 12, Stephen Elop, president of Microsoft's business division, is slated to take the wraps off the most important new software releases from the company this year.

Microsoft's partners believe SharePoint 2010 will fuel both upgrades from those frustrated with the shortcomings of its predecessor -- SharePoint 2007 -- as well as many new customers looking to bring collaborative computing into their organizations.

SharePoint has already become a huge presence in companies of all sizes, According to Microsoft, it has sold 100 million SharePoint licenses among a customer set of 17,000 worldwide to date. Indeed it is that huge installed base that has some wondering if some of the optimism for SharePoint may be overstated.

"There will be continued growth in SharePoint usage but not the overwhelming massive wave of interest we saw with the 2007 release," said Gartner Inc. analyst Mark Gilbert, in an e-mail interview. Gilbert cited several reasons: "Fewer 'greenfield' opportunities -- many of the companies that needed a bump in productivity, social software and innovation and wanted to lay down infrastructure did so with MOSS 2007 already."

Also, many may move or go to the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) hosted service. "These cloud-based options will cannibalize some of the demand from the premises-based offerings," Gilbert predicted. Finally, he disputes the significance of the enhancements to SharePoint 2010 over its predecessor.

"The jump in feature/functionality from 2003 to 2007 was very big," he said. "The improvement from 2007 to 2010 is not quite as huge."

Even those that are primed to make the move will wait for service pack 1 to be released before upgrading, Gilbert believes, meaning that many will put off those upgrades until later this year or the middle of 2011. "This means they'll go to 2010 in mid-2011 or later," he noted.

That said, SharePoint 2010 promises to represent a significant opportunity for Microsoft partners. Research firm IDC predicts SharePoint will grow 20 percent in license revenues this year. With $1.3 billion in license revenues during its 2009 fiscal year, SharePoint is the fastest-growing product in Microsoft history, according to the company. "SharePoint 2010 will add value for existing users and has attractive features," says IDC analyst Melissa Webster. "With its multi-workload Swiss army knife approach, Microsoft will gain new SharePoint customers as well as selling additional servers and a lot more CALs to existing SharePoint customers. It also has the opportunity to convert more and more of those standard CALs to enterprise CALs."

Developer interest also appears quite robust. Some 7,400 attended last October's SharePoint Developers Conference in Las Vegas, nearly double that of the prior conference 18 months earlier, which amounts to more than the total attendance of last year's TecháEd and MIX conferences, noted Andrew Brust, chief of new technology at Gold Certified Partner twentysix New York, in a blog posting.

For its part, Microsoft says the opportunity for partners offering SharePoint services is $5.6 billion this fiscal year and $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2011. The total number of SharePoint partners now is nearly 6,000, double the number of partners Microsoft had three years ago when SharePoint 2007 was released, says Kathleen Winder, Microsoft's director of SharePoint and FAST partner marketing.

"The majority are portals and collaboration partners," Winder says. Some 450 are focused on enterprise content management and Microsoft has 400 with expertise in business intelligence and the same amount in search, including those offering the upgraded Microsoft FAST Search Server, which is a new option for SharePoint 2010 offering faster and more refined enterprise search capabilities. More than 300 ISVs are offering SharePoint 2010-ready applications and tools.

Microsoft has a broader cross-section of SharePoint partners, as well. "We see SharePoint making the transition from just being used inside the enterprise and being used as an extranet to seeing people building their intranet presence. And we're now working with design firms and Web partners," Winder says.

New Features Tied with a Ribbon
SharePoint 2010 boasts some substantial new features including improved enterprise content management capability, support for business intelligence with the integration of the Office PerformancePoint Server, improved enterprise search, Business Connectivity Services that provide two-way connectivity between third-party systems and tighter integration with Office including the introduction of the Ribbon interface.

SharePoint 2010 is more conducive to letting organizations build public-facing Web sites than its predecessor. The new release also comes with improved workflow and document management features. Among other things, the new document management features allow users to simultaneously edit a file.

The sexiest feature in SharePoint 2010 -- and the one that's generating the most buzz -- is support for social networking. "When we talk to companies with 10,000 to 20,000 users or even more than that, a lot of them need communities, they're craving communities," Duran says. "They want people to use their Web sites and they want them to get to know each other to find the expertise they're looking for within their company. The questions are exactly the same; they basically come to us and say I want Facebook, within my company."

Klindt agrees. "I haven't yet decided there's a good business case for the social networking capabilities but a lot of people are excited about it," he says.

Among the new social networking features in SharePoint 2010: it allows organizations to create profiles of their employees that simplify the discovery of subject-matter experts. As with Facebook, employees can create their own networks within an enterprise SharePoint environment, post status updates, list activities, post questions and create both individual and enterprise wikis that can be tied into SharePoint's content management repository. Among other things, tying wikis and other content to the SharePoint repository lends itself to discovery for knowledge management and compliance.

The new social networking features also support tagging, which allows for the classification of information. Everyone can create their own groups through what's called My Network, which provides real-time activity streams. Through integration with Microsoft Unified Communications tools, it offers support for presence.

Duran says SharePoint 2010 is better suited than its predecessor as an all-in-one platform for intranets, extranets and public Web sites. "Technology managers are starting to identify SharePoint as the tool that they can use on any of those three scenarios," he says.

For example, an HR department might use it to publish job postings on the public Web site while tracking vacation time and access to payroll systems via the intranet. "For the extranet, in SharePoint you can have interactions with your vendors, clients and partners," he says. "It's very easy to set it up where you can put your purchase orders, statements of work, invoices and your account statements."

For public Web sites, SharePoint will be more practical than its predecessor, Duran says. That's because Microsoft is expected to offer a standard edition that is half the price of the 2007 release. "That can really give the incentive that many of these companies were waiting for to build the public sites using SharePoint," Duran says.

IDC's Webster says based on a survey she conducted last year, 8 percent of customers were already using SharePoint for some externally facing Web sites, while 15 percent were expecting to. Some 23 percent were committed to using SharePoint for creating small customer-facing Web sites, Webster adds. "It's an emerging use case. It's not fully under way but I think [more organizations will use SharePoint for Web content management] in 2010," she says.

According to her research, 62 percent are using or planning to use SharePoint for multiple uses, such as creating enterprise portals, team sites or for content management.

 "Now you don't need to know how things work under the hood just to get your custom Web part in SharePoint, so it's just a lot easier to package up your customization."

Phillip Wicklund, Consultant and Author, RBA Consulting

Gravitational Pull
Whether it's for new installations or SharePoint 2003 or 2007 shops upgrading through Software Assurance, SharePoint 2010 is expected to have a gravitational pull for partners because it will require upgrades to the new version of Windows Server and it will need new hardware as well as services.

"I think we're going to see a huge hardware expenditure," Klindt says. "SharePoint 2010 requires a lot more resources, crazy amounts." For example the minimum requirement to run a SharePoint 2007 virtual machine was 1GB or 2GB of RAM, the minimum for SharePoint 2010 is 4GB. "From what I've seen in testing it, they're not kidding," Klindt says.

The typical SharePoint 2007 server farm on the high-end is five boxes. Once shops start implementing the new release, Klindt predicts it won't be uncommon to see configurations of 20 or more servers. So why, in this economic climate, would customers be chomping at the bit to upgrade? "The problem is Microsoft has given us what we asked for," Klindt says. "People complained that SharePoint didn't have social networking, well now it has it, but it costs us resources, it costs RAM, CPU and drive space for databases."

Indeed, those hardware and system requirements are another reason Gartner's Gilbert has tempered his expectations for SharePoint, arguing for many shops that can be a showstopper. Gilbert points out that SharePoint 2010 is 64-bit, meaning it requires 64-bit versions of SQL Server, Windows Server and the associated hardware. "The budget issues many IT departments are facing due to the sluggish economy means that many will try to get a bit more mileage out of 2007 and forestall the upgrade costs for a year or more," he said.

Honing in on Workflows
For solutions providers and systems integrators, SharePoint has much-improved options for helping organizations increase the automation of business processes. SharePoint 2010 comes with out-of-the-box workflows that can be plugged into certain processes. These workflows include common operations such as approvals and reviews, according to Microsoft.

Power users can create their own workflows with SharePoint Designer and Visio Workflow Designer, which create business-process diagrams stored in the Process Design Repository. SharePoint 2010 lets developers using the new Visual Studio 2010 deploy custom code-based workflows into a sandbox.

SharePoint 2010 allows for external connections to running workflows, so users can send and receive external events from workflows, making it easier to communicate with running instances, says Phillip Wicklund, a senior SharePoint consultant with RBA Consulting, a Gold Certified Partner based in Wayzata, Minn.

"So maybe you have a workflow that's running some business process, but then you have another application totally outside that workflow that needs to send a message or pass some data to retrieve some information from it, like a status or something. It's that ability that's new with SharePoint 2010 that's pretty exciting," adds Wicklund, who is authoring the book "SharePoint 2010 Workflows in Action" (Manning Publications).

"Deploying customizations into SharePoint takes a pretty deep understanding of how things work in SharePoint 2007, but in 2010 a lot of it is abstracted. All you really do is hit F5 and it will do the deployment for you," Wicklund says.

"That's the biggest enhancement. Now you don't need to know how things work under the hood just to get your custom Web part in SharePoint, so it's just a lot easier to package up your customization whereas in 2007 that was the biggest roadblock for people -- just that learning curve, how do I build a Web part and how do I deploy it?"

Business Connectivity Services
SharePoint 2010 will also be popular for those who want to integrate SharePoint with external data sources such as information from SAP, Oracle or Lotus Notes, as well as custom apps.

With SharePoint 2007, developers could pull data from those systems but with the new Business Connectivity Services (or BCS, which replaces the Business Data Catalog), there's complete read-write data access. Also, Sieena's Duran points out that Microsoft made an important decision by making BCS available in the SharePoint Foundation Server. "They're going to be there for free, and you can use them to interact with SAP, with Oracle, with SQL Server and with XML services," he says.

"The new BCS ... turns SharePoint and, along with it, Office 2010, into a full-fledged platform for creating simple browser-and-client, occasionally connected CRUD [create, read, update and delete] applications, connected to virtually any database," wrote Brust.

BCS will also appeal to those looking to interact with data using Outlook, Word or the SharePoint WorkSpace, according to Microsoft. Using SharePoint Designer 2010, users can create connections to those external data sources without having to write code.

The Search Is On
While some may argue that the new social networking capabilities in SharePoint 2010 will be a key draw, its new search features could prove equally compelling. The new search engine moves away from the traditional links by rendering visual results, offering more personalized information based on context, and allowing users to search from their PC, browser or mobile devices.

SharePoint will be available with Standard or FAST Search. The latter will be an option for enterprises looking for higher-end search capabilities and is the first release of the technology for SharePoint that Microsoft acquired from FAST in 2008.

Both versions include improved navigation with refined and related results, according to Microsoft. Other areas addressed are relevance, people (the ability to find individuals using algorithms associated with social networking), connectivity via BCS and extended scalability.

For now, Microsoft is encouraging partners to come up to speed on SharePoint 2010. To date, it has trained 2,500 partners and anticipates training another 4,000, according to Winder. The company is now launching its SharePoint Deployment Professional Services (SDPS) offering for the new release, enabling partners to work with customers to upgrade their SharePoint environments.

For customers with Software Assurance, depending on their level, Microsoft is offering vouchers to customers for anywhere from one to 15 days of services through partners, Winder says.

Overall, Winder is bullish about demand for SharePoint 2010. "We're blowing out every goal we've got."