by Patrick Bieser Sr., Founder, Northwoods Software Development, Inc.
November 10, 2009
A number of clients have asked me to review SharePoint WSS (Windows SharePoint Services) and SharePoint MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Services) and offer a comparison between SharePoint and a dedicated content management system such as our own product, Titan CMS.
Northwoods has used SharePoint since 2001. We support clients using SharePoint, have experience customizing SharePoint, and have a large team of programmers and designers with the skills needed for SharePoint.
A little background: Northwoods has a client list of 600 clients -- 30 are major corporations. We are a professional services organization with skills in web design, web development and software engineering. Many of our clients are in the Milwaukee area.
We have had the opportunity to observe SharePoint in the wild in companies of all sizes. Here's what we see:
- Most big companies we work with have SharePoint installed, or are considering it.
- Most small / medium companies we work with have asked about SharePoint. They are not sure how it would be helpful and seek our advice.
- Where SharePoint is active it is mostly used for file sharing in small groups and basic document based intranets.
- Some clients have been experimenting (some for years) with Sharepoint's collaboration and more powerful document management features, but their efforts are modest, lack stakeholder buy-in, and are not well supported by management.
- Most SharePoint users figured out -- after about a year of experiments -- that SharePoint is not good at Web Content Management, Forms Processing, Complex Workflow, and Records Management. The teams that run these painful experiments go through the normal 10 stages of grieving before giving up and searching for tools that are better at each of these tasks. Or they convince management to give them more money and time and they brute force SharePoint into working.
- The reason that SharePoint is not good at these tasks is because it is a very complex system to program and use. SharePoint tries to do too much through its interface, and violates Joel Spolsky's Laws of Leaky Abstractions.
When to Use SharePoint
Our impression has remained consistent over the years. SharePoint is an excellent fit if:
- You have small groups who need to collaborate on or share documents.
- You need a basic Intranet for 50-200 people, centered exclusively on document sharing.
- You have budget to support a training program. SharePoint beyond the basics is not simple to use. Most users will require training.
- You have a budget of $60,000 to $100,000 per 200 employees you can dedicate to SharePoint support and you have staff / consultants trained to support SharePoint.
- You understand the time, effort, and budget it will take to move beyond Out of The Box SharePoint (OTBS), and have access to the talented programmers and consultants needed to shape SharePoint into something more broadly useful.
When NOT to Use SharePoint
If you don't match the above criteria use different tools. There are many well written niche applications tailored for Web Content Management, Collaboration, Forms Processing, Complex Workflow, and Records Management. Many are far simpler to use than SharePoint. A few are free.
- If you need to collaborate on calendars or task lists, then Outlook / Exchange is probably good enough. Better yet, tools like BaseCamp from 37Signals are focused on these tasks exclusively. They work well even for large corporations at a fraction of the cost of SharePoint.
- If you need Web Content Management for Public Sites or Extranets, then CMS products that specialize in this, such as our own Titan CMS, are a much better fit.
The SharePoint marketing strategy is taken from the playbook of tobacco companies.
The path to addiction is this: A developer goes to a Microsoft seminar and sees a nifty demo of SharePoint doing interesting things. These are not things that the developer does during the day, but he's heard others in his company talk about "collaboration" and "document sharing" so he figures he might be a hero if he finds a solution to these problems. So, he installs the "free" copy of SharePoint that came with his MSDN subscription and launches an OTBS Portal/Intranet a few days later. Out of the Box, SharePoint does some neat stuff. It allows employees to access documents, calendars, and lists in ways they've never done before. "Look here, boss" the developer shouts, "an Intranet!" The boss is impressed. "All that in only two days! Amazing!" The boss wants more.
That's when the problems start, because to do anything "more" with SharePoint the company need to take its toe out of the water and jump in head first. Before they know it, months have gone by, and "more" is taking on a new meaning. Developers want more training. It becomes obvious to observers that web designers and architects are needed (but developers are usually the last to see this problem). More programmers and consultants are needed to figure out how to make it do stuff that is not OTBS. The IT department wants more servers. Microsoft wants more CALs.
Like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, no one knows when to jump out and say "Hold on a minute! Where are we going with this SharePoint thing?"
Microsoft gets companies hooked by giving it away. MSDN subscriptions, and free SharePoint CALs thrown in as part of other license deals, are just a few of the methods Microsoft uses to get companies to try SharePoint. It all looks very cool and everyone -- especially the technical folks who did the install because, well, they want to be a heros -- can see the potential.
But it's potential with a steep invisible cost.
Management is the art of making decisions with insufficient information. Management's decision to allow SharePoint to grow and spread is too often made without an awareness of how SharePoint will become an expensive and ineffective solution to the wrong problems. There is no way for management to see the looming expenses -- servers, licenses, trainers, consultants, programmers, and ultimately lots of unhappy end users who are burdened with a hard-to-use, information-architecture-challenged, designer's-nightmare that SharePoint often evolves into.
You blink and a year has gone by and it's too late. The company has an expensive addiction. SharePoint needs to be fed or there will be great pain. Like all addictions, it is hard to see that you are in trouble, and even harder to admit to the mistake and get help.
There are exceptions, I'm sure. I have not personally seen any, but I'm sure they're out there. Nielsen Norman writes about award-winning Intranets based on SharePoint. Big corporations with large budgets can and have done amazing things starting with a SharePoint base. I submit that large budgets are the secret ingredient, not SharePoint.
Small Groups are the SharePoint sweet spot
SharePoint in small doses can be a good thing. It works well for workgroup file sharing and collaboration. It also works well as a dashboard or as a small document based Intranet. Problems start when organizations without big budgets attempt to use SharePoint to solve problems outside the small boxes where SharePoint excels.
We have seen numerous companies where SharePoint intranets are largely abandon. The reasons? Information is hard to find. Navigation is confusing. Takes too much time / too hard to update. Search doesn't work. It's faster to not use the intranet. (The site is ugly). Inconsistent page layouts are confusing. No buy-in from other departments. No support team. No training team. Poor support from management. No governance structure.
All are solvable problems. The question is how much will it cost to solve using SharePoint vs. other tools better suited for big Intranets that do more than share documents.
SharePoint for Web Sites
Can you use SharePoint for a public web site? Sure - you can even find some in the wild. But there's not a lot of them, and the ones (that I have seen) that have been built have all been highly customized.
According to an IDC survey in July 2009 of 262 American corporate IT users, just 8% of respondents said they were using SharePoint for their Web sites. So, yes, there are some SharePoint web sites out there - but SharePoint is largely (51%) being used for collaborative sites.
Here's an analogy: Excel is a great spreadsheet. It does just about everything you could ask a spreadsheet program to do - quickly, conveniently, and intuitively. Excel, however, is not a good accounting system. Yes, it *can* handle many accounting tasks, but it has few of the rudimentary features found in programs that focus on accounting such as Quickbooks.
SharePoint can be bent and tortured into supporting public websites, but it is as clear as Lake Michigan after Zebra Mussels that a dedicated CMS system is a far, far better solution.
SharePoint is a good product for small groups document collaboration and sharing. That's where most of the SharePoint usage is happening now.
SharePoint is a poor product for maintaining content on public websites or intranets. You can tell this is true by all the hype about the upcoming version of SharePoint 2010: "It'll handle web sites well." Is Microsoft making my point?
Independent Reviews and Articles
Here is a collection of independent articles we have found that discuss the pros and cons of SharePoint. If you know of an article to add to this collection -- pro or con -- please add them to the "comments" form at the bottom of this article.
Article: Is Microsoft's SharePoint Unstoppable, or mostly smoke and mirrors?
Computer World, 10/19/2009
Discussion of whether there are as many SharePoint users as Microsoft claims.
Article: Microsoft SharePoint Popularity Comes with Issues
Network World: 7/1/2008
This article on Network World offers an honest discussion of Sharepoint's problems, holes, warts and other issues that come with SharePoint installations in corporate environments.
Article:Concerns over SharePoint Security
Discussion of how SharePoint enables users to publish anything including internal documents that should not be published.
Article: SharePoint Falls Short in Content Management
Network World: 4/27/2007
SharePoint does a poor job managing Web content, leading to bad code, difficulties implementing complex navigation, and big challenges with multiple languages. Many reasons why SharePoint has problems with Content Management.
Article: Why SharePoint Portal Server is Terrible
Real World Software Development: 9/8/2007
Review of SharePoint from the perspective of an independent software developer. He lists his many frustrations and criticisms trying to make SharePoint do tasks to meet client needs.
Article: Response to Why SharePoint Portal is Terrible
Fear and Loathing: 10/15/2007
A Microsoft MVP affirms some of the problems with SharePoint and offers an alternative viewpoint that not everything listed as "bad" in SharePoint is necessarily so.
A Small Pitch for Northwoods
If you're frustrated with web publishing and content maintenance from SharePoint, then:
- call me (Patrick Bieser - 414-434-8201), OR
- fill out the comments form at the bottom of this article, OR
- check out Titan CMS.
Our Content Management System (Titan CMS) does a wonderful job of taking collaboratively-created documents in SharePoint (or elsewhere) and publishing them to the web. Titan CMS is really good at handling web content and building scalable, multi-editor web sites.