Square pegs in round holes − Where SharePoint fits in your information architecture

I would like to start this article with a disclaimer that I am not 'anti-SharePoint' or anti-Microsoft, but I am 'anti-oversimplification'.

Microsoft’s SharePoint technologies, and in this article I am focusing on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS), have their sweet spots in that they definitely fulfill specific requirements for certain use cases within the bigger picture of varied information management scenarios.

However, MOSS is not a panacea. It is not the solution to every information management related business problem, and despite what others may tell you, it’s certainly not a 'one size fits all' technical solution to all those annoying business issues.

So the key to both meeting your business requirements and ensuring a successful MOSS deployment is not attempting to force that MOSS 'square peg' into your requirements’ 'round hole'.

What is MOSS? What is it really good at? And where can it fit in your organization?

Microsoft has been marketing MOSS as an Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solution. As an (admittedly self proclaimed) ECM expert with a fair bit of experience in the field, I challenge this definition for MOSS.

The AIIM definition of ECM is:

“Enterprise Content Management (ECM) is the technologies used to capture, manage, store, preserve, and deliver content and documents related to organizational processes. ECM tools and strategies allow the management of an organization's unstructured information, wherever that information exists”

MOSS is definitely missing some of these major elements. I have blogged on this subject before, and I stick with my theme from those posts, namely that Microsoft removed the word 'portal' from the products title for possibly good marketing reasons, but when it comes right down to it, MOSS is a portal server framework, akin to IBM WebSphere, Oracle (BEA) WebLogic/AquaLogic and Oracle Portal 10g, BroadVision, Liferay, etc. As such, like any portal framework with a full set of services, API's, etc., it can be made to do many things (in fact, given enough time and money, almost anything).

It certainly is not the first portal software product to be sold with web content management or document management 'add on’ modules (WebsPhere and AquaLogic being good examples), but with the marketing might of the software industry's incumbent ‘800 pound guerrilla’ behind it, it is forcing a re-evaluation of the content management market, to the extent that the term Basic Content Services (BCS) has been coined to describe MOSS’ 'good enough' content management features.

So what is of interest to most users is what these product features offer 'out of the box' or within a reasonable tightly scoped budget for customization and deployment, which is where we get into the discussion around the right shaped peg for the right shaped hole, but we will return to that shortly.

While I may pigeon hole MOSS squarely as a portal framework, many in the blogosphere have recently been talking up its credentials as a social networking platform. I am not talking about the built in blog or wiki tools, nor the forums, but about the use of its 'My Site' functionality as an internal 'Facebook' surrogate. In this space it is facing off against 'outside the firewall' tools, such as corporate use of Facebook itself, and against 'inside the firewall' tools, such as IBM's Beehive (see Beehive builds buzz at IBM).

Is MOSS a portal, an ECM (web content, document and records management), or a collaboration or social networking platform?

(Actually, Microsoft would also add on business intelligence (BI) and enterprise search too.)

In reality, MOSS is a .Net development platform, which can do all these things (and more) with varying degrees of completeness and success depending on your requirements, timescales and, of course, budgets. This, in a circular fashion, takes us back to the right shaped peg for the right hole comment I made earlier. As with any complex enterprise software, the questions you should be asking are not whether MOSS can do this or that from a technical standpoint, but rather:

  • how exactly can it meet my business requirements
  • how complex is the proposed solution architecture
  • how much customization and development is required to meet those requirements
  • do we have the skills, time, and budget to implement the proposed solution

Basically it’s the same old story with complex enterprise software − 'caveat emptor' (buyer beware).

However, I don’t want this article to come across as all gloom and doom. As I said in the introduction, I am not knocking MOSS, it definitely has its sweet spots, for which it should be considered alongside competing products. What is clear is that MOSS 2007 cannot be considered a mature product yet, and everyone is still learning from the latest deployment, including Microsoft itself, its channel partners, its independent systems integrators and, indeed, its customers.

One comprehensive piece of research, The SharePoint Report 2008 (TSR 2008) by CMS Watch suggests that the MOSS sweet spot for many of its suggested deployment scenarios is in the small to medium business (SMB) scenario, or divisional/departmental use within a larger enterprise. Now of course I cannot divulge too many of the findings of their report (they would like you to buy a copy) but they do suggest that due to issues with scalability and architecture, MOSS may not be the ideal platform for an enterprise intranet, nor for a heavy duty external web site (at least not without heavy complexity and investment).

What is MOSS really good at and where does it fit?

What the evidence so far suggests is that MOSS is a good fit as an intranet portal in the SMB/divisional context (as mentioned above) and also as a content centric collaboration platform. Indeed it is the 'easy to setup/provision' collaboration aspects which have seen wildfire deployments of both Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and MOSS-based 'team sites'. It may not be the best collaboration platform in the world, but it is 'good enough' for many people, especially if all they had previously was file servers with shared folders.

This has led to the current environment where unmanaged team sites deployment is being compared to proliferation of Lotus Notes databases of days gone by. Add to this the additional collaborative components of forums, and trendy 'Web 2.0' tools like blog and wiki templates, plus integration with MS Exchange/Outlook for messaging and calendars, and it is easy to see how MOSS becomes a popular collaboration environment, especially in a Microsoft heavy IT environment.

Based on this content or document centric collaboration scenario, MOSS' lightweight document management and even records management features may well be good enough for many use cases, but Microsoft has partnerships with heavy weight ECM vendors such as EMC or OpenText to put more robust repositories beneath MOSS for more complex scenarios.

Similarly, for heavy transactional applications where business process management or bulk import (e.g. scanning) comes to the fore, Microsoft seems happy for MOSS to be the front end to the heavy ECM back end, although where there is a chance to up sell the full InfoPath based Forms Services and/or BizTalk Server stack for transactional processes, I am sure the gold and platinum partners will step in with good offers.

The issue that often vexes Prescient clients is whether MOSS is good enough as a web content management platform, be that for an intranet or an external web site. Once again, there is no simple yes or no answer to such questions, it is totally dependant upon the business requirements and many other variables, including (but not limited to):

  • does the client already have a large investment in a Microsoft based IT infrastructure
  • do they already have MOSS experience (perhaps from a collaboration deployment) and an MS biased development skill set
  • if they don't have the skills in house, do they have the budget to buy them in
  • what is the timeframe/schedule for meeting the requirement
  • what is the budget

In other words, as previously stated, MOSS is not a 'one size fits all' technical solution for all requirements. It should not be shoe horned into meeting a specific requirement just because your already use it to satisfy a possibly very different requirement somewhere else in the organization (don’t forget the other old adage, ‘right tool for the job’).

So, in summary let us revisit the three original questions:

What is MOSS?

The answer is that like a polymorphic virus, it can become many things. I suggest that at its heart it is a portal application framework, and that like all such frameworks, getting it do exactly what you want may be possible, but neither easy nor economically feasible.

What is MOSS really good at?

Out of the box, it is really good at content centric collaboration, lightweight document management (BCS) and intranet portal scenarios in the SMB or enterprise division context. As a platform/development framework, it can be made to be good at other things with the right investment of time, skills and money.

Where does MOSS fit?

Although this is intrinsically linked to the answer above, the real answer is simply: 'it depends'! It depends very heavily on your particular context, on the problems and issues you are trying to solve, on your strategic business drivers, and on the specific business requirements you want to meet.

Remember, in the world of enterprise software, requirements analysis is key, there really are no 'one size fits all' silver bullets and ‘caveat emptor’ is as valid today as it was 3000 years ago.

If you want help in figuring out if MOSS can meet your specific business requirements, and where it might fit in your particular enterprise architecture, Prescient Digital Media has a wealth of experience in requirements analysis and content management system assessment and selection.  Check out our CMS Blueprint offering and contact us for more information.

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