Archive | March, 2009

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To folder or not to folder? That is the question.

Posted on 30 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

Since most of us grew up in a word of DOS and Windows, our desire for folders and tree-like hierarchical structures is vast. We just make folders and subfolders to categorize information it has become … natural. Most of us do not want to let folders go, even when migrating to a new world like document management and SharePoint.

SharePoint provides the functionality to create folders within document libraries and so the most natural impulse when migrating from that dusty file server, is to just recreate the folder structure.
But to really get the most out of MOSS one must utilize metadata (custom columns). Metadata create a dynamic categorization system within document pools and allow for infinite personalization through views. Metadata use also turn search from guesswork to an intuitive task.

To be frank the folders we all use in file systems are metadata for the files they contain, just single dimensional. The “Projects” folder denotes that all documents contained in it are project related documents. Since this is not enough we rely on subfolders (client name or project type perhaps) and info in the filename (specific project name f.e.) to add more “metadata” to the document. This process that can quickly be chaotic and as the number of files grows it becomes unusable.

This can easily be alleviated by using a true metadata structure in SharePoint (two custom columns “Client” and “Type” in the ProjectFiles document library would be enough for the above example). So the document visibility is increased but also the structure can be “re-organized” (through views and filtering) without any manipulation of the documents files themselves. Teams working on the same file-set can also benefit from this approach. So the Sales department can view documents sliced per client or budget, but the IT department can view the documents per Product or Project type. Metadata is the way to keep everyone happy while at the same time avoiding multiple copies of files (and emails flying around trying to find the correct version).
Another thing against folders is that even if they are there, they cannot be used for filtering.

Just to add a technical limitation to all the business and design ones, the maximum document url length in SharePoint is 260 chars. This can be easily reached if the existing folder structure is big or really descriptive.

So it is obvious. No folders in document libraries, just metadata. Well … there is one single detail that folders have on their side, you can define access rights on them. So if you want to reduce the number of required document libraries or you have trouble dealing with access rights maybe a single layer of folders is ok. You will have to add metadata anyway probably just to get the views your users will desire (yes you can add metadata to a folder through customization, but it is not copied automatically to the documents that are placed inside it).

To conclude, in my opinion try to avoid folders at all cost unless access rights management makes them an unavoidable necessity.

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SharePoint 14 feature wish-list

Posted on 26 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

With the next SharePoint Version (referred to as vNext up to now, it is going to be v14 it seems) getting closer, it is a good time to post my personal wish list of new features.  So here goes in no particular order:

·        Cleaner Page Rendering so that pages render faster, in more browsers and coding for MOSS is easier.

·        More “Polished” look for lists and especially for the forms that are produced automatically by the Workflow engine. It would make them a worthy offering for more solutions if f.e. silver light was utilized.

·        More flexibility in List functionality (it seems MS are working on something as was mentioned briefly by Bill Gates here

·        Better offline support, especially for mail archiving solutions but for simple document lists as well. Microsoft should get a lesson from the excellent Colligo addon on this.

·        Mobile client support, mobile browsers must be supported with a limited view of libraries at least. I would even be fine with a native Windows Mobile client, it is better than nothing.

·        Out of the box PDF support, yes I know it easy enough right now, but should be there by default!

·        Groove integration, just to get rid of the annoyance to explain to customers why on earth this is not already implemented :)<

·        More themes and master pages available out of the box.

·        Full site-collection backup/restore/migrate functionality (preferably with an UI) on a farm level. Really required for large scale installations or scenarios with different development and production systems.

·        Column (metadata) security filtering, it would be nice to be able to define which columns a specific security level can view.

·        Dynamic Update of related fields when a field changes in the form, for forms that are produced automatically by the Workflow engine.

·        Permissions on views, a real must have.

·        More customization possibilities for Search and search results, available without coding.

The big pain point of BI seems sure to be resolved now that a large segment of PerformancePoint will be integrated in SharePoint’s Enterprise version but this is a completely different rant! 

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New SharePoint Themes

Posted on 26 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

Microsoft released 10 new SharePoint Themes a few days ago. The themes are an improvement over the already existing ones but not really anything to be very exited about.

Here is the download link from MS: New MOSS Themes

A better way to get then (and the way MS should also have provided them) is through a single WSP. Daniel Brown did it for us! :

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Google goes semantic

Posted on 24 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

Google seem to have embraced the semantic trend that has been developing over the past few years, as it has incorporated into its search engine some initial semantic functionality.

This development will enable the market leading search engine to better understand associations and concepts related to a search, expanding the accuracy of results provided by the classic keyword approach.

For example, according to the blog post announcing this new feature, the search engine, upon encountering a query such as “principles of physics,” will now be able to calculate that “angular momentum,” “special relativity,” “big bang” and “quantum mechanics” are also related terms, and offer them as alternative search suggestions at the top or bottom of the page.

Google will be using a mixture of semantic algorithms and on the fly data mining – as Ori Allon, Technical Lead of the Google Search Quality Team (and blogger) has stated earlier this year in an interview – and will not use semantic technology more broadly just yet, not wanting to decrease its famous search performance. At Google they see semantic capabilities as a part of their search algorithm and not as a full replacement for their traditional keyword analysis.

This move was expected since Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt made a short reference to it during the announcement of Google’s fourth-quarter results : “Wouldn’t it be nice, if Google understood the meaning of your phrase, rather than just the words that are in the phrase? We have made a lot of discoveries in that area that are going to roll out.”

Google was also under some pressure as many of its competitors already were working on semantic search engines to better serve users by understanding their queries and so undermining Google’s dominance of the Search Market. Microsoft acquired Powerset Inc in 2008 to gain access to the start-up vendor’s semantic search technology. Also in 2008, Yahoo announced plans to support Semantic Web standards as part of its new open search platform. Other vendors are already offering semantic capabilities in their search engines like (or at least trying very hard to get it right).

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Increasing your chances for a successful SharePoint project

Posted on 24 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

There are five rules of thumb that every SharePoint Project team must keep in mind in order to have a clear chance for success.

Plan big, start small
Microsoft Office SharePoint 2007 is a platform with a vast array of capabilities and features which is a good thing … until someone tries to use them all in an single project. So plan big since MOSS gives you the background to do so, but pick a couple of business focused quick wins for your first project. Don’t try to solve all of the client’s data, search, collaboration and process problems at once, the project will just never end. Get an ally within the client team, pin-point one or two problematic areas with their document or process handling and provide a solution just for that, either as a small start-up project or even as a pilot of a broader implementation.
This makes it much easier to keep the project on time and in budget but also to get the “buy in” from the end users that you will need later, when trying to deliver solutions to more complex problems.

Educate your developers
As I already noted MOSS is a platform. As such it has a wealth of Out Of the Box features that can be utilized in any solution. It has even more features that can be downloaded through Microsoft and the Codeplex Community in the form of application templates and web parts. You can even buy components from various vendors to facilitate a solution. All of the above components and features are extremely customizable according to your solution design and the user requirements.
This is something your development team HAS to understand and embrace. It is sometimes difficult to convince a developer with .Net mentality to try and find a way to implement things in the above described “SharePoint way”. If you find the team launching Visual Studio and going through the “Dim x as …” routine something is probably wrong.
With that said, there are actually some extreme cases where coding is indeed needed but they must be treated as exactly that, extremes.

Educate your users
Starting from pre-sales, users must have a clear view of how SharePoint will benefit themselves and the company, how it is going to take some effort and stress away from them, so that they are willing to go a little out of their way (and their established habits) to use it. They have to be educated to the whole metadata and search paradigm (don’t be shy to give the Google example even if they are an MS competitor) but at the same time assure them that they will still perform most of their tasks through their beloved MS Office.
After Roll-out do not try to train everyone in everything! Prefer role-based training according to how users are expected to utilize the SharePoint implementation. Finally be prepared to communicate the positives of the implementation and get ready for a storm of questions that must be answered. Unanswered questions tend to lead to a lot of user resistance to system adoption.

Plan for business not for IT
Since IT is usually vocal, you may end up designing a business system based only on IT input, which is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing (I should know, have been guilty of this a couple of times). SharePoint was designed with business data and processes in mind and is built in a way that some of the customization and the administration can be handled by business users.
So you must set up a group of key users in the requirements phase, that can close the gap between the business needs and IT, that can describe processes, define roles and responsibilities and bring some specific “company know-how” into the project, since every business is unique in its structure, function and needs. Document the processes, templates and metadata (avoiding IT complexity and terminology) and get a consensus before proceeding to implementation. Missing process steps or messed up templates and useless metadata will lead to an unusable system.

Design for user friendliness, be prepared for change
A user friendly implementation is key to success. Try to keep as much of the offered functionality as you can within MS Office, users love the impression that nothing really changed in the way they proceed with their everyday tasks. Site Structure and navigation must be simple and – got forbid- nice looking! Spice up sites and site collections with some images or charts, don’t just pile up lists. Even in lists provide intuitive views, don’t rely on users to create them. Set up a site for social interaction within the company to lure users in increasing adoption and acceptance.
However build all that with a well thought out structure of Content Types, Site Columns List templates and Web Parts at the site collection level. This way you are going to be ready to adapt quickly
to the unavoidable change that all businesses undergo sooner or later.

Lastly remember that even if MOSS is a platform offering solutions to many business problems it does not offer solutions to ALL the business problems!

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Skype a big fish in the telco sea

Posted on 24 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

International voice traffic is on the rise, according to market research companies such as TeleGeography. Cross-border voice traffic increased 14% in 2007 and 12% more in 2008. That amounts to an amazing 384 billion minutes of talk.

But despite all this traffic, voip in general and Skype more specifically have forced prices and margins down and so “old-school” telcos are registering more traffic, but cashing almost the same as they did the year before or maybe even a little less.

On the other hang Skype, only five years since launch is now the largest provider of international voice communications on the planet, controlling the 8% of all traffic of this kind. Free is always nice but even Skype’s paid-for ‘Skype Out’ service – which lets users make calls to standard telephones – is on the rise , generating 8.4 billion minutes of calls in 2008.

So since the competition in the telco market is becoming more intense on all fronts, old-school providers will have to learn new tricks to stay in the game.

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Internet Archive Grows

Posted on 20 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

The Internet Archive Organization is getting a new data centre which can house two petabytes of data for its ‘Wayback Machine’ and the announcement will come next week.

The digital library of Internet memories stores 85 billion archived versions of Web pages dating back to 1996 that amount to more than three petabytes of data. It is expected to continue to grow by 100TB of data per month now that it’s live.

According to a Sun event the Internet Archive has moved from a traditional Linux Server based datacenter to Solaris 10 with ZNF in a Sun modular datacenter design.

Wayback Machine

Sun Event

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SharePoint success reasons and future headaches

Posted on 20 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) is a great success and its 2007 version (the third iteration of the product) has even become Microsoft’s Best Selling Server. MOSS was made such a success by a combination of four things:

  • A well defined set of business-focused capabilities and features
  • Integration into a well known, widely used and liked framework
  • The ability to extend its functionality by customization and programming
  • Microsoft’s powerful marketing

The first two points make MOSS attractive to enterprises because it gives them the features, manageability, desktop integration and scalability to meet corporate needs. The Microsoft Brand name also helps as well as possible licensing deals that are in place for other Microsoft Products and make MOSS an easy executive decision.
The third makes MOSS attractive to end users that more or less continue to work the way they were used to, but also creates an entire ecosystem in the market for specific add-ons and vertical solutions.

Microsoft with SharePoint actually invented a market segment that was previously covered with combinations of different products filling the Document management, collaboration and portal management roles. MOSS integrates all three components into o single offering bundled with excellent Microsoft Office and Active Directory Integration. Helped by massive Microsoft marketing and an (almost) free basic version, it dominated its own market segment.

And that is how problems start emerging. As MOSS finds its way into more corporate environments and IT departments acknowledge its flexibility and start customizing it, they start coming close to its design boundary. SharePoint was designed to offer MS Office integrated document management with easy to use collaboration features and workflow support. Surely the product can do many more things through customizations but the further away from its core, the more difficult implementations get.
So if the Microsoft Marketing machine keeps pushing MOSS as the one tools to solve all enterprise problems, publicity around SharePoint could start getting less positive as overoptimistic projects based on it fail.

New features in the next version are surely needed but there is also a need to strengthen existing features and functionality and not to add even more breadth to the product, blurring its boundaries even more.

SharePoint is an excellent platform for the things it was designed for, it would be a shame for Microsoft to negate that by trying to make in into the Application Server it never had.

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Cisco enters x86 server market

Posted on 17 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

Cisco unveiled the Cisco Unified Computing System expanding it offering into the Data Center market and claiming a slice in the pie of the blade server market.

The UCS, according to Cisco, is a next-generation data center platform that unites compute, network, storage access, and virtualization into a cohesive system designed to reduce TCO and increase business agility. The system integrates a low-latency, lossless 10GE unified network fabric with enterprise-class, x86-architecture servers. The system is an integrated, scalable, multichassis platform in which all resources participate in a unified management domain.

It seems like the blade part of the offering is based on Intel motherboards and Xeon CPUs while virtualization is implemented either using VMware infrastructure or Microsoft Hyper-V technology. Microsoft is also a preferred management partner and SQL Server seems to have a role in the offering as well. All the new stuff is bundled with established Cisco switching and Fiber technology so that LAN and SAN traffic use a common 10GE Ethernet infrastructure.

UCS aims at decreasing data center costs by lowering energy consumption by through consolidation into fewer boxes that at the same time reduce cabling and cooling requirements. Unified management of the platform is bound to also bring IT Management costs down.

Cisco’s former partners and now soon to be rivals shouldn’t be too happy for the new contender in a market they consider their own and they watched their stock fall in the hours after the announcement.

Sounds like exiting times ahead since Cisco has some cash to spare and is in this game for the long run.

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Azure down

Posted on 16 March 2009 by Andreas Vamvatsikos

Microsoft’s Windows Azure “cloud” platform, still in pre-beta, had its first crash this past weekend. Azure stayed offline for almost 22 hours leaving a large number of deployments offline, and applications unreachable in “stopped” or “initializing” states.

It is not yet clear what caused the outage but in his post in the MSDN forums, Azure team member Steve Marx said he expected a root cause analysis would be conducted to “understand exactly what went wrong and what we need to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Once we have that sorted out, I’ll put together a summary.”

Amazon Web Services had a similar insident earlier this year.

Steve Marx post

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