SharePoint Server eases collaboration

Software is flexible, simple to set up, and has the tools that let users become proficient with it in a short time

With the release of Office SharePoint Server 2007, Microsoft has made some dramatic changes to its popular collaboration software. Our test of the SharePoint collaboration and content-management server found the new version easier than its predecessor to install and use.

Installing SharePoint Server was very straightforward. The only prerequisites are a Windows 2003 server, Internet Information Server (IIS) and Version 3.0 of the .Net framework. It took only one mouse click to get the first server in our SharePoint "farm" up and running. A single server with plenty of disk space could be a large-enough environment for most small-to-midsize businesses

For large SharePoint deployments, a customized installation might be preferable, so that portions of the software can be installed on different servers. The SharePoint installation program automatically installs and configures a version of Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 and then configures IIS for use with SharePoint Server 2007. Once that's done, you're ready to go, as long as your IIS Web server can be seen on the network.

SharePoint is managed through a Web browser. For the majority of our administrative work, we used versions 2.0 and 1.5 of Mozilla's Firefox. Internet Explorer's new Version 7.0, as well as its previous versions, is a little better at performing some of the drag-and-drop functions and selection boxes. However, all of SharePoint Server's features are available using a variety of browsers. You just have to work a little harder when using something other than Internet Explorer.

A sprinkling of data

Once installation is complete, the next task is to create the first SharePoint "site." SharePoint now is driven by templates, which lets site owners choose from a variety of predefined page layouts. There are four basic template categories: collaboration, meetings, enterprise and publishing.

Collaboration templates facilitate sharing of files and ideas, including new wiki and blog functions -- Microsoft calls functions "Web parts." The meetings templates include calendaring functions, as well as places to record events, decisions, agendas and tasks. The more business-oriented enterprise templates include functions for storing and searching for documents, tracking project status and showing key performance indicators (KPI), which provide a visual status of conditions being monitored. Finally, the publishing templates are for managing Web pages, and include functions for document management, approval workflow, version control and history.

In our test, we created a collaboration site and used the team site template. We added a calendar function to display upcoming appointments but removed the links function because we didn't need to share any site addresses. Finally, we put a link to the document library on the top page and added a dashboard status indicator. This took a little time to set up but provided a customized space where documents could be stored, shared and tracked; deadlines listed; and the overall project status displayed.

SharePoint users also can create individual profiles, which are their personal SharePoint Web space. These pages have various permissions set to display different information to different people. For example, perhaps you want your office phone number displayed only to those you define as colleagues. Or maybe you want to track when certain people make new blog posts, but you don't want others to see whose posts you are interested in seeing.

Each site is customizable, letting users build a site that will help them track their own work and information. It also is possible to create tools that only the individual uses, such as a private document store. The administrator can limit the size of these profiles and decide who has permission to create them, but the users ultimately control what these pages contain and their layout.

Microsoft also has added some navigational aids to the SharePoint screens. Along the top, the sites most recently visited are represented with clickable tabs. This makes it easy for users to return quickly to the sites they use the most. Along the left side is the Quick Launch bar. This lists all the content on the site, even content on different pages, and categorizes it by type. Among the items listed are calendars, task lists and document stores.

On larger sites, these aids make finding a particular object easier. For example, users looking for a project calendar buried deep within a site can navigate to that page with a click. Near the top, a navigation feature helps users visualize where they are in a site's hierarchy. It starts at the top level and displays the title of each subpage the user traversed to get to a particular function. This allows quick navigation to a site's higher levels or even an escape back to the top.

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Travis Berkley

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