October 16, 2010

Enterprise Content Management & SP2010 - Ready for the Big Time

It should come as no surprise that I’m a bit of a fan of SharePoint. I’ve practically built my career on the platform and truly enjoy the breadth and depth of solutions that the product offers to enterprises of all sizes. SharePoint has come a VERY long way since its humble beginnings back when it was a mix of an acquisition technologies (VTI) and bits and pieces of Exchange 5.5. With the qualification of my love of the product, I submit that after a modest beginning in the ECM space, SP2010 is not only ready for the big time, but in many MANY ways, easily unseats the big players in this space.

ECM can be classified a few different ways. I like to think of it as the large scale creation, storage, finding and consumption of information. It is much more than just a file repository. It is about the ability to gain value from data and turn those data into information. It is about the ability to quickly take action on the ever growing and changing landscape of knowledge in the enterprise. Storing documents and data is only about 25% of ECM. Sure, it must do it efficiently and securely. The rest of the story comes in what the system can do with data after it is created. That whole document lifecycle stuff. What does SP2010 offer here? I’m so glad you asked.

Storage – The big players, namely EMC will tout their large scale storage subsystems. These systems are in fact quite capable and can store petabytes of documents and other data in very efficient ways like de-duplication and very efficient file systems. SP stores everything (by default) in SQL server which isn’t exactly a good place to store documents. Fortunately, SP2010 leverages some great technologies behind the scenes that can be enabled called remote BLOB storage. This allows you to have the power and speed of SQL server behind your content stores while offloading the actual bits to the filesystem we all know and love (NTFS). This is a much more powerful solution than the big boys because NTFS can go just about anywhere. The CIFS drivers can send files to NAS, SAS, SATA, SCSI, iSCSI, IDE, FibreChanel, and the list goes on. So commodity hardware and inexpensive disk arrays can be used to quickly scale out your storage needs. I’ve even seen RBS enabled on those new fangled terabyte flash drives!

Search – Possibly one of the best things about SharePoint is search. The ability to securely trim and index ANYTHING makes SharePoint the most powerful and versatile search system for an enterprise at an exceptional value…it is included in the CAL! A couple of things to point out here. It can search anything that it knows about and can be quickly and easily extended to learn to search even things it doesn’t know about (like line of business systems) using everyone’s favorite programming platform .Net and the BCS (Business Connectivity Services) infrastructure. Those search endpoints are then security trimmed such that even secure content can be indexed with confidence. It is not possible to adequately articulate the incredible value of having such a robust search platform that is so easily extended sitting right with your ECM solution. Search is all about context and so a search system must be able to make sense of the mountain of data that is contained in an enterprise – not just inside of SP. By bringing these things together, a search query can provide relevance and context to the ideas and constructs being searched for. This increases productivity and return on investments. Faceted search results add further value to this contextual search, which by the way, are also easily customizable if you have a compelling business need to aid your users. Other presentation formats than simple lists of results including people, processes, timelines, and much more are all contained here. Search is its own blog entry so I’ll stop there 🙂

Organization – Data cannot be made into information if you can’t find it. This ties into search of course as well as the efficient storage of data. The ability to quickly, easily and reliably inject the relevant metadata into information as it is created and stored in SP is critical not just to SP Search’s ability to provide context, but also allows for a more human understanding of the relevant pieces of information being stored in lists, libraries and documents. SP2010 does a great job at this and it starts with a very simple concept – the content type. At first (way back when), I didn’t get content types. I didn’t really get metadata either for that matter but that’s a lesson well learned.  Content types, to over simplify them, are just sets of columns and optional workflow (and a few other goodies) that are wrapped around a common title – the type.  These columns are then managed singularly throughout your environment (if you configure the content type hub in SP2010) to provide a very rich set of metadata fields and workflows for your users to add value and organization to your data.  Content types can also be programmatically extended and leverage internal Windows Server 2008 R2 File Classification goodness (way different topic) such that not ALL columns must be filled out manually.  It is imperative that a content type structure be created with the utmost understanding of ontological and enterprise term store mappings that exist.  I find that this is one of the most challenging yet powerful parts of any SP deployment that hopes to leverage the vast sums of ECM happiness.  Once the content types are defined and in use, the organizational structure starts to take shape and search becomes much more context aware.  Another new feature of SP2010 that relates to content types and organization is the fantastic Document Set.  Document sets are themselves just content types, but they provide an infrastructure that Documentum users will be familiar with.  DSs bring common interfacing and easy provisioning of templates as well as the ability to automatically merge some or all of the document set metadata with the contained documents.  A fuller explanation and deep dive into DSs is forthcoming – in all that free time I have.

The Interface – I’ve talked at length previously about why the user experience matters. It matters so much that I’ve seen massive and expensive systems fail at the user adoption stage because the powers that be prescribed the solution to the end user without any regard to usability. The big boys, IBM, Oracle, EMC, etc – they all have technology under the hood that is by most accounts impressive (albeit way over priced). The problem? They are ridiculously cumbersome and ugly. They lack any sense of intuitive zeal that makes and breaks all modern enterprise systems. SP2010 is a beautiful interface out of the box. It looks, acts and feels like the other products that end users are used to working with daily. You may disagree that it is beautiful, and that’s certainly fine, but you cannot disagree that something that looks like Excel or Word isn’t going to have an immediate advantage over something that is foreign to users. Like it or not, Office is still the dominant collaborative editing environment (see below) and users have neither the time nor the inclination to learn another interface – particularly if it doesn’t interact well with their office suite (again, see below).

Cost – It is hard to imagine without specifics, but let me tell you a small story. I recently worked with a client who was evaluating replacing their Documentum system with SharePoint. They didn’t particularly like SharePoint, had not made the strategic decision to be a ‘Microsoft shop,’ etc., but wanted to look at the ECM chops of the product because of this one fact. The annual maintenance fee INCREASE of their Documentum platform was so large that this increase alone would pay for the entire project (soup to nuts) for a SharePoint 2010 migration – including design, setup, testing, migration, training and professional services. This point cannot be overstated – MSFT is buying its way into this space and they are doing so with a true competitor. If the solution was half ass and they were giving it away, it wouldn’t be a great story, but it isn’t and it is. Half a million dollars is a lot of licenses in SP land 🙂

Integrate With What We Know How To Use – I’ve touched on this previously in this article but it certainly bears repeating. Too often, ECM systems from the big boys placate interoperability to appease the business decision makers. In their defense, however, sometimes it is the customer, the enterprise, that makes this interoperability a challenge. It could be a security ‘feature’ that requires web based tools to jump through nine layers of ‘stuff’ to get to a client desktop. Offline accessibility and VPN access are stripped to the bone or worse – they are using a ten year old version of Office. For the most part, however, it should be such that interaction with your ECM system from any external system ‘just works.’ I shouldn’t have to have a separate downloaded client or some stupid 16 bit plugin that someone threw together at the last minute. Further, integration with other enterprise systems should not have to rely on jumping through nine additional layers of poo, even if the enterprise throws odd security restrictions in your way. SOAP and REST are fully entrenched at this point as is their functional basis in plain ol XML. Get with the program big guys – your data silo with a passing glance at integration is just unacceptable and it is something that SP2010 does impressively well. I digressed – this was about the client tools. You get the idea. It should just work.

In the end, there are lots of compelling reasons and certainly a fantastic value proposition for SP2010 over the entrenched solutions of yesteryear. If you’d like to learn more about these topics, I’ll be facilitating a series of discussions and presentations over the next couple of months. You can find me on November 4 at Microsoft in Dallas at a Slalom/New Horizons event along with my colleagues. I’ll also be at SharePoint Saturday at 1:00 in Dallas on November 13 and again in Toronto, Canada on January 31st at the SharePoint Summit. It won’t be the same topic all three times but the same theme – so come see me!