16 December, 2008

IView Web Part restrictions in MOSS 2007

Looks like it’s a big week for EP/MOSS interoperability. Yesterday the SharePoint Team released the WSRP Toolkit for SharePoint 2007 and today the SAP interoperability folks at Microsoft released a new white paper explaining the limitations of the IView Web Part and how to get around those.

I’ve encountered the infinite refresh loop issue described in the introduction of the white paper. The IView Web Part uses an IFrame to display the iView from SAP, but sometimes the web part will go into an infinite loop. This can now be addressed by developing a simple custom web part using an HTML object tag for displaying the iView. Simply follow the guidelines in the white paper.

15 December, 2008

WSRP Toolkit for SharePoint 2007 released

The SharePoint Team has just announced a new WSRP Toolkit for SharePoint. This is a great step in the right direction for portal interoperability. WSRP is a web services protocol for aggregating content and interactive web applications from remote sources which you can read more about here. In the following, I’ll use the generic term ‘portlet’ for what Microsoft call a ‘web part’ and SAP call an ‘iView.’

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) enterprise edition has all along included two web parts for bringing portlets from other portal technologies into SharePoint, the WSRP Consumer Web Part and the IView Web Part. The first one can be used for consuming any WSRP conformant portlet from any portal technology and the second one is specifically for consuming SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Portal (EP) iViews. So even though not all iViews in EP conform to WSRP standards, you can bring almost anything across from EP to MOSS because we have the IView Web Part. It’s pulling portlets in the other direction that’s been the problem up until now and the only approach has been custom development.

It’s important to emphasise that what’s been released now is a toolkit and not an upgrade to the product, meaning that producing WSRP conformant data in SharePoint still requires development. But this development has just become a whole lot easier using this toolkit. It’s still not as straight forward as it could be, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction and it shows that Microsoft continues to invest in open standards for interoperability.

14 December, 2008

Understanding SharePoint for what it is

Microsoft markets SharePoint as a platform for connecting people, process and information. That could mean many things. And it certainly does mean different things to different people. Microsoft provide a bit more detail on this page outlining the capabilities of MOSS but that’s not really enough information to really understand the platform.

Lots of issues follow from not properly understanding the platform. I have seen several projects fail because SharePoint was being used for something it was never designed for. Often people get carried away and want to believe that one miracle product can solve all problems. That is obviously not the case.

The key point is that it takes time to fully understand SharePoint. And once you do feel you have a reasonable good understanding, remember that others might not be there yet. If you’re a SharePoint consultant, keep in mind that people you work for often will have misconceptions about the platform and it’s part of your job to lead them to a better understanding.

If you’re feeling slightly lost in terms of understanding SharePoint or want some guidance on how to make other people understand SharePoint, I’d advice you to read the following three landmark blog posts. They’re all fairly brief so it’ll be well worth your time.

  • SharePoint is not the Holy Grail by Patrick Tisseghem.
    SharePoint often gets criticised based on the wrong assumptions. If you expect SharePoint to be able to solve all your problems, you will be disappointed. The product was designed for certain purposes and should be measured against those purposes.
  • SharePoint = Platform (and Application) by Arpan Shah.
    SharePoint is not an end-to-end solution. It’s a platform upon which you can build solutions. SharePoint has some particular strengths around serving the long tail of specialised needs within an organisation.
  • Your (Share)Point of View by Woody Windischman.
    Did you ever hear the old parable about the blind men meeting an elephant? This is a brilliant analogy to the size of SharePoint and the many different perceptions of the product.

10 December, 2008

Using the SharePoint BDC to access SAP data

I was listening to the SharePoint Pod Show Episode 12 about the SharePoint BDC. It’s a great discussion which gives you an excellent introduction to the BDC, but it also includes some valuable insight into some of the more advanced things you can do and at the end they share common issues that people out there are encountering. Very interesting.

The podcast also references a survey about the proliferation of the BDC. It caught my attention that not many are actually using the BDC for connecting to SAP. I presume, this is first of all because the majority of companies running SAP is typically committed to SAP Enterprise Portal more than MOSS. A second reason is the relative complexity of it which I will elaborate on in this post.

As I indicated in a previous post, even in very SAP-centric organisations the proliferation of SharePoint is inevitable. This is usually driven by people in the business asking IT to provide SharePoint’s collaboration functionality. SharePoint is also a front-end for an increasing number of Microsoft's other server products (Project Server, PerformancePoint Server, Team Foundation Server, etc.), so it tends to emerge one way or another.

If you run SAP as your back-end and you have SharePoint widely deployed, it’s a natural progression to consider bringing SAP data into SharePoint using the BDC. The main driver for this is to increase productivity of casual users by allowing easy access to SAP data in an environment they are comfortable in and thereby minimise their reliance SAP power users.

So, if you do want to use the BDC for bringing SAP data into SharePoint, what are the challenges you’ll be facing? Well, here are a few based on my experiences:

  • Developing BDC-friendly web services.
    As mentioned in the podcast above, the BDC requires the web services representing your LOB system to be structured in a certain way. Unfortunately, that certain way is not anywhere close to what the SAP web services look like in a standard SAP environment. They return results through inout parameters rather than out parameters and there’s a separate WSDL for each method whereas the BDC requires all methods for all entities in a LOB system to be accessible from the same URL.
    If you’re coming from a .NET background, it is tempting to address this by developing your own custom .NET web services layer on top of the SAP web services. Although this can be useful in order to create a quick and dirty conceptual proof-of-concept, it’s not something that’s recommended in a production scenario. You obviously end up with poor performance having the data serialised and deserialised twice and you will face serious challenges getting the users authenticated all the way through.
    The right thing to do is developing custom ABAP web services on the SAP side, designed specifically for the BDC. Give the ABAP developer the guidance required to develop web methods that are fit for purpose (Finder, Specific Finder, Id Enumerator, etc.). Also, it’s preferable to have the ABAP developer extract field names from the SAP system saving you from having to do any manual mapping of names in the BDC application definition file.
  • Finding the right skill sets.
    As with any solution that spans across multiple technology stacks you will need to find and coordinate people with different skill sets. You will need a good ABAP developer to build the web services on the SAP side and that developer will need to work closely with a SharePoint technical resource that knows the BDC well. And they will have to put aside any religious technology arguments for another day and subscribe to the idea of leveraging the best of both worlds.
  • Getting security right.
    When you talk to organisations about bringing SAP data to a broader user base, concern number one is always security. Configuring authorisation hierarchies in SAP is often an expensive exercise and a lot of time and effort has gone into it. You want to leverage that investment. In reality that means you’ll have to get Single Sign-On working, so the users are authenticating through and access levels are managed in SAP.
    There are a couple of ways you can go about that. You can either architect your infrastructure to implement SSO (refer to the white paper Unleash the Power of Single Sign-On with Microsoft and SAP) or you can take advantage of SharePoint’s SSO service (guidelines available in the white paper Interoperability between SAP NetWeaver Portal and Microsoft SharePoint Technologies).
  • Focusing on the right use cases.
    SharePoint is a great environment for deploying functionality to casual users of other applications. That includes access to SAP data. But you’re not trying to pull SAP power users away from the SAP GUI. You’re aiming at occasional users of SAP. Users that only sporadically need to look up some information in SAP. It’s great for scenarios where users are currently having to go through SAP power users to acquire the information they need. And it’s typically to support collaboration-oriented activities rather than transaction-oriented activities.

05 November, 2008

Office Access as a front-end developer tool for SharePoint

I was watching Steve Ballmer speak at the Liberation Day event in Sydney and noted a comment he made about the roadmap of Office Access and its integration with SharePoint.

Steve’s presentation was mainly focused around the Windows Azure platform that was recently announced at the PDC. At the subsequent Q&A session there was a question about what else we should be excited about apart from Azure.

The answer was basically SharePoint, SharePoint and SharePoint. And in particular, Steve referred to some powerful developments with Access evolving into a front-end developer tool for SharePoint.

In the current version of SharePoint we can use Access as an offline client for applications built in SharePoint. By the sounds of it, in the next version, we will be able to go the other way and build applications in Access that are then deployed to SharePoint.

11 August, 2008

SAP NetWeaver Collaboration Portal - What's coming?

My previous post outlined some important differences between Microsoft SharePoint and SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Portal. At this point in time, both products have some distinct advantages over the other. In a nutshell, SharePoint is superior for people-oriented collaborative activities and unstructured data, NetWeaver Portal is superior for process-oriented transactional activities and structured enterprise data.

Because of these differences in core strengths, many organisations are adopting a dual portal strategy with the aim of leveraging the best of both worlds. On the other hand, many IT managers are dreaming of a world where one portal rules them all and they only have to worry about supporting one technology.

From this perspective it is interesting to follow what is coming up in future releases from the two software giants, as there is no doubt that both Microsoft and SAP have ambitions to tread more on each other's turf in the portal space.

SAP is currently investing in delivering more collaboration features on the NetWeaver Portal. Some limited information on those upcoming features are available on SDN. In summary, these are some of the new features that will be delivered as enhancement packs on top of the NetWeaver Portal 7.0 infrastructure:

  • Team Workspaces
    Essentially a new version of the collaboration rooms. Interesting change of terminology to a more "SharePoint-like" name.
  • Forums
    Aimed at community-driven sites.
  • Wikis
    More comprehensive than SharePoint's current standard wiki template and they include some interesting features such as user ratings. A slide deck with more details can be found here.
  • Tagging
    Documents, users and iViews can be tagged with searchable keywords.
  • User business cards
    Allowing users to share more information about themselves.
  • SharePoint integration
    An interesting one. Not much detail is available on what exactly this will entail other than facilitating NetWeaver Portal as an entry point to content in distributed SharePoint repositories. Obviously, the idea here is to become the "portal of portals."

It will be interesting to see whether and how well these features will help NetWeaver Portal to catch up on SharePoint in the collaboration space.

10 August, 2008

SharePoint versus NetWeaver Portal

With SharePoint on its way to becoming the de facto collaboration portal in the corporate context, many large enterprises are ending up with two portal technologies within their infrastructure, Microsoft SharePoint and SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Portal.

As I'm increasingly getting involved in discussions with customers around portal strategies and choosing between SharePoint and NetWeaver Portal, I've been identifying some high-level differences between the two technologies from various perspectives. The aim of this blog post is to compare and contrast the portal capabilities of SharePoint and NetWeaver. The following statements are not intended to be literal but rather aimed at emphasising the primary strengths of the two products.

SharePoint is horizontal. NetWeaver is vertical.
Out of the box, SharePoint does not deliver any business solutions. It is a platform for collaborative applications, a horizontal layer that sits behind your desktop applications. NetWeaver exposes business data and functionality residing in the ERP system, vertical access points into the back-end.

SharePoint for unstructured data. NetWeaver for structured data.
SharePoint provides a toolset for managing collaborative content. It's a focal point for all the everyday interactions between individuals and the content they collaborate on. NetWeaver is the place for business data and functionality of core business processes.

SharePoint is designed around people. NetWeaver is designed around business processes.
The NetWeaver Portal is designed around business processes. The whole purpose of the NetWeaver Portal is to expose the data and functionality of SAP. SharePoint on the other hand was not designed with any specific back-end system in mind. It's designed around how people collaborate and communicate. From a usability perspective, SharePoint is often the lowest common denominator.

SharePoint is a productivity tool. NetWeaver is an enabler.
Microsoft positions SharePoint as part of their suite of productivity tools. Hence, SharePoint is more about how you do things as opposed to what you do. The Office clients (Word, Excel, etc.) are about individual productivity, SharePoint is about team productivity. The NetWeaver Portal is first and foremost an enabler. It's another user interface to SAP data and functionality.

SharePoint has seamless integration with desktop tools. NetWeaver has seamless integration with the back-end.
SharePoint is the server cornerstone of the Office suite of applications and delivers additional capabilities to your everyday productivity tools. NetWeaver is closely tied to the SAP back-end, exposing enterprise data and functionality.

SharePoint is a collaboration oriented environment. NetWeaver is a transaction oriented environment.
The product features provided by SharePoint are aimed at improving collaboration between people. The NetWeaver Portal is designed around SAP transactions.

30 July, 2008

Integrating SharePoint social networking with your ERP system

SharePoint provides a base of social networking capabilities (more on SharePoint social networking features here). This includes the Colleague Tracker which is a web part on your SharePoint My Site showing updates on what's going on in your network of colleagues within the enterprise. So for example, when a colleague has a new phone number or have changed position, the Colleague Tracker will tell you this. It also shows what documents your colleagues are working on and what workspaces they become member of. It introduces an amazing level of visibility and can be a serious booster for collaboration.

The Colleague Tracker can report on any user profile property, including all your custom ones. When you create a new profile property through the SharePoint SSP there is an option to select whether changes to this property should be shown in the Colleague Tracker.

The user profiles can be extended with properties being imported through SharePoint's Business Data Catalog. This means that employee data from your ERP system, such as organisational unit, cost centre and job title can be imported from the source of truth to your SharePoint user profiles. And when those properties are configured, there is an option to track changes to them with the Colleague Tracker.

The result is a social networking experience in SharePoint which is integrated with your ERP system. When you change position, organisational unit or location, your colleagues will automatically be notified of this.

01 June, 2008

Finally a slick reporting tool for SharePoint

How to report on data in SharePoint is something I've always been asked about regularly. And considering how simple it usually is to achieve quick wins in SharePoint, the questioner is always disappointed when I point to various tools that are not all that straight forward to understand or use.

But now there is a better answer. The Melbourne-based company Nintex have just released Nintex Reporting 2008. With this product you can author interactive Silverlight charts that report on content or activity information within SharePoint. It also comes with a bunch of customisable pre-built reports.

My hunch is that this product will be an absolute success. And no, I have no affiliation with Nintex. I just think it's great to see such a slick product filling an obvious gap.

It's definitely worth keeping an eye on Nintex' products. Very recently two SharePoint legends, Mike Fitzmaurice and Joel Oleson, have both left Microsoft to join Nintex.

Stay tuned to my SharePoint musings: Subscribe via email or RSS.

30 May, 2008

Email is not dead

Despite the fact that email is still the most broadly used form of digital communication, it sometimes gets a bad rap and is often proclaimed outdated and on the brink of being replaced by more progressive communication technologies.

However, email is simple and everyone uses it, all the time. That is why email still represents a huge opportunity for innovations in the architectures of web applications. Given the popularity of email, you can even argue that it is heavily underutilised in this regard.

A great example of how email can enrich the user experience of a web application is TripIt. TripIt is a social networking site for travellers that organises your travel plans and alerts you when you are near friends and colleagues. The killer feature is in the way you set up a new trip on your profile. All you have to do is forward your travel itinerary via email and TripIt takes care of the rest.

That is a great example of how email can be used to simplify and enrich the user experience. And it gives TripIt an effective way of signing people up because initially all you have to do is emailing them your itinerary, very easy.

TripIt has a post on their blog with a presentation they gave at the Web 2.0 Expo about using email in web applications.

20 May, 2008

Motivation for social networking in the enterprise

Since my last post on social networking in the enterprise a lot has happened. No doubt, that social networking has gone way past the critical mass and we are no longer talking about an emerging trend.

Facebook recently announced they have raised funding for expanding their infrastructure with 50,000 servers. This is to support a rapidly growing user base that even includes my mum. Over the last year LinkedIn has pulled in 361% more unique users. There are thousands of other social networking sites out there and users are not hesitating to join up.

Now that everyone has learned the basic dynamics of social networks through the many Internet sites that are not only growing rapidly in size but also in diversity, it is time to be serious and consider what value it can bring to the enterprise.

In an increasingly complex environment where continuous innovation is required to stay competitive, collaboration is a key factor to success. Most organisations have acknowledged this for quite some time and have been rolling out empowering collaboration solutions (such as Microsoft SharePoint).

But effective collaboration is not only about streamlining how you work together, it also about who you collaborate with. This is where social networking comes in as a booster for collaboration.

Many knowledge-driven organisations actively promote internal networking by facilitating events where employees from various parts of the business can connect and learn from each other. Social networking tools are another way of facilitating internal networking. But the networking can take place anywhere, anytime and at very little cost.

Social networking in the enterprise should first of all be viewed as another productivity solution. It accelerates the pace at which we connect with the right people to perform shared tasks. From a more strategic perspective, social networking tools can help individuals discover capabilities of people within the organisation they otherwise would not have known of.

There certainly seems to be good reasons for why it is even relevant to talk about enterprise social networking. We now need to turn our focus to how we go about it and actually implement it in a way that adds measurable value to the business.

11 May, 2008

Fit To Screen in Internet Explorer on Windows Mobile 6.0

I might be the last person to have figured this out but you can change the default rendering in IE on Windows Mobile 6.0 so the text will wrap and fit within the window.

One of my favourite mobile websites is the mobile version of Wikipedia on wapedia.mobi. Instant answers to almost anything anywhere anytime, which is really extremely powerful once you're used to it. But the need to constantly having to use the horizontal scroll bar has previously made it a little cumbersome to use.

To fit the content to screen and get rid of the horizontal scroll bar:

  1. Open Internet Explorer on your Windows Mobile.
  2. Select Menu > View > Fit To Screen.

Meanwhile I'm waiting for the Windows Mobile 6.1 firmware upgrade for my HTC TyTN II. According to an HTC press release, the software update should be available soon. ZDNet reports that IE on Windows Mobile 6.1 should have the full rendering capabilities of the desktop version of IE 6.