Overview of SharePoint 2003 and Introduction to the Components of the User Interface, Part One

SharePoint 2003 is a sea of terminology. Portal, WSS, templates, definitions, web parts, CAML, unghosting, areas, themes… the list could go on for quite some time. We hear these terms on newsgroups and blogs and in articles. It seems like to learn one thing in SharePoint we have to research and understand 5 more topics. On the surface SharePoint is a complex web of options, choices, components and intertwined dependencies. But under the layers of administration screens and options, SharePoint is much simpler.

A Little History

In 2001, Microsoft released SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) and SharePoint Team Services (STS). SPS provided three functions, it was a portal, it had basic document management and it had search. STS on the other hand was shipped with FrontPage and provided team workspaces for collaboration. The workspace provided an online home for sharing documents and basic team collaboration.

The two products were completely separate from each other and did not integrate well together. They both provided similar functionality, but had definite differences. This created a lot of confusion for users because it was difficult to know which product was best suited for any given need or implementation.

In 2003, Microsoft completely revamped both SPS and STS. Several changes occurred. The new products were based on .NET and now shared a common object model. The revamped STS became Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and it is a free licensed add-on to Windows Server 2003. SPS focused more on being a true portal with search and personalization capabilities. WSS focused on advanced document management and security features. The decision for which product to use became more clear cut for users.

STS lingers on…
Another side note is that WSS is a revamped version of SharePoint Team Services (STS). There are still references to the STS acronym in the code and file directory setup, most notably the WSS site definition is still called “STS” and a popular administration tool, STSADM.exe.

Alright, so this little history lesson is mildly interesting, but how does it affect us today? Knowing the background of the products will help us better understand their structure and purpose. SPS has a definite purpose, as does WSS. Knowing this will better prepare us while we design our taxonomy and map out our SharePoint installation and planned use so we use the correct products from the start. This also affects the end user interface design. No matter how attractive the site looks, if it isn’t providing what the user needs, it was a wasted effort.

SPS is really WSS
A useful and important fact is that SPS is a really a WSS site with a lot of fancy functionality and portal features applied on top. They look different, they act different, but underneath it all, SPS is a WSS site. Remembering this is important not only with interface customization, but with the daily maintenance and administration of a SharePoint portal. Many administration screens that appear in WSS that you can’t seemingly access through the portal, you really can if you do the right steps.Knowing that SPS is really a WSS site is a big step to simplifying SharePoint. Are we really learning two products? No, we are learning one product and what it can do, and also learning about a set of portal features.

So which product do I use?

SharePoint has come a long way from the 2001 version, and it is more clearly cut as to what product should be used for what purpose, but try explaining that to a client or a manager. The different terms and barrage of functionality differences is still confusing to the end users. Here is a good way to break it down (both for ourselves and anyone we need to explain it to):

SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (SPS)

First, when it comes to explaining and planning a SharePoint installation with a non-technical resource, don’t use the acronym SPS. When trying to understand and explain SharePoint Portal Server, use the word Portal. And Portal is just that, a portal. It is a gateway to more knowledge and resources. It is meant to get information to the masses. In fact one definition of the word portal is:

Portal
A web site considered as an entry point to other web sites, often by being or providing access to a search engine.

The idea behind Portal is that it is the main launch pad to all of our WSS sites. It provides a powerful search engine that can index and search across multiple WSS sites, other portals and external sources. It provides a fast and searchable entrance to our information. Portal is meant for:

  • Large audiences
  • Static content
  • Basic and advanced searching
  • An access point for multiple WSS sites

Additional features of Portal are:

  • Shared Services (connect and unify personal sites and search for multiple portals)
  • Personalization
  • Audience targeting
  • Keywords, best bets, content sources and scopes for searching
  • Personal sites
  • User profiles
  • Single sign-on
  • Site directory

Portal is NOT meant for:

  • Permission based document management
  • Short term content
  • Active collaboration for teams, meetings, projects or documents

We have established that Portals are for providing an access point to content. Portals get us to where we are going, and WSS sites are a major destination.

Windows SharePoint Services (WSS)

There isn’t a great user friendly term for WSS sites. The term team site is sometimes used, but team sites are a type of WSS site, and there are several other types available. Let’s use the term collaboration site because that is the strong suite and main function of WSS sites. Their purpose is to share information, and provide a place for collaboration with other users. Collaboration sites are meant for:

  • Small audiences
  • Short term or evolving content
  • User collaboration on shared resources

Additional features of collaboration sites are:

  • Site collections (nested sites)
  • Workspaces for document and meeting collaboration
  • Permission based document management
  • Permission based lists
  • Web parts and web part pages
  • Site-level search

Collaboration sites are NOT meant for:

  • Enterprise wide searching
  • Large audiences

In short, collaboration sites are for information sharing and collaboration among a small group of users. The content generally has a short life-span and can be easily managed by the site users.

How the product breakdown can help us

That in short, is a breakdown of the two products in relationship to clients, managers, content owners and contributors. Using simple terms to explain the two products will help them better understand and articulate their requirements.

Armed with the knowledge of the history, purpose and functionality of SPS and WSS, we as SharePoint designers and administrators can better evaluate the client or company’s needs and site requirements, and then map out the structure of the site(s) using the correct products and not waste any effort. Planning is the key to any implementation and customization of a SharePoint site.

A Real World Implementation

Now that we have reviewed the capabilities and target use of each product, let’s step through planning a SharePoint installation for a fictitious company, North Wind Energy. North Wind Energy is a clean energy wind-generated power company with over 1500 employees in 5 states. North Wind Energy has human resources, training and sales information that they need to make available to all of their employees. North Wind needs an employee Intranet and has decided to use SharePoint to meet that need.

After doing requirements gathering, we have a list of requests for the Intranet:

  • The human resources (HR) department needs to get common forms and policies available online for all employees. The HR department also has a team of people who work on form and policy revisions who need a better process of trading document versions back and forth instead of using email.
  • The training department has several online courses available for employees, but they don’t have a central location for links to the online courses or instructions for access. They would like to enhance the current online course functionality by adding a discussion forum, event information and latest news for each course. The training department also needs a way to track issues and tasks for the ongoing maintenance and development for the online courses.
  • The sales department is scattered across 5 states and have frequent sales meetings where contracts and prospective sales are reviewed and discussed. The sales support team needs an efficient solution for the sales representatives to upload and review documents while on the road. They additionally have sensitive documents to which only certain employees are allowed access. The sales support team would also like a way to post announcements to the entire company when new contracts are acquired.

Two types of information are emerging from North Wind Energy’s requirements – public and private. North Wind Energy needs to get information out to all of their 1500 employees, and work privately within their own groups on sensitive or team only related files and information. Let’s break down North Wind Energy’s requirements into public and private needs.

Public Needs

  • The HR department needs to get common forms and policies available online for all employees.
  • The training department needs a central location for links to online courses and instructions for access.
  • The sales support team needs a way to post announcements to the entire company when new contracts are acquired.

Looking at our SharePoint product breakdown, a few key portal features become apparent while looking at our North Wind Energy requirements:

  • There is a large audience (1500+ employees).
  • The content is static and will only be periodically updated.
  • A central access point is needed for the online courses.
  • Search would be a great tool for the end user so they can quickly locate the information they need.

SPS looks like a great match for the public needs. Let’s review the private needs now.

Private Needs

  • The HR department needs a better process of trading document versions back and forth instead of using email.
  • The training department needs to enhance their online courses by adding discussion forums, event information and latest news specific to that online course.
  • The training department needs a way to track issues and tasks for the ongoing maintenance and development for the online courses.
  • The sales support team needs an efficient solution for the sales representatives to upload and review documents while on the road.
  • The sales team needs a way to restrict access to sensitive documents.

Comparing these requirements to our SharePoint product breakdown, some of the WSS features show up now:

  • There are small audiences of just the team members.
  • The content is short-lived and constantly changing.
  • The teams or users need to collaborate and share resources.
  • There is a need to create a collection of small “home bases” for each online training course.
  • Permission based document management is needed for the sales team.
  • Site-level search would be very useful for sales representatives to quickly locate files.

For the private needs, WSS appears to provide all the features and functionality all the individual teams require.

From our initial requirements gathering and product analysis, North Wind Energy needs one central portal for all employees to access common information and announcements, and a series of WSS sites for the HR, training, and sales teams to more efficiently do their job duties. They also need a WSS site collection for organizing all the online course information and make that available to all the employees.

Here is a high level view of our SharePoint taxonomy for North Wind Energy.

» Click to view larger

 

North Wind Energy has also required that the SharePoint installation look similar to their corporate web site and utilize their company logo and colors. Both SPS and WSS will have to be modified so the portal and all the WSS sites will have the North Wind Energy branding. In part two of this article we will review all the methods we have available to us to customize the SharePoint user interface.

» Go to Overview of SharePoint and Introduction to the Components of the User Interface Part Two: The Components of the SharePoint Interface

Dustin Miller and Heather Solomon from SharePoint Experts