Collaboration Nation

SharePoint Portal Server 2003 is making it easier for your customers to work together.

For years, technology has dangled the promise of the paperless office. Those of us who have been around for a while have seen just the opposite: Technology has helped us generate more paper than ever before. Worker productivity is another lingering technology myth. Every new product promises to increase productivity and simplify the way people work. It hasn't happened yet.

But SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) 2003 comes close to fulfilling both promises by providing increased collaboration and information sharing. Microsoft's flagship collaboration tool, SPS owes its roots to Site Server, a product Microsoft acquired back in the Windows NT days. Microsoft added Site Server to the BackOffice Suite as a first attempt at collaboration technology. Site Server was "re-baptized" as SPS when it was updated in 2001.

The first version of SPS was completely different from the original Site Server. Many features found in the earlier product were redistributed among several other tools. Microsoft completely revamped SPS once again with the 2003 version, its second major iteration. This time, it may not be completely right, but it's much better than any of the previous versions.

Microsoft's goal has always been to dethrone collaboration heavyweight IBM/Lotus' Notes and Domino tools. SPS may not be the "Notes Killer" Microsoft had hoped for, but it stands on its own in the collaboration market and provides some significant features—features that compete quite well with other similar products.

SPS is actually built upon Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), a free add-on to Windows Server 2003. WSS lets users create Team Sites—collections of information that help teams work together and share information. Team Sites are composed of Web parts, which are small Web applets that provide specific functionality within framed containers. In a Team Site, for example, you can add several different Web parts for managing listings, documents, forms, news items, discussion topics and so on. Team Sites use a self-service model to relieve IT administrators of the process of creating sites, letting users create them as needed.

WSS has always been a great point of entry for any Microsoft partner because even though it's free, it still requires planning and coordination to fully deploy. That's because all data is stored within a SQL Server 2000 database. While users could also go with the Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE), which is also free and included in WSS, it is always a good idea to use a real SQL Server 2000 database because of the important nature of the data stored in most WSS sites.

Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 with Service Pack 1
Release: September 2004 (with SP1)

Base Price: SharePoint Portal Server license with 5 Client Access Licenses (CAL): $5,619

SPS builds on the WSS model by adding comprehensive portal features. These include support for My Site, which is completely customizable like a Team Site, but adds both a Private and a Public view. The Private view is like your customers' own private workspace, where they can manage information that is directed specifically to them. The Public view provides a simple way for other team members to learn of a person's skills and specialties, making it easy for them to call upon these skills if needed. In a way, the Public view of My Site is a good way to create communities within an organization.

In addition to the My Sites and their Public and Private views, SPS also provides comprehensive Search capabilities. The SharePoint Search Engine originates with Site Server and can examine any internal or external Web site, any file folder, any Exchange public folder or even any Lotus Notes database. It indexes all the data to help users find the information they need.

To maintain security, SPS also preserves the access control lists of any data it examines. This ensures that when users perform a search, they can view only the results to which they actually have legitimate rights and access. SPS also offers comprehensive Team Site management services that give administrators much more control over WSS than simply using WSS alone.

The key to the SPS/WSS model is the Web component. There are hundreds of Web parts on the market, both for free and at a nominal cost. Companies can also develop their own. These Web parts can provide all sorts of functions—running Flash movies, capturing Web content from other sources, linking users to corporate applications, providing custom content to users, running data mining tools and so on.

Because there is such a strong level of acceptance in the industry for the Microsoft Web part model, SPS is bound to do well. Also, SPS' Single Sign On service provides added support to Web parts by linking them to back-end systems in a manner that is completely transparent to users. Custom Web part development is another good opportunity for partners wanting to start working with Microsoft SPS.

Competitive Landscape
SPS certainly has its share of competition, primarily Lotus Notes and Domino. Notes has long been the heavyweight contender in the collaboration market. Its all-in-one strategy makes it a very powerful tool. Because the Domino version has made everything available through a Web browser, it's also a very difficult tool to surpass.

There are other competitors in both the collaboration and the portal space. Oracle offers a portal solution built on its database. This is a direct competitor to SPS, because Microsoft's collaboration tool is built on SQL Server 2000. SPS competes best against Oracle on a price comparison, because the Oracle database is so much more expensive than SQL Server.

Competitors in the collaboration world once included Groove Networks. Groove is no longer a competitor, however, because Microsoft acquired both the company and the product earlier this year. Keep an eye open in the future for greatly expanded integration between Groove and SPS (see "Getting in the Groove").

For Microsoft partners, the strongest way to market SPS is to introduce it with the free WSS edition. Then promote the additional features SPS offers for Team Site aggregation and management, as well as its comprehensive search.

SPS also builds the foundation for strong workflow integration. In fact, several ISV partners offer direct workflow integration with SPS. Workflow manufacturers Captaris Inc., Ascentn Corp. and SourceCode Technology Holdings Inc. with its product can help your customers take SPS and turn it into a complete business process management tool. That level of potential integration makes this offering even more powerful than it would be on its own. Keep in mind that SPS is the foundation for collaboration and should be marketed as a door that opens a lot of opportunities for further integration. That's why SPS can be such a good opportunity for Microsoft partners.

Spotlight Highlights
Key Features
  • Tight integration with Microsoft Office applications
  • Private and public portal views
  • Secure access control for any data set
  • Lotus Notes and Domino
  • Oracle Collaboration Suite
Opportunity Assessment
  • Office users are prime candidates for deploying SPS
  • Potential integration with the recently acquired Groove Virtual Office

Marketing and Sales
Microsoft provides its partners with a good amount of marketing and sales information for SPS. For example, the quarterly Microsoft Action Pack gives you relatively low-cost access to all of Microsoft's latest software, as well as a ton of marketing and sales information to help you better position SPS against other products. Additional tools are available on the Microsoft Partner Web site.

Even on the public Web site, Microsoft provides a great deal of information on SPS. There is a wide acceptance of this latest version of SPS and consequently, a strong community of support has grown up around it.

Microsoft has been looking for a "Notes Killer" for quite some time. Now that it has acquired Groove, it is ready to compete on a much higher level. Microsoft has invested heavily in SPS and is continuing to do so. It's even going so far as to integrate SPS with its flagship content authoring system, Content Management Server 2002.

The Final Word
What makes SPS most interesting is its tight link to Office, the most popular productivity suite on the market. Any customer using Office is a prime candidate for deploying SPS, because it lets users collaborate from directly within Office 2003.

When properly implemented, SPS can actually help increase productivity and help organizations learn more about themselves and about the skill sets of their own employees. This is a great opportunity for anyone willing to invest some time and effort to learn the product because one thing is for sure: Microsoft intends to keep SPS around. It will continue to invest in it and promote it as its collaboration foundation.