Over the past five years, many organizations have abandoned their legacy Lotus Notes/Domino environments and transitioned to a platform based on Microsoft Exchange Server, SharePoint and Office. However, some of these companies have hesitated to tackle the most difficult part of the transition: migrating their applications from Notes to SharePoint. Their concerns range from the cost of rebuilding applications on SharePoint to uncertainty about whether SharePoint has the capabilities needed.
The release of Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 and SharePoint Foundation 2010 offers new features to make a Lotus Notes migration simpler and easier. Here are 10 SharePoint 2010 features that will change the game for any sized business interested in adopting SharePoint to replace or enhance Notes environments.
1. Scalability: It’s not unusual for Notes databases in large enterprises to contain tens of thousands of documents. Organizations attempting to move this content to SharePoint 2007 ran into some severe size limitations on SharePoint lists and libraries. With SharePoint 2010, however, the recommended maximums for many criteria have more than doubled. Even better, the penalty for exceeding them is less severe, and SharePoint will now automatically throttle certain operations that previously would have brought your servers to their knees.
2. Managed Metadata: Keyword fields are central to most custom Notes applications. These range from simple pop-up or drop-down lists of terms all the way to lookups in other views and databases. While SharePoint 2007 already had ways to achieve this functionality, SharePoint 2010 adds a powerful new feature called Managed Metadata. Think of this as the next level beyond Choice and Lookup fields. SharePoint now will allow you to keep all your terms in a managed term store, which includes a complete interface for allowing administrators to maintain them.
The Managed Metadata feature scales well from simple needs to enterprise knowledge management solutions. You can create a simple Managed keyword field and term set scoped to just one SharePoint site. The same term set can be referenced by multiple lists and libraries within that site, and, when needed, it can scale out to “Enterprise” term sets spanning many site collections and even be replicated between multiple SharePoint farms.
3. Office Integration: For the last 15 years, Notes developers and third-party product companies have tried to achieve good integration with Microsoft Office. SharePoint has always had excellent Office integration, and SharePoint 2010 offers additional capabilities. Collaborative editing of Office documents allows multiple users to open the same Word document simultaneously and a sophisticated change tracking interface allows them to see changes made by other users almost instantly. Office Web Apps provide completely browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc., so users can view and edit documents in SharePoint without having to install Office clients.
4. Offline Capabilities: Although many of us count on continuous internet connectivity and bandwidth, many legacy Notes applications depend on the ability to “go offline.” Notes is famous for its ability to replicate to your laptop whatever data you need to continue working while unplugged.
SharePoint appeared a decade later, designed for a modern connected world and optimized for server applications that delivered much lower cost of ownership and many other benefits. However, there still are times when you need the ability to work on a plane, at a customer site where you can’t access the internet, or in your vacation home “off the grid.”
SharePoint Workspaces address this need. You can synchronize lists, libraries and entire sites to your laptop, use them offline, and then sync up with the site the next time you connect. This functionality is largely based on the Groove technology built by many of the same developers who worked on the original Notes product. Microsoft has done a great job at taking the best of the Groove plumbing and repackaging it as a very compelling offering to fulfill most of the “offline” needs of a typical Notes application.
5. SharePoint Online: Many organizations considering a move from Notes to Microsoft have investigated a hosted environment. The Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) is an obvious choice with its “Dedicated” version that allows large enterprises to have dedicated private hosted servers, and “Standard” version, in which multiple customers share one hosted environment.
While Exchange Online has been popular for replacing Notes mail/calendar environments, movement to SharePoint Online has been much slower, mainly due to the limited capabilities for customizing applications and the platform’s inability to migrate legacy content to hosted servers. The next generation of SharePoint Online, based on SharePoint 2010, is a different story.
The SharePoint Online team previously had to limit customizations because there was no way to ensure they would not cause problems. To resolve this, SharePoint 2010 contains a sandbox, providing a safe way for the server to run code written and uploaded by other people. Another important feature of SharePoint Online is a set of web services that enable migration tools to do a good job moving Notes application design and content. It’s worth mentioning that some customers take a hybrid approach, migrating certain Notes applications to on-premises SharePoint environments, and others to SharePoint Online.
6. Improved Content Pages: In the SharePoint world, content doesn’t live only in list items and document library Office files, it also lives in pages. SharePoint 2007 included several different types of pages – basic pages, wiki pages, web part pages and publishing pages – but their capabilities were limited and end users’ editing experiences were mediocre. Content pages have been greatly improved in SharePoint 2010, and the new rich text editor sizzles. End users now can upload images and files, and even embed Web parts. These improvements make content pages a great target format for migrating certain types of Notes applications.
7. Code-Free Development Capabilities: There are good tools on the market today for migrating the content of Notes applications to SharePoint, but what about the design? A big barrier to moving large numbers of Notes applications to SharePoint is the cost of rebuilding complex applications.
Some organizations mistakenly assume a Notes application that took a certain number of hours to develop in Notes, with a certain number of lines of code, will require the same effort to rebuild on SharePoint. This is far from the truth. SharePoint is designed as a modern collaborative platform and allows you to do many things out-of-the-box or via the simple configuration that Notes developers had to build from scratch.
This list was fairly large in SharePoint 2007, but it’s expanded even more in SharePoint 2010. In addition to new “big ticket” items like the Managed Metadata feature, a number of smaller features helpful to developers will reduce the cost of building applications.
Many new capabilities are available to administrators who configure lists and libraries in a browser, including the ability to use simple input validation formulas. Now, you can specify validation for individual fields, or for the document as a whole, including messages that should be displayed if the tests fail. You also can add multi-level column indexes, specify which columns require unique values, and enforce “relational” constraints between lists.
SharePoint Designer, which facilitates deeper design of your sites without writing code, also plays a big role here. Now a free download, SharePoint Designer enables you to design declarative workflows and define external lists; perform more extensive page customizations; edit master pages; work with complex web parts; and add custom action buttons.
Another great way to further expand your code-free development options is to use third-party Web parts. Some Web part products on the market today are specifically designed to help reproduce Notes-like functionality in SharePoint at a much lower cost than if you had to develop it yourself.
8. InfoPath List Forms: Form design is one of the most important parts of a Notes-to-SharePoint migration. InfoPath, of course, is Microsoft’s primary solution for building data entry forms for complex business documents. Microsoft InfoPath 2010 is designed for both advanced business users and developers, and there are great tools available for migrating Notes form designs to InfoPath templates, as well as Notes documents to InfoPath data documents
With SharePoint 2007, InfoPath could only be used with form libraries and brought some unfortunate limitations, but SharePoint 2010 introduces InfoPath List Forms, a feature that allows you to use InfoPath forms as your editor for list items. Now you get the best of both worlds – a lightweight method of storing documents with custom schema, and a great way to design custom forms for entering and displaying them.
9. Declarative workflow: When we think of complex custom Notes applications, we think of workflow. Notes workflows are almost always implemented as code attached to various buttons, form events, and agents. By contrast, the Microsoft platform encourages the use of declarative workflows to express your application logic as a set of rules that even a nonprogrammer can enter, modify and understand.
Declarative workflow capabilities have improved significantly in SharePoint 2010, and include a much richer set of out-of-the-box workflows to use in your applications, depending on what edition of SharePoint you install, and which SharePoint template you’re using. SharePoint Designer can address the majority of workflows in Notes applications without having to write code, eliminating the need to use Visual Studio.
Users have a much larger vocabulary of workflow “conditions” and “actions” to choose from, including such Notes-like items as changing permissions on a document after it is submitted for approval, sending mail notifications, and moving content to another location. You can now design workflows that operate at the site or list levels, reuse workflows across an entire site collection and even export them for use on a completely different SharePoint farm.
10. Business Connectivity Services and External Lists: Because Notes has many capabilities for connecting to external systems like relational databases and enterprise applications, some of the Notes applications may simply be front-ends for some backend system.
SharePoint 2010 replaces SharePoint 2007’s limited Business Data Catalog with a much more powerful external data connector called Business Connectivity Services (BCS). With this new facility, you can search, read and write content in your back-end systems and allows you to expose this content as an External List, which looks and feels like a native SharePoint list that you can easily include as part of any SharePoint page.
This opens up the very interesting possibility of migrating your Notes content to SQL Server and still keeping the main user interface in SharePoint. Many of the new capabilities mentioned above, such as InfoPath list forms, are still available when your data resides external to SharePoint.
We’ve talked about 10 aspects of SharePoint 2010 that will make life a lot easier for organizations transitioning from Lotus Notes to SharePoint. While other non-Notes features of SharePoint 2010 will appeal to administrators and developers, decisions about what can and should be migrated come down to capabilities and cost. How much will it cost to migrate content and application design? What will my applications look like and what will they be able to do when I get there?
SharePoint 2010 addresses both of these questions in a big way, and already has accelerated the rate of Notes migrations around the world.
Steve Walch has been a Lotus Notes and Microsoft technologist since 1993, and has built a number of successful products. In 2002, he founded Proposion Software, which eventually focused on Notes-to-SharePoint migration and integration tools, and became the leading vendor in the market. Quest Software acquired Proposion in 2007. Steve keeps his Notes SharePoint blog filled with postings about his favorite migration tool.