Office goes server-side: Microsoft’s blending of Office with SharePoint begets enterprise collaboration platform

For Del Monte Foods, the San Francisco-based food manufacturer, Microsoft Corp.'s portal and office software were the foundation for a formula change management system. At Metro Vancouver, the water utility for the Vancouver, B.C. area, Microsoft's SharePoint portal—along with a partner application built on it—comprise the foundation for managing real-time trends.
By Roberto Michel, senior contributing editor March 1, 2008

For Del Monte Foods , the San Francisco-based food manufacturer, Microsoft Corp .’s portal and office software were the foundation for a formula change management system. At Metro Vancouver , the water utility for the Vancouver, B.C. area, Microsoft’s SharePoint portal—along with a partner application built on it—comprise the foundation for managing real-time trends.

There are plenty of other companies looking at Office as an enterprisewide collaboration platform, thanks largely to the pairing of Office with SharePoint. Adoption of the 2007 versions of the software—Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 and the 2007 Microsoft Office system—is expected to grow quickly.

Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm IDC surveyed businesses in October 2007, delving into their portal and office software plans. IDC found 45.6 percent of respondents already use—or are planning to use—SharePoint, and IDC believes most of these will evaluate MOSS 2007. More than 60 percent said Office 2007 is in their 2008 plans for office suites.

A key driver for SharePoint, says Melissa Webster, a VP at IDC, is managing all the content that information workers churn out. IDC found 57 percent of SharePoint adopters agree or strongly agree that managing content is a tremendous corporate challenge.

“The need to bring information governance and information life-cycle policies to all the content stored on team sites is a major driver,” says Webster. “Compliance is one big driver, but the need to get use out of the information assets is just as important.”

Office is better suited to these challenges now, says Chris Colyer, Microsoft’s worldwide solutions director for manufacturing operations, because it pairs server-based collaborative functions under SharePoint with Office applications such as Excel. “With the release of Office 2007 we introduced what we call the Office Server System,” Colyer says. “Office is now a platform that people build applications on.”

SharePoint’s role

Sam Youness, Microsoft’s worldwide industry technical strategist, manufacturing operations, says the best way to think about the Office system is to view Office applications such as Excel as the client components, and SharePoint and various other collaborative functions as the server components. These server functions include:

  • Excel Services , which allows for server-side use of Excel, without even necessitating Excel on the PC desktop;

  • Forms Server , which centers on collaboration using Microsoft’s InfoPath smart forms;

  • Windows Workflow Foundation , a workflow subsystem being built into Microsoft products, and increasingly, also within independent software vendor (ISV) products; and

  • Office Performance Point Server , a set of business intelligence capabilities.

    • “These server components are integrated with SharePoint Portal Server,” says Youness. “That’s why SharePoint is considered the back end of the Office system.”

      Other technologies in the MOSS environment foster integration with line-of-business applications, says Youness. SharePoint’s Business Data Catalog (BDC) is a data schema that abstracts common types of information in enterprise systems—e.g., customer, invoice, or part number records—and makes the data accessible within SharePoint. Support for Office OpenXML in Office 2007, an XML format for saving Office documents, allows more open access to data elements in Office documents, thereby promoting improved search and document integration.

      “We have this server environment that is directly tied to the Office components at the front end,” Colyer says. “As a result, Office becomes a platform that people build applications on.”

      The experiences at Metro Vancouver and Del Monte Foods bear out the different ways the platform can be used. Del Monte is using Office 2007, MOSS 2007, as well as InfoPath to streamline workflow and document sharing in product development. Del Monte’s SharePoint-based system has cut the formula change process cycle by 33 percent, or five days, while improving regulatory compliance via SharePoint’s content management.

      Nearly 14 percent of companies are planning to adopt SharePoint, while 32 percent already use some version of it.

      Metro Vancouver also uses SharePoint, though in combination with real-time performance management software from OSIsoft geared toward the tracking, visualization, and analysis of real-time plant data. The OSIsoft software includes RtWebParts and RtPortal. While Metro Vancouver is using an older version of SharePoint, it is moving to MOSS 2007 within the next few months.

      The OSIsoft solution makes extensive use of Microsoft’s Web Part technology to encapsulate functions such as real-time trending. Web Parts can be thought of building blocks that render a specific set of functionality—such as real-time trending charts on energy use or equipment downtime—into SharePoint frames.

      The challenges

      There are different flavors of SharePoint technology. Windows SharePoint Services—or WSS—is a more basic set of the portal technology within Windows Server 2003 aimed at teams that want to quickly put together collaborative portal sites. MOSS—though it installs on top of WSS—brings additional capabilities in areas such as forms management, as well as pre-built workflows.

      The ease of setting up WSS sites can lead to some IT challenges, notes IDC’s Webster. WSS has allowed team sites to rapidly proliferate, which can generate some confusion as IT leaders seek out a consistent approach to portals.

      “This viral aspect is a growing concern for IT organizations when they learn about the existence of all those sites and seek out solutions to help manage them,” Webster says. “People love the self-service aspect of these sites as they can build them without involving IT. The problem is that they linger long after people have abandoned them, and this can put a strain on storage. Governance issues also arise related to the content stored on these sites.”

      WSS’s ease of deployment is not really a problem as long as companies map out a coherent portal strategy, says Drew Jones, solutions manager for the Microsoft Information Worker practice at CDW Berbee , an IT consulting firm. While in some cases WSS might be sufficient, in other cases, MOSS fits better with enterprisewide plans, he says.

      According to Jones, for some deployments, extra functionality in areas such as dynamic forms is worth the added cost of MOSS.

      “The organizations that are going forward with [Office 2007 and MOSS] are embracing the major components of the SharePoint platform, and tying it into the use of the Office suite, such as using the business process automation capabilities of InfoPath with Office suite products,” Jones explains.

      Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 includes multiple functions for collaboration and content management.

      A series of tracking polls from CDW —the parent company of CDW Berbee and a major IT products reseller—sees growing momentum for Office 2007. In the third poll conducted in Fall 2007, 24 percent of participants reported they have upgraded to Office 2007, up from just 6 percent in February 2007. Another 23 percent said they plan to upgrade to Office 2007—the vast majority within 12 months.

      But for the latest Office and SharePoint versions to fully take hold in manufacturing, ISVs need to build on the solutions, and for the most part, this is taking place. OSIsoft, for instance, makes use of Excel Services in its solution set, as well as SharePoint. Vendors with a supply chain focus, such as i2 Technologies and Aspen Technology , also are using SharePoint to front end some of their solutions.

      Much of the effort that ISVs put into SharePoint goes into building Web Parts that plug into SharePoint. And here is where the ISV expertise is crucial, says Elliott Middleton, a product manager with Wonderware .

      “SharePoint is a great, horizontal tool, but what we bring is a predefined way to clearly deliver production information,” Middleton says.

      Microsoft’s Colyer concedes that manufacturers are conservative technology adopters—Office and portal software included. But with ISVs leveraging new technology such as Excel Services, Colyer sees momentum for the Office system.

      Concludes Colyer, “So while we are already seeing strong adoption for SharePoint in manufacturing, in the next few years, we’ll see adoptions become larger-scale, spanning more functional boundaries as part of rollouts of their collaboration strategies.”