Microsoft SharePoint taking business by storm

The versatile Microsoft server may not be perfect, but it is attracting interest as tool to address anything from collaboration to process management

Microsoft's SharePoint Server is on a billion-dollar quest to potentially become the next must-have technology, offering companies tools for building everything from collaborative applications to Internet sites and potentially handing Microsoft its next cash cow.

"I have not seen anything like this since the early days of [Lotus] Notes," says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. In those days, corporate users were enamored with a shiny new technology that seemed to have infinite uses. "The talk [around SharePoint] is getting strategic now, and people are talking about it as a middleware decision," Gotta says.

MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) 2007 is the fastest growing product in the company's history and seems to have as many uses as a Swiss Army knife. Its six focus areas are collaboration, portal, search, ECM (enterprise content management), business process management, and business intelligence. (Compare collaboration products.)

Just last month, Microsoft added a hosted alternative to fuel adoption. There is a "perfect storm," observers say, around SharePoint in terms of the popularity of Web-based computing, demand for less-expensive ECM and portal tools, collaboration technology, and integration around Microsoft's Office suite.

The attention is a wake up call for competitors, especially IBM/Lotus, as SharePoint could pull customers to other Microsoft software because it is closely integrated with Microsoft's unified communications stack, its e-mail server, Office, and Office applications, including back-end file sharing repositories for Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.

SharePoint was first introduced in 2001 to less than lukewarm reviews as SharePoint Portal Server. In 2003, a stripped-down version was offered for free as part of Windows Server 2003 R2, which made it easy for users to test-drive the software, and soon, end-user created team worksites began popping up all over corporate networks.

In 2008, SharePoint has evolved into the prototypical Microsoft tool -- good enough for SMBs, adaptable to large enterprises, and, most important, plenty of financial opportunities for third-party independent software vendors and systems integrators.

Partners involved in everything from directory management to archiving to single sign-on are reporting that SharePoint is improving their own revenue.

In March, Bill Gates said SharePoint had passed 100 million licenses sold, had attracted 17,000 user companies, and had eclipsed $1 billion in sales for his company

Many critics dispute the licensing number but not the message that SharePoint is on fire.

SharePoint, however, isn't without issues that users should consider, including the fact that it does not scale well given the way it stores data in SQL Server, a concern Microsoft is working to answer in the next version likely to ship in 2009.

Or that its social-networking tools are considered rudimentary, that SharePoint's portal capabilities still don't measure up to enterprise-class platforms, and that the server takes customizations to make it truly sing.

"I think there is going to be some buyer's remorse," Gotta says.

SharePoint does many things, but scaling is not one of them. SharePoint stores everything in SQL Server in what amounts to one universal table, which leads to lots of on-the-wire traffic and a Microsoft recommendation of only 2,000 items per list. By contrast, IBM WebSphere permits hundreds of millions of items per list.

The social-networking tools are uninspiring, and Microsoft is partnering with NewsGator (feed reader) and Atlassian (wiki) to cover bases, which will lead to inevitable feature clashes as SharePoint evolves.

"Compared to what is out there today, Microsoft's Web 2.0 tools look old and very static and are clunky and difficult to use," says Oliver Young, an analyst with Forrester.

But Young says those limitations and others are speed bumps, not show-stoppers.

"I'm not sure I've seen anything that has taken off this big, this quickly. SharePoint 2007 has just blown up," he says.

Late last year, an IDC survey of 300 users found 61 percent were deploying SharePoint enterprise-wide, and that 28 percent of those using SharePoint in departments now are expected to expand usage to the enterprise within the next 12 months.

Current users can attest to that transition saying they have persevered from SharePoint's early days to what is now a tactical platform.

In 2006, Brad Marshall, corporate IT director for Bowen Family Homes in Duluth, Ga., backed into SharePoint as part of a hosting deal centered on Microsoft Exchange. Marshall did not like what he had originally seen in Windows SharePoint Services, which offered team workspaces and file sharing for free as part of Windows Server 2003.

But having SharePoint Portal 2003 hosted eliminated some technological limitations and development chores and eventually resulted in a business process workflow application for selling homes that cut up to two days the time it took to do the same process using the old paper-based system.

"We have it down today where in a push, we could get it done in less than an hour," Marshall  says. The company has built eight to 10 applications on SharePoint, including vacation and performance-review programs.

But Marshall says customizing SharePoint is mandatory, and he has used tools from CorasWorks to make that easier.

"If it was just regular, out-of-the-box SharePoint, we might not be using it today, to be honest," he says.

What's also becoming important are add-ons from partners.

"One of the things we find is people bought SharePoint and they have not figured out the power that is there," says Brian Kellner, vice president of product development for NewsGator. "We help make that more obvious and simple."

Others are building on features that users will need when they begin to harvest that power, such as Symantec with its archiving system, Enterprise Vault.

"In the last year IT has become more aware and more concerned in having a managed approach to SharePoint," says Dave Scott, group product manager for Symantec.

Microsoft for its part compares the popularity of SharePoint with an application that has helped define its success.

"We see tremendous momentum just like Office in the early days when people said this is a new way to work," says Tom Rizzo, director of SharePoint. Consulting firm Accenture has built a Facebook-like SharePoint application to find experts, Ford Motor uses SharePoint for its dealer portal, and the Marines have deployed collaborative applications to aid their efforts in Iraq. 

Rizzo says SharePoint has so many entry points for users that Microsoft calls it a business productivity server. He says the next version will show investments in social computing and new features he would not disclose.

"The beauty of SharePoint is that it hits a number of sweet spots," Rizzo says.

It also hits competitors between the eyes.

"I think the most interesting trend to watch for this year and next is how IBM/Lotus reacts to this SharePoint phenomenon," says Harry Wong, CEO and founder of Casahl Technology, which has been helping users migrate either to or from Microsoft and Lotus messaging platforms for years.

Wong says SharePoint is proving to be a powerful leading punch for Microsoft to sell IBM/Lotus users on migration to Exchange and Microsoft's entire slate of collaboration tools.

IBM/Lotus is countering with a similar product called Quickr, and just like Microsoft with Windows SharePoint Services, is giving users a free version to get started.

To be successful, Wong says Lotus has to sell customers on Quickr vs. SharePoint; on Lotus Notes 8 and its Outlook-like interface and integration with Lotus Sametime and Connections; and convince bigger Domino shops the J2EE version of Quickr will provide the scale that SharePoint lacks

"IBM/Lotus has the weapons to defend against Microsoft SharePoint if IBM/Lotus acts quickly and aggressively," he says.

As the battle emerges, it might begin to look like the messaging wars the two fought in the 1990s, but given the breadth of the technology, the prize could be much bigger.

This story, "Microsoft SharePoint taking business by storm" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.