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 New Tools for Collaboration: Sharepoint 101

Volume Number: 25
Issue Number: 06
Column Tag: New Tools for Collaboration

New Tools for Collaboration: Sharepoint 101

"This ain't your mother's file server," or, "What administrators need to know about Microsoft's webified tool for working together"

by William Smith

Moving away from the shoebox mentality

Introduction

What do users in both small and large organizations need to share today? Memos, mail messages, pictures, video clips, sound bytes, documents, original files, derivative files, receipts, spreadsheets, presentations, diagrams and more and more stuff.

Small companies and large enterprises have progressed well beyond pieces of paper, manila file folders and inter-office vacuum tubes to storing data on centralized servers. But even with centralization, a large server with a terabyte or more of storage space is essentially just a gigantic shoebox. Folders are shared and filled with more folders and sub-folders to organize everything. Documents and other electronic files are placed within those folders and sub-folders. File servers start as nice, neat, organized shoeboxes of stuff but over time those piles get disorganized and scattered or the servers themselves get overfilled, requiring the purchase of yet more servers.

Microsoft's solution to the shoebox problem is SharePoint Server, a virtual California Closets for file servers. SharePoint is a content management system or, "CMS." A CMS's job is to provide organizational structure within a server. This structure comes in the form of separating document libraries from video libraries or it comes in the form of separating financial data from creative data. A good CMS will let you do both, letting you see the same information presented in a variety of ways.

SharePoint is a web server presented to the end-user through any modern browser such as Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer for Windows. It is designed to allow, even encourage, everyone to contribute content to the site without having to know web design. It is designed to keep users within the boundaries of their shoebox areas too.

What can I do with SharePoint?

A great use for SharePoint is maintaining a company-wide Intranet site. Departments are as varied as they are plentiful and each will have unique needs. Assume that web browsers throughout the company all default to an intranet webpage displaying company news, an address book and a calendar of events. That webpage could then serve as a portal for each department such as Human Resources (HR), Information Technology (IT), Creative Services and Facilities, just to name a few.

HR can provide its employees with access to employee forms, medical leave balances and other information through its own SharePoint site, which is a sub-site of the overall Intranet website. Most of this content is static and doesn't change often but when it does have to change, one person within HR can update the site herself without having to know any web coding. She can edit a page within the SharePoint webpage or choose to download and edit Word documents that have been posted. When the changes are complete, she simply saves her changes or uploads the edited documents where they are immediately available to everyone.

IT has a need to control its requests for new hardware and software. Rather than having users call the Help Desk to make these requests, the assets management group can post forms on IT's own sub-site of the Intranet site. The forms can include required fields such as cost center, approving manager, computer platform, etc. These forms will not only reduce calls to the Help Desk but will ensure that all necessary information is included in the request prior to submission. Submitting the form can trigger an automatic E-mail message to the IT assets management group, which can review the requests and place the orders.

Creative Services often receives requests from HR, Marketing, Sales and other groups for company logos. Some groups need the logos in color while other groups need black & white and some groups need logos in EPS format for print while other groups need JPEGs for websites. The Creative Director can include these image files on its SharePoint site, again a sub-site of the Intranet website, along with directions for use and a stern warning against stretching and distorting. If a Sales user needs a color TIFF file with a Windows preview for a PowerPoint presentation but one doesn't exist, then he can make the request by completing an online form.

Facilities is in charge of this year's company picnic and recalls that employees didn't care for last year's choice of location. Planning well in advance, they decide to post a survey listing three choices that fall within budget. This year the employees get to choose whether they'd like an outdoor picnic at a local park, an indoor buffet at a local game venue or a softball tournament at an outdoor recreation complex. Hyperlinks to each venue's external website are available to assist in decision-making. The results of the survey are immediately and automatically available to the Facilities group at any time during the survey or when the survey is complete.

SharePoint can even be used as a customer-facing external website. Because SharePoint is delivered to the end-user via a web-browser, nothing dictates that it cannot be used outside of a company network. With some customization using the free SharePoint Designer tool, a SharePoint site doesn't have to look like a default SharePoint site.

Enhanced file sharing

SharePoint is not a complete replacement for file sharing servers but it is ideal for protecting the integrity of files.

Assume the Finance department produces a spreadsheet with quarterly results and that several department heads must approve. The Finance Director had a difficult time finding a secure location on the company file server that all necessary users could access but that restricted access for everyone else. Eventually, he resorted to using E-mail, which was not only insecure but allowed each department head to make changes directly in the spreadsheet, resulting in multiple versions.

Using SharePoint, the Finance Director can upload the file to a secure website protected using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). He can then assign reviewer permissions to the document for only those who need to see it. No one else in the company has access. Furthermore, those reviewing the document can add comments but cannot change the content. Once reviewed and approved, he can keep the document available online for historical purposes.

Replacing Exchange public folders

According to Microsoft, SharePoint is the replacement for public folders, a feature that was de-emphasized in Exchange Server 2007 and is losing ground going forward in Exchange Server 2010. Public folders enable users to share mail, calendars, contacts, tasks, notes and documents with each other through Outlook, Microsoft's E-mail application for Windows. Entourage, however, Microsoft's E-mail client for Macintosh is limited to just mail, calendars and contacts.

The likelihood of Entourage ever supporting more with public folders than it does now is practically nil. Furthermore, by moving these items from a mail server to a SharePoint server, mail administrators will not be tasked with supporting file sharing within E-mail.

SharePoint for your company or just for you

Mac users who work in a Windows world may already have SharePoint services available within their company or at least have the infrastructure necessary to implement SharePoint at an enterprise level. However, smaller organizations and even individuals with limited resources have options for getting SharePoint too and for very reasonable prices.

For individuals and small organizations without a server budget, online service providers offer SharePoint services over the Internet. This is known as "SharePoint hosting". Pricing starts as low as $10.00 per month for up to 500MB of storage space with unlimited users and includes 24/7 support. Plenty of hosting services offer 30-day free trials for you to evaluate SharePoint for your own needs.

For those larger organizations where IT has been brought in-house and is supported either full-time or part-time, then Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) may fill their needs. SBS is an all-in-one Windows Server product that offers not only file and printer sharing but SharePoint, remote connectivity and Exchange for E-mail. Full SharePoint services are provided with SBS, however, enterprise-level options like SharePoint farm servers aren't available. This product really is intended for "small business".

SharePoint Server can be virtualized. Mac shops that want the feature set of SharePoint but want to utilize their existing XServe infrastructure may want to consider running SharePoint on bare-metal virtualization.. A newer Intel XServe with beefy amounts of RAM and processing power can run multiple Mac OS X and Windows virtual machines. Microsoft offers a 32-bit trial version and a 64-bit trial version directly from their website for testing.

Microsoft itself offers Office Live Workspace online, which is very similar to SharePoint in the way it functions. It is currently in beta but open to the public for free with up to 5GB of space for storage. Office Live Workspace can be used for both work and home and it and offers many templates for creating a shared space quickly and easily. It is available at http://workspace.officelive.com.

Moving into a SharePoint site

Out of the box

Once SharePoint has been installed, the administrator must set up the first site. Usually, this is a site based on one of four groups of templates, which come pre-installed for various team sites. Figure 1 shows the default Team template from the Collaboration set of templates. It comes pre-populated with placeholder information.


Figure 1. Default Team template from the Collaboration set of templates

The default webpage is divided into several sections:

A) Top link bar – Includes the name given to the site during setup, user links, navigation tabs and search.

B) Login and personalization – Allows users to change accounts, log out and customize the appearance of the site for their own needs.

C) Site Actions menu – The site owner will see this menu, allowing him to customize the appearance of the site as well as the structure of the content. He can make this menu unavailable for general visitors.

D) Site Image – The site owner can apply a custom graphic for personalization.

E) Right Zone – The right column or "zone" of the site.

F) Left Zone – The left zone of the site.

G) Quick Launch bar – A navigation bar for browsing the site.

Site Actions menu

The Site Actions menu is probably the most important menu for a site owner. It is used to modify the entire site from simple name changes to moderate page layout to complex navigational links. Only the site owner and anyone he allows will see this menu. Otherwise, anyone visiting the site will see it as the site owner has chosen to present it.


Figure 2. Site Actions menu

From the Site Actions menu the site owner can select the Site Settings command to control read/write access to the site. He can also adjust the look and feel of the site by changing the Title, site theme and Quick Launch navigation bar and he can even save his new look as a template. The Site Settings page is where the site owner can add Web Parts (more on those in a minute) to the current page as well as apply regional settings such as the current time zone, date & time appearance and workweek days and hours. The site owner can even delete the site itself from this page.

Parts is parts

What makes SharePoint easy for end-users? How can one department customize SharePoint for its needs while another department is customizing SharePoint for its completely different needs? The answer is modularity or what SharePoint calls Web Parts.

SharePoint includes more than 30 Web Parts that can be arranged on a page in hundreds of ways. Web Parts include announcements, calendars, links, tasks, team discussions and shared documents to name a few. Each Web Part is a mini application dedicated to just one function on a SharePoint site. By arranging various Web Parts on a page, the site owner can create a custom portal that can be as complex or as basic as he chooses. Web Parts can be placed in the left zone or the right zone of the page, can be resized and include as much or as little detail as needed. This is reminiscent of well-known Internet portal websites such as iGoogle or Windows Live.


Figure 3. Site Settings

Customizing Web Parts

The Site Actions menu also leads to the Edit Page command, which the site owner or anyone he allows can use to modify the layout or Web Part content of each page within the site. While in SharePoint's Edit Mode, the editable portions of the page are highlighted and the Left and Right sections of the page display Add a Web Part buttons.


Figure 4. Edit Mode

A quick note about web browsers: While the same SharePoint site displayed in Internet Explorer for Windows and Safari for Mac should look similar, they will not always be the same. IE for Windows is considered a Level 1 browser, which means it can take advantage of all the browser features supported by SharePoint. In particular, IE for Windows can take advantage of ActiveX controls allowing the user to view more information and even drag and drop Web Parts during arrangement. Firefox and Safari are considered Level 2 browsers. All of the functionality is present but just not accessible in the same way. Other browsers may work but are not supported.

To the right of the Title of each Web Part are two buttons. The first button is the Edit button. Clicking this button displays the properties for that particular Web Part in a temporary pane to the right of the web page. Clicking the Edit button for the Site Image Web Part, for example, displays the Site Image properties such as the path to the image file, ALT text, alignment, appearance, layout and more.

For the most part, the attributes of every Web Part are the same. These attributes define the Zone or location of the Web Part on the page (Left or Right), its order within the Zone or Zone Index, the Web Part's Title, who can see the particular Web Part, etc.

The second button next to the Title of each Web Part is the Close button, which removes the Web Part from the page.


Figure 5. Site Image properties

Templates

Deciding which Web Parts to use and how to arrange them can be a daunting task, so Microsoft has pre-populated SharePoint with several default templates, arranged with various Web Parts, and they offer more free templates for download from their website. The default templates are grouped into four categories:

  • Collaboration
  • Meetings
  • Enterprise
  • Publishing

The Collaboration set of templates includes a Team website, which is ideal for a group of people needing to share documents and information. They also include templates for a Wiki, Blog and for Documents.

The Meetings set of templates includes a basic template for managing agendas, attendees and documents as well as more specialized templates such as a Decision Meeting template for recording decisions and creating tasks.

The Enterprise templates are for larger scale sites such as a Documents Center and a Records Center. A Site Directory template is available to set up the Intranet home page mentioned earlier. This is ideal for listing other sites in your organization and even includes a top sites feature as well as a site map.

Finally, the Publishing templates include an Intranet portal for internal site management, including search features, as well as an external or Internet-facing set of pages. External sites are expected to have many readers on the outside of the organization with content producers residing on the inside of the organization.

Blank site templates are included as well for those who want to start their SharePoint sites from scratch.

Putting away the dishes

Content

So far, everything has been about the layout, look and feel of the SharePoint site. What about content? SharePoint can hold most any type of file or data but how can it help its visitors find those items?

On the Home page just below the Home button is the Quick Launch bar. This is SharePoint's customizable navigation tool and the door to putting stuff into it. The very first link is View All Site Content. This link leads to a sort of site map and displays all the Document Libraries, Picture Libraries, Lists, Discussions, Surveys and other Sites within this site.

With an overview of everything in the site, this is the perfect place to create new Libraries, which are simply collections of files. SharePoint offers Libraries for different types of files. A Document Library is suited for files that must be downloaded and viewed in the appropriate application. This includes Microsoft Office documents such Word and Excel files. A Picture Library is suited for displaying information such as picture size, file size and even a preview for JPEG, TIFF and other graphic files. A Slide Library is specific to presentation type files such as PowerPoint or Keynote.


Figure 6. All Site Content

While the default settings are just fine for most uses, each Library can be extensively customized to share even more information about its contents. For example, assume the Shared Documents Library contains a Word document with a filename "Fiscal Year 2009 Summary", which appears in a list of 20 documents. It also has an author, a creation date and a file type (Microsoft Word file) that each appear in separate columns. By default, these are the only columns of information the site visitor will see.


Figure 7. Default Document Library columns

By selecting the Create Column command from the Settings menu, the site owner can add columns to the list.

Assume the site owner has added a Status field with three options (New, Review and Complete) that can be selected when the document is uploaded to the site or after it is already uploaded. This will allow the site visitor to sort the columns by Status to bubble-up all the documents marked for "Review".


Figure 8. Document Library Settings


Figure 9. Modified Document Library columns

Columns can display data from a variety of input options such as single-line fields of text, multi-line fields of text, number fields, drop-down menus, checkboxes, radio buttons and even calculations based on other fields or pieces of information. When a contributor uploads his file he will be presented with a page to enter all the metadata about the file.


Figure 10. Modified metadata fields

Note that not all information that's included about a file has to necessarily be visible in a column. If the name of the file and its Title are essentially the same then the site owner may choose to simply not display the Title column. But what if information is valuable to some visitors but not to others? Under the Settings menu is also a Create View command (see Figure 9). The site owner or anyone he allows can select this command to display alternate views of this information.

Assume that the Creative Services group maintains a Picture Library for other departments to use. The Web Services department requires 72 DPI JPEG images whereas the Print Services department requires 300 DPI TIFF images. Rather than create and maintain two separate Libraries, the Creative Services group can simply create one view called "Web" and another view called "Print". Visitors to the site can select the view of their choice (see Figure 12).


Figure 11. Custom Picture Library

Even more content

With libraries of documents, photos and slides with a wiki and a couple of blogs thrown in for good measure, how can so much information keep from becoming another shoebox of stuff? The answer may be more sites!

Not only are web pages modular but so too are sites. SharePoint is an excellent choice for creating an Intranet because it can contain sites within sites within sites. Responsibility for maintaining each site can be delegated to members of each group so that content can be published as quickly as possible and maintained by many users rather than just a few.

Assume the IT department is made of several smaller groups: Application Management, Development, Help Desk, Project Management, Server Management and Workstation Management. Each has a need to publish and maintain its own documentation, some private and some public. For example, the Help Desk has a need to publish forms for hardware and software requests while the Project Management group has a need to maintain tasks and timelines.

By revisiting the View All Site Content link again in the Quick Launch bar, the site owner can click the Create button and instead of creating a new Library or List, he can create a new sub-site. He can create one for each group within IT and their sites will now appear as tabs in the link bar at the top of the page (see Figure 13). The Home button to the far left will always return visitors to the top-level site.


Figure 12. Site tabs in top link bar

Making SharePoint easier to use

Office for Mac and the DCC

SharePoint is unabashedly a Microsoft product and Microsoft makes integrating most of its server technologies with its workstation technologies very easy. Office for Windows can seamlessly work with SharePoint and Internet Explorer to give its users an uninterrupted experience when editing documents. When clicked, a link to a Word document will download a copy of the document and Word for Windows will display its contents in seconds as if the user had opened the file from a local file server. Editing and saving an Office document will quickly upload changes to the server without a blip. The same applies to Excel and PowerPoint files.

Macintosh users don't get such an integrated experience. Even with Safari's preference to Open "safe" files after downloading enabled, clicking a link will at most just download the Microsoft Office document to the user's Downloads folder. The Mac user must then locate the file and double-click it to view or edit. When finished editing, he must return to the SharePoint site to upload the document, saving over the old one if necessary.

At the Macworld Expo 2009 in January, the Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) at Microsoft unveiled a new product called the Document Collaboration Companion (DCC). The DCC promises to smooth out some of the wrinkles that Office for Macintosh users face when dealing with SharePoint sites and even goes so far as to enable working with Office Live Workspaces. According to Microsoft's Mactopia website, the DCC is currently in private beta and will be released later in 2009.

Putting the lid on the shoebox

Little or nothing has been said so far about advanced design, security, searching, personal pages, team discussions, project management, group calendaring or many of the other features of SharePoint. While individuals may never use half or even a quarter of its feature set, a small company can easily take advantage of many of the tools it provides. An enterprise can make use of most, if not all, of its features.

Half the battle of data management is filing content so that information doesn't get lost or become difficult to find. As part of a larger set of collaboration tools—Microsoft Office for documents, Exchange Server for E-mail and Office Communications Server for instant messaging—SharePoint is poised to make sharing and organizing information within a team environment or a company network quick and efficient. It really is a product that can shine when individuals are allowed to play in a sandbox, so administrators should be encouraged to create sandbox sites for their more creative power users. They will discover more when they are able to use as much of it as possible and be encouraged to continue using it.

More information

California Closets

http://www.californiaclosets.com

SharePoint Server homepage

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepointserver/default.aspx

SharePoint Designer

http://ww.microsoft.com/spd

Office Live Workspace

http://workspace.officelive.com

iGoogle

http://workspace.officelive.com

Windows Live

http://home.live.com

Free SharePoint Templates

http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/windowsserver/sharepoint/bb407286.aspx

Document Collaboration Companion Beta

http://www.microsoft.com/mac/itpros/dcc.mspx


William Smith is a technical analyst supporting Macs in a Windows world in the Twin Cities, a six-year Microsoft MVP and is co-founder of the Entourage Help Blog http://blog.entourage.mvps.org. He can be reached at bill@talkingmoose.net.

 

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