SharePoint library: No non-geeks allowed

Not just anyone should have access to SharePoint's spruced-up document libraries

Microsoft is pushing a bunch of new technologies as part of the Vista-Office-2007-Server-2008 product bonanza: The new Exchange, Viridian virtualization (eventually), Forefront security. The list is long and maybe even a little distinguished, but nothing is being pushed harder than SharePoint.

Redmond is paying so much attention to SharePoint's new collaboration features, in fact, that someone cynical might think the company is trying to draw our attention away from all the goodies we were promised as part of this smorgasbord but didn't get. Or maybe I'm just cranky.

Key amongst SharePoint's new make-your-team-better features is the document library. The top-level Microsoft marketing speech describes these new bins as the next gen of networked file sharing. Instead of mere directory or file-level user access permissions, doc libraries have both library and file-level permission sets, built-in versioning, and search indexing. Even better, the Redmondites claim that team leaders don't need either to phone IT or be exceptionally Microsoft savvy to configure and manage SharePoint … sharing. (Sorry.)

I'll go along with some of that. SharePoint document libraries are certainly a step ahead of your typical Z: drive share. But that part about allowing non-technical users to set up and manage these suckers is most likely a disaster in the making for larger companies.

For one thing, while the concepts here are simple for us geeks, I usually have difficulty explaining even basic network file-level permissions to non-geek users. Trying to explain the difference between file-level and library-level access, or individuals and groups, and then expecting users to make the most efficient use of the differences is not just being optimistic, that's being Lotto optimistic.

And even if you are ITing for a company of geek geniuses, you're still looking at trouble if you allow what amounts to unfettered server disk organization to the rank and file. Different document libraries are optimized for different things; for example, image libraries get auto-thumbnails and large gobs of PDFs require special filters to be installed in order to enable searching. Geekier and geekier, ever more room for mistakes.

A single manager might create dozens of libraries when only a few are really required. That's not only a booty-load of possible config errors, it's also an increasing amount of server overhead to support all those SharePoint smarts. Now multiply that by a dozen, a hundred, or even a thousand mid-level managers and it's not an unreasonable expectation to see small gray smoke tendrils wafting over your servers' air vents.

On the plus side, SharePoint is going to require some user re-training in any case. The concept of versioning is old hat to us underpaid sods in the publishing business. But you'd better carefully explain the concepts to the average business user, or they're simply going to start saving checked-out docs under new filenames and calling IT when those files can't be retrieved the way they expect.

As part of that training, it's no great trick to drag your managers aside and give them some more in-depth training on how to manage their file libraries. For those with average-IQ managers, you can make their jobs even easier by limiting the options they've got when creating those shares. SharePoint allows IT admins to define for managers library templates -- virtual file boxes that limit available options and permission settings.

Of course, in an organization with a few hundred managers, that's quite a bit of work for the IT team: Interviews with various team leads to find out what options are required, recording all that information, building the templates, defining managerial access, and training the users. Then comes the part where they find new and unforeseen ways to screw things up, which we'll need to fix. And, of course, the part where SharePoint finds new ways to mess itself up because it is, after all, carrying a Microsoft logo. More fix-and-knowledgebase time down the drain.

Hey, SharePoint is certainly a step up from the humdrum network file shares of today. But thinking this can be maintained with less IT staff involvement is beating the marketing drum just a little too hard. 

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