What is SharePoint

I hear many businesses that are interested in ‘doing something with SharePoint.’ That is kind of like saying I’d like to deploy a Swiss army knife. Depending on what the goals of the business are, SharePoint can be a lot of different things. This post tries to explore what those are.

First, let’s start with a few definitions for SharePoint:

An integrated suite of server capabilities that can help improve organizational effectiveness by providing comprehensive content management and enterprise search, accelerating shared business processes, and facilitating information-sharing across boundaries for better business insight. Additionally, this collaboration and content management server provides IT professionals and developers with the platform and tools they need for server administration, application extensibility, and interoperability.
-Microsoft  www.microsoft.com/sharepoint/prodinfo/what.mspx

Wow that’s a mouth full. And Microsoft has been working to simplify this over the past few years. What about Wikipedia – surely they have a simple definition:

A collection of products and software elements that includes, amongst a growing selection of components, collaboration functions, process management modules, search modules and a document-management platform. SharePoint can be used to host web sites that access shared workspaces, information stores and documents, as well as host defined applications such as wikis and blogs. All users can manipulate proprietary controls called “web parts” or interact with pieces of content such as lists and document libraries.
– Wikipedia  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharepoint

OK, still a lot to digest. Let’s look at each of the components that make up this beast in a little more detail before drawing any conclusions. Acknowledgements to Gartner for the included magic quadrant analysis…

Enterprise Content Management:

Allows the management of an organization’s unstructured information (content and documents related to organizational processes) wherever that information exists. It includes technologies to:

  • Capture (OCR, email, video, etc.)
  • Manage
    • Document management (check in/out, versioning)
    • Collaboration (or collaborative software, groupware),
    • Web content management
    • Records management (indexing, archive and filing management)
    • Workflow (capture, reviews, approvals, publishing, expiration)
  • Store (repositories, libraries, media)
  • Deliver (transform, secure, distribute)
  • Preserve (backup, recovery)

While I often hear that SharePoint is difficult to use toward this goal, especially if the primary objective is web content management, it has the features to address all these needs. Gartner’s ranking bears this out.


More after the break…

Enterprise Search:

Enterprise Search or Information Access Technology is the practice of identifying and enabling specific content across the enterprise to be indexed, searched, and displayed to authorized users. In 2008, MS made search available with and without licensing SharePoint server by creating a separate MS Search Server and the free MS Search Server Express. Search is extended to people, the business data catalog and productivity tools through inclusion of SharePoint Server. SQL Server also takes steps to support unstructured data types. Their attempts to integrate their Fast Search & Transfer acquisition also positions them well in this space.


Social Computing and Collaboration:

While still being defined as a category, tools supporting this generally will 1) Support social behavior in or through computational systems by creating or recreating social conventions and social contexts through the use of software and technology. Includes people search, blogs, wikis, email, instant messaging, profile management, social network visualization, social bookmarking; And 2) Support “computations” that are carried out by groups of people (ala Wisdom of Crowds.) Includes collaborative filtering, online auctions, prediction markets, reputation systems, computational social choice, tagging, and verification games.

This space is crowed and still emerging. Gartner tracked over 35 vendors in the past three years and is only starting to identify leaders. Given their relative size and penetration in the market, SharePoint ranks high in ability to execute, and barely crosses into leaders for vision. It provides many of the capabilities relative to the first objective, but fall short in social networking and social computations.


Business Intelligence:

Refers to technologies, applications, and practices for the collection, integration, analysis, and presentation of business information to support better business decision making. To this end, SharePoint now includes PerformancePoint as part of the SharePoint server licensing. It integrates with SharePoint to provide rich planning, data manipulation and display capabilities for business information. In addition it supports:

Excel Services, to allow broad sharing of spreadsheets, improved manageability and security and the ability to re-use spreadsheet models

Business Data Catalog (BDC) to connect external data into applications for business intelligence search

Web Parts to create interactive business intelligence (BI) dashboards. SQL Server rounds out the MS offering and can be integrated through PerformancePoint or Web Parts.



A portal is a framework for integrating information and access to applications across organizational boundaries. It provides a single point of entry, to aggregate information through application-specific portlets (web parts). Features Include:

  • Single Point of Entry —single sign-on capabilities between their users and various other systems.
  • Integration — the connection of functions and data from multiple systems into new components/portlets.
  • Federation — the integration of content provided by other portals.
  • Customization — Users can customize the look and feel of their environment and can also choose the specific content and services they prefer.
  • Personalization — content can be prioritized as most relevant based on the user profile and content metadata.
  • Permissioning —Ability for portal administrators to limit specific types of content and services users have access to. For example, a company’s proprietary information can be entitled for only company employee access.

As Gartner indicates, SharePoint excels in this capacity. While most organizations stop short of taking advantage of more than out of the box site templates, SharePoint has robust capabilities in this area. Through the use of web parts and integration with active directory, rich applications across an organization can be accessed in a customized central location.


Business Process Management (BPM) Suite:

A BPM suite is an integrated collection of technologies that enable the control and management of business processes through model-driven tools. It includes the ability to design, model, execute, monitor, and optimize business processes without programming.

Microsoft is noticeably missing all together from this magic quadrant. This may seem odd to some. SharePoint does allow workflow for approvals, review, archiving and collaboration and can integrate with InfoPath and SharePoint Designer to create forms. However, these features are mainly content centric and it offers no rich modeling, execution engine, monitoring or other components of an integrated solution. Integration to applications requires BizTalk and Communication server remains stand alone. Most businesses serious about BPM will look to other vendors for a complete solution and consider SharePoint for exposing human interaction (see portal section) and for document management.


Application Framework:

A complete framework will support the development of dynamic applications and services. The framework aims to alleviate the overhead associated with common activities used in application development and usually provides:

  • Libraries / Code reuse
  • Templating, Rich UI
  • Security
  • Communication Foundation
  • Database and other info connectivity
  • Execution container
  • Fault tolerance / scalability
  • Monitoring, Tracing, Logging
  • Source Control and Deployment Model

Microsoft emphasizes the extensibility of SharePoint in much of its marketing. This leads some organizations to adopt the strategy of building applications inside of SharePoint. While the ability to administer its components is strong especially when coupled with SharePoint Designer, using SharePoint alone for complicated logic and data intensive development can be brittle and difficult. Most serious application development will require a true architecture like .NET on top of a SQL Server database. These applications can then be exposed in SharePoint as a portal through web parts. (I don’t show the magic quadrant here since SharePoint is not separated from .NET when Microsoft is plotted.)

So, Back to What is SharePoint?

SharePoint is really a collection of capabilities. At its heart, it is a Portal that exposes information customized for a particular user. It has extended functionality to quickly build features inside this portal to enable Enterprise Content Management and Enterprise Search. It has ventured into Social Computing and Collaboration by creating shared work spaces, supporting blogs and wikis and allowing people search. With the inclusion of PerformancePoint in its licensing, it also becomes a strong Business Intelligence offering, though it will require expanded knowledge of that capability to implement. It starts to break down when pushed to work as a Business Process Management Suite or Application framework.

When business or IT leaders begin to discuss wanting to implement SharePoint, I think it helps to start with which of the capabilities of SharePoint are interesting and valuable to their business needs.

7 Replies to “What is SharePoint”

  1. Jon,

    Thoroughly enjoyed your explanation of “What is SharePoint?” Very well-written. SharePoint really is a collection of capabilities, though its complexity causes most to want to condense its meaning. The collaborative software can prove immensely valuable to a business if they use it to its full potential– but that requires an accurate understanding and measure of its usability.

    I’m wondering, though, if SharePoint is best for companies who haven’t built their enterprise on Windows’ shoulders. While SharePoint is highly flexible to meet unique business needs in the categories you’ve outlined, its biggest draw still seems to be its tight integration with Microsoft Office. I realize this wasn’t within the topical bounds of this blog post, but I’d be quite interested in reading your thoughts on this in a future blog. I’m working on a series of postings on SharePoint here: http://prcpo.me?sharept_1.

    Brian Nunnery


  2. Thanks for the note, Brian.

    I don’t necessarily believe being a MS/Windows shop is a requirement for taking advantage of SharePoint. Certainly its integration with MS Office and Windows is a selling point, but that does not necessarily mean only Microsoft/.NET shops benefit. If a business is running Linux or Mac with OpenOffice on the desktop, maybe not, but that rules out only a small percentage of businesses. I’d wager to say most businesses, even java shops, still use the Office suite and Windows on the desktop. That makes the tight integration a positive thing. In fact, most of the SharePoint services are native to Windows Server without licensing the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS). Windows is the gateway drug to MOSS.

    Again, it is risky to try to pigeon hole SharePoint without considering the pieces involved. Almost all document management, intranet and search applications will integrate with Office applications even if they require more work to do so. As a portal or even web content management solution, this integration is less important for any offering. I’m not familiar enough with PerformancePoint features to comment either way since BI packages are somewhat unique.

    When it comes down to it, most shops will focus on either a Microsoft or a Java based suite of applications. While they can be mixed, and treated as black boxes, it is the investment in personnel that normally dictates they pick one or the other. This helps to ensure they keep skills that can administer and extend key applications.


  3. I work for Mark Miller at EndUserSharePoint.com. I really enjoyed “What is SharePoint”.

    We would like to cross-post your article. As with other authors, we would publish your entire article on EndUserSharePoint.com giving you full attribution with links.

    Please let me know if this is something you would be interested in.

    Best Regards,


  4. What a great post. Coming from the traditional document management side of the house, I will link to this as it is a great way to get your arms around the “all-encompassing” app that is Sharepoint.


  5. This is a very useful article therefore I’d like it to be as complete as possible for which I feel it needs the following :

    1) a statement about licensing. I’m not advocating pricing of any kind but a feeling for how MS carves-up the cost model vs the function model you summarise in high-level terms above. They’re not called M$ for nothing.

    2) a statement of practicality and provenness of breaking up the Presentation (UI) / Execution (workflow, really not BPM) / Data (Content store) layers. A significant positive is MS adoption of webservices in this product for interoperability. But a feeling of how other company’s are deploying it would help enormously, even if significant work involved.
    My own feeling here is that almost always SP starts at the Presentation layer (where Services are free from Windows) and then “creeps” into Workflow and/or Content.
    Function-wise I expect Content to be quite strong since MS are reasonably good at search ; however the Workflow is really not BPM. Non-functionally, I expect both Workflow & Content have scalability limitations.


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