Evaluating SharePoint for larger enterprises

  • 11-May-2009

I just finished up my session at the J. Boye Philadelphia conference. Speaking in the SharePoint track, I was able to interact with a number of the attendees, getting great insight into SharePoint implementations across very different businesses. Folks from companies like Wyeth, WestJet, and Ikea were either implementing SharePoint or in the early stages of planning for an implementation.

Here's what I heard, directly or indirectly, from the attendees:

Most attendees "owned" SharePoint through an existing licensing vehicle like an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft. In about a third of the cases, this created an advantage for SharePoint when evaluating portal products (I've heard this described as, "we already own SharePoint, so why not use it"). However, it was also occasionally true that these same organizations also owned other content management products. One enterprise in particular owned (and used) BEA and RedDot, but decided to replace both products and implement SharePoint after a full-blown evaluation, assisted by Prescient Digital. While Oracle's Stellent tools (now a part of Oracle's Universal Content Management suite) was attractive (WestJet preferred the content contribution features of Oracle UCM), the cost difference and overall functional breadth were in SharePoint's favor.

Larger organizations are struggling with real or perceived scalability challenges. One attendee was rolling out My Sites to 50,000 employees. While technically possible (Microsoft has nearly 100,000 in their environment), the global nature of the implementation, performance limitations related to content database sizes, and site collection limits within a SharePoint applications were causing them headaches. Microsoft is public about both hard and soft SharePoint limits, but larger enterprises will have to plan and architect carefully to create the right solution.

Some attendees were surprised by the file size limits in SharePoint. Here again, Microsoft has been public about size limits (see previous bullet), but with more and more organizations dealing with rich media (or simply very large files), a 2 Gb restriction is a real constraint. To be sure, the issue is actually the result of a BLOB size limitation in SQL Server. Unfortunately, SharePoint is only compatible with SQL Server, so you can't simply use another database platform to avoid the limit. Interestingly, Microsoft has a "solution" to this problem, which was first introduced in a hot fix and then later through service pack 1. They called it the "External BLOB Storage provider." Unfortunately, this feature got little to no public visibility. In the latest "Inside SharePoint" on TechNet, Pav Cherney discusses how to take advantage of this "new" provider to create an external storage mechanism for SharePoint. You can also read more technical detail about the provider in Todd Carter's blog as well as on Clever Workarounds (a.k.a., Paul Culmsee); neither blog author has a lot of positive things to say (apart from initial excitement at the possibilities), but I agree with them that it was a promising step forward -- if perhaps only a half-hearted attempt.

SharePoint is not a favorite for public-facing website publishing. The truth is that SharePoint has some serious shortcomings in the WCM space, but if you're using SharePoint elsewhere in your enterprise, I think it should be considered (assuming you don't have complex requirements). However, SharePoint's deficiencies in the WCM category were never more obvious than after seeing Web Idol contest. WCM vendors like eZ, Ektron and SilverStripe did 6 minute demos of their tools in semi-real life scenarios. These demos highlighted that Microsoft will have to really get in the game if it hopes to compete in the WCM space. From user-friendly, AJAX-driven contribution interfaces to impressive unstructured content import capabilities, it seems as if Microsoft has been asleep at the WCM wheel.

Subscribers to our SharePoint Report 2009 know that SharePoint is not a best-in-class tool in many categories. Our research also delves into some important considerations and gotchas if you want to roll out SharePoint across the enterprise.

At the same time, SharePoint benefits greatly from Microsoft licensing deals with existing customers, it's sheer breadth, ease of use and it's unbeatable (almost) integration with the Office products. Combine these attributes with what is probably the largest ISV, developer, and customer communities of virtually any player in the broad portal space, and you have a powerful incentive to consider SharePoint as a part of a portal solution.

While I'm hoping the upcoming 2010 version will improve the overall platform, I can't help but think that there's still a lot of room for improvement. Unfortunately, even Microsoft doesn't have nearly enough time, money, and/or resources fill in all of the shortfalls. If there was ever a time where other vendors have a shot at wresting SharePoint out of the catbird's seat, it's now.