SharePoint Portal Server: Cool Tool
The Microsoft Answer for finding a needle in a haystack.
It’s an age-old problem: Your company gets a lead on some business. In
order to land the client, your company needs a proposal. Fred in sales
writes the proposal, Sally edits it, Sol the lawyer makes his changes,
and John pitches it. Three months later, when the client’s ready to sign,
no one knows which version of the document is the latest, who has ownership
of it, or where on Earth the actual file might have gone. Is it on Server1
or Server1001? On the Exchange Server?
Enter Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server.
The goal of SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) is to allow a company to centrally
organize, index and search, and provide document collaboration services
on all the files scattered in the enterprise environment.
Let’s break down each of these features to see if SharePoint might be
a good fit in your environment.
First and foremost, SPS allows anyone in your company an easy point of
access, or portal, to search for information. A portal is simply a “go-to”
point in your network where users can look for stuff. SPS allows you to
set this up in a number of ways.
The simplest is to have one SPS server that maintains all the data on
your network. This same server can be used to store data and present the
data back to the user. Also, this server could be used to organize additional
external data, such as links to a competitor’s Web site. This configuration
is best for small environments, where one file server could be supplanted
by one SPS server.
However, it’s likely that many organizations will quickly outgrow the
one-server SPS model. Those with larger environments might choose to have
servers set up at various levels around the organization. While you could
choose to have just one portal that encompasses your entire organization,
you can split the duty among more specific portals to lighten each portal’s
workload and make each server more specific in how it indexes information.
Search and index servers can run on different servers, and multiple SPS
servers can present a single unified view of information to your users.
Indexing and Searching
Once you have a basic understanding of how you might set up SPS, you’re
ready to dig into what it can really do. Users will mostly interface with
SPS when searching for some key piece of data in the nooks and crannies
of your network. The good news is that SPS does an excellent job indexing
the content you tell it to manage.
Specifically, SPS can:
- Index and search for documents on its own.
- Index and search Exchange 2000 Public stores (but not mailboxes).
SPS can index multiple Exchange 2000 servers.
- Index and search Exchange 5.5 Public stores (but not mailboxes),
with the restriction that one SPS server can index only one Exchange
- Index and search Lotus Notes stores (4.6a and R5).
Once SPS knows about the sources, it zips through each source and indexes
them. This makes future keyword and context searches happen in a reasonable
amount of time. By default, SPS will read through and index all Microsoft
Office and HTML documents you point it at. Also, SPS has two secret superpowers
when it comes to indexing.
First, you can set up SPS so it can crack open TIF files and read the
underlying text via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology and
add them to the index for future searches. This is enormously helpful
if you have use some kind of electronic fax gateway (i.e. jConnect, FACSys
and so on) that receives faxes and you want to maintain their original
quality, but enable the ability to store them in a searchable form.
Second, you can introduce additional searching rules, called iFilters,
into SPS. iFilters allow the indexing service to open other file types,
either third-party or those you might have in-house. One helpful iFilter
is the PDF reader from Adobe, at www.adobe.com/support/downloads/detail.jsp?ftpID=1276.
Simply pop in the iFilter, and SPS can do full content indexing and searching
on Adobe Acrobat files, just as if they were Word or Excel documents.
If you’re interested in developing your own iFilters, check out http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/default.asp?url/library/
Users interact with the searching ability in SPS via a Microsoft Digital
Dashboard interface, (Figure 1). The technology behind Digital Dashboards
has been around since Outlook 98, but really hasn’t made a splash yet.
SPS takes Digital Dashboards to the next level.
|Figure 1. The Digital Dashboard gives users a
“one-stop-shop” for all their searching needs. (Click image to view
The idea’s simple: A digital dashboard is created from Web parts written
by a developer. These Web parts can do all sorts of things—connect to
a streaming stock ticker, connect to a digital camera, connect to your
company directory and so on—and present them all on one page. Microsoft
provides a gaggle of pre-written Web parts to introduce into your digital
dashboards at www.microsoft.com/sharepoint/
downloads/Webparts/default.asp. Of course, developers are encouraged
to create their own Web parts as they desire.
At this point, the administrator can simply take business requirements
from their users and design a dashboard. The interface for designing dashboards
in SPS is revolutionary: A drag-and-drop Web page lets you just move the
Web parts from one side of the screen to the other. Shown in Figure 2,
this is one of the most beautiful design interfaces I’ve ever encountered.
|Figure 2. The layout view is simple to manipulate.
Simply drag and drop to customize. (Click image to view larger version.)
If your company is serious about going above and beyond some of the basics,
consider spending some time over at www.microsoft.com/business/digitaldashboard.
SharePoint is more than just an indexing service with shiny teeth and
a pretty front end. It also has the ability to assist in tracking your
most sensitive documents’ entire lifecycle.
SPS can be used as the centralized repository for data when you need
multiple people to be able to discuss a specific document and make proposed
changes on it. Once the changes are approved, everyone can then be e-mailed
and notified of the latest version. Also, multiple people can add their
comments to the documents on the SPS server—ensuring that those who should
have a voice about specific documents, do.
SPS makes this magic happen with three specific technologies: the server’s
special file system, SPS’s “Check in/Check out” technology, and a Microsoft
Office client piece.
SPS comes with the same file system that Exchange 2000 uses—IFS (Installable
File System). With IFS, the number of properties a file can maintain increases.
SPS takes advantage of this and permits SPS users to track major and minor
revisions within a document and determine who has the file “checked in”
or “checked out.” This is similar to borrowing a book from the library;
only one person can have any document out at one time. This allows one
person to maintain ownership of the file and guarantee no one else is
actively making changes. However, SPS is smart enough to allow ongoing
comments to be associated with the file when the author wishes to incorporate
any suggested changes.
People who generate content can simply check their documents into the
server. Once they’re checked in, they’re fair game for comments from the
peanut gallery, er, I mean users. The client piece required to enable
the magic is built into Office XP, but is a free add-on for Office 2000.
To add the client piece to Office 2000, install the 14MB file from the
SPS CD-ROM or deploy the file with Windows 2000 IntelliMirror.
This versioning of files is a great feature, but remember it’s not available
for every file on your network. It’s only going to be active for those
files stored on the IFS file system that SPS controls.
SharePoint: Right for You?
Do you need a way to enable your users to search through all the data
on your servers? Do you need a way to help them collaborate on that data?
SharePoint Portal Server may be the answer. It’s not that expensive, with
a street price of around $7,000 for the server and 25 CALs. But you’ll
need to factor in some of the soft costs. Your users will require a bit
of training to get the hang of the check-in/check-out features. While
you may be the one setting up the servers, it could be someone completely
different maintaining the portals and the data.
SPS comes with some scripts to perform backup and restore of the server.
It’s an “all-or-nothing” proposition, which really doesn’t cut it should
just one file go up in smoke. Thankfully, backup software vendors are
beginning to ship SPS agents with their products. You should factor the
cost of an SBS backup tool into your planning.
The real costs come not in setting up the SharePoint Portal Server, but
in the time it’s going to take to truly tailor it for your environment.
SharePoint shines when you teach it a bit about your content and what
your users search for. Couple that with some custom development for your
“Ultimate Corporate Dashboard,” and you start to see some real investment
in the product.
Lastly, don’t forget that you’ll need to move those sensitive documents
you want to version-control directly onto SPS servers. Someone’s going
to have to actually read all that old stuff before making the decision
to move old files to SPS or keep them where they are.
But all in all, SharePoint Portal Server is an excellent product, which
works as advertised to help tie all your corporate data together into
Now, do you know where that sales proposal is?