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Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are downloading, trying, and adopting Microsoft's SharePoint technology, the core bits of which are included as part of Microsoft Windows Small Business Server. But is SharePoint really designed for SMBs?
A spokesman from Microsoft admitted that SharePoint adoption is higher among larger organizations than for SMBs. "Today, we're probably skewed toward the enterprise," says Richard Riley, group product manager on Microsoft's SharePoint team.
We've previously taken a close look at the collaboration features of Office 2010 and the workflow features of SharePoint 2010. In this article, we'll examine how one group of Boy Scouts became one of the first to roll out a SharePoint 2010 deployment. Then, we'll look at some the factors that might guide your own decision.
Scout's Honor, Online
The Greater St. Louis Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America serves 56,000 young people and 15,000 volunteer leaders with a paid staff of about 80 people. And they do it all with a dedicated IT department of one. The organization's website, which enables scouting leaders in 15 regions to coordinate activities and update their own blogs, runs on Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010.
The Greater St. Louis Area Council evaluated several solutions, including open source tools and custom applications designed expressly for non-profit organizations. "We realize that in the blink of an eye we could set up 15 WordPress blogs for our districts," says Joe Mueller, director of public relations for the Council. "But when you look at everything from an information management standpoint, SharePoint just made sense."
The new website enables a cultural shift in the organization toward collaborative content development. "We'll be granting permission to volunteers to begin writing blog posts," says Mueller. "That's a huge change in our culture here. We have been a top-down organization from a communication standpoint, and now we're opening the gates."
But this wouldn't have been feasible without administrative controls within SharePoint enabling only authorized participants to have access to troop activities and scouts' personal details, along with workflow controls that ensure that blog posts across the site meet the standards of the broader organization.
The selection of SharePoint 2010 also offers broader capabilities than just enterprise content management, which provides ample support for phase two projects. "The other part of the project is to do online reservations, and having SharePoint as our platform will facilitate that," says Mueller. "When a scout is in a church basement with his troop leaders planning a campout, and they want to use our equipment to go rock climbing, they can use their mobile phones to go onto our website to make a reservation, possibly pay with a credit card, and boom, they're done."
To build the site, the Council had requested proposals from three St. Louis-area firms. They ultimately selected Quilogy, which earlier this year was acquired by Aspect, a Chelmsford, Mass.-based Microsoft partner and solutions provider specializing in unified communications and collaboration.
By relying on an outside organization to develop and install its website, the Greater St. Louis Area Council was able to create the web presence it needed without having to keep IT staffers on the payroll. "The development team at Aspect came in, they learned our business, they helped us to see our website through our customers' eyes, and helped show us how SharePoint would be better able to organize and present our information," says Mueller. "We have been extremely impressed."
The decision to move ahead with the latest version of the technology enabled the Council to skip an upgrade. "We were one of the first organizations in the country to get our hands on SharePoint 2010," notes Mueller. "By doing that, we were able to have significant cost savings by not having to go through development in SharePoint 2007 and then having to upgrade to SharePoint 2010 later."
Despite the cost of SharePoint relative to using open-source platforms, Mueller stands by his organization's choice. "I have never regretted making that decision with the team here," says Mueller. "SharePoint has shown us a tremendous amount of flexibility."
The SharePoint Decision
SMBs have two ways forward with SharePoint: hosted and in-house.
If you're only going to use SharePoint for a company intranet without establishing an external-focusing website, one easy approach is through Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS ). The standard version of BPOS includes Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Live Meeting, and Office Communications Online, and costs $10 per user per month. By itself, SharePoint Online costs $5.25 per user per month, and allows SMBs to create internal portals, collaboration sites, and content management workflows, all indexed and searchable.
The in-house solution involves higher setup and licensing costs, but it paves the way for external as well as internal use. SharePoint Foundation 2010, a free version of the software, only works with internal portals and collaboration services, and requires a licensed copy of Microsoft Windows Server (pricing starts at $1,029, including five user licenses). Having an external-facing website requires a licensed copy of SharePoint Server 2010 plus standard client access licenses.
As the Boy Scouts example demonstrates, selecting SharePoint doesn't mean that you have to keep a SharePoint expert on the payroll. However, in that case you'll become dependent upon an external service provider.
Microsoft provided a few illustrative statistics about the SharePoint ecosystem:
-- There are over 300 independent software vendors (ISVs) building and testing SharePoint 2010 solutions today and that number is expected to double over the lifetime of the 2010 release.
-- Over 500,000 software developers have done at least one development project using SharePoint in the last 6 months.
-- The SharePoint services opportunity for Microsoft partners and developers is $5.6 billion today and will grow to over $6.7 billion in FY12.
That is to say, there's money to be made in SharePoint. This means that the availability of programming talent to keep your organization moving along should not be a problem.
Yet the Boy Scouts example highlights how the industry dynamics may unfold.
The merger between IT services provider Quilogy and unified communications specialist Aspect demonstrates the value to Microsoft partner ISVs in providing a full-service play across Microsoft's offerings. Unified communications is no longer a separate offering that works independently from office productivity software and internal/external collaboration tools, such as Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010, respectively. Instead, unified communications is baked into the entire Microsoft stack.
Naturally, the Microsoft development community would be among the first to realize this, and it appears that the smart ones are getting ready for the new level of competition in enterprise software by broadening their scopes. One example does not a trend make, but the logic behind the merger is sound, and we can certainly expect similar deals to surface.
Let's assume that Microsoft's prediction is correct, and that we will end up seeing 600 ISVs building and testing SharePoint 2010 solutions by the latter half of the decade. If, at the same time, these SharePoint shops build their capabilities in unified communications through growth or acquisition, the result would likely split the market. On the one hand, we'd have huge, full-service ISVs that support everything that is Microsoft. On the other hand, we'd see smaller, SharePoint-specific shops that are essentially legacy, point-solution providers. Over time, which group would you expect to be more successful? I'd bet on the big guys.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with doing business with a big software company or a big ISV that's going to have strong incentives to find ways to improve your business on multiple fronts, from productivity to collaboration to communications. You'll just want to go into such an arrangement with your eyes open.
What's the alternative? There are certainly other technologies that can compete with the Microsoft stack at each level, and I'll explore some of those technologies in future articles for InformationWeek SMB.
Microsoft has traditionally done well at attracting developers to its programming environments through a combination of low-cost training, guaranteed marketing support, and the promise of large addressable markets. This environment attracts professional IT services firms, which as described earlier, are likely to expand in scope to match the growth in the Microsoft product set.
Open source technologies, such as Drupal or Joomla for content management and websites, or Asterisk for telephony, involve a different value proposition for both developers and their clients. For many SMBs, not having to write a check for user licenses is a badge of honor. And for developers of a certain mindset, the attraction of an open, elegant, and customizable codebase should not be underestimated. As a result, a small team of talented programmers can build with open source tools systems that rival the most high-end commercial software.
Combining the two approaches, we see firms such as Oracle and IBM that combine open source technologies with proprietary offerings, accessed through highly developed professional services organizations and vertically focused partner networks.
The decision probably comes down to how well you can match the expected duration of your project with the resources that you can hire or retain. If your SMB is taking a big chance on a new service that will either succeed wildly or fail quickly, you might put the ball in the hands of a highly motivated open source advocate with access to the latest and greatest tools. However, if you're trying to build a system that you expect will persist from generation to generation, you may want to build on an architecture that has the highest likelihood of persisting from one generation of programmers to the next.
Regardless of the technology, the most important question is who's going to install, build, maintain, and upgrade it. Ultimately, technology decisions are about the people who will be responsible for maintaining that technology. The "who" is vastly more important than the "what."