My trip up the learning curve for SharePoint is practically Sisyphean. Every time I think I've got my head wrapped around it, I find out... not quite, buster. Not the using of SharePoint—that's easy as pie. It's everything else that my former boss would have called "the surround stuff." For instance, issues surrounding governance—who gets to start SharePoint sites? What can go on a SharePoint site? Then there's the matter of oversight—is it the domain of the business unit? Or is it under IT control? And then there's the challenge of sorting out the big—and getting bigger—ecosystem of third-party "SharePoint enhancement" solutions. What's THAT all about? Those kinds of things continue to stymie me, as they do many of you.
So in order to sort out the nuances that surround SharePoint, I sought out John Peluso, technology and training specialist at AvePoint, one of the better-known members of that third-party ecosystem.
I start out, as I often do, by getting a basic definitional level-set out of the way. I ask John what I call "the cocktail party" question: If you were at a cocktail party and someone asked you, "What is SharePoint?" what would you say?
"My answer is: What do you need it to be?" John answers, enigmatically. "SharePoint can be a collaboration tool, an intranet portal, a content management system, a social platform, a public website, an enterprise application platform... it can be any or all of those things."
Not meaning to be cheeky, but I suggest to John that his cocktail-party friend would probably not be satisfied by that answer. I think what I actually say is, "Well, that's vague."
"Well, it's true," counters John. "It can be a communication tool for your employees or a contact point for your customers. It can surface important data out of your CRM system. Anything and everything in between," he says.
One of the key selling points for SharePoint is its distributed nature; with it you can place some control on how content is distributed internally and externally with the users themselves. "Most companies throw all their content into a big pile called a shared drive, and then leave it up to the employees to find the stuff they need. They don't have a lot of choice over it. But SharePoint can allow employees to set their own practices—approval workflows, templates, etc. That's one thing SharePoint can do for an organization very quickly," he says. "It's a bit of marketing-speak, but this idea of agility is really true with SharePoint. If you want to have a space to collaborate with team members on a project, you can have your own website in 30 seconds," says John.
"But..." I insinuate.
"Yeah, the opposite of that is: Be careful what you ask for," he admits. "How are those sites controlled, connected, governed? The gotcha is that, as great as SharePoint is, it really is designed for a distributed administration model. There are no good centralized tools in SharePoint to get a handle on managing that distributed nature of it. There's an optimism in Redmond that if you train a few administrators to do things right, they will do things right. And they don't always!"
Policy or Power?
SharePoint is a double-edged sword. On one side is the agility that arises from the quick, easy and purpose-driven nature of it. On the other side, there's no good central way to control the typical SharePoint environment. Every time a change has to be made, it has to be made across the entire SharePoint environment. What's that in your company? Eighty sites? A thousand? I've been told that Microsoft itself has more than 10,000 SharePoint instances.
So, I ask John, can't organizations simply make rules about the deployment, structure and governance of SharePoint?
"Every article I read about governing SharePoint has great ideas, but they also say, ‘If you can't enforce it, there's no sense in making the policy.' We can make policies and hope people follow them. That's about it. But in order to manage those policies, you need two things: discoverability, to see if people really are following the policies; and tools, to fix and re-architect things when we need to," John explains.
John says that the current migration wave to SharePoint 2010 represents a great opportunity for organizations to clean up their acts. "It's impractical for an IT department to have to go to 80 different websites in order to implement a new change in policy. They don't have the proper tools to do that. So we say to them: As long as you're migrating, take the time to do some restructuring and cleaning up, because how many other times are you going to be able to touch every occupant? What content do you have? Is it stale? What do you want to bring over in the upgrade? What do you want to trash? You should use this as a chance to re-architect your information. This is a chance to get it right. The game is to give people the tools they need to administer all those instances across the organization."
But SharePoint isn't set up to provide those. This is one of the reasons (among many) that such a vibrant and eager sub-culture of third-party SharePoint enhancement vendors has sprung up. It's no secret that Microsoft itself is not interested in developing narrowly focused and application-specific support. They leave that to the partner network. And they do it gladly; they're happy to have an ecosystem of partners to do this work. They can thus spend their development resources enhancing SharePoint itself. That leaves the third-party ISVs (such as John's AvePoint) looking for "ins" to take advantage of the-shortcomings isn't the right word—the opportunities left behind by Microsoft.
Such as...? "Well, we talked about administration tools. Storage optimization is another great opportunity. Microsoft has one storage model: You store everything in SQL," says John. "And for a lot of organizations, especially larger ones, they are at the level of maturity with SharePoint that SQL storage isn't scalable," he adds. "Companies love what SharePoint is doing for them, but their very expensive SQL storage is out of control. And they're projecting that it is not sustainable." So the solution is third-party. "Microsoft provides the API; independent developers create better storage options. SharePoint is a product that very much caters to developers, because it is so open and so extendable." John refers to Recovery.gov, a huge site where every American can go to see where all the Recovery Act—the "stimulus"—dollars were being spent. And it had to be built quickly. Very few developers signed up for the job because of the insanely large effort and the short turnaround time. The company that ended up getting the job to build the site used SharePoint, because that takes all the architectural work away and all they had to do was the customization. "That's why developers take kindly to what they can do with SharePoint," says John.
I wonder whether there's a shortcut around that kind of relationship; is there a do-it-yourself option? "Not on the storage optimization front; it's pretty much going to be third-party or you're not doing it. Very few customers would try it, and fewer still would see the value in doing it," says John
"On the administrative side, some organizations will develop rules and come up with procedures. And they end up shutting a lot of features off. I'm not going to let people make their own sites. They have to ask me for permission. And that does sort of solve the problem of sprawl. But in doing so, you're undercutting a lot of the agility that makes SharePoint useful in the first place."
That's ironic, I think. See what I mean by Sisyphus?
The Way Ahead
"We are heading toward ‘governance automation,'" predicts John. The idea, as he explains it, is rather than make an administrator physically make every decision every time a request comes through, you create a sort of automatic middleman, where requests get filtered through before going live. This automated governance filter can be pre-filled with all the decision points an administrator would normally make manually: Here's what I want the user to tell me about this site (check some boxes). What policies do I apply to this type of request? (check some more boxes). It's like a wizard for SharePoint policy governance and enforcement. "It's lights-out management for SharePoint governance," says John.
That's a great example of why there's been such a rush toward SharePoint support. So I hit John with another "cocktail party" question: I don't remember there being such an ecosystem for, say Word, or Excel. What's the difference?
"You're exactly right and here's why: Excel does what it does, and that's about it. You can extend it a little, but not much. But SharePoint is the exact opposite. It goes back to our conversation earlier about it being vague, but that's the difference. You can make SharePoint do anything you want," he replies.
"One thing that makes me angry is to go into a customer's business, and see them using a basic, plain, out-of-the-box version of SharePoint. Out of the box lists. Out of the box libraries... And I say, ‘Wow, Microsoft must have been really good to predict EXACTLY what you need,'" he laughs.