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Making Sense of Microsoft SharePoint 2010

Update January 29 2013: The version of SharePoint now available through TechSoup Canada is SharePoint Server 2013

April 6, 2011

By: Tierney Smith

Are you looking for a way to collaborate with coworkers and organize your documents? Have you heard of SharePoint and are wondering what it is and if you should use it? This article aims to de-mystify SharePoint and give you the basic details.

What is SharePoint anyway?

If you know of SharePoint you are likely most familiar with its document organizing and sharing capabilities. However SharePoint actually does much more than that; in fact what makes it interesting is the amount of functionality it brings together in one platform. SharePoint 2010 does 6 main things (though you don't have to use all of them if you don't want). What is SharePoint 2010? Vision and Reality does a good job of describing these things, which are summarized here:

  1. Sites - a Content Management System (CMS) for you to create and update internal sites (like a organization intranet) or external sites (like your main website).
  2. Communities - Facebook-ish features that let you create employee profiles, groups around certain topics, discussions, etc.
  3. Content - a central place to keep and manage all your documents with version control and permissions on who can see/edit what
  4. Search - search all your documents like you search on Google
  5. Insights - business intelligence, which basically means that it will analyze data (which doesn't have to be just from SharePoint) to give you pretty graphs and reports so you can make decisions and solve problems
  6. Composites - a way of talking to other systems you have so you can better integrate different systems. This is more advanced so you likely won't want to do this unless you are a large organization with many systems.

There are three different versions of SharePoint 2010: Foundation, Standard and Enterprise. See SharePoint 2010 for Nonprofits and Libraries and Licensing Details for a comparison; the short story is:

  • Foundation - free, basic platform for online collaboration
  • Standard - includes everything except Insights, though some aspects are more basic
  • Enterprise - the full shebang

What does this look like in practice?

The article SharePoint 2010 for Nonprofits and Libraries gives a very good example of why and how an organization could use SharePoint: 

"Let's imagine Environment Northwest, a 30-year-old environmental conservation research organization that publishes its own original studies as well as those of other nonprofits and government organizations and that also occasionally testifies against accused polluters.

Environment Northwest's headquarters and all of its branch offices in other locations have been computerized since the late-1980s; and all of its regular publications, reports, and communications are digitized. Now, managers and IT specialists find themselves investing an increasing amount of time supporting email servers, file servers, internal databases, as well as public-facing content hosted on a succession of web servers and content management systems. It is also becoming harder and harder to control permissions and changes throughout these various systems, opening the organization up to security breaches and mistakes. File- and folder-naming conventions differ across systems and departments, as do keywords and taxonomies; employee turnover is disruptive as new staff attempt to learn and create new systems. Yet the number of information systems keeps growing to include blogs, wikis, and a social network presence. Because none of these systems are integrated on the back end, it's impossible to do a single search across all of the organization's data repositories. Employees have to open multiple search interfaces and type in several keywords over and over to find all available information on a particular topic.

This disorganization not only exposes Environment Northwest to legal penalties for violating recordkeeping regulations (and along with that, public-relations and funding repercussions) but also makes the organization vulnerable to other problems. Internally, the inability to locate old documents and records leads to a loss of organizational memory. Staff members have trouble learning from experience and making good strategic decisions when they can't find past emails and reports. Moreover, researchers begin to duplicate efforts because they are unaware of projects in different departments.

SharePoint 2010 provides organizations like Environment Northwest with features that facilitate the integration of separately managed, standalone information systems into a single, coordinated knowledge-management system. Its core governance, workflow, security, document permissions, and records-retention features allow administrators to automate procedures, track data efficiently, and deploy taxonomies consistently across multiple information systems. Because it interfaces with each of the organization's disparate data repositories, employees can perform keyword searches from a single interface and retrieve consistent, comprehensive results from all the across all the organization."


What do I need to run SharePoint?

If you are planning on setting up SharePoint, you will need tech help, preferably from someone with experience setting up SharePoint. It can be hard to understand the different options for the many pieces involved. However, this list will give you a feel for what you will need:

If you don't want to buy more than one physical server to run all of this, it is possible to use server virtualization with Microsoft's licensing for virtualization.

You might also want:

  • SharePoint Workspace 2010 for each user that needs to access SharePoint (can be purchased on its own or as part of Microsoft Office Professional 2010). This will give users offline access to SharePoint.
For more details on licensing SharePoint, see Microsoft's Licensing Details.

Is SharePoint right for me?

You may want to consider SharePoint if you:

  • are a medium-large size organization
  • have multiple chapters or locations
  • need an integrated tool for collaborating internally and externally
  • already have at least one server and have strong IT support
  • already use several Microsoft products and want to take advantage of the good integration between Microsoft products

If this isn't you - you are a small organization, you prefer more specialized tools over one integrated system or you want a different option - there are various other tools to consider. See SharePoint Portal Alternatives - A Credible List for some ideas (though be aware that this article is talking about SharePoint 2007, which is a bit different from SharePoint 2010).

Finally, keep in mind that before making a decision on any software, especially a system like SharePoint that will affect so much of your organization, you will want to have a good technology plan in place.

For more information: see SharePoint 2010 for Nonprofits and Libraries for more information on different versions of SharePoint and what's new in SharePoint 2010.