Microsoft Sharepoint 2010 easier to use with great Office integration

In November, we gave SharePoint 2010 beta a test drive. Now, we put the shipping product through its paces and find that Microsoft has delivered a multi-purpose tool that delivers a bigger bang because of its tight coupling with Office 2010.
Some caveats remain from our first look at SharePoint 2010. It’s 64-bit only, so you may need to upgrade your servers. It does not support Internet Explorer 6, so you may want to upgrade to IE8. And to get the full functionality you pretty much need to be running the latest version of other Microsoft products, including Windows Server 2008 R2 and Office 2010.

Our beta test focused on key features such as collaboration, document management, search and business intelligence. This time around, we’re digging into customization, integration with Office 2010, social functions, and how metadata can be employed.

For this evaluation, we installed SharePoint 2010 on dedicated quad-core hardware running Windows Server 2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008 (64-bit). Clients could access SharePoint sites from a variety of laptops and desktops running Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7.

Setup is simple. After running the Pre-Upgrade Check utility, and addressing any warnings (such as custom Web Parts), we had no problems moving a SharePoint 2007 server to 2010. Just remember that SharePoint 2010 is 64-bit only.

On the fresh server, the setup – from installing the OS, database, prerequisites, and SharePoint – required about three hours. The setup program automates almost all the work required to install and configure SharePoint, resulting in a successful installation the first time.

Once you’re operational, it’s worth recapping how the new Web editing capabilities ease customizing, especially for users who are familiar with the ribbon menu of Office 2007. I simply clicked the Edit option in SharePoint’s Ribbon area to open the page in edit mode, reformatted text, and immediately saw a live preview of the changes.

Also, Wiki-like syntax cuts time when adding links to other content. For example, just enter ‘[[List:S’ and documents stored in document library folders starting with ‘S’ will appear in the autocomplete dropdown; then scroll down to the desired document or page you want to link to. Inserting graphics and multimedia is equally straightforward.

I particularly liked the way Web Parts (components that display particular types of information) are now better organized and appear at the top of a page when editing. Simply pick a category, such as Media and Content, and select the Web Part you want to insert into the page.

SharePoint 2007 required detailed knowledge of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to change the look of sites. Now, authorized users can update themes to match your brand – without any programming. I started with one of the many pre-made color and type combinations, and within a few minutes had customized the theme by specifying individual fonts and color hues.

Yet customization goes far beyond look and feel. SharePoint 2010 lets you target any list item, not just complete lists of information. It works like this: First, you create a catalog of rules, groups or memberships. Next, you can define that most any item within the site – from Web Parts to individual documents – will only appear to one of those defined audiences.

In a real-world example, I uploaded human resources documents and placed a Web Part on my home page to display the files, targeting the Web Part to the HR staff; the documents only appeared when members of the HR group visited the site. You could do the same with specialized material for employees in sales, R&D, or any other department.
One of the biggest obstacles I’ve found in organizing information within sites – whether documents, multimedia or pages – is getting users to consistently apply metadata. SharePoint 2010 has a smart solution with Term Store Management. To start this exercise, I imported a comma-separated variable (CSV) list of cities and countries where my company had offices into a SharePoint document library.

After a few more steps (which I think could be reduced), that list appeared in the properties dialog whenever I edited a document. This capability helps you created standard taxonomies. Further, users can now filter document lists based on the metadata. For instance, a document library would now show a control where you could display just those documents that were tagged ‘New York.’

I also tried several more of the document management improvements. The Content Organizer let me create rules that saved documents in the correct Document Library based on the type of file and its metadata properties. For instance, a PowerPoint show tagged with the UK might be saved in a document library you created for the EMEA region.

Since each library can have specific retention and other policies, this turns SharePoint 2010 into a very capable document and records management system for regulated industries or government agencies. Moreover, Document Sets helped me group related documents together, which is great for simplifying workflows and versioning,

Facebook for the enterprise

After the new user interface, perhaps the next biggest improvement in SharePoint 2010 is the social experience, which centers on communities. My Sites go back to SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and are essentially personal sites where users can tailor the content.

In SharePoint 2010, users have far more flexibility in populating their personal attributes (profiles) with interests – and deciding how much of that information is public. Importantly, SharePoint exposes this public profile throughout the system – and therefore is the hub of an enterprise social experience.

Much like Facebook, there’s a news feed, which helps community members keep track of the work their colleagues are doing. When you add keywords or tags to these activities, SharePoint becomes an even more valuable way to uncover, through searches, information about particular projects within an organization.

Social bookmarking offers another way to build knowledge within communities. Any piece of Internet content can be included in a community’s set of bookmarks. Users can rate the content, and comment on the activities and contributions of others, much like you’d do with a blog post. I believe this feature is valuable in a business setting because the feedback is searchable, thereby helping find experts or information that might otherwise be hidden.

People search (a feature of the included search engine) connects with the social capabilities of SharePoint 2010. The system automatically infers expertise, which is mined from a user’s activities. Search also takes into account “social distance.” That is, if I search for someone with .Net experience, the search results will rank someone who’s a direct colleague higher than someone in another organization.

FAST Search for SharePoint, a separate product, is highly recommended because FAST’s faceted navigation lets you filter results by the names of people, places, and organizations.
Working with Office 2010

The integration story between Office and SharePoint improves greatly in their 2010 releases. The new Office Backstage view (available in all Office client applications), lets you do basic tasks such as check in and check out documents from a SharePoint library. Backstage also displays metadata auto-complete lists, such as the office locations that I created earlier.

What’s more, users can work together as simultaneous co-authors on the same Word document. Word locks the section being edit by one person, while giving others editing privileges to the rest of the document – making for real-time team collaboration.

In Outlook 2010, integration lets users receive e-mail alerts whenever content is created or updated – and eliminates going into SharePoint to see the changes. Outlook, additionally, connects to My Sites and displays updates from external sites, including Facebook.

Perhaps one of the best examples of integration, however, is that between InfoPath 2010 and SharePoint. In this scenario, I first created a typical SharePoint tabular list of people and their contact information. Next, from the SharePoint Ribbon, I opened the list in InfoPath, where I created a visually appealing data entry form. Users could then easily update the SharePoint data from InfoPath (or use the InfoPath form within SharePoint). Besides better usability, I took advantage of InfoPath’s advanced data entry functions, including data validation, which isn’t available in SharePoint.

I took a deeper look at Excel Services, which lets visitors to a SharePoint site view – and interact with – a subset of data in your spreadsheets. I easily protected formulas in the Web-rendered version along with hiding the detailed data behind charts. Conversely, users could sort, filter, and work with other information in PivotTables.

Visio 2010, Microsoft’s charting and diagramming application, isn’t part of the standard Office 2010 product. Still, for organizations that separately license Visio, Visio Services gives you an easy way to render diagrams within a browser. Where this gets interesting is that spreadsheets, SQL databases and SharePoint lists can be used as data sources for Visio 2010. Potentially, you could create dynamic mash-ups and present them as part of an executive dashboard page.

What it all means

With SharePoint 2010, the end-user experience is much better because the interface is closely related to Office apps. Furthermore, many tasks that previously required IT assistance – and a long time – are now quickly accomplished by business users.

In this version, Microsoft appears to have really listened to customer requests, and included their suggestions. Therefore, it’s a highly recommend upgrade or choice for new installations.

Heck manages portals for a large pharma company and writes about enterprise applications. He can be reached at [email protected].

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