The Point To Sharing

Once you know how to take advantage of Windows SharePoint Services in Windows Server 2003, extending collaboration, Web services and other capabilities across your organization is a snap.

March 6, 2006

14 Min Read
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Definition of a killer program: When you first find out about it, everyone else is already using it. The application I am referring to is Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). If you are not using it, then you need to ask yourself why everyone else is.

Perhaps no other application in Microsoft's arsenal has reached critical mass like WSS services. In mid-2004 there were more than 36,000 "personal" SharePoint users at Microsoft alone; since then, the application or service's popularity has spread like whipped cream cheese on a toasty bagel. However, just like the many people who have no idea what a bagel is, there are companies and IT departments who have yet to discover SharePoint. Gentlefolk, start your toasters. You don't know what you are missing.

With its incorporation into Windows Server 2003 R2, WSS availability and continued support is more assured than ever. I first started using SharePoint in 2003, as a project Web site for a huge Active Directory migration that spanned the world. We had more than 100 users working on the site, reviewing architecture documents. Since then, wherever I consult, no matter the size of the project, the first thing I ask the client is, "I need a server for SharePoint--do you have one? And if you are already using it, I need to create a site in it for the project."

The earlier editions of SharePoint shipped with a bunch of standard templates for various uses, such as discussion lists. It was a little clunky, and all your files and resources on it were stored on the local server's hard-disk. More recently, SharePoint stores all configuration information, data and documents in SQL Server.

Today dozens of ISVs as well as Microsoft are creating templates, applications and so-called Web "parts" to run in SharePoint. So fast is SharePoint growing that it will not be long, if not already, before SharePoint becomes the de facto intranet. SharePoint is where you can make it all happen for your users. Forget boring file shares and millions of directories and folders with their silly little gold icons. SharePoint lets users access their files like they access double-shots in the local espresso joint--interacting and joking with fellow caffeine addicts. They can share ideas with fellow SharePointers, read and respond to discussions, send email, inform other users and participate in a rich document-centric environment and group think tank.Do not confuse SharePoint Portal Server 2003 with WSS. The former is more tailored to "communities," BizTalk integration, News delivery, personalization and so on. However, you will see that you can extend WSS in such a way that it would not make sense to choose SharePoint Portal Server over WSS.It is easy for everyone to access SharePoint using a web browser. SharePoint "talks" to them. It tells them, via email, when a document has been submitted or changed. They can check out docs and download them into Microsoft Office applications to review. Document collaboration features on the back-end share the files and control versions, as well as access to other interested users.

Site content is at everyone's fingertips. If you can't find what you need in plain sight, you can search the sites for documents and other files, such as applications, images, lists and links. You can also subscribe to resources on the site, and received alerts about updates, additions and so on.

In Microsoft Office System shops, the programs are tightly integrated with SharePoint. Documents can be opened and saved into and out of Office, Excel, Project and so on. When you open a resource into an Office application, site activities are communicated to you inside the application. Information such as number of users online and checked out documents is available all the time, allowing you to be online while still working in Word or any other Office application.

You can also edit images of Web-based photo libraries, and with tight Outlook integration you can import and export contact lists, calendars and specialized folders into Outlook, which is updated as the resource in SharePoint is updated.

Management has full control of the SharePoint user experience. Sites can be customized not only for groups but for individual users as well. User access can be controlled, monitored and moderated as needed. The administrator can assign tasks and other responsibilities for resources on the SharePoint. Permissions and rights can also be fine-tuned and tightly controlled, both at the SharePoint level and also at the Web site, SQL Server and file-system level.Group sites are an ideal mechanism to ease the administrative burdens of catering to workgroup and department needs at the file-system level using standard shares. For example, you can set up the HR department's site under the corporate SharePoint root, and upload document templates, user manuals, company policy documents, employee handbooks and application forms that HR workers need every day. You can even empower HR to perform quasi-IT tasks, such as setting up users on the network, providing a portal to manage account lists and so on.Here's an example of an application that quickly met the needs of the marketing department at a marine insurance company based in the state of Florida. Problem: The insurance company currently uses more than 500 agents. A small marketing department composed of the VP of marketing, the marketing manager, two assistants, and a marketing team of five that operates in the field recruit, assign and support existing and new agents every day. Their problem is that they are never together at one time in the office, and monthly meetings at HQ are awkward and insufficient. They cannot share lists, documents, news, views, and meet easily.

Solution: I set up a SharePoint site for the marketing department. Now all office-bound staff and the field staff meet on-line at their SharePoint. They participate in discussion lists, access the SharePoint-based phone and mailing lists, send email to each other and agents, download blank forms, submit contracts, view PDF files, faxes and so on. And they don't even need to get dressed to be at work. So effective has the site been in unifying the team, providing the cohesion they were missing, that the monthly meetings and phone conferences have been cancelled. Instead, they now meet in person every quarter and leave all other contact and work to time online.

The IT department will love SharePoint. For starters, on Windows Server 2003 R2, "out-of-the-box functionality" means you don't have to log on to and download an executable which you then need to install, as was the case with the earlier edition of the software. You simply open to Control Panel, click on Add/Remove Programs and then click on Add/Remove Windows Components. Windows SharePoint Services is now installed from the R2 OS installation media, just like IIS, UDDI, Terminal Server, or Certificate Services. SharePoint security is integrated with Active Directory, so security management is a not an issue. You can set up users as local (machine) users or draw on user accounts from Active Directory. You can also use group accounts to ease the administrative burden. SharePoint is also highly scalable: It can grow from a single server to a server safari park with multiple Web sites and a gazillion sub-Webs all over the planet. You can add new servers easily and locate servers close to their users. Disaster recovery management is also a cinch. Each site can be separately backed-up. The data tier is SQL Server, which means that data is protected all the time. Content and configuration data is simply backed-up as part of SQL Server backups. It is also easy to protect SharePoint from hostile attacks. There are a number of anti-virus products on the market that have been designed for SharePoint. You are able to scan each file that is being uploaded to the site and can also block users from uploading specified file types, or review what is being uploaded when adding attachments or files to document libraries.The actual administration of SharePoint is simple. Upon installation, SharePoint Central Administration is installed to the server. As soon as installation is complete, simply log on with administrative rights to the admin portal for SharePoint and get cracking. You also have a number of command-line utilities to use. Server farms, servers, and sites are easily managed using the rich Microsoft .NET Framework–based object model and Web services, allowing you to install and make available the many custom and third-party administration solutions that are popping up in the third-party market. One of the most exciting recent developments on the platform is the ability to do integrated Windows .NET development for SharePoint, allowing you to customize your sites and enhance them in ways never thought possible before. This is mainly done with the Web Part infrastructure. SharePoint is no longer a "portal-in-a-can." While the base-installation and template offerings are still stock items, the site, once up, can be extended to make it unique and to tailor it exactly to the need you have for it. You can also "back-end" SharePoint on your unique corporate web-site, and cut down on costly custom portals you were planning to code from the ground up.

Here's how the Web-part technology works. SharePoint services, servers, sites, and site contents are exposed by a comprehensive Windows .NET–based object model and industry-standard Web service infrastructure. Developers create Web Parts that integrate with existing applications in SharePoint. You simply compile your Web-part code referencing .NET SharePoint assemblies and upload the part into the site library. Then you drag and drop the part onto the customizable areas of the Web page or pages on which you need the part, and you're in business. You can put the part on shared pages or personal pages.

Here's an example of Web part deployment to SharePoint. On one particular site, a group of venture capitalists review uploaded business plans and financial statements. They found that it was sometimes difficult to access the local calculator on the machine from which they were signed in. So I decided what was needed was an integrated calculator. I looked for such a "part" but found none. So I went into Visual Studio and built something quick for number crunching, wrapped it in Web part clothing so that it could be uploaded into SharePoint, and the calculator button is now available to the users right in the Web page they are on.You can add any Web parts you provide to any site pages, and continue enhancing the sites your users are accessing with new features. Your ASP.NET developers can write Web Parts to interact with Web services and many other applications and content. Here's another example of Web part deployment at work. On another site I set up two administrators who are responsible for moderating all discussion lists and for setting up new resources. They also modify pages and are responsible for titles, site content, blurbs, descriptions and any words on HTML pages not actually in user-submitted documents. Well, techies are not good wordsmiths. Users started complaining that administrator language was bad, grammar terrible, and spelling just horrid. So I decided what was needed was an integrated advanced grammar and spell checker. Again, I looked for such a "part" but found none (although that was a while ago). So into Visual Studio I went and built a little writing pad, folded in a sophisticated spelling-and-language checker, and wrapped the whole thing in more Web part clothing. Now the administrators can write their blurbs online and have them grammar- and spell-checked before saving the text to the site. It beats having to open Word just to write a couple of lines or spin a catchy headline.

Many Microsoft applications now integrate with specialized SharePoint sites that have been extended with an extensive array of parts. Two that come to mind are Project Server, which integrates with MS Project and the Visual Studio Team Foundation Server. Project Server provides parts for managing resources, critical paths, sharing project, documentation, charting and more. Team Foundation Server integrates with Visual Studio 2005 to provide access to modeling resources, source code version control and more.If you're ready now and want to get cracking with SharePoint, then grab a bagel, cream cheese and some lox and read on. What follows is a fast track to getting a SharePoint site up and running in less time than it takes for the foam on your espresso to disappear.

Windows SharePoint requires the .Net framework and IIS. The base system uses .Net framework 1.1 but many news services and Web parts require .Net framework 2.0. Install both on your SharePoint Web server. So before you start make sure to have IIS and the "Frameworks" installed.

Start the process by going to Windows Server 2003, R2 Components in Control Panel and check the SharePoint option. The process may ask you for a SP1 disk but simply put in CD 1 if you are using R2 because R2 is built on SP1. Choose typical installation or server farm and proceed. By the first bite of the bagel, SharePoint will be installed.

As mentioned earlier, SharePoint stores its data in SQL Server. You don't need to go out and buy SQL Server because the product installs a local version of the free Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE), SQL Server Express, on the server. You can easily connect to the local MSDE instance of SharePoint using Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio and maintain the database. The local instance will likely be named SharePoint.If you want to move the SharePoint databases and install them instead in a central SQL Server 2000 or 2005 system (usually on a dedicated database server), simply detach the "STS" prefixed databases and copy them to the database server for reattachment. You then need to redirect SharePoint to the new location, which is achieved using the SharePoint administration tools.

After installation is complete, before you can use SharePoint, you need to set up a root site. Open IIS Manager and create a root web site (such as "IT Projects"). Then once it is installed, go into Windows SharePoint Services Central Administration (found on the Administrative Tools menu on Windows Server 2003 R2) and click "Extend or upgrade a virtual server" under the Virtual Server Configuration options. You are simply extending a simple Web site with WSS bits. You don't need any parts yet for your Web and you can create your Web site in an empty folder on your server's wwwroot folders, wherever they reside.

On the next page, "Virtual Server List" (used to configure extended sites), click the site name. You will be taken to the Extend Virtual Server pages. Choose the option under "Provisioning Options" to "Extend and create a content database." This action will take you to the content database page. Now follow along:

  • Under Application Pool select the option "Create a new application pool" (as opposed to using the existing one). Give it the same name as the Virtual Server Name (VSN).

  • Next choose the predefined "Network Service" as the security account for the Application Pool.

  • Choose a Site Owner, an Administrator account you set up (this can be changed).

  • Add the email address for the Administrator (this is required).

  • Leave everything else to the default. However, check that the database server is the correct server for your content and configuration (in the event you relocated them after the initial installation and changed the path to the new server if you need to).

  • Finally, click OK.

As soon as the root virtual server with WSS is created, it will switch you to Virtual Server Settings so you can manage the site. You will have access to options, such as Self-Service Site Creation, User Rights and Security Settings/Permissions, Web parts security, content database configuration, and so on. You are now ready to access the root web site.

  • Open IE and browse to the hostname and the port number you set the server to (later you can use headers and put the root SharePoint site on port 80.

  • Choose a template. For the root site, Team Site template is usually a good choice. You can later install custom or advanced templates.

The root Web site is now created. To create child sites do the following:

  • Open Windows SharePoint Services Central administration.

  • Select Configure virtual server settings.

  • Choose the site.

  • Select "Configure Self-Service Site Creation."

  • Under "Enable Self-Service Site Creation," check the option to turn the service on and then click OK.

Your administrators can now create child Web sites from within the root SharePoint site.

And that's all there is to installing, configuring and using Windows SharePoint Services on Windows Server 2003, R2. I bet you forgot to eat that bagel while you were installing SharePoint. Did you check the toaster...wait a minute, is that smoke behind you?Server Pipeline columnist Jeffrey R. Shapiro is the co-author of Windows Server 2003 Bible (Wiley) and is an infrastructure architect who manages a large Windows Server network for an insurance firm.

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