An early look at SharePoint 2010

Microsoft SharePoint 2010 is a tremendous improvement over previous versions for both developers and IT professionals, enabling the next generation of collaboration

I avoided Microsoft SharePoint for many years. It wasn't personal; I simply had too many other things to keep up with from Exchange, Office Communications Server, and a host of other releases. However, about a year ago I decided to begin working with SharePoint, and while I wouldn't say I fell in love with it, I loved the features it afforded me as an IT administrator. With it, I could quickly put together a site collection that included a document library, a blog, a wiki, a forum, and so on. Simply put, SharePoint 2007 is an excellent intranet or extranet tool set.

Now, I use it for a Web site that 200 contractors access for collaboration of building projects across the state of Florida. I've seen how much more organized these folks are when they can communicate easily with members of other teams, especially since disaster relief is such a huge need in Florida due to hurricanes and tornadoes.

But my one complaint about SharePoint is that it felt clunky. While the functionality was great, the interfaces for working with it were ancient and not snappy in terms of responsiveness at times. It needed some polishing.

[ Read more about the design decisions behind SharePoint 2010. ]

SharePoint gets that spit shine in its upcoming new version. SharePoint 2010, now in beta, is a tremendous improvement in all respects. It's slick, sporting a new interface that pulls in the ribbon UI that has become a staple of the Office suite in Office 2010, and it's snappy, responding quicker than ever to design or administrative needs. It also logs solid improvements in the areas of central administration and site development.

Improvements for site developers
The ribbon UI is a nice contextual addition to the site design in that ribbon tabs appear based on what you are working with. The new Web Edit feature allows you to customize a site quickly. The ribbon UI really shines here: If you select a picture, the necessary tools appear automatically in contextual ribbons to help you modify your image.

The new Silverlight Web Part can be quickly integrated within your site, and it functions well in all browsers that support Silverlight (which include Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and soon Opera).

There is an impressive set of new rich theming possibilities, with my favorite being the ability to take a PowerPoint theme (a collection of colors schemes you can use across your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documentation to ensure a single color palette) and apply it to your site with a few clicks. Visio Services is an excellent way to share diagram-oriented data (without viewers needing to have Visio), and the fact that they are linked allows you to make changes to the diagram and have those changes go live in real time.

The Business Data Catalog is evolving into Business Connectivity Services (BCS), which allows you to connect to line-of-business applications, Web services, and databases. The amazing thing with BCS is that the Web interface allows users with permissions to update aspects of the data, and that data is updated to the back-end services. For example, if a user alters an item on the SharePoint site that is pulled from a SQL database, the SQL side is updated without the user having to be concerned with the infrastructure at all.

I'm especially excited about SharePoint Workspace; it brings Groove into the SharePoint world to allow for pulling lists and libraries offline to work and then resync when back online. Groove was acquired with Ray Ozzie a few years back and didn't see enough light in the Office 2007 release. But its phoenix-like rebranded resurrection in SharePoint 2010 as SharePoint Workspace is awesome.

Finally, if you are a true SharePoint developer (someone who reaches into the guts of SharePoint with tools like Visual Studio and SharePoint Designer, rather than just stick with the standard Web development tools), you're going to love the new Visual Studio 2010 tools and the new SharePoint Designer 2010.

Improvements geared to IT professionals
First off, the Central Administration site itself is welcome eye candy. The previous versions were scary, for lack of a better word: no graphics, with text and hyperlinks to strange new worlds for the newbie. But now, SharePoint 2010 has an attractive and less daunting interface. The ribbon UI is included to keep with the new theme, so that will take some getting used to for those who are accustomed to having all the links and options out in the open. But I believe you will find the ribbon groupings to be logical. For example, if you select a site to work on, the ribbon will switch to a Web Applications tab with groups that include Manage, Security, and Policy, and all your options are presented in those groups.

You'll also appreciate the Best Practices Analyzer, which does more than just show you where your site may be lacking. It also offers suggestions to fix those items and sometimes even the opportunity to fix those items automatically for you.

SharePoint 2010 improves usage reporting and logging features, as well as large list resource throttling to help provide more control over reduced performance from excessive lists and libraries that may be slowing your servers. There is also a new unattached content database recovery feature; it allows you to mount an unattached content database temporarily so that you can view content, make a backup, or export sites or lists -- without creating a recovery farm.

For those of you, like myself, who just put the finishing touches on your SharePoint 2007 sites, you might be thinking, "Oh no! I'm not switching and redoing the whole thing." Fortunately, there is a feature called visual upgrade that allows you to upgrade to SharePoint 2010 and doesn't affect the existing sites at all. Thus, you can use the SharePoint 2010 features going forward and choose when (or if) you want to upgrade the existing sites.

SharePoint 2010 gets a thumbs-up
As a former SharePoint avoider, then a reluctant site developer and administrator, I expected to be unimpressed with SharePoint 2010. Nothing could be further from the truth. The SharePoint development team deserves applause for hearing the requests of its user base and doing a great job implementing as many of those features as possible. SharePoint 2010 is now at the top of my "cannot wait for this to be released" list -- well, right below Exchange 2010.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.