Boo! SharePoint. Not really.

I stumbled onto Peter Campbell's well written article about why SharePoint scares him. His points on what bothers him about SharePoint bother me as he tries to compare some parts of SharePoint to say open source CMS systems (he's not specific as to "what" open source portal he compares SharePoint too but one can assume Drupal, Joomla, DotNetNuke maybe).

It's not clear if Peter has actually ever used SharePoint (either as a developer, admin, or even an end-user). He says that he's been "evaluating" the product for the past four years but that could be just reading white papers and looking at slide decks for all I know. There are some valid points in his article but I think it paints SharePoint in a dim light without being honest to the points he raises. I don't see Peter bashing SharePoint (too much) but rather his take on it for his purpose. His summary is that it requires a lot of consulting, hardware, and budget but organizational needs can better be served by simpler alternative installations. I agree but there are some important points to be aware of if making this comparison and decision.

So here's yet another point/counter-point blog entry that will probably label me as a Microsoft flag-waver but so be it.

Integration with Legacy Systems

Mainly Peter points out that SharePoint is based on SOAP vs. the more simpler REST approach from an integration perspective. This is true and if you're not familar with SOAP and know what the limitations of the web services SharePoint provides you can get yourself into a pickle. I think integration with *any* legacy system is complicated no matter what the interface is. You're dealing with legacy data which doesn't conform to any current standard. SharePoint isn't the cause for concern here, what you're trying to get SharePoint to do is. If you're trying to migrate a legacy application into SharePoint to be your new Time Tracker, Inventory System, or Help Desk (complete with all the legacy features you enjoyed in your legacy system) then you're making the wrong choice. SharePoint might be great as a presentation layer for this and you can expose all the data through the BDC for example, but trying to rebuild SAP or something in SharePoint? Bad choice IMHO as a SharePoint app and more suited as a .NET application where you can use REST (e.g. via ASP.NET MVC) and expose that content to SharePoint via presentation. SharePoint is not the dumping ground for migrating legacy applications to.

Two Applications

He states that SharePoint is "two major, separately developed applications". Not really. Windows SharePoint Services is essentially a platform (and free). The templates Microsoft provides out-of-the-box are just that. Templates. You can rip all of them out, hide them, and otherwise completely ignore them and build your own set of site templates on top of WSS. That's why I consider it a platform that can be extended. Want to build a DotNetNuke or Drupal clone on top of WSS? It would probably take a lot of work to create the templates, styles, and master pages but can be done. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is the separate application that a) relies on WSS b) provides additional templates and c) provides additional services (Excel, Records Managment, etc.). I don't agree they were "hastily merged into one app". WSS hasn't changed much since the 2.0 days fundamentally (other than the flip in the ASP.NET architecture) and MOSS was developed over the course of 4 years or so of development and testing. How does that classifiy as "hastily"?

Misguided Site Structure

Peter doesn't bash SharePoint here (at least I don't think he does). He simply states what we all have said in the past. With great power comes great responsibliity. If you let your users create whatever taxonomy of mischief they can imagine, don't be too proud of this technological terror that gets created. I posted a blog entry to stop blaming SharePoint for your misfortunes here. I think this point just restates that intent.

The Revenge of the Blob

Peter points out that the database stores documents as blobs (rather than linking to files on the disk) which in turn might lead to corruption and has some performance hit. He cites he doesn't want to put his organization's critical work and put it on a box that could easily break. I'm not sure the failure rate of SQL and data content but frankly I think this is as fragile as files on a file system. I don't know how many times I've had cross-linked files or ACL issues or whatever on the file system, compared to SQL corruption. I'll come clean and say that I've experienced SQL corruption first-hand (a log file overran the disk and corrupted the data file which was not backed up as the SQL agent was disabled). However this is the exception to the rule. Frankly, the thought of having a set of files on the file system and the metadata in a database scares me more. The risk of getting this out of sync is far greater than SQL database corruption and a SQL database doesn't retain the file corruption that would happen if the file system went south. I simply restore it to a new SQL instance. File level corruption would be replicated if I did file backups so I would be SOL with my "critical work product".  Also I'm not sure how you handle file versioning if files are stored on the file system. A folder for each file? Some naming strategy for files? If you look at modern source control systems (e.g. Subversion, Git, etc.) and how they version files on the file system they all use blob storage for the files with delta values. No different than what SharePoint is doing, except the storage medium is a file system instead of a database.

Licensing Complications

I'm no licensing expert and frankly licensing for *any* Microsoft product is over complicated. Ask five licensing guys at Microsoft about a product and you'll get seven different answers. What I do know is that licensing for external is pretty basic. If you're exposing your site externally you need the external connector license. This is not per-user, but just a single fee for exposing your site on the internet. I believe there is an additional license if you're exposing more functionality than what WSS has to offer (e.g. MOSS features like InfoPath forms or Excel Services) but again I'm not an expert. Peter is correct that pricing is somewhat prohibitive and I agree it's complicated. It's getting simpler (the licensing for 2003 was far more complicated than it is for 2007) and hopefully it'll get better for 2010.

Hardware Requirements

Peter compares the hardware requirements of SharePoint to "most open source portals". I'll agree here. Drupal doesn't seem to mention it's requirements (that I can find) however they recently took all their donated money are poured it into infrastructure amounting to 4 total servers and spending about $10,000. This is for the public facing Drupal site. Not bad for a site but again, I can't tell how many users are hitting the site or what kind of stats that hardware is needed to serve up. Similiarly, Joomla only lists software requirments and both basically say they need a LAMP stack (or WAMP in some cases) but no mention of hardware is provided. So to do a comparison you can try to look at hardware requirments for MySQL, Apache and PHP and try to fit them into similar offerings for SharePoint (SQL, IIS, ASP.NET) but it's difficult.

SharePoint hardware requirements are pretty straight forward and I've lived through all configurations. If you have 1,000 users who use it on a normal basis (more on this in a minute) you can run the entire rig on a modern machine (high end workstation) without any issue. SQL is a pig and your IIS worker process can easily gobble up a few hundred megs of memory just starting up. So a) run 64 bit, it's the only way b) through at least 4GB of RAM on the box, but 8 would be better. After 1,000 users you'll need to scale up to a small farm. This can be 2 web-front ends, the app, and SQL box. Now we're talking about most middle size farms serving up 10,000 users. When I say "normal basis" I mean mostly readers of documents, people authoring documents on a regular basis (say 1 worker uploading a new document a couple of times a day with a maximum of a few hundred workers). The numbers here are not scientific and I encourage you to get the SharePoint Capacity Planning Tool which will give you a much better set of numbers to work from. In any case, a LAMP stack is more easier on hardware but then I've got various WAMP stacks running on the Internet where PHP can easily bring IIS (and Apache) down to it's knees if you don't have a good CPU and lots of RAM behind it. Same as SharePoint. I'll admit the requirements for SharePoint are higher as there's more going on behind the scenes but this is typical of what SharePoint does vs. what you can do with an open source portal.

I grow tired of the "commercial vs. open source" discussion every day. It's like comparing apples to gasoline. Each does what it needs to do differently, there are different costs involved, different outputs, different inputs. And trying to nitpick over the value of one over another is futile and value-diminishing. When two products from each space can meet all requirements in a balanced fashion then you can make the comparison and put more value on one over another but I have yet to find those products to compare.


It's just my opinion (as is Peters) but I think Peter compares too many fundamental architectural problems and blames SharePoint as the cause. Also there are vague references to "open source" being better and more fluent. The primary issue I have here is that most any other package doesn't offer as many features as SharePoint has (mainly on the integration with the Office client).

I'll single out Drupal, Joomla, and Wordpress here as I use them all the time. I know Wordpress is considered "just a blogging tool" but it has a lot of functionality that goes beyond that. The third party market for these products is huge and there's some quality stuff out there. If I want to plug a feature into Drupal, it doesn't take long to find it. Building WordPress plugins isn't too complicated and the APIs are flexible and simple to use. Are these tools as powerful as SharePoint? No. Is SharePoint better at doing say Wikis or Blogs like MediaWiki or WordPress. No. However you have to choose the right tool for the right job and in the corporate environment where 99% of your information workers live and breathe in Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook there's nothing that does things better and easier than SharePoint. Today it's not Web 2.0 and it's painful to do what might be the simplest of things in an open source equivalent.

Sure, Drupal is easier to setup and Joomla can be more "Web 2.0" out-of-the-box but from a feature perspective and long-term sustainability view, Enterprises have to rely on something that's going to be around in 7+ years and not drastically change. Open source products, while quicker to setup, don't scale to this level; don't offer this kind of integration; and haven't been around long enough without drastic re-work to yield this kind of longevity.

Far be it for me to say SharePoint is some kind of holy grail in content managment or intranet portals. It's not. It's a good product that does some things very well and other things not so well. Its growing and evolving. With the latest sneak peek at the 2010 version, like the transition from 2003 -> 2007, things are about to get a whole lot better again.


  • I keep getting surprised at how simple things get so complex when SharePoint gets involved.

    SOAP? Can SOAP do everything the FrontPage RPC commands do?

    Lots of APIs, but none seem complete.

  • It's an interesting point about storing binary content in blobs. Most traditional ECM systems have opted to use the file system for this - I'm guessing due to better performance & scalability. It'll be interesting to see if Microsoft will offer support for SQL Server Filestream storage in SharePoint 2010.

  • Campbell is really comparing Sharepoint ( a suite) vs CMS'y a point solution

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