Your entry to a new level of document management

After a long gestation, Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2001, formerly code-named Tahoe, is now available in English, German, and Japanese versions. Microsoft presents this server as a Web-based document-management and portal product that can fit easily into existing Windows 2000 or Windows NT infrastructures and that integrates tightly with Web browsers, Windows Explorer, and the Microsoft Office suite. The new product also boasts powerful indexing and search capabilities.

The product's name is a mouthful. SharePoint implies that the server can replace multiple network file shares as a preferred repository for documents; Portal refers to the familiar portal paradigm that users employ to access the data that the server gathers. (Microsoft also uses the SharePoint name in SharePoint Team Services, a technology that's now in place in Office XP—formerly code-named Office 10—and which the company intends eventually to make a part of other Microsoft products. Ideally, customers will use SharePoint Portal Server to create a central portal site for the products that use SharePoint Team Services.) So how does the new server work, and what is its true purpose?

Alike but Different
No formal link exists between SharePoint Portal Server and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server, but the two products share technology such as the Web Storage System—WSS. (Note that you can install Exchange 2000's standard edition on the same machine as SharePoint Portal Server. However, you can't run Exchange 2000 Enterprise Server, which supports multiple databases and storage groups—SGs—on the same machine.) SharePoint Portal Server uses a modified version (Microsoft sometimes refers to it as a departmental version) of the Exchange 2000 WSS, and the SharePoint Portal Server WSS variant inherits all the capabilities that the Exchange 2000 WSS delivers, such as support for streaming file formats. The SharePoint Portal Server WSS holds any type of unstructured or semistructured information, including properties for every item that it manages.

When you add a document to the Exchange 2000 WSS, the server examines the document's OLE properties (e.g., subject, author, title, date created) and uses them to populate indexes within the WSS. Users can take advantage of these indexes to build views within Microsoft Outlook and thus look at folders' contents sorted by date, size, title, and so on. The SharePoint Portal Server WSS operates similarly but groups properties into document profiles—literally, a way to describe the information that you'd expect to gather about a document. For example, you can create a profile that describes articles to be published in a magazine; that profile might include properties for the author's name, copy editor's name, technical editor's name, and word count.

On the surface, the WSS's structure looks much like the Exchange Store. Whereas the Exchange 2000 WSS organizes data into mailboxes, folders, and items and represents these objects as rows and tables within a database, the SharePoint Portal Server WSS holds documents as items within folders and organizes those folders into workspaces. The workspaces also hold management folders, information categories, document profiles, and subscription information. (A subscription is a marker that a user places on a specific document or category. When the document changes or users add new documents to the category, SharePoint Portal Server emails a notification to users who have taken out subscriptions to inform those users that new information is available.)

The server supports three distinct types of workspaces: document-management, search, and index. The primary difference between these types is that a document-management workspace holds content as well as indexes. Search workspaces hold only indexes that SharePoint Portal Server builds from searching external information sources, such as Lotus Notes (4.6a or later) databases. Index workspaces are even more specialized and operate as part of dedicated SharePoint Portal Server search machines that build indexes from multiple sources and become the definitive source for a search. You can propagate selective indexing results to either search or document-management workspaces. Microsoft recommends that a server running SharePoint Portal Server manage no more than 10 workspaces.

Technology aside, what does the product do? Current reviews are divided about the server's primary purpose. Is the product a document-management server? Is SharePoint Portal Server's top goal to provide information in a design tailored to meet individual needs and preferences? Or are the server's content-aggregation and search features an indication that it's simply the culmination of Microsoft's attempt to build a better search engine? Microsoft seems to intend the server to do all this and more. In building SharePoint Portal Server, Microsoft concentrated on four goals: delivering departmental document management; easing deployment in existing Win2K or NT organizations; integrating with Web browsers, Windows Explorer, and Office applications; and providing search capabilities.

Deliver Departmental Document Management
Unlike server products that target an entire organization (e.g., Exchange Server), SharePoint Portal Server aims for workgroup or departmental deployments. Microsoft's intention is that every department will have a SharePoint Portal Server machine that acts as a departmental portal and repository for all the information that the department owns and manages. (One SharePoint Portal Server machine can still deliver information to a complete enterprise. The server will permit any authorized user to access information, even when the user doesn't belong to the department that owns the SharePoint Portal Server machine.)

The new product meets the Windows infrastructure's need for basic document-management features such as multiple versioning (i.e., the ability to maintain multiple versions of a document or other item that is under development). SharePoint Portal Server supports minor and major versions of documents. The server automatically creates minor versions—in which the version number moves from 1.0 to 1.1 to 1.2 and so on—each time a user updates a document. The server creates major versions—in which the version number moves from 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0 and so on—when an authorized user elects to publish the document. The product maintains a full audit trail to track updates. Although you can't roll back to an earlier document version, you can save an earlier version as a new document.

The publishing functionality includes a simple workflow process to approve a document's content. Approval is a folder property; as Figure 1, page 54, shows, you can specify a set of approvers and configure SharePoint Portal Server to send the approvers email when a user attempts to publish a document. The workflow is extremely simple: You can send the document to approvers one after another or all at once. When you choose to send notification to all approvers, you can configure the process to publish the document after approval by all the recipients or after approval by only one. No facility exists to set a quorum (e.g., so that the server will publish the document if two out of three recipients approve) or to handle approver requests for new information. (The serial workflow is slightly more intelligent; the document passes from approver to approver in the specified order. One approver's failure to approve the document returns the document to the author.) Nevertheless, SharePoint Portal Server's publishing feature will meet the needs of many organizations that don't need or want a complex workflow.

Internally, the server maps its permissions to the Windows security model, similar to the way public-folder access works in Exchange Server 5.5. Every folder and document that you create within SharePoint Portal Server has a set of server-managed permissions, and certain roles permit users to assume these permissions. (A role is simply a collective set of permissions that enables a user and the server to interact in a specific manner.) The new server defines roles for Reader, Author, and Coordinator. These roles are fixed; you can't create customized roles as you can for Exchange Server public folders.

As the name implies, a Reader can read documents in a folder but can't edit documents or add new ones. You can associate the Reader role with a Win2K group; for example, you can associate the role with the Everyone group on folders that hold information you want to make available to all users. An Author can create and edit documents. A Coordinator can perform any operation, including setting up new document profiles, on the folder. The Coordinator is an important role because it also takes responsibility for creating categories and ensuring that workspaces are managed in a logical and accessible manner.

If you already run Exchange Server, you might currently use public folders for document management. However, significant differences exist between the two servers' designs and features (Table 1 compares the two products' primary features). Therefore, don't assume that you can attain SharePoint Portal Server's document-management abilities through Exchange Server (at least not out of the box). See the sidebar "Why Not Just Use Public Folders?" page 59, for details.

Ease Deployment Within Existing Infrastructures
Microsoft's goal is to have SharePoint Portal Server up and running in less than 15 minutes when you deploy it in an existing Win2K or NT organization. SharePoint Portal Server runs only on a Win2K server with Service Pack 1 (SP1) or later, but this requirement doesn't obstruct the goal because Win2K servers fit well in NT infrastructures. And the product doesn't depend on Active Directory (AD) or any other Win2K component—a tacit acknowledgment that companies will be running NT for years to come. For information about the hardware that you need to run SharePoint Portal Server, see the sidebar "Hardware Fundamentals," page 61.

Currently, you can't link SharePoint Portal Server machines to form a cohesive whole, so you don't need to generate a comprehensive design before you install the first server (as you must do in an Exchange Server organization). However, you can use one server to index the content on other SharePoint Portal Server machines, so you can deploy an organizationwide portal server that relies on the information that many other SharePoint Portal Server machines manage in the background.

You perform some management operations (e.g., define workspaces, set permissions, manage indexes) through a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in, but the snap-in is limited compared with the snap-ins for Exchange 2000 or AD. The new server is primarily Web based, so you perform most management operations through a browser or Windows Explorer (as Figure 2 shows).

From an IT perspective, the prospect of a department installing and operating a SharePoint Portal Server machine should have roughly the same impact as installing and operating a file server. The department might require assistance to commission the new server, but after it's up and running, the product places no special demands on the infrastructure. (The corporate Help desk, however, might need to cope with demands from users who want to access information on the new server but who don't have the necessary access rights.)

Of course, any investment your company makes in deploying and managing SharePoint Portal Server will be wasted if users don't modify the way they think about documents. Merely dumping documents into a network file share or public folder isn't sufficient. Users must give thought to how to organize and categorize documents effectively, what workspaces to use, and how to administer those workspaces. Don't underestimate the organizational challenges implicit in a change from loose to structured document management.

Leverage Web Browsers, Windows Explorer, and Office
SharePoint Portal Server doesn't require a massive software-deployment effort, either. To permit access to the new server, simply install SharePoint Portal Server client extensions (which you can find in the server CD-ROM's client kit) on your users' systems. These extensions add the necessary components to each system's browser and to Windows Explorer and Office applications. Everyone who accesses a SharePoint Portal Server machine requires a Client Access License (CAL). Users can interact with SharePoint Portal Server workspaces through three interfaces:

  • A portal, which comprises Web Parts that form a digital dashboard that users can access through a Web browser. (Figure 3 shows an example of a typical portal.)
  • Client extensions for Windows Explorer and Web folders.
  • Add-ins for Office applications.

Access through a portal. Microsoft envisions that most users will access SharePoint Portal Server functionality through a Web browser, so when you install the product, it automatically creates a Web site to host workspaces. This Web site acts as a portal and includes a set of Web Parts, each of which describes a function such as search, folder views, or subscriptions. The server maintains these basic Web Parts; to build a customized dashboard, you can mix and match basic Web Parts with Web Parts that access other data sources. For example, one Web Part might fetch data from Exchange Server to show a user's calendar, whereas another might list the user's subscriptions to categories of SharePoint Portal Server information.

Microsoft claims that you can use Netscape 4.72 or Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 or later to access SharePoint Portal Server, but IE 5.5 is the best choice. Web Parts are inline floating frame (IFrame) elements that run within a browser and that use numerous HTML

tags. Even the current Netscape browsers don't support