Leaving SharePoint

imageNo, we’re not leaving SharePoint. We are reducing our SharePoint footprint though and I thought that I’d start a periodic mini-series on this subject. The mini-series appeals to me because I don’t think I can cram enough material into a single post and still squeeze under that self-imposed 800-word limit. Raise your hand if you want me to abandon that limit…yeah, I thought so.

So, what is it exactly that we are reducing about the way we use SharePoint? We are beginning a project that will gradually eliminate our Internet-facing SharePoint site. Why are we doing this? There are lots of reasons, but I’ll limit this post to three:

It’s Complicated – Not the answer, the answer is pretty simple, but having an Internet-facing SharePoint server is complicated. That SharePoint server runs under a separate domain, so we had to build a Trust between our in-house server and the outside server. Even though this allowed us to let our employees have access with their in-house domain credentials, they still have to log in. We could eliminate that step if we designated our in-house domain as the primary domain, but then our business partners, the people we built this server for, would have to include the domain in their user name. We tried that and the results were terrible.

While we can tell our employees to “suck it up and include the domain name and the forward slash, you know, the one over the Enter key, with your user name” we can’t really tell our customers to do that.

It’s not just complicated for people, it’s complicated for software. MetaVis, Harmon.ie, Muhimbi and HarePoint all had to make tweaks to their product to let us work across the two farms. I think it’s pretty cool that they all made those tweaks, but we quickly learned that it is one of the things we have to ask vendors about their products. I look forward to not caring about that capability in the future.

It’s Expensive – When we started out, the outside SharePoint server was a separate physical box. In addition, we had a separate server acting as the domain controller for that domain. These are both virtual servers now, but they still represent two Windows Server licenses, as well as a SharePoint license as well as, well I think none of us actually we all understand Microsoft licensing. Of course there’s more to buy than licenses, those servers have to be maintained, upgraded, backed-up and tended to during power outages.

It’s not just expensive from Microsoft; it’s expensive for some of that other software as well. Add-on software vendors seem to follow weird currents in the industry. Some drift toward the “pay enough money and you can use this anywhere” model and some like the À la carte approach. Unfortunately, when stuff is priced at the “enterprise” level, the companies who benefit are the companies with hundreds of servers. Having 2 servers and paying enterprise prices is a budget story that never ends well.

It’s not what people want – This is the most significant reason of all, our business partners do not want to use SharePoint as a way to get the information they want from us. It might be a sad commentary on the state of ECM. It might be a reflection on what we did or didn’t do with SharePoint. It might just be that SharePoint was overkill, but it’s not wanted. Most of our historic (we’ve been doing this since 2006) use of SharePoint can be filed under the category of “file sharing.” People go to our site to get documents that we have, or they use SharePoint as a conduit to move documents between themselves and our employees. SharePoint worked, but there are other products and / or services that work just as well, perhaps better. These alternatives are less complicated and they are less expensive and they work the way our customers want to work.

Next up in this series, I’ll talk a little bit more about what our customers want and about some of the solutions we considered and some of the reasons we did or didn’t like them. I started off by saying that this would be a periodic series, meaning that you shouldn’t expect to see that story next week. Every time I try to plan the story I want to share next week, something interesting happens and I end up pre-empting the scheduled subject.

Why I Love SPTechCon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         As I write this, I am still in Boston, hoping to get some photos of the Head of the Charles Regatta which is about to unfold across from the conference hotel. I have a short series of blog posts planned based on my presentation and the things that I have learned while attending this great conference. I am going to spread those posts across the blog and my AIIM Community blog, but I need to organize those thoughts first. So for today, I just want to comment on the great event that was (and will be) SPTechCon.

Organization – The people with BZ Media know how to organize a technical conference. First, they pack a lot into a compressed time frame, so you can fit a great training event into a busy schedule. Second, they spread sessions around generous coffee and food breaks so you can get to know some of the other attendees. Some of my favorite memories of this conference are the conversations I had with people, some that I “knew” from business and from Twitter, and some that I met here. Third, they treat the speakers and the attendees with respect; I feel good about my decision to participate in this event.

Program – I am extremely proud to have been part of the program at this event. If you read through the speaker list, you will find that some of the most experienced SharePoint practitioners in the world were on the agenda. I attended as many classes as I could; I enjoyed every class and I appreciate the effort every speaker put into his/her presentation. I think that know SharePoint pretty well, but I learned a lot at this conference.

People – I will continue with the speakers a bit in this category; every session that I attended, ended with the speaker volunteering to answer questions off-line, on-line through their blog or via Twitter or in person. Many of the speakers are consultants, so they normally get paid for those answers, but they share an enormous amount of useful information for free. The rest of the people, those in the audience were equally great. They share their experience, they offered useful comments, asked great questions and engaged in off-line conversations about SharePoint and other related technology. Everyone that I met at this conference seemed to have something useful to share!

Vendors – There were a ton of vendors in the exhibition hall for this event. Some of our existing vendors like Quest, MetaVis and Mainsoft as well as vendors with products I wanted to know more about were busy handing out information, showing demos and discussing their products. To have so much SharePoint in one room was simply awesome.

The next instance of SPTechCon will be in San Francisco in February 2011. I cannot attend that conference, but if you can, I encourage you to register now while the rates are low and the hotel still has rooms. SPTechCon Boston sold out, and I am betting the same thing will happen in San Francisco. As for me, I am thinking about attendant BZ Media’s iPhone/iPad DevCon next April. I am planning to do some experimenting with an iPad and with iPad development, and I can’t think of a better place to learn more about that subject than this conference.

Thanks to everyone who made SPTechcon a great educational event.

Decisions Decisions…

One of the things that we want to do as we move forward to SharePoint 2010, is to get our content databases squared away. When we first began working with SharePoint, we did not know how it would be received in our organization, and frankly, we had tried content management efforts before with little success. Acceptance of SharePoint is growing, and grudging acceptance of ECM is tagging along. Actually, I think we get the ECM thing now, partly due to a better understanding of the benefits and our plan to improve processes while implementing ECM. So now, we need to decide “what goes where?”
The planning that is going into this decision is really a series of what-if scenarios; right now, we are not being driven to content separation by growing volume. That is the mixed blessing of being small; we won’t ever have enough content to make these choices easy. We do have a mixed set of uses though, and that seems like a good reason to separate content. For example, we have a small collection of documents that are business critical, and that are generally limited to a small subset of our users. We don’t need to break these out, but by doing so, we can build a very simple site for all this stuff. Then, even if one of the ‘owners’ goes overboard with permissions, they won’t be able to include the world. This content also does not change much, so separating it gives us better options for running backups. Again, that isn’t an issue today, but it may become one as other content grows.
One area that we know is getting its own backend database is the support site for our lawyers – those people generate some serious content. They also deal with numerous restrictions and they swap a lot of stuff between our internal and Internet facing servers and they have some workflow enabled processes. I mention these things because having content in a separate database makes it easier to start some utilities, including SharePoint Designer, in the right place. That is a simple benefit, to be sure, but we are going to be working here for a long time, so why not make it an easy place to work. It will also make it easy to document. Don’t worry; I am not going to get up on my documentation horse today.
I will take a short ride on my ‘shameless plug’ horse. That’s because, once again we are benefiting from one of the best decisions I ever made, to purchase MetaVis Architect Suite for SharePoint. MetaVis Migrator actually allows us to ‘promote’ content from our 2007 server to a different content database on the 2010 server. This is another example of what I love about this product, they have designed it to work the way people work – what a concept. I am not sure if I talk about this product because it is so good, or because I recognized that fact very early on. Seriously, it is a great product and they are some of the best people to deal with. OK, end of shameless plug.
As my profile says, there are tons of SharePoint blogs out there and many of them espouse the importance of planning your SharePoint installation; you need to review that planning process as you upgrade to SharePoint 2010. This is a great time to improve the design.

The Demo Site

On another blog I am involved with, we just finished a series detailing the benefits of planning and rehearsing. That series was about improving live training presentations, but those techniques apply to SharePoint sites as well. We are about to begin moving a significant document store into SharePoint. In addition to making progress toward one of our ECM goals, we are also trying to reduce the work involved with the distribution and tracking of these documents. We also hope to collect some data regarding the business process surrounding these documents. Since many of the people involved with this process are new to SharePoint, we decided to build a working model on our test server before going live.

We have used our test server, and sometimes our own department (IT) site to demonstrate SharePoint features before. We have also built “fun sites” to demonstrate the capabilities of Lists and Workflows. This is the first time that we have gone to the trouble of building a fully functioning version of the planned site, but we have three good reasons. The first reason is that despite improvements from 2003 to 2007 to 2010, SharePoint remains easier to build than it is to modify.

Another important reason is the complexity of the site being planned. While we can diagram the site layout, describe the workflows, permissions and ties between Lists and Libraries, we would be asking a lot of people to “imagine how this is going to work“. While we have several examples of the components being used, we do not have an example of everything working in concert the way they have to in order for this site to function as designed. Simply put, it will be easier to show some of this stuff than it will be to explain it.

The final reason for building a test version of this site is inexperience. As I mentioned above, some of the people that will be responsible for maintaining this site are new to SharePoint. They are also new to ECM. While SharePoint practitioners do not normally stress the important of building a Pilot Office, AIIM includes that specific step in both their ECM and ERM training. As a systems developer, I have long known the benefit of piloting a program or technique, so AIIM’s advice sat comfortably with me. I know that the features we have planned are all possible and will all work with the anticipated volume of documents. I also know that if I put 10 items in the list and 25 documents in the Library, someone will ask “will this scale?” Since the test server is big enough, and SharePoint is fast enough, I might as well just put that issue to bed now.

Once we get the owners of this process happy with the test site, they can use the site for review and training with the other members of their department. Also, since we are fortunate to own MetaVis Architect for SharePoint, anything that we develop that is worth keeping can easily be moved into the production site. Sorry for the shameless plug, but I really like that product, and since my only affiliation with MetaVis is as a customer, I figure I can get away being a bit of a shill.

Tools of the Trade

A recent discussion on the LinkedIn group Weekend Woodworkers asked members to talk about their favorite hand plane. Right away I knew the person starting the discussion was a real woodworker. A real woodworker knows better than to ask “what’s your favorite tool?” There are simply too many favorites. And, a real woodworker knows the attachment woodworkers have for planes. My favorite, shown here, is a Stanley Low-angle Block Pane. When it comes to the work I do with SharePoint, choosing a favorite tool is hard. In fact, I don’t really use that many tools. Even though I’ve been working with SharePoint for five years, there are still a lot of things I like to do by hand, to fully understand the options, features and capabilities. After I have this understanding, if the task is difficult or tedious, then I decide to buy a tool to help. One such tool we recently purchased is MetaVis Architect Suite.

MetaVis presents you with a graphical view of your SharePoint environment and lets you manipulate that view. The cool thing is that you can do the manipulation in a modeled environment and, if you like what you have, you can push it out to your SharePoint server. You can compare sites to make sure they have the same elements (lists, libraries, content types, etc.) and you can create new elements in the model instead of at the server. One very nice benefit of this feature is the ability to build and configure sites, in front of a user, without waiting for SharePoint to build actual pages and, even better, without having to tear it all down when they realize they want something else. Still even better is the ability to show the user other sites and, when they see something they like, be able to copy it to their site. Another thing I like about MetaVis is their pricing. Architect Suite is priced by seat. So the one copy we have cost us 1x their License fee. They offer discounts for more than one copy but, our one copy can be used to work on our internal server, our Internet facing server and our test server. I like pricing that makes sense, pricing that matches use, and, in my opinion, MetaVis got it right.

We’ve only recently started working with MetaVis so the things I’ve accomplished with the product don’t do justice to its capabilities. I hope to share some interesting stories in the future but I wanted to write about it now for two reasons. One, it’s a really cool product! Two, I want to answer some backchannel e-mail I’ve received titled “Who pays for SharePoint Stories?” Who pays? – I do. OK, I don’t pay much, this is on Blogger so the blog is free, but I did pay $8 for the domain name. The company I work for bought MetaVis along with SharePoint, a few other tools and a bunch of web-parts. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have taken a free copy, but if I did, I would let you know at the beginning of this post and I’d still post the truth about the product. You might also note that there aren’t any ads here. If you’re going to be distracted while reading my blog, please read my recent Tweets, my previous posts or check out the links to people I find interesting.
Now that the fine print is out of the way, let me say that if Stanley Tools wants to send me another low angle block plane, I’ll take it.