I could have started and finished this article on a Post-It note:
I love you. Do you love me?
That conquering sound you hear is SharePoint, and it is nothing short of apocalyptic. You'll see it mentioned elsewhere a couple times in this White Paper: The fastest growing business application in Microsoft history (making it pretty much everyone's history), 20,000 SharePoint users have been added every day for the last five years. That's kind of astonishing.
As you speak with those who are ardent supporters of SharePoint—which I did on one fine sunny winter day recently—there's a kind of universal acceptance that it is the biggest game-changer of all time. The accolades get a little mushy, in fact. I sometimes found myself thinking, Geez, get a room already.
So, needing to explore this phenomenon, I lined up three of the most ardent SharePoint lovers I could imagine: Theresa Kollath, senior director of product management at ASG; Tamir Sigal, director of marketing at RSD; and Randy Williams, enterprise trainer and evangelist at AvePoint. We planned a "roundtable"-style discussion, and it proved to be very informative and revealing. And kind of touching in places. I wanted to eventually get to heart of this apparent domination of SharePoint, and, of course, uncloak the mystery of its stature if possible, so I beganby asking a general question about the overwhelming success of SharePoint: "Why are we talking about it so much? What's the big deal?"
"Microsoft is pretty ubiquitous with regards to enterprise software," started Theresa Kollath, with a keen grasp of the obvious (I'm teasing, Theresa!) "Just go down the list—Word, Excel, email in the form of Exchange and Outlook. Even if people don't use the entire range of Microsoft tools, everybody is at least familiar with them," said Theresa. "Add to that the fact that Microsoft also provides much of the underpinning technology, too... servers and what have you. It's all around us. So Microsoft is the new IBM. ‘You don't get fired...' and all that. That makes SharePoint a safe purchase," she said.
"The second thing that has contributed to the spread of SharePoint is its price point. This has allowed it to be deployed at the lower levels in organizations at the department level." As we will learn later, that particular "advantage" may have its darker implications, but for now we'll leave it at that: SharePoint is priced to sell.
"It's a great, synergistic combination of tools that you can't find in any other platform," added Randy Williams. "And I use the term ‘platform' intentionally. Because SharePoint is not a point solution to a single business problem like some software tools. It is a cohesive, well-designed combination of tools that will all work together and that can bring value across so many different challenges. So when you want to build an enterprise search solution, or address content management or even the social networking needs that companies now have, you can go to one set of tools and feel pretty comfortable it's going to be a pretty doggone good solution."
"On top of that," added Tamir Sigal, "Microsoft has been very smart to integrate the front office/desktop with the back-office repository. Two or three years ago, the SharePoint storage situation could have been justifiably criticized, but Microsoft has done a great job with (the 2010 version) in terms of scalability and storage," he said. "And the price makes it possible for a department to put up a SharePoint deployment without getting IT's involvement. So the entire user experience has made SharePoint the top business application that it is."
(OK, so my teeth are starting to hurt at this point. But it's hard to deny the exuberance with which the market has embraced SharePoint.)
"There are people pulling out multi-million dollar, multi-year ECM projects and replacing them with SharePoint," added Tamir. In the back of my head, I'm thinking: "Wait...that's not necessarily good news for me. Those ECM solutions he's talking about are my customers. I've gotta dig a little deeper here."
So I ask: Isn't SharePoint much more of a workbench for creating solutions than a solution to anything in and of itself? "I call it an a la carte set of tools that you can pick and choose to use individually if that fits your requirements," answered Randy. "And, in fact, that's typically how deployments begin. But as an organization matures, and discovers additional requirements, such as moving from document management into records management, it's there for when you're ready to grow." Randy addresses this same subject in his article in this paper, in the context of governance: "I never recommend you turn on every SharePoint feature on the first day you deploy the platform. Why? SharePoint does way too many things. Turning on everything confuses users and makes governance planning impossible. Instead, start by enabling a small subset of features to address just some of your business needs," he writes.
"You still have to do what I call a ‘gap analysis,'" Randy added, "between what you need and what the product can do out of the box."
Randy is talking about the rich independent software vendor (ISV) ecosystem—a sort of high-tech cottage industry—that has sprung up to fill in those "gaps." "The community helps you customize your solution, particularly in the area of storage. Content databases tend to bloat in size, and you may want to find a way to minimize those storage costs" by invoking the assistance of one of those many ISV "SharePoint enhancers."
"Randy is correct," agreed Theresa. "The degree to which you need outside influence has to do with the specific requirement. Let's say you're mainframe-based, and you feel the need to minimize the ‘travel time' from application to repository to storage. You'll need outside help to do that. It's all dependent on your business requirements, your costs and what you feel you need to stand up for the future." And like Randy, she suggested, "doing a needs assessment, as you would with any deployment, based on those and other criteria."
In most cases, SharePoint is deployed because it seems easy. And in many ways it is. But tic-tac-toe is easy, too. That doesn't mean it's very much fun.
"It's really easy to deploy SharePoint at first," said Theresa. "But all the costs may not be addressed at that time. That's not a knock on SharePoint. But because it's so easy, there can be some ‘gotchas' that come later. That's true of anything done quickly, though," she reasoned.
I wondered whether people are generally surprised when they learn that the resource costs associated with SharePoint can end up being much higher than expected? It's not as cheap and free as they thought, and they're, uh, unhappy?
"Yes and no," answered Tamir. "Microsoft did a great job of getting the first version in the door and offering it for, basically, free. But nothing's free! You need a server, you need an admin. And as the ‘SharePoint virus,' as I call it, grows and grows, the cost to the organization has increased. By the time they realize that, it's too late to take it back, Why? Because the last thing you want to do is upset the users. So the challenge is: how do you balance the costs of all these things, from support to governance, and roll out the controls we've been talking about, without impeding the value of SharePoint?"
Randy got the point: "There's a bit of a surprise factor. But at the same time, SharePoint slowly over time also changes the culture of the organization. The holy grail for what SharePoint should be doing is to accomplish a very positive return on the investment, and to focus not so much on what the users aren't allowed to do, but on what they should be doing. Companies should teach people how to use these tools to optimize their daily lives and get out of the office by 6 o'clock."
Tamir also recognized a certain "blessing and a curse" aspect. "One of the reasons that SharePoint has become so popular is the ease with which a group can stand up a website to collaborate on a project, and share their documents and all that other great stuff. But the challenge comes after the project is done. What does the company do with that site? Does it delete everything? Does it have to keep the content for compliance or regulatory reasons?" he asked.
"I call it ‘the paradox of simplicity,'" Randy added. "As we've already said, there's great ease in the permissioning to create a single site. But you multiply that by all your departments, and you face a sprawl problem. It's really hard to get companies to be aware of the potential problems upfront and be proactive about it before it gets past the point of being very painful. That's one of the limitations of SharePoint; it's very hard to address the problems of governing after the fact."