Revving Up The SharePoint Engine

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is hotter than a Phoenix sidewalk in July, and ISVs are using it in an ever-expanding variety of ways. What used to be viewed as a collaboration application has morphed into a full-blown application development platform that ISVs and solution providers are leveraging to streamline business processes.

The fact that organizations are using SharePoint to develop mission-critical applications for both intranets and extranets, as evidenced by companies such as Hawaiian Airlines and TV Guide using it to develop their customer-facing Web sites, shows that SharePoint has come a long way from its roots in collaboration. And many SharePoint ISVs believe the innovation engine that SharePoint represents is just now starting to heat up.

"What we're seeing with SharePoint is that people finally see it as a platform to build applications on, as opposed to it being seen as just a collaboration tool," said Eamonn McGuinness, CEO of BrightWork, a Boston-based SharePoint ISV. "I think people are realizing they can build serious business applications on SharePoint 2007."

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In the early days of SharePoint, ISVs filled the gaps that existed in the platform with relatively simple applications.

But over time, the role of ISVs has evolved into that of a customized application development tier that sits on top of SharePoint.

"It's a pretty vibrant space, and there's a long list of things that people are doing with SharePoint. It is very much an application platform, and that's enabling ISVs to be innovative," said Doug Davis, director of product management for SharePoint at Quest Software, Aliso Viejo, Calif.

Newer features like presence in the Office 2007 environment are beginning to have an impact on the SharePoint ISV ecosystem, and the potential synergies between SharePoint and unified communications is also starting to resonate within the ISV community, according to Davis.

"SharePoint is all about teams: Your teams might be on instant messaging or other IP systems, and the technology allows you to do that within the context of Office," Davis said.

Project management is an area in which SharePoint ISVs are increasingly focusing their application development efforts. That's because a great deal of project management today happens through applications like Excel, which is a decidedly "1.0" way of keeping track of who's doing what.

But SharePoint offers a repository where companies can host and share project information, provide visibility into what different departments are doing and allow management to oversee the pace of progress, said Larry Roshfeld, senior vice president of marketing at CorasWorks, a Reston, Va.-based SharePoint ISV. "We're seeing a lot of organizations choosing to build applications that allow people to work on projects together," Roshfeld said.

Many ISVs are also developing tools that automate business processes for day-to-day tasks like purchase, policy and document approvals. Used in this way, SharePoint can help firms avoid the expense and long deployment times that typically accompany niche point solutions.

Next: Policy Management For policy management, SharePoint includes functions for all the different parties involved in the process: One group creates the policy, another group reviews it and adds their comments, another party will revise it and then it's passed on for final approval and published out to the organization.

"Until now, this has been handled by spending a million dollars to buy a packaged application or build a custom application, or by using a combination of e-mail and file shares," Roshfeld said.

Mauro Cardarelli, a managing partner at Jornata, a Boston-based services company that specializes in customizing and implementing SharePoint, says that business intelligence is another potentially lucrative revenue stream that ISVs have yet to tap into. "In this scenario, companies could use SharePoint as the presentation tier for business intelligence data and be able to show data through graphs and charts," he said.

Web parts, or components that let organizations collect information and customize the look and feel of Web pages, are another area in which SharePoint ISVs are seeing interest. Michael Tanner, CEO of Bamboo Solutions, a SharePoint ISV in Reston, Va., says Web parts can be used to build functions such as alert management and calendaring into SharePoint.

"There are also Web parts that focus on rolling out information, in the form of lists, for example. They aggregate the information and build them out in hierarchies," Tanner said.

ISVs are beginning to realize that the ability to bring content into SharePoint from other systems is one of the strongest aspects of the platform, Quest Software's Davis said.

"SharePoint lends itself nicely to bringing data into it, and we're seeing a robust ISV ecosystem developing around content migration from Lotus Notes and a variety of document-management systems," he said.

But with all the data being pumped into SharePoint, the need to protect that data becomes even greater. That's why backup and disaster recovery are becoming high growth areas for SharePoint ISVs such as AvePoint, which has leveraged that market trend to its advantage.

"One thing we've done to differentiate ourselves is to fill in additional areas around SharePoint that require special tools," said Andrew Young, director of product marketing at AvePoint, Jersey City, N.J. "For example, in addition to backup and recovery, there are opportunities around centralized administration and content replication. Adding those really increases the breadth of the solution."

In the past six months, larger organizations have been moving decisively toward deploying SharePoint through their networks as they wake up to the platform's potential, according to Roshfeld. "There are a lot of organizations that have owned SharePoint previously but didn't deploy it, but now we're starting to see widespread rollouts," he said.

Companies also like the fact that SharePoint is geared toward a rapid development model that represents a departure from conventional enterprise applications, Roshfeld noted. "One of the classic problems with enterprise software has been that as you start down the path of deploying a large back-end system, by the time you get it up and running, it's outdated. The big difference with SharePoint is it doesn't take years to learn and develop on it," Roshfeld said.

ISVs that work with SharePoint believe the platform has only just begun to realize its potential, not just for application development, but also as a catalyst in the market for collaboration solutions.

"There has been a lot of talk and promotion of collaboration for years, but the majority of companies have thus far been on the sidelines," Bamboo's Tanner said. "What SharePoint does is take the risk out of the equation, which means you don't have to go with something that's big and deep."

And while some organizations are using only the basic portal functionality of SharePoint, ISVs believe that once they get their hands on the product and start developing on the platform, the concept of SharePoint being primarily a tool for collaboration will disappear.

"I think the world thinks of SharePoint mainly as a portal, but when you look at the direction in which it's moving, SharePoint is really an enterprise operating system," Tanner said.