Microsoft officially launched a staggering number of new products, including Windows Vista and the Microsoft Office System 2007, on November 30, 2006. Several of these products were upgrades of previous releases; however, a significant number of new Office servers were included in the Office 2007 release.

Cynics might suggest that the new Office server products are Microsoft's way of squeezing more revenue out of the Office product line, which is already installed on nearly every information worker's computer. Revenue certainly would have been a consideration for Microsoft. However, many businesses need the solutions that the new Office servers offer to accommodate the changes in the way today's information workers do business. Businesses and their partners, customers, and end users are now demanding collaboration solutions, automated business processes, auditing and compliance, and access to information anytime and anywhere.

In the current Office client suite, there are many applications—and not all of them are appropriate for every business, scenario, or user. For example, many users never have to use Microsoft Access or Microsoft Office Publisher, although few can do their jobs without using Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel. The same will hold true for the new Office server applications. Each server product serves a specific need, and although some tools (such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) will become ubiquitous, others (such as Microsoft Project Server) will probably be limited to a niche in the market.

Most companies will find that one or more of these server products can deliver real business value to their organizations. I've found that effective collaboration can give a company a significant competitive advantage.

The problem has been that, until now, collaboration application solutions have typically been expensive both in terms of capital outlay for the software and training for end users. These applications are also often difficult to integrate into existing business processes. In most cases, the early adopters of collaboration solutions found there was no return on their investments because they had to overcome significant obstacles to successfully implement the tools or the end users didn't use the tools because the learning curve was so high. If implemented into your environment correctly, the new Office servers can deliver the crucial balance of power and flexibility (for you) and familiarity (for your users) that can lead to a successful collaboration solution. To help you with the implementation, let's examine each of the new Office server products—Forms Server 2007, Groove Server 2007, Project Server 2007, and SharePoint Server 2007—so that you can understand their purpose and better evaluate their potential role in your business collaboration strategy.

Forms Server 2007
What business doesn't have forms? Many businesses use paper forms whose appearance and processing haven't changed much in years. Forms Server 2007 is a standalone server that delivers and manages digital forms that replace paper forms and legacy online forms (such as fill-in PDF files). You can access the forms through Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007 or a Web browser for data collection, distribution, and integration with processes using business rules.

Authorized users create forms using InfoPath 2007. You can use controls (such as text boxes and drop-down lists) that Forms Server 2007 makes available. You can preconfigure the behavior of each control. For example, you can preconfigure mouse-over tips, prepopulated default values, and data validation. Additional behaviors connect the form and its controls with back-end systems, such as SharePoint Server 2007. You can then place the forms into a SharePoint Server 2007 or Microsoft BizTalk Server 2006 workflow.

All of the heavy-lifting application code and primary business logic rules are configured and executed on the server, which means a form's creator or user can build what he or she needs while developers control the precise and complete integration of the form, its data business processes, and its workflows. As forms are updated, new versions can be deployed side-by-side with reusable controls and business logic.

You can use InfoPath 2007 (or other third-party applications) as a standalone application to create electronic forms, but if multiple forms need to work together within a process or if external clients need access to those forms through a browser, you'll need IT to build a solution to support it. However, Forms Server 2007 can easily move forms online, create workflows, and centralize data management. Keep in mind that you can host forms on SharePoint Server 2007, so take advantage of this ability if you're already using it. Forms Server 2007 is a standalone product and cheaper than SharePoint Server 2007, but it's for environments that need only the forms capability. I've found that the most difficult part of implementing Forms Server 2007 is combining all the scattered paper and online forms into a defined business process. You'll need to invest time to analyze your business and implement a structure of forms, business logic, and workflows.

Groove Server 2007
If you've yet to select a set of tools to use to provide a collaborative workspace (or even if you already have), you should take a look at Groove Server 2007. Groove 2007 workspaces provide tools for file sharing, discussions, meetings, specialized calendars, and presence awareness (i.e., knowing who is online). Business forms are available through InfoPath 2007, with phone calls and IM available when Groove Server 2007 is integrated with Microsoft Office Communicator. Groove Server 2007 also lets you make SharePoint Server 2007 sites available offline.

From a user's perspective, a Groove 2007 workspace is simple to create and maintain: With only a couple of clicks, you can create a Groove 2007 workspace on a local computer. Users can then share that workspace with other users (think workgroup), which is sufficient for small to medium-sized workspaces.

When the connection to external data sources and complexity of the workspace environment (e.g., size of the workspace, dispersion of clients) overload the decentralized workgroup environment, workspaces can be managed on the Groove server. This architecture lets you maintain data versions and update postings centrally, but lets users store their working copies locally. That means when users travel or work offsite, they don't have to be connected to Groove Server 2007 to work on documents, post discussion questions and comments, or add items to the workspace. The next time that users connect to Groove Server 2007, the updates on their computers are automatically synchronized to Groove Server 2007, and all other users' workspaces are updated on their local computers.

On the back end, there are several components that need to be configured properly to keep server-managed workspaces up-to-date while not bringing down the network (just kidding, but there is overhead to plan for). The Manager (for defining workspaces), Relay (for controlling site-type traffic), and Data Bridge (for connecting to Microsoft SQL Server or other databases) server components are all part of the infrastructure that supports workspaces. Collaboration tools have huge front-end productivity gains, so the resources that businesses invest usually have a significant ROI. The resources needed for Groove Server 2007 will also be compensated, to some degree, by users not having to email large attachments back and forth multiple times. For example, a Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentation can be edited locally and synchronized by Groove Server 2007, so that there aren't multiple versions of the presentation in multiple users' mailboxes on the mail server.

Groove was a successful application, even before Microsoft acquired Groove Networks in April 2005. There are clearly scenarios in which decentralized collaboration plays an important role. Certainly, some collaboration scenarios outside your network might be better supported by Groove Server 2007 than by a SharePoint Server 2007 extranet. Groove Server 2007's ability to make certain that SharePoint Server 2007 data is available offline might also be attractive to some users. At the lower levels of implementation, you can deploy Groove Server 2007 for users similarly to how you deploy Office and other user-productivity applications today.

When the workgroup model becomes overwhelmed or insufficient, you should develop a Groove Server 2007 topology. This article isn't the place for a detailed discussion, but a Groove 2007 implementation is similar to any other messaging implementation with load, relay, and storage considerations that need to be planned for. Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 provides even more integration possibilities. Developers will be glad to learn that the Groove 2007 workspace integrates with InfoPath forms and SharePoint Server 2007 document libraries to keep data consistent across high-level business processes. Although InfoPath forms and SharePoint Server 2007 document libraries are for users, administrators can use them for planning and defining those business processes.

Most businesses likely won't consider using Groove Server 2007 until after SharePoint Server 2007 has been rolled out. Even then, businesses will be wise to seek guidance from Microsoft or Groovesavvy IT consultants to properly implement Groove Server 2007 so that it meets their business needs.

Project Server 2007
Project Server 2007 extends the power of previous versions of Project Server and embraces more of the toolset that's used across the enterprise on the ground level, particularly Excel and Microsoft Office Outlook. For example, you can use Outlook to maintain tasks (such as progress, completion, and change schedule) and handle reports in Excel or Microsoft Office Visio that are dynamically tied back to the data on the Project Server. If a browser is more to users' liking, Microsoft Office Project Web Access and Project Workspace let users collaborate over the Web. It's always positive when users can facilitate high-level processes without a learning curve.

At higher levels of project management, the Cube Building Service enables you to use portfolio analyzer cubes for sophisticated analysis and reporting. Resource plans can show high-level resource allocation for categories of proposed projects without digging into unnecessary details. Timesheets now support fiscal periods and cost codes, and other financial fields that let you report hours separately from the progress made on tasks. You can also define deliverables, and those deliverables can cross projects. These additional functions are likely to increase Project Server 2007's attractiveness as a solution within part of the original collaboration solutions.

Project Server 2007 offers welcome improvements for developers. Now fully implemented on the Microsoft .NET Framework, it's not as difficult to reach Project Server 2007 from the outside, as the API now exposes all the functionality and data that client applications might need. Project Server 2007 also supports the Windows Workflow Foundation (WF), which allows for the integration of business processes defined and implemented within the context of other Office servers. From the performance side, the scheduling engine has been moved to the server, meaning that custom front ends no longer require the full executable (winproj.exe) on each machine.

With Project Server 2007, users will be able to manage their projects more easily within the context of familiar tools, project managers will get more features and better reporting capabilities, and developers will get easier access to data that used to be much harder to reach. If your organization already uses Microsoft Project, you can certainly expect Project Server 2007 to be part of your collaboration solutions, especially as demand for good reporting increases. (Note: Not every user needs to be a project manager to use Project Server 2007.)

SharePoint Server 2007
SharePoint Server 2007 is the "Mother Hen" that brings people and data together within defined contexts. What started several years ago as a document library and fledging communication tool has developed into a robust information portal. Although chances are that you've worked with SharePoint at some point, there are many new and improved features. SharePoint Server 2007 serves the following six business scenarios:

Portal. SharePoint Server 2007 supports designing, deploying, and managing enterprise intranet portals, corporate Internet presence Web sites, and divisional portal sites. The portal components also make it easy to connect to people who have the right skills, knowledge, and project experience.

Users get a personalized experience because of user profiles, audience targeting, presence awareness, and audience-appropriate views (such as My Manager and My Assistant). An LDAP-pluggable provider (in addition to the Active Directory—AD—provider) lets you securely access categorical information based on the various directory services that might be involved.

Enterprise Search. SharePoint Server 2007 lets you access data repositories across your enterprise and provide search results that are relevant to your enterprise and that respect security (i.e., only show results that you have permission to read). Think of Enterprise Search as an inhouse Google. (I can hear the shudders of folks at Microsoft as I compare Enterprise Search to Google, but they'll get over it.)

Content management, including documents, records, and Web content. What used to be a simple platform for document collaboration is now a full-featured solution for managing business documents and content. Going far beyond a simple repository for documents, SharePoint Server 2007's libraries are configurable for submission, review, approval, and signature processes surrounding any document, regardless of whether the document was created in an Office application or through a Web editor interface. These managed document libraries are controlled by templates that provide the business logic for controlling workflows, translating documents into any of the 28 supported languages, and rolling up documents into comprehensive reports.

Business processes. The client/server platform (InfoPath Form Services) enables you to create, deploy, and maintain centrally managed forms. Related data is XML-based, is Web accessible, and can be integrated into back-end business processes.

SharePoint Server 2007 provides access to defined data within a business process through single sign-on (SSO), which permits a user to enter only one username and password to use a variety of back-end applications in addition to those controlled directly by SharePoint Server 2007. Once authenticated, the business user has access to all configured forms within the workflow.

Forms are based on XML schemas that you define to control the structure of the data captured by the form, whether the form is created directly in InfoPath 2007 or imported from an existing Word or Excel document. A completed form is an XML file that complies with that structure, making it highly actionable. For example, a loan application form might include a main view for an applicant to fill in data using a browser and another view visible to only the loan officer, who reviews and approves the application.

Business intelligence. SharePoint Server 2007 enables you to develop Webbased business intelligence (BI) dashboards that can incorporate rich, databound Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), Web Parts, and published spreadsheets. Analysis is key for BI, and the familiar tool for business users is Excel, so it's not surprising that SharePoint Server 2007 heavily leverages it. SharePoint Server 2007 can refresh external data, recalculate workbooks, and render them with a high-fidelity, Web-based UI in an Excel Web Services Web Part. Based on publishing parameters, SharePoint Server 2007 can render a complete Excel 2007 workbook, select worksheets, or select a region within a worksheet.

Developers can use Excel Web Services to calculate a complex model built in Excel 2007 and display the results to a user working on a Web-based UI or custom desktop application. SharePoint Server 2007 includes out-of-the-box Web sites, that are hosted by the new Report Center, which has been optimized for report access and management. Integration and aggregation with SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) into a SharePoint Server 2007 Business Data Catalog extends reporting capabilities even further, making appropriate data readily available to the business user.

SharePoint Server 2007 gives you the ability to efficiently manage data for business processes, provide collaboration at numerous levels within team workflows, and secure access for all business users. Solid planning, a logical implementation strategy, and timely user training should result in a healthy ROI. But with six business scenarios covered by SharePoint Server 2007 alone, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Pick one or two scenarios that are most important to your business to focus on, but don't lose sight of SharePoint Server 2007's other capabilities because chances are good that as users experience SharePoint Server 2007, they'll start requesting solutions covered in the other scenarios.

SharePoint Server 2007 has the potential to unlock enormous productivity potential when aligned with business processes and strategies. Although the financial markets have been focused on how many copies of Windows Vista and Office 2007 Microsoft will sell, it's really SharePoint Server 2007 that's the stealth force.

What the New office Servers Mean for You
The Office 2007 servers focus on collaboration, and I think IT can (and should) expect this upgrade cycle of Office to go beyond a simple discussion of user-level features. Many businesses are at the tipping point for collaboration—it isn't just a good idea to have managed collaboration, it's necessary, and collaboration solutions require a great deal of planning beyond a normal upgrade of the desktop product. Your Office servers planning and implementation efforts will be similar to when you planned for directory services (i.e., going from the workgroup to the domain mentality).

The days of simply providing users with applications are over. The unique workflows in today's businesses involve data and people, and office tools need to be configured to meet the needs of those workflows. With an Office 2007 environment, you can make data available to the correct people, properly secure that data, and provide users with the tools they need to achieve their business goals. Early adopters of the Office 2007 collaboration tools are proving that the tools work well and that productivity gains are huge when you invest the time and resources needed for up-front planning and a good user-training program. SharePoint Server 2007 is necessary, and the supporting tools fill specific roles—you can expect high demand from both users and business owners for increased collaboration.