SharePoint brings collaboration to Office

The new collaborative capabilities of Microsoft Corp.'s Office 2003 depend upon Windows SharePoint Services.

To run Windows SharePoint Services, you need a server with Windows Server 2003 software, an Intel Corp. Pentium III compatible processor and 512M of system memory. In addition, you'll need to run Microsoft ASP.NET, Internet Information Services 6.0 and SQL Server 2000.

Even then, administrators need to decide whether to run the basic version of SharePoint Services that is included in Server 2003 or to purchase and implement SharePoint Portal Server 2003, a separate client/server application that brings extra muscle to Web-based collaboration through Microsoft Office 2003.

While the basic SharePoint Services allows users to receive alerts about major events and changes in a SharePoint site, such as documents being changed, SharePoint Portal Server also allows alerts for a wide variety of additional actions, such as search queries.

And while SharePoint Services allows users to search all Web site content on a server or a server farm, the search engine in SharePoint Portal server also allows users to search for content on file servers, Exchange Public Folders, Lotus Notes and other databases.

SharePoint Portal Server also provides additional tools that will make life easier for administrators.

For starters, administrators can employ roles to set up Web sites so that documents, lists, news and other data will be sent to groups of users based on their job roles. You can, for example, target content based on the properties in user profiles, the reporting structure of your organization or membership in Microsoft Active Directory.

You will also want to implement the SharePoint Portal Server if you want to integrate workspaces with other enterprise applications from companies such as SAP America Inc. or PeopleSoft Inc. Once you do so, users can employ a single credential to access all applications through the portal.

If you choose to install the SharePoint Portal Server you'll also be able to allow users to create their own personal Web sites on which they can manage shared information, instead of just allowing them access to shared work sites. We found this capability to have the potential to greatly increase productivity because users can organize their shared and private work as they see fit.

From an administrator's point of view, if you want to be able to create multiple SharePoint sites and manage them centrally, such as linking sites and indexing them from unified searching, you'll need to turn to SharePoint Portal Server.

There are also a couple of nifty features that don't require SharePoint Portal Server but that may nevertheless appeal greatly to administrators of large departments.

Windows SharePoint services now provides an efficient mechanism for removing workspaces that are no longer in use, an important feature if you've got a large number of users and limited storage space. With this version of SharePoint services, you can have messages automatically sent to owners of sites that have not been used within a specified amount of time. The message will prompt the recipient to either retain or delete the site. Alternatively, the administrator can arrange for automatic deletion of unused sites.

Adminstrators can also link document libraries in SharePoint to Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server so that when documents arrive as attachments to e-mails they will automatically be added to the library.

In our testing, we found SharePoint Portal Server to be customizable, though we felt that the tools for customizing pages were not particularly intuitive. We were also disappointed to find that updating documents was a tad on the slow side, even if the two computers involved were on the same LAN.

Microsoft's implementation of SharePoint is a step in the right direction. Although it does not offer the ease of setup and customization nor the flexibility of solutions such as Groove Network Inc.'s Groove or Documentum Inc.'s eRoom, SharePoint does offer tight integration with Microsoft Office. If your department is standardized on Microsoft Office, SharePoint may be the best solution.

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