The great Office Server smorgasbord, part 3: Forms and flexibility with Office Forms Server 2007

For businesses reliant on forms processing or wanting internal business intelligence capability, the combination of InfoPath 2007 and Forms Server 2007 is unbeatable

The great Office Server smorgasbord is back and ready to tackle forms processing, possibly the most powerful use case for SharePoint and Office we’ve seen until now. To get through this one, we’ll need to start with a discussion of InfoPath 2007, then look at the basic Forms Services included with Office SharePoint Server and finally check out what else you get once you spring for the full-on form power of Forms Server 2007.

InfoPath 2007

Working with InfoPath is a little like working with a visual Web page editor such as FrontPage. The InfoPath forms development environment presents options for look and feel, cell type, and back-end data sources, and users put them together into a usable form. That said, this can be much harder than it looks. Microsoft has tried to make it easier, first by including a few basic forms with InfoPath 2007, including meeting agendas and expense reports, and then offering the Microsoft Forms Template Library, which InfoPath users can access from Microsoft’s Web site.

Head to the library and you can download a wide variety of form templates, including invoices, purchase orders, project reports, time sheets and more. Downloading one of these templates and editing to suit your needs is undoubtedly easier than creating a form from scratch. InfoPath also supports converting forms from Word 2007 and Excel 2007 simply using Office 2007’s new XML-based file format.

Editing and saving a form in this manner is much like editing a Web page. Users can manipulate look and feel via the GUI and assign data sources that InfoPath automatically turns into a Forms Definition File (.xsf) and an underlying XML Schema (.xsd). The visual look is saved as an XSL Transformation file (.xsl) and the whole shebang combines to build that particular form template.

Click for larger view.

If we had a wish list for InfoPath 2007, the first item would be that Microsoft relax the enterprise orientation of InfoPath. Although you can bolt Forms Server 2007 onto a small or midsize business’ SharePoint infrastructure, InfoPath is part of only the Enterprise version of Microsoft Office. And there’s no special SMB version or pricing. That’s an oversight when you consider how many smaller businesses would like to make use of InfoPath as a homegrown business intelligence tool.

Make your forms smarter

Without devoting the rest of this article to a review of InfoPath, let’s cover some of the important features the application provides. First, forms designers can build in offline functionality as well as straight online features, so that form users can work with downloaded forms and return data at their convenience. Forms can also be distributed as an e-mail attachment or embedded in the e-mail itself -- that last one, however, requires the recipient to use Microsoft Outlook.

Security provides some neat capabilities as well, offering both digital signatures and domain-level trust assignments to your forms. Form builders can restrict the form to accept only specific kinds of data input, offer it domain-level trust or simply open the whole thing with full trust. Digital signatures allow users to assign signature certificates to not just a form, but individual cells in a form. This means that a form can require specific user signatures on its way through life, essentially creating a secure little workflow all its own.

Developers can use the .Net framework to build custom forms or customized portions of a form. Developers (or users) can also opt for non-.Net script language additions, but this will negate some of InfoPath’s display capabilities within the Office environment. It will, however, make an InfoPath form more accessible to non-Microsoft customers via the Web. Users can control all this functionality via built-in versioning, and forms can be output as Excel, Word, or PDF files via free plug-ins.

With more InfoPath experience, advanced users can access tools such as data validation, conditional formatting, the Logic Inspector, and the aforementioned external data sources (see below). Data validation capabilities are the same as those in most other visual display editors, allowing designers to force users to enter specific values in order for the form to save. That includes not leaving certain fields blank or requiring that the data entered into a field comply with a certain format (like dates in mm-dd-yyyy, for example).

Click for larger view.

Conditional formatting lets designers change the appearance of a form based on program criteria, such as an option chosen in a previous field, the user credentials of the person filling out the form, etc. For instance, if a user were to fill out a form and select his branch office as being in Cleveland, the rest of the form’s fields could suddenly change to match options available only to Cleveland users. Or the form title could suddenly turn purple and a little dinosaur could dance across the screen, but that might be more trouble than it’s worth.

The Logic Inspector is essentially a developer-level form debugging tool. It can test any of the above features and keep the relevant data organized. It’s not, however, for the beginning or even intermediate InfoPath user. 

InfoPath 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007 Forms Basic

Just to be clear, all of the above features are available to users of the InfoPath 2007 Client, with no back-end server requirements whatsoever. Adding Microsoft Office SharePoint 2007 to the mix, however, brings a new bag of benefits packaged as Forms Basics. This amounts to a document library specifically designed to manage InfoPath forms. Creating one is as simple as choosing the Forms Library option in the Libraries menu during creation. Forms Basic brings functions that benefits most users, but the benefits are multiplied for shops making heavier use of InfoPath.

First, security options can be added to a form based on SharePoint’s user security, including individual access, group or departmental access, and versioning. For example, managers can require employees to build work forms, but rest assured that they’ll stay within team access restrictions. 

It’s important to note, however, that Forms Basic only stores and manipulates InfoPath forms for use with the Office 2007 client. Users can make forms part of SharePoint libraries, workflows, and search criteria, but they can only view and manipulate those forms with the actual InfoPath client. InfoPath does support publishing forms to the Web on its own, but that’s outside the scope of Forms Basic; you’re looking at SharePoint 2007 Enterprise or Forms Server 2007 for that.

InfoPath 2007 and Forms Server 2007

This gets a little tricky up front, so it pays to be clear. You won’t buy Forms Server 2007 if you’ve already purchased MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) 2007 Enterprise, because the latter contains all the features of the former. Forms Server 2007 is for users of MOSS Standard Edition who need forms processing or simply for heavy users of InfoPath who don’t need the rest of SharePoint at all, because Forms Server is really just another version of SharePoint Server with all the advanced forms processing features turned on.

We actually didn’t need to install Forms Server 2007 on its own, since we were already testing on SharePoint Server 2007 Enterprise. Of course, we didn’t discover that until after we were almost done installing Forms Server, so we can tell you that the installation process is exactly the same as the one for SharePoint Server detailed during the first review in this series -- not surprising, since they’re essentially the same thing. Just remember 64-bit CPU, loads of RAM, Windows Server 2003, and the .Net framework.

Once installed, Forms Server applies all of SharePoint’s power to InfoPath forms processing. One feature provides users with easy access to other SharePoint document data for use as external data sources in InfoPath forms. Connecting InfoPath to any external data source is already fairly simple; just hit Data Connections under the Tools menu and define the source. SharePoint, however, makes this even easier by keeping everything in the Office family format and applying its own security structure to the library. Forms Server also has a centralized application management feature that lets administrators and managers track which data is being used in which forms across the team site, including the overlay of security, versioning, and document library resources.

More important, Forms Server makes it much easier to deploy forms in formats to be displayed in places other than InfoPath. InfoPath-published forms can become part of SharePoint’s browser-based views of work sites, partner sites, and workflows. There’s even a mobility extension for handhelds, all done automatically with no need for much end-user intervention. Just design your form, publish to SharePoint, and MOSS’s forms processing takes care of the rest.

All this not only enables great data gathering, it lets you build InfoPath forms that can act as business intelligence-gathering agents by displaying up-to-the-minute values from other InfoPath forms as external data sources. This takes a little work, but small and midsize companies as well as similarly sized work teams in larger companies can use this to build fairly sophisticated business performance metrics in-house without the need to hire separate business analysts or developers.

Overall, we found the combination of InfoPath 2007 and Forms Server 2007/SharePoint 2007 Enterprise to be phenomenally powerful. Sure, it can represent quite a bit of work. There’s really no help for converting paper-based forms into InfoPath-accessible electronic forms other than by rekeying, for example. But the benefits can be tremendous. Partners can add data to your work sites in an easy and organized way and that data can be viewed up to the minute via the Web, via InfoPath in other forms, or via Excel using SharePoint’s Excel Services.

All of that is doable now by folks we can categorize as power users, in other words, front-line business personnel, not programmers. That lifts a significant workload off the IT department and in many cases obviates the need for expensive business analysts or consultants. If you’ve got enough forms and the right vision, Forms Server 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007 can pay for themselves right there. That doesn’t mean IT personnel don’t have to pay attention to SharePoint and Forms Server. Both of these are potential resource hogs in a server room. Left unchecked, IT admins in big firms can quickly find their hard disks inundated with usable forms, broken forms, various versions of forms, and similar messes. Allowing end-users to define their work sites and the forms required on those sites is fine, but IT managers need to stay on top of how many team sites there are and enforce strict guidelines on server usage to keep SharePoint’s burgeoning infrastructure manageable.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (20.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Security (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
InfoPath 2007 and Microsoft Office Forms Server 2007 8.0 8.0 7.0 6.0 7.0 7.0 7.3

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.