Saturday, May 15, 2010

New SharePoint 2010 Features Part 5 – Office and BI Features

SharePoint Office and BI Features

In this part of my new features of SharePoint 2010 blog series, I am going to focus on Office and Business Intelligence features of SharePoint 2010.

Excel Services (Reference and Reference)

Excel Services was introduced in SharePoint 2007 to much fanfare. It provided a great initial release however there were several limitations to it which hinder the highly advanced Excel power users when they tried to place their Excel Spreadsheets into Excel Services. However there have been several new improvements that will make Excel Services for SharePoint 2010 even more compelling. Two of the biggest changes are first we can now edit Excel workbooks in Excel Services programmatically. Second users can now edit workbooks within SharePoint and edit the data directly in the browser.

Excel Services Thoughts

It is great to see Excel Services mature as it is the second version of this solution offering by Microsoft. What we are going to start seeing is a shift of the standard Microsoft Office desktop being available over the web. It will never be as fully robust as running Excel locally as a client but what this does enable is better communication of business data. There are so many businesses that have mission critical data stored within Excel with no way to distribute or control it in an efficient manner. I have heard the condescending remarks before by software consultants who say "how can you be using Excel instead of a custom application to manage such mission critical data". My response is, live the day of life in the corporate world where IT resources may not always available. In these many cases, business users (Information Workers) are forced to come up with solutions with readily available software and one of them is Excel. I am really glad to see how this is being used.

One thing I think is needed to ensure success of Excel Services within an organization is an effective governance strategy for rolling it out across the enterprise. This would include, providing the proper infrastructure, correct SharePoint logical architecture, information worker training, rules for deployment, maintenance, etc. I think the biggest thing is lack of education of business users that they have such a powerful solution available for them to expose their data.

Access Services (Reference and Reference)

The goal of access services is basic – to provide the ability to make Access database available over the web. Access has been a tool that helps enable non-technical business users the ability to create business applications. Now users can continue to create these applications with Access 2010 on the client and then publish them to SharePoint 2010. The full functionality of Access 2010 on the client is not available over the web through SharePoint as there is only a limited subset of full client object functionality.

Access Services Thoughts

I am really excited about this new feature and I cannot believe I am saying that. I say that because from a professional services perspective we have had a lot business where have moved Access solutions to .NET/SQL Server based solutions because Access applications could not scale.

I think the vision of this is great but since it is a first release and there is only a limited subset of functionality initially available it will suffer from the same issues Excel Services in SharePoint 2007 suffered from. The biggest issue is that Access developers are very advanced and require full features which will not be available right now. That notwithstanding, I can name more than two past SharePoint 2007 clients of mine who could use this even though it is lightweight. Their business users know MS Access and they do not mind functionality limitations if they maximize the investments they have made in their current staff and they build simple applications.

I see down the road this as another option to allow business to create codeless applications that solve tactical business challenges that companies face every day.

InfoPath Form Services (Reference and Reference)

In SharePoint 2007 we were given the ability to use InfoPath within the browser and we subsequently saw a lot of adoption of InfoPath to create data capture forms for business processes. SharePoint 2010 has expanded the features of InfoPath to include the following:

  • Enhance SharePoint List Forms – This new capability allows you to very easily replace create, edit and view list item forms in a SharePoint List with a completely custom InfoPath form. This effectively allows you to add additional rules, load in data from other locations, incorporate business automation into lists, etc.
  • One Click Publish – You no longer have to click through the entire publishing wizard after you publish the form one time.
  • SharePoint Workspace 2010 – As part of this series I introduced SharePoint Workspace 2010 which is the replacement for the MS Groove solution. SharePoint Workspace uses InfoPath 2010 as the editor for all SharePoint list and library data that entered while offline. When SharePoint Workspace is brought back online, the data in the forms are synchronized back to SharePoint.
  • SharePoint Designer 2010 Integration – InfoPath 2010 is now integrated with SharePoint Designer 2010. We now have the ability to define and publish InfoPath forms along with a business process that is designed in SharePoint Designer 2010.
  • Business Connectivity Services (BCS) Integration – InfoPath 2010 has direct integration with BCS to expose enterprise data through InfoPath allowing for read, insert, update and delete operations.
  • InfoPath Web Part – There is a new InfoPath Web Part that allows you to embed and InfoPath form directly into a web part page. Previously we had to go to a special web page that could render an InfoPath form over the web or we had to write a bunch of custom code. Now the InfoPath form can be displayed along with web parts that may provide complete different functionality.
  • Deploy .NET Managed Code to Sandboxed – Publishing InfoPath forms with .NET managed code no longer require an administrator to publish the form through Central Admin. You can now simply publish the form using as a Sandbox Solution which I introduced this earlier in this series.
  • New Web Form Controls – With the previous version InfoPath, there are several controls which were not available when the InfoPath form was web enabled. With InfoPath 2010 we have nine new controls we can use.
  • Better Support for Open Standards.
  • Better support for digital signatures.
  • Integration with SharePoint PowerShell cmlets
  • Integration with SharePoint 2010 health and analysis tool called SharePoint Maintenance Manager which automatically checks for configuration, performance and usage issues. There are specific rules for SharePoint 2010 for monitoring.

InfoPath Form Services Thoughts

If you read my blog or talk with me you will find out I have been a huge proponent of InfoPath since Office 2003. Obviously I have some important rules that I follow, most notably if .NET managed code is needed stop using InfoPath move to another platform. However InfoPath is such a great tool because:

  • It is XML based.
  • Can be rendered over the web through SharePoint with no client desktop footprint.
  • It is very easy to create simple to medium level data capture forms.
  • Does not require a developer.
  • Very cost effective.
  • Very easy to hook into web services to persist data externally.

I really believe developers just get too wrapped up not have a full IDE to work with and just cannot architect a solution well.

I am really very very very excited to see these new features and expect great things from InfoPath for SharePoint 2010. I really think this is a game changer for organizations to build much more powerful applications and solutions within the SharePoint platform.

Visio Services (Reference)

For SharePoint 2010, there is a new service called Visio Services which provide the ability to load, display and interact programmatically with Visio 2010 documents published into SharePoint.

From a programmatic perspective you have two options. First you can create a data provider for Visio which can be used to load in external data in the Visio form. Second ECMAScript Object Model provides programmatic access to the objects and data within the Visio diagram allowing you to create mashups, create overlays on the diagram, respond to mouse clicks, allow for panning and zooming, etc.

Visio Services Thoughts

I will be very interested to see use cases on how Visio Services will be used with SharePoint 2010. I have had clients ask me in the past, how they can make their Visio diagrams available over SharePoint without having to deploy Visio to every desktop. Well that is now solved. However this release goes well beyond that in that Visio is being made into a data driven application that can graphically display data. I think this again just adds to the richness of the SharePoint platform as another technology we can use to solve business demand.

Word Automation Services (Reference)

Word Automation Services is a new application service to SharePoint 2010. What this service provides is unattended, server-side conversion of documents into formats that are supported by Microsoft Word on the desktop. What is basically does is replicated the Save As functionality that you are used to in Microsoft Word client.

Word Automation Services Thoughts

At first glance as a developer you may not see the immediate value of this however there are several scenarios (Reference) where this can be very helpful. For instance let's say every week or month a large set of invoices need to be generated from a custom database and saved out as Word documents on SharePoint, this service could be utilized to support that. Another scenario would be once a Word document has gone through approval process, when it is complete PDF of that Word document needs to be generated.

PerformancePoint Services (Reference)

When SharePoint 2007 first came out they provided some light weight but very effective tools for Business Intelligence (BI) with SharePoint. Microsoft acquired a company called ProClarity and rebranded their dishoarding BI solution as a product called PerformancePoint which was eventually made part of the SharePoint eCAL. This was done because everyone who wanted PerformancePoint wanted it integrated within SharePoint.

For SharePoint 2010, PerformancePoint has been completely integrated as an enterprise service. PerformancePoint services allow users to create interactive dashboards for displaying KPIs, scorecards, reports, filters, etc. As well there is a full API that developers can use to create highly customized solutions. The architecture of PerformancePoint (Reference) is pretty robust and like I mentioned completely integrated into SharePoint 2010.

PerformancePoint Services Thoughts

I openly admit this is one of the areas of SharePoint I have little knowledge of and feel bad about because I know PerformancePoint is a pretty good solution with lots of features for providing dashboarding solutions. I personally have not used much of PerformancePoint in SharePoint 2007 and do know that most of the challenges associated with getting it to work were around configuration. Our SharePoint team would get tons of questions in regards to Kerberos configuration and such. Now that PerformancePoint is integrated within SharePoint many of these challenges will go away.

Plus given this is the second generation of Microsoft's solution offering I highly anticipate that it will be a very strong offering. Microsoft has made a large investment into this and Dashboard solutions pretty much go hand-and-hand with SharePoint as this is where users want to access their data.

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