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SharePoint Portal Server—bringing KM to the masses

Microsoft’s long-awaited Tahoe project has finally hit the market in the form of SharePoint Portal Server. While it would be hard to live up to all the expectations generated over the last two years, Microsoft has managed to deliver an impressive range of functionality in the initial release. Part of the .Net Enterprise Servers suite, SharePoint Portal Server incorporates document management, search and retrieval and a portal development environment in one product.

Designed for the general business user, it is an attractive offering for organizations looking to raise the base level of knowledge management functionality they can offer users within the desktop environment. But SharePoint in its current guise does not present the threat to Lotus (lotus.com) that many expected--if it is to do that, Microsoft will need to provide closer integration with Exchange, leveraging the dominance of its groupware solution in small and medium enterprise (SME) office environments, and bringing together its collaborative offerings.

Microsoft’s immediate focus, however, is not so much competition with Lotus as developing a compelling reason for customers to upgrade to Office XP. SharePoint’s extension of the underlying capabilities of the Office environment in terms of document and information sharing is designed to do just that.

The product SharePoint is, unsurprisingly, designed to run on Windows operating systems, and is optimized for Office XP. It comprises three key components:

  • basic document management;

  • advanced search and classification;

  • an enterprise portal development environment.;

Document management Although at one stage Tahoe was positioned as Microsoft’s document management solution, customers looking for a comprehensive document management environment will be disappointed. Microsoft is making no pretense of challenging the specialist document management vendors such as Filenet or Documentum. Instead it is offering basic functionality such as version control, check-in/check-out, document approval and routing--all neatly integrated into the Office XP environment. (Basic imaging capabilities are also provided through integration with Office XP.) Rather than being designed for use by document or content management specialists, SharePoint raises the base level of document control available to Microsoft Office users--something many organizations will welcome.

Users can access and manage documents in three ways. They can stay within their Office application, checking documents in and out via the file menu, or they can navigate the repository using Windows Explorer/Web Folders, whose functionality is extended by SharePoint. The third alternative is the browser-based portal, from which users can view documents and perform basic document management tasks. However, the document management component of SharePoint cannot be implemented in a distributed environment--a shortcoming that will significantly limit the product’s value to larger and global scale organizations. In addition, although Web Store is used as the document repository in SharePoint, there is no integration between this and the Web Store used within Exchange. There is also no facility to archive e-mails into SharePoint, nor to integrate with Outlook. Those limitations mean that organizations will have to do significant integration work if they want to provide Outlook facilities within the SPS portal.

SharePoint is also not a Web content management tool. Although it does include both document management and a portal, there are no facilities for managing a Web site, and even browser-based content management facilities are limited. Microsoft intends to fill the Web content management gap in its range of products through its acquisition, in May 2001, of NCompass Labs (ncompass.com). The industry giant announced its plans to integrate NCompass Resolution 4.0 (which will be re-branded as Microsoft Content Management Server 2001) with the products in its .Net Enterprise Server suite, which includes SharePoint. However, no dates are yet available.

Search technology Microsoft sees the advanced search tools included in SharePoint as one of its key differentiators in the portal market it is targeting. Unlike its predecessor Index Server (which was designed to index and search a single server), SharePoint’s search component provides enterprise-scale facilities for searching a corporate intranet, and Microsoft claims it can index up to 10 million documents. Developed from work done in Microsoft Research Labs, it offers improved relevancy ranking algorithms for more accurate searching and includes automatic categorization capabilities.

The automatic categorization within SharePoint is based upon a Support Vector Machines approach--SVM is a learning algorithm that builds classifications based on a sample set of documents. That allows portal designers to create a classification model that automatically assigns documents to the relevant headings within the corporate taxonomy. Results sets from user queries are also organized according to the classification system.

A subscription facility in the product enables users to subscribe to a document, a category or a saved search, receiving notifications at user-defined intervals. Those notifications can either be delivered directly to the user via the portal, or in the form of e-mails.

Another feature of SPS’ search capabilities is its use of “adaptive crawling” to provide intelligent indexing of resources for the search engine. Offered as an alternative to the full or incremental crawl, the adaptive crawling algorithm analyses the change history of documents, and uses that to judge the probability of future changes--their likelihood and frequency. That allows SharePoint to re-index only those documents that are most likely to have changed, rather than having to index the whole document corpus every time. Microsoft claims that this allowed it to reduce the re-indexing time on its own intranet (over 5 million documents) from 51 hours to 8 hours.

Portal environment SharePoint provides a quick and easy portal design environment, yet one which gives considerable room for customization.

The portal component of SharePoint is the first Microsoft product to take full advantage of the Digital Dashboard Resource Kit. It allows users to create one or more dashboards, or views, which are customizable through the use of server-based Web Parts. As well as allowing users to access other SharePoint components, such as the document repository or the search facility, Web Parts can be created to allow access to other business systems and applications, as well as external Web sources. In addition, Microsoft recently announced a number of pre-built Web plug-ins, developed by the company itself and its partners, which are available as free downloads. They are designed to extend the capabilities of the dashboard, and include Web Parts for CRM and ERP integration, as well as various business and desktop application plug-ins.

The main limitation of the SharePoint portal, aside from its lack of integration with Exchange, is that there are no rendering or viewing facilities for non-HTML documents. In order for portal users to view those documents, SharePoint has to launch the native application, which requires the user to have the application installed on their desktop. This is a particularly disappointing omission from the product, particularly since Microsoft is positioning the product squarely in the portal market.

Set-up and customization A key selling point for SharePoint is that Microsoft claims that its set up time out-of-the-box is 20 minutes. The company also claims that users will be getting value from the product by the end of the day. Obviously any customization to the product will extend that time.

Although its out-of-the-box functionality is not extensive, Microsoft provides a Software Development Kit (SDK) for SharePoint, which allows organizations to customize the solution to match their requirements. As a result, customers will need to be aware that although SharePoint may be able to offer a great level of flexibility, it depends on the customer having the resources (or being prepared to buy them in) to undertake the necessary development work.

Impact on the market SharePoint spans three (relatively) distinct marketplaces. However, with its choice of name, Microsoft has clearly positioned SharePoint in potentially the most lucrative of them, the portal market. Ovum forecasts that overall revenues for portals will rise from $1.5 million in 2001, to $7 billion in 2005 (see Figure 1 for a regional breakdown). However, the other two markets are substantial in their own right. Ovum forecasts that the content management market will rise from $3.5 billion in 2001 to $6.7 billion in 2005, and the search and retrieval market will rise to just under $1.4 billion in 2005 from $525 million in 2001.

While SharePoint may not do so well in a straight comparison with specialist document management, search or portal products on their own ground, when the whole package is considered it will offer an attractive solution to an organization for whom a base level of general functionality is more important than best-of-breed technology in one specific area.

So while a large percentage of the revenue from each of those markets will be generated by sales of best-of-breed products, Microsoft is in a good position to dominate the lower end of the market. Here, although the price per deal will be small by comparison, there will be many more of them, and the vast majority will already be Microsoft customers.

This type of solution will be particularly important to the SME market, for whom much knowledge management technology is too expensive and over-specified. Microsoft’s pricing strategy ($3,999 for a single server, plus $72 per user) will appear extremely competitive alongside the prices of Documentum, for example. However, although SharePoint is a very attractive solution for customers with lower headcounts (under 500 users), it is not so cost-effective for large numbers of users.

In the content management market, large vendors such as FileNet and Documentum are unlikely to feel much threat from SharePoint. Although it will put a barrier on any attempt they might make to move down market, this has long been expected and therefore will do little to change their market or product strategy. Smaller vendors, on the other hand, and those that offer their solutions on Microsoft-only platforms, will suffer. Organizations looking to enhance their Windows environment with basic document management will now see Microsoft as their first port of call. It is a similar situation in the search and portal market. Larger vendors (such as Verity [verity.com] or Autonomy [autonomy.com]) will not be too worried about the arrival of SharePoint--and indeed may benefit from the boost that Microsoft’s entry will bring to the knowledge management market as a whole. But smaller players targeting Microsoft customers will find life more difficult. In particular, SharePoint is likely to hasten a shakeout in the overcrowded enterprise portal market.

Conclusion Although there is evidently much opportunity for Microsoft with SharePoint Portal Sever in the SME market, it will need to address the lack of integration with Exchange and the issues of scalability for document management, as well as the pricing, before it can offer a truly enterprise-scale solution. In addition to this, the optimization of SharePoint for Office XP may be a deterrent for many potential customers, who cannot justify the upgrade.

The long road to delivery has meant that considerable expectations have been raised for the Tahoe project. The final result will be welcomed by many Microsoft customers and will appeal to those companies that can see the business benefits of three knowledge management technologies (document management, search and portal software), but cannot afford the to buy them in on a best-of-breed basis.

Angela Ashenden is an analyst with Ovum’s knowledge management group, e-mail aca@ovum.com.

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