Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Instant Intranet

Collaboration tools are crucial when a team tackles a complex project or when a business seeks input from employees. An intranet is a popular medium for collecting and publishing collaborative data, but designing it to offer maximum functionality and ease of use has always been difficult.

SharePoint Team Services provides easy content-posting tools, discussion areas, page and file subscriptions, and detailed gradations of user access. Microsoft's collaborative intranet-building tools began with Microsoft FrontPage 98 and picked up considerably with Microsoft Office 2000. But despite these efforts, Office remained somewhat inefficient at creating and managing intranets for two reasons: First, intranets demand too much design work (usually in FrontPage), and second, FrontPage's user management tools are more suited to public Web sites than private intranets. Office Web Server—included in Office 2000—helped, but the feature lacked a compelling tool for authoring and administering intranet sites.

With Office XP, SharePoint Team Services replaces Office Web Server. SharePoint offers a collaboration system that is more complete and easier to use. It works with FrontPage Server Extensions 2002, but you can create your material and administer the site without working directly in FrontPage. Web documents and even entire Web sites created by SharePoint can be loaded into FrontPage for additions and modifications. But how does SharePoint Team Services perform as a standalone design tool?

SharePoint's many features—particularly its built-in design templates, document libraries, discussion groups, and administrative tools—make adding documents and data to the intranet more efficient. If you don't already have a team collaboration system in place, SharePoint may be the easiest way to get one going. And its clear integration with Office helps a lot. SharePoint isn't as effective for large organizations, but for small and midsize businesses (as well as teams within larger companies), it's a very compelling solution. (Note that SharePoint Portal Server is a separate tool, aimed at enterprises with 75 or more users. It delivers extensive document management and search controls, but its role-based security is not as comprehensive as that of SharePoint Team Services.)

SharePoint ships with the two editions of Office XP—Office XP Developer and Office XP Professional with FrontPage—and with the standalone version of FrontPage 2002. SharePoint's installation procedure, however, is separate from that of Office's. You'll find it in the Sharept folder on the CD. For the server portion of SharePoint to work, you must install it on a system running Windows 2000 Professional or Server—or the upcoming Win XP Professional or Server—with IIS 5.0 or higher, and on an NTFS file system. SharePoint installs FrontPage Server Extensions 2002 if it's not already present. The server must have either Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 or Microsoft Data Engine 7.0 (MSDE—a version of SQL Server for smaller systems) installed; if neither is present, MSDE will be automatically installed. Team members need only a computer with Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator (Version 4.0 or later in both cases) to browse the data, and an authoring program such as Office to contribute information.

In one possible configuration, you can set up a Win 2000 machine as your server and use Win 98, Mac, or Linux workstations as clients. You can also choose one of Microsoft's third-party hosting providers (www.microsoft.com/frontpage/sharepoint/wpp.htm), which take the back-end burden off your organization and may save you money as well.

Collaborating on a Team Site

On installation, SharePoint creates home pages for the intranet site and for administration. The site's home page is sparse (Figure 1), but the hyperlinks show the possibilities for collaboration. In the Quick Launch column are links to Shared Documents, General Discussion, Contacts, and Tasks. Users with the appropriate rights can add to these items by clicking on a link and then on the corresponding action on the next page. The Shared Documents link, for example, leads to a page with options for New Document, Upload Document, Filter, and Subscribe. Clicking New Document opens Microsoft Word (you can change the default program), so you can compose a document and save it directly to the site. Filter lets you determine what documents will be viewable from this page. You can also subscribe to the Shared Documents area from here and ask to be notified by e-mail when any documents are added or changed.

The other three links from the Quick Launch menu work similarly. General Discussion takes you to a page where you can subscribe to a discussion or create a new discussion board. The Contacts page contains links for exporting contacts to an Excel Web Query file or importing contacts from the Outlook address book. The Tasks page provides links for adding, filtering, exporting, and subscribing to a task list.