Archives / 2009 / September
  • SharePoint FUD... Spreading Far, Wide and Fast

    The last month or so I've been a casual observer to a bit of a train wreck. It's the train wreck that we collectively know as the SharePoint bashing exercise. I'll admit fully and upfront. I'm a SharePoint MVP and there are times SharePoint (at a micro level) frustrates me enough to go postal on my co-workers. However from a macro level and as a corporate tool, it's a pretty darn good piece of software.

    For the past month I've been watching people on Twitter endlessly blather on about how bad SharePoint is and how great <insert cool tool of the day> is so much better. The latest of the "SharePoint Killers" is Google Sites. I look at all of these complaints and competitors and scratch my head. What is all the bruhaha about? If you look at things seriously, you're comparing apples to gasoline and never the twain shall meet. The latest moronic dribble is from Computer World UK where they call SharePoint a "Fortress" and elude to Google Sites being able to get your "locked content" away from the prying arms of SharePoint. I have no idea what Glyn Moody is talking about. If I put my data/documents/etc. in Google or Drupal or some other more "free" system, how is it not locked away there? If by locking away your data in SharePoint you've made a decision to use SharePoint then sure, call it that. However it's no different than choosing any technology and storage platforrm. SharePoint doesn't nothing to trap or lock your data up anymore than any other system out there. But yes, SharePoint is a fortress which eats your data, pollutes the environment, and kicks puppy dogs.

    I started to go down this path with an adventure looking at various SharePoint-like alternatatives and I have a 10-page draft post comparing SharePoint to WordPress (which I think is a kick-ass blogging platform) along with ideas and notes for Drupal, and other comparisons. Maybe someday I'll publish them but I'm not seeing a value in doing that right now. However I wanted to take this opportunity to sit down, filter through the FUD that is spreading, and give my take on things.

    SharePoint sucks for content managment

    Suckage is always a relative term. What CM do you have today? Drupal? WordPress? Joomla? CMS? MOSS 2007 folded the old CMS capabilities into it so now users create "Pages" that can go through workflow, multiple edits, etc. all to be published at some point. I've setup many intranets that were primarily focused on just creating content and they've all been pretty successful. Where's the suckage here? Is it fabulous at copy 'n' paste from say Word or a web page? No, but then neither are those other products. There are some supplemental tools available to help this (Telerik has a nice RAD editor that plops into SharePoint with minimal effort as a replacement). Pages can be moved around at will (without breaking links) and assets can be centralized for everyone to use. SharePoint 2010 enhances this even more as we'll see in a few weeks. Perhaps SharePoint sucks compared to something but I'd like someone to come forward with some real world issues they're having. Perhaps SharePoint does have problems with specific issues, but overall MOSS is pretty good for content management.

    InfoPath Forms is Hell

    Again I'm waiting for someone to come forward here. We've built many forms all working well and were easy to build and deploy. Yes, if you get into complex forms with lookups into backend systems and complex decision tree logic it starts to get ugly. However why are you building something like this in InfoPath then? One of the main failures I see in SharePoint is misuse of technology. "Oh we have a forms engine with InfoPath so let's build all our business logic in forms". Uhh, no. No developer with half a brain would do that. Would you code SQL statements and database connections in the code-behind page of an ASP.NET form? Then why are you trying to do the same in InfoPath. Stop blaming tools for your own idiocy. I've used so called "form engines" from all kinds of products and short of building forms in ASP.NET and Visual Studio, InfoPath is pretty slick and simple. However it's a developers tool not something you hand over to a business user to create an IT mess out of.

    SharePoint is idiot easy to install without any planning

    Yes, yes it is. And leaving for the moon without a plan will probably get you killed on takeoff. Any fool that follow SharePoint for dummies to setup an intranet without any planning is exactly that. A fool. And a fool and his money are soon parted (along with your sanity and any sense of credibility you might have at your job). Even in Agile projects you plan. SharePoint installations are pretty simple when it comes down to it, but you still need to sit back and talk about what you're about to do. Are you over-architecting your solution (i.e. building a medium farm for 100 users) or are you under-architecting it so it doesn't scale (installing Basic mode on a stand-alone server for 10,000 users). It takes some expertise and understanding of a whole ream of technologies to pull off a good sized SharePoint deployment but as long as you don't jump in head-first without any idea of what you're doing, you'll probably do fine. Its when people think running setup.exe, sending out an email to everyone saying "Go use SharePoint", then wondering why they have storage/capacity/performance issues after the fact.

    SharePoint is big and expensive

    I hear this all the time and yes, it *can* be bloody expensive. In fact I was looking at external MOSS sites and the price tag was in the 10s of thousands of dollars. Compare that to the price of some open source software where you're basically paying for hosting or a machine sitting in the DMZ and you'll scratch your head. However a few things here. Comparing the price of WordPress ($0) to SharePoint is nonsense. It's the apples and gasoline issue. They are not the same product and thus you can't put them on a level playing field.

    I think this is one of the biggest issues with the whole compare and contrast argument with SharePoint. SharePoint does have wikis and blogs and content management and document repositories and all that jazz. However it has a whole bunch more. Need your OOTB SharePoint to have one little extra menu to direct users to a FAQ? That's a small bit of JavaScript or a feature deployed. Need it to consume web services and format the output, again something that can be built as a feature and deployed. The point is SharePoint is a platform, one that which Microsoft has come up with some basic templates to get you started but people haven't grasped the bull by the horn and gone nuts like they have with other platforms. It's true that building themes is for the birds in SharePoint and not as flexible as templates in say Joomla, but again themes and skins are not the same. In SharePoint themes, you don't have control over layout. With master pages you do but only for the overall site. Application pages provide additional layouts. One has to understand how these three come together to provide that user interface and experience and realize it's not just a simple text file like a DotNetNuke skin.

    The other major issue is integration. Sure MediaWiki is far superior to SharePoint when it comes to wikis but ask MW to handle versioning of Office Documents and exposing metadata (then searching on that metadata) and it falls flat. Alfresco for document storage? Sure, but then what about creating a custom list with business related fields, grouping that information, then creating views to display say sales from a division over a period of time. That's the thing about SharePoint. It does *all* of that, plus more. Does it do all of that exceptionally well? No. It does a lot of things pretty good, some things very well, others really crappy but that's like life. Nothing is the be-all tool for everything and you make compromises to get the best of most worlds. Trying to cobble together the best-of-the-best tools for content management, wikis, blogs, unstructured and structured data, document management and a wealth of other things is just going to create a big ball of mess.

    It's Highly Complex to Install

    So is installing (almost) any Enterprise tool. But let's take a step back here. What's so hard about a) download wss.exe b) run msi c) run config wizard and answer a few questions [e.g. where is your db server, account names, etc.] d) start central admin and create web app and site collection. Okay, that's 4 steps but in reality to setup SharePoint for a brand new environment (assuming WSS) you need about an hour (that's soup to nuts install). MOSS is a couple of hours depending on how your architecture is setup (i.e. multiple front-ends). Highly complex? You're not installing a desktop app where you run the setup program and click a few buttons. Grant you, I think *nothing* beats WordPress and it's 5 minute install (which actually takes about 30 seconds) but again, WordPress isn't SharePoint. I really wish SharePoint would install like this, but something people forget is that while it takes a few minutes to install WordPress you're still spending hours configuring your site/blog, installing plug-ins, downloading and trying out themes. The base install of WordPress isn't much different than SharePoint. It's the devil in the details afterwards that will suck your time. Highly Complex is realative. If you're building a 10,000 user system with 5 or 6 servers sure there are a lot of moving parts. If you're installing WSS for a small company to do collaboration it's a breeze.

    So what makes SharePoint successful?

    I don't know. Your modern ways frighten and confuse me. However what I do know based on experience is two things. If you're a Microsoft shop and use Office and there's a need for some form of departmental or corporate collaboration, SharePoint is probably your best bet. If this is true, install it. Sit down, plan out a way to use it (maybe starting small only with sharing documents). Then set it up. Do not release it to the world or get people on board that have no idea what to do with it. Get some people that are passionate about sharing and have an IQ higher than the temperature of the room you're sitting in right now. Try things out, see what works and what doesn't and get some champions behind it.

    SharePoint success is not about ripping it apart to see what makes it tick then reassembling it (because like that old map in your glove compartment, you'll never fold it up the same). If your first instinct is to crack open Visual Studio then you're probably not thinking in the SharePoint space. VS is an option as you can't do everything in the browser or SharePoint designer, but it's not the only option. There are people that will tell you that to make SharePoint useful you *have* to extend it with features your developers build (or you can get from CodePlex or other places like that). These are the same people that will probably want to sell you hundreds of hours of high priced consulting time and might even give you some magic beans for your troubles. OOTB SharePoint *is* powerful and quite business-enabling. You just have to think about the problem space a little differently and in some cases adjust the practice. If that's not going to happen then maybe creating custom Workflows or Web Parts is the answer, but ask yourself if you're solving the right problem first before you starting writing using(new SPSite()) statements.

    Once you do start using it the most successful factor to help you along is to empower your users. Don't lean on the IT department (whether it's 1000 experts or 2 guys and a small dog) for every little thing (like setting up permissions for users). During your eval, try things out and work out a governance plan for how users are going to access things, how you'll manage security, and how site creation and structure will work. Microsoft has hosted scenarios so you don't have to invest in infrastructure and there are virtual labs where you can spin up a SharePoint instance to give it a whirl. Don't unleash the beast unless you know what's behind the smoke and mirrors. And be careful what you ask for. Passionate users that think SharePoint is da bomb might actually turn your little collaboration experiement into a success.

    Again, caveat lector as I'm a SharePoint MVP so you can take my word in whatever way you want. I may be one that screams and yells at the SharePoint machine on a daily basis, but I'm not lining up with pitchforks and burning torches like some people have been.

  • Low impact text changing in SharePoint with jQuery

    Mike Smith over at Tech Training Notes had a nice simple post a few weeks back on changing the default text displayed at the bottom of stock web parts in SharePoint. For example discussion boards show this text when it's blank:

    "There are no items to show in this view of the "Test" discussion board. To create a new item, click "New" above. 

    That's great but what if the "New" link isn't avaiable (if you turn off the full toolbar and put a discussion list on a page this would happen). Or what if you don't like calling it a discussion board (for various reasons) and want to say forum. Or want to provide additional information.

    His solution is a little bit of JavaScript and then pushing his function into an array _spBodyOnLoadFunctionNames (which is a list of scripts SharePoint will run when the page loads). Here's the original version:

       1:  <script type="text/javascript">
       3:  function ChangeDiscussionMessage()
       4:  {  
       5:      var a = document.getElementsByTagName("TD")  
       6:      for (var i=0;i<a.length;i++)  
       7:      {    
       8:          if (a[i].className=="ms-vb")    
       9:          {      
      10:              if (a[i].innerText.indexOf("There are no items to show in this view")>-1)      
      11:              {         
      12:                  a[i].innerHTML = "There are no active discussions";      
      13:              }    
      14:          }  
      15:      }
      16:  }
      18:  _spBodyOnLoadFunctionNames.push("ChangeDiscussionMessage") 
      20:  </script>

    Here's a more simplified jQuery version:

       1:  <script type="text/javascript">
       3:  $(document).ready(function(){
       4:      $("td .ms-vb:contains('There are no items to show in')").text('There are no active discussions');
       5:  });
       7:  </script>

    P.S. I'm still trying to find time to write up the blog post from this last weekend's code camp and will post the SharePoint developer resources soon!

  • Local SharePoint on Server 2008 Development

    Sometimes I'm such an idiot I wonder how I get enough neurons firing in the morning to get out of bed. I've built a million virtual setups for SharePoint development (and a million really isn't an exaggeration, at least that's how I feel). They're all the same. Install this, configure that, lather, rinse, repeat.

    Setting up a new VM today and for the life of me I couldn't get logged into the site no matter what account I used. You know that challenge/respose dialog you get and you just keep entering your domain\userid hoping to get in? When I setup a new VM I generally create a bunch of host names (trying to remember port numbers is for the birds) so either using the HOSTS file or using A records in DNS (if you're running it on a domain controller, which is what I was doing). These are simple names to remember like "sharepoint", "portal", "sandbox" and more specialized ones (for example I have a new one called "techdays2009" which is a web app just for doing my TechDays demos).

    Like I said, I've done this untold numbers of times before and it's routine. However something always seems to trip me up. Trying to access any of the new sites didn't work. At. All. Of course there are no error messages, event logs are empty, and SharePoint basically says everything is normal. Thanks. That's a lot of help. Luckily I tried to create a new site using the server name and port number (think it was a DNS problem) and I could access the site. So I tried pinging the machine name vs. the host names and would get results (although the host name returned IPv6 results even though I have it disabled while host header names would return IPv4 results).

    All of this was a wild goose chase.

    Here's the problem. If you do this on Server 2003 it works fine. On Server 2008 Microsoft introduced a nice new "feature" to protect local loopback attacks. However this "feature" also creates a problem and doesn't let you use host headers in IIS web sites on local machines. There's a detailed description of the issue here but I only found that by searching for "sharepoint" and "disableloopbackcheck".

    The problem also isn't very intuitive to find because the KB article is entitled "401.1 Error .. on IIS 5.1 or 6". In my case, I'm running on IIS 7 so this KB would probably never show up when looking for this problem. Oh yeah, and there was no 401.1 error (or any error for that matter).

    In any case, the simple fix is to disable the check. The other option listed in the KB article is to specify host names. This works but is a PITA. So everytime you want to add a new site (say http://mysite) you have to do a registry edit? No thanks. Microsoft also doesn't *recommend* that you do this on production, but this is another piece of mis-information. You would never need this on production because we're only trying to access the site via host headers from the machine itself.

    So bottom line is that if you have Server 2008 and want to use host headers with local development, do this:

    • Click Start, click Run, type regedit, and then click OK.
    • In Registry Editor, locate and then click the following registry key:
    • Right-click Lsa, point to New, and then click DWORD Value.
    • Type DisableLoopbackCheck, and then press ENTER.
    • Right-click DisableLoopbackCheck, and then click Modify.
    • In the Value data box, type 1, and then click OK.
    • Quit Registry Editor, and then restart your computer.

    Then you'll be able to access your sites on the server using host names.

  • Edmonton Code Camp Time Again...

    I'll be packing up my troubles and heading up to Edmonton for the day with John "The Pimp" Bristowe for Edmonton Code Camp. The Code Camp takes place on September 19th and runs all day at Grant MacEwan's downtown campus. I'm bringing my SharePoint rig with me and will be doing a little SharePoint dance called Stupid SharePoint Tricks. Here's the description of the session:

    What can you do with SharePoint and what shouldn’t you do with it? Let’s take a walk through some of the lesser known features of SharePoint and things you can do out-of-the-box that you might not know you could do. We’ll also look at the dark side of SharePoint and what you shouldn’t do with it. Finally we’ll look at some of the better tools out there, how to maximize your development time with SharePoint and lots of code, code, code!

    So grab your favorite nerd and head on down for a day of general debauchery and early afternoon drinking (oh yeah, and code!). Registration is open up on the website now with a list of all the speakers and sessions.

    See you there!