There is an Office server

Office 2007 is set to release nigh the end of this fine year. I managed to get a real early look at the client package this past December. But a fresh client look and the addition of several smart client features are just the beginning of what's new for the full-fledged Microsoft Office enterprise. We've got a server now, too.

The "Office Server" product has been rumormongered about for some time, but Microsoft finally took the wraps off a beta version of the platform earlier this week. So I called up the Great Northwest and managed to finagle an interview with Joel Oleson, senior technology manager on the Office Server team.

According to Mr. Oleson, the skinny goes like this: First, the server has an official name, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, aka MOSS. There are several things you'll need, however, before actually accessing MOSS. First, you'll need a Windows Longhorn-based server -- for the commercial release. For the beta release, Microsoft is including enough smarts for everything to run on Windows Server 2003. Next, you'll need World Wrestling Federation. Oh wait, I mean that other WWF, Windows Workflow Foundation. Again, this should require the longer horns and vista view, but Redmond is releasing a version with the MOSS beta software that'll talk down to us poor saps running Windows 2003.

Last but not least, you'll need SharePoint Services installed on the target server. This is a free download both during beta and after. The commercial product is MOSS, which will install over all the stuff I just listed, and it'll come in two basic flavors: an SMB version and an Enterprise version -- actual SKU names have yet to be determined. And to be plain: You can get a decent view of MOSS's beta features using Office 2003 on the front, but to catch a glimpse of the full feature set, you'll need to point it at an XP workstation running the beta of Office 2007.

Meanwhile, back at the server, SharePoint Services will continue to function as it does today: as a free upgrade service that provides a baseline for in-office collaboration. MOSS grabs WWF, combines that with a stronger implementation of SharePoint features, and gives us far more usability. Oleson gave me several "tactical" examples of the kinds of features that Microsoft envisions MOSS providing.

Document management is the obvious one. Using Office 2007 on the front and MOSS on the back will allow users to build automatic document routing paths, not only allowing docs to be updated in a specific way but also providing versioning and auditing all along the workflow trail. Oleson combines this example with what he claims is a vast improvement on the bundled Microsoft Search technology. Oleson claims the new search will provide for 500 percent better relevancy in keyword searching as well as supply a few UI tweaks such as a "Did you mean ..." response for catching possible typos, search term highlighting in results pages, and more.

Installing the enterprise version of MOSS means accessing another technology, called the BDC (Business Data Catalog). This amounts to an ERP-style connector system, allowing MOSS to act as a collections and processing hub between Office-using clients and large back-end applications such as the Dynamics line or similar third-party platforms. This version of MOSS will also be required for Enterprise Office users to dig into all that gooey electronic-forms goodness that the InfoPath technology provides.

One of the coolest examples Oleson gave, however, was using new Excel/MOSS features. This combo would allow a heavy Excel user to crank out one of those ultravicious spreadsheet calculations. But instead of hitting the processing button and watching his desktop go into convulsions, this user could now publish his calc to MOSS and have MOSS dump it onto a Microsoft Compute Cluster. The cluster does the calc and sends the results back to the user via MOSS -- all automated. I'll have to see that to believe it, but it sounds both doable and cool.

Using MOSS is fairly easy, too. Redmond's making sure there's something for everyone. The least technically savvy users can set up basic workflow designs using wizards included directly on the MOSS interface. Power users and generalist IT admins can go further down the customization road by using SharePoint Designer, which is the reincarnation of FrontPage. Beyond that lays enterprise land where dedicated programmers can use Visual Studio to create completely customized application templates as well as their own BDC connectors for in-house third-party applications.

By the way, although Oleson separated MOSS into two SKU flavors, you won't have to worry about that when downloading this new beta. Microsoft is including all functionality in this release so everything gets the most test time possible.

Usually, I'm unhappy about this never-ending Office upgrade phenomenon. Having to justify a multiple-thousand dollar upgrade every couple of years to clients who'd rather not spend the money and usually don't need the new features does get tedious. But this is different.

MOSS really has some serious potential to allow Office users not just to simply do more but to do more with greater applicability toward an existing business process. Customization is MOSS's main mantra -- yeah, that's a mite too much alliteration, but I'm drinking, so let it go -- and if BDC really lives up to its capability of integrating outside applications into new WWF workflows, then Redmond really has something nice.

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Oliver Rist

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