The great Office Server smorgasbord, part 1: Office SharePoint Server 2007

Microsoft's five new Office Servers give Office 2007 users a wealth of new features and capabilities. We examine how in this four-part series, starting with SharePoint 2007

2005. A good year made more pleasant because we were still living under certain illusions. For one, we thought Paris Hilton headlines were in a decline. I was still 39 and therefore didn't have to worry about not being married. And Microsoft leaked that Office 2007 was going to have "a server component." Foolish technology journalists that we are, we assumed this meant 'a' server. As in one. As in single. As in my Friday night.

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But Microsoft wasn't building a lonely-heart wallflower of an Office server. They were building a swinging frat party of servers; the Alpha Beta RTM fraternity complete with hazing ritual and a kegger on release day. Five Office servers is the final tally -- almost as many servers as there are front-facing productivity apps. We were tempted to have Dean Yager simply close down this Animal House with some light-hearted comments on fixing things that aren't broken, or vast complexity designed mainly to squeeze ever more revenue out of an already starving customer base.

But then I realized it was a great excuse to go back to Hawaii.

I told Brian Chee he'd hardly know I was there, and then suckered him into doing all the hard work of setting up server hardware and managing product engineer visitors at the Advanced Network Computing Lab at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. The result, however, was too much for one review. So we're going to turn this venture into a four-part series covering all the new Office Servers in four categories, beginning with MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007) because it's not only feature rich, it also acts as the central hub for the others.

We'll start by looking at MOSS on its own, enough for a solid summary of its purpose in life. In the next three articles, we'll look at the other servers in the Office Server family, examining how they work with their Office client counterparts and what advantages they gain when paired with SharePoint on the back end. We'll start with Groove and Groove Server, hit InfoPath and Forms Server, and last we'll look at Project and Visio and how they work with Project Server.

As far as SharePoint goes on its own, this article can give only a skeleton outline of what can be accomplished with this platform; a complete accounting would turn this into one of those musty tomes a librarian can't move without a handcart. For now, let's just say that calling MOSS a collaboration tool with an Office front end is the new definition of oversimplification. MOSS is at once a collaboration platform, an application development platform, a homegrown workflow engine, and a business intelligence tool. We'll cover all these points in detail in this piece and the following three.

Installation

MOSS comes in Standard and Enterprise versions. In a slightly nasty pricing move, these two platforms aren't separate, they're cumulative. To buy Enterprise CALs (client access licenses), you'll first need a Standard CAL for every user. That may be some serious milking of the revenue cow on Microsoft's part, but the two platforms are different enough that most customers will take Enterprise seriously. Whereas Standard carries the basic SharePoint security, collaboration, and content management tools, only Enterprise has the advanced Business Data Catalog search extensions, the business workflow tools, and the electronic forms processing extensions.

You can download a MOSS eval license at Microsoft's Web site. We, on the other hand, mentioned our Honolulu test lab and 24 hours later a couple of SharePoint product team members were knocking on the door wearing big grins and suntan lotion on their shockingly pale noses and clutching a set of MOSS Enterprise install disks. (We heard later that one of the Microsoft corporate jets temporarily went missing around this time, but so far authorities have been unable to establish a connection.)

Brian watched the SharePoint install process like a hawk, but it turns out he didn't need to. SharePoint's complexity is in the depth of its feature set, not in the install process. There are only a couple of things to watch out for. First, make sure the server has the .Net Framework 3.0 pre-installed, accent on "pre-." We tried it the other way here in New Jersey because we're slow learners on the east coast -- frustration is the operative word for this mistake.

The next issue is the SharePoint user account process and it'll continue to rear its ugly head as we go along. During the install process, Microsoft recommends logging into the Windows Server using a dedicated SharePoint account; one that's part of the Administrative user group, but not the actual administrator's account for the server. This initial account will be the "owner" account for all SharePoint sites on this box. Other users will still be able to own their particular site(s), but think of this initial account as a master account for the whole site collection.

Once the initial software load is done, SharePoint will run its Product and Technologies Wizard, which does different things depending on whether you initiated a Basic or Advanced MOSS installation. For example, for testing purposes, you're fine with Basic, but Microsoft was careful to point out that only by using an Advanced install can a MOSS server join a multiserver farm. This was not a big deal for a test server, but it is something most organizations will certainly want to plan for in a production environment. After this wizard casts its spell, you'll be able to play with the server's default top-level site (quite boring on its own) and begin organizing the business sites below it.

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It's a site, not an area

If you remember the 15 minutes it took to learn SharePoint Portal Server 2003, you'll remember that the 2003 version referred to different user pages as "areas." It apparently caused too many headaches on both sides of the IT office door, so under the new MOSS we get to refer to them as "sites." This makes more sense to the geeks, though users probably won't care one way or the other. To them, sites tend to show up as tabs in the MOSS user interface, just like what they're used to in applications such as Office 2007. In fact, most of the front-facing SharePoint 2007 UI has been specifically and in some cases painstakingly designed to look as much like Office 2007 and general Windows applications as possible. The downside here is that if you get really customized with SharePoint user sites, you're pretty much forced to use SharePoint Designer since it'll have the UI templates necessary to maintain this look and feel.

In case you missed it, SharePoint Designer is half of what Microsoft FrontPage morphed into when it died and was reborn with the Expressions label. Designer is a similar-looking Web design tool, but built specifically for SharePoint users, and although it's probably possible to build SharePoint pages using standard Web design tools, these would only have basic functionality. Only Designer will allow easy access to core SharePoint features, especially the communication, collaboration, and workflow tools. And "easy access" is critical to SharePoint's overall sales pitch; developers have plenty of meat on the SharePoint bone, but most of the standard features, including site customization, need to be modifiable by non-IT users. So administrators looking to commit to SharePoint will need to factor in Designer license costs as well. The upside is that this really does make it easier on end-users, especially if they're been pretrained on Office.

Configuring the initial top-level site isn't hard, but does mean you'll need to address the users and permissions question again. On initial examination, ITmeisters might complain that SharePoint doesn't use predefined users and groups from an existing AD (Active Directory) tree. But there's a reason this software should have its own usage structure: the fact that it allows users to build and assign work sites of their own, complete with users and permissions they can assign themselves. Going back to AD would mean that IT would have to get involved with every new SharePoint site creation.

Customizing a top-level site isn't difficult, but you can't forget to hit the Site Actions button and track down to People and Groups. This is where you can add the home users for the top-level site as well as the member users of this MOSS server. That last one is important for their initial log-on experience. It's not as nightmarish as it first sounds, since Microsoft thoughtfully included an "Add All Authenticated Users" option, which will automatically import every user currently part of the SharePoint server's domain.

Users can now create work sites of their own beneath this top-level site. Each site gets its own template and can assign its own users complete with permission specific to that site. The site creation tools have easy cherry-picker options to find the users you're looking for, turn them into groups, and assign permissions on either basis.

End-users get a top-level site, too, called MySite. It is automatically generated when a user accesses the default portal site, is authenticated, and then hits the MySite button. MySite has a number of tools, but its purpose is to summarize all the MOSS team sites to which the user belongs, including new information alerts and task roll-ups. Users can also access MySite either via the SharePoint server or as part of their Outlook Today views.

Making sites useful

Here's where the MOSS glitz and glamour shows up. The most basic piece of site functionality is the Document Library. You can build one for a particular site by hitting Site Actions > Create > Document Library. Now you've got a library tab and importing tools as well as extra permissioning and even versioning if you're up for it. Bur these doc libraries are good for more than just controlled data dumps.

For one, you can open specific documents to Outlook. That means that your team can collaborate on a specific document using SharePoint and then hit Connect to Outlook. That lets you assign which users (whether part of this team or not) will be able to see this document inside their Outlook interfaces under the Downloaded Documents tab.

Other applications have similar features. One that Microsoft made sure to show us was PowerPoint 2007. They imported a few PowerPoint presentations into our SharePoint server -- easy to do, just hit Publish Slides within PowerPoint and designate the right location. As long as you've got permission (and the permissions are within SharePoint, not shared with Active Directory), you're good. The neat part comes after. Once you've got a few presentations in there, SharePoint treats the whole thing as a collection of slides rather than a collection of presentations. Now users of the SharePoint site can access each slide individually and then create a new presentation out of the collection. For sales guys looking to quickly customize a presentation for a particular customer, for instance, this is one of those why-didn't-anyone-do-it-before strokes of genius.

Another really sexy MOSS 2007 addition is the new Excel Services. The Microsoft guys even gave up a day at the beach to run us through this. First, we created a few spreadsheets in Excel, which were then published to our SharePoint site similar to the way we did it in PowerPoint 2007. That's easy enough, but again the sweet part happens after. Once SharePoint has its hooks in your worksheet, team members can add to or modify this content as long as they've got permissions. Different spreadsheets can share cells and auto-update content based on versioning. Big calculations can be conducted on the server or even offloaded to a Microsoft Compute Cluster (though we didn't get a chance to test this since Brian ran out of server boxes).

Possibly the sweetest part of this test was the capability of building an information dashboard based on data from one or several spreadsheets. By hitting the Create Dashboard button, users can select specific Excel data and then see that data represented in Excel Web Access. They can modify that view to suit their particulars and the data will be automatically updated as the underlying spreadsheets change. Want more glitz? This deal also lets you build DIY performance indicators. Once you've got your dashboard built, you can access an option called Indicator from Excel Workbook. This lets you access your Excel spreadsheet library, select specific cells with important data, and finally define "desired" and "warning" value levels. The first maintains the elusive green light, the latter activates a warning on your dashboard page. Truly cool. Though this is meant for Enterprise users, it can also be a great way for SMBs to build business dashboards themselves, without investing in expensive ERP-style software.

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RSS is another SharePoint favorite, and one which can take multiple forms. You can allow users access to internal or external RSS feeds from within a SharePoint team site thanks to MOSS' built-in RSS viewer, or you can open this up to Outlook and simply assign new RSS feeds to users based on SharePoint team memberships and permissions.

Concerns and considerations

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