A colleague of mine recently asked if the forthcoming version of SharePoint technology will be good for use in Extranets, and why. Indeed it will! Here are some thoughts on the subject...
First off - there are at least two kinds of Extranets out there, and it always makes sense to clarify what kind the customer wants. One type is simply an extension of a corporate Intranet onto the public Internet, so employees can get access without a virtual private network. For example Outlook Web Access is such an Extranet.
Another type is a web site which is shared with specific customers or partners, for collaboration or other business functions across organizations. This latter type is more interesting as it has much greater implications for streamlining business processes and forming richer partnerships. It's also much harder to set up because:
- external user accounts must be maintained, or some kind of trust (such as SAML federation using ADFS) must be created between organizations
- external clients are not under control of the hosting organization, so often a particular web browser or client software cannot be assumed
- privacy issues come up, in which the sharing of participants' information must be carefully considered
In either case, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 is definitely more Extranet-friendly than SharePoint 2003. Many benefits in MOSS 2007 are not unique to Extranets but still will make a big positive impact in Extranet situations.
Here are a baker's dozen reasons why Extranets will be better with MOSS 2007:
1. Authentication options are much wider, including:
- ADFS Support – allows federated authentication, in which each party manages their own user accounts, and there is a secure trust between the organizations. For example, imagine that Microsoft and Litware have such a trust set up. Joe works for Litware and has been given access to content in Microsoft’s Extranet. If Joe leaves his job, Litware removes his account and he immediately loses access to the Microsoft Extranet as well!
- Very flexible authentication, based on the ASP.NET 2.0 provider model. This allows simple authentication based on LDAP, SQL Server, or any data store and algorithm desired by writing or purchasing an Authentication provider. This is great for customers who already have partner accounts stored somewhere, such as in another application’s database or LDAP store.
2. More granular “anonymous” access, can be set on a group of sites instead of a whole virtual server as in SPS 2003. So, for example, anonymous users can see part of the Extranet – to get general information, sign up for an account, etc. – while other parts require a login.
3. Broader browser support including FireFox, Safari, Netscape
4. Easier branding and “skinning” using ASP.NET 2.0 Master Pages and Navigation provider model. This will be useful in situations where the extranet is branded for a each customer, or where the Extranet represents multiple brands.
5. Email integration – Users can email documents, messages and calendar items directly into a MOSS site; this can be opened to Extranet users to provide integration with even non-Microsoft productivity applications
6. Content Deployment – allows jobs to be created which copy content from one place to another on a schedule. So, for example, content from an Intranet site can be re-used on an Extranet without the need for content owners to post it twice
7. RSS Feeds – Allow clients to subscribe to information feeds so information stays up-to-date automatically. Every list, from a calendar to a site full of web pages, is an RSS feed by default.
8. Web-based forms allow InfoPath use on Extranet with no client deployments. Thus, users with InfoPath can use the rich client, but the solution doesn't need to depend on that because any web browser can be used to fill in forms.
9. Auditing support so you can monitor who has accessed which content. This is important on many Extranets not only for security but also for marketing reasons. For example, if a firm wants a customer to renew a service contract connected with the Extranet content, they often want to see how the customer is using the Extranet to establish value. Then they can ask their customer, “Did you know that your employees accessed 1,000 articles a month from our knowledge base?”
10. Web Content Management, Wikis, Workflow, Versioning – All work together to make it much easier to update content
11. Format conversion built-in: Any XML-based format can be converted automatically in the background. For example, your Office 2007 formats (native XML format) can be converted to HTML for use on an Extranet where users may not have Office installed.
12. Excel Web Access: Another win for environments where you have no control over the desktop, this allows Excel 2007 to run over the server and render in plain old HTML so any browser can view it.
13. Site Variants: Mainly intended for multi-lingual support, but also usable for customized content scenarios. Site variants are parallel sites; content in the “master” site becomes a draft in all the site variants, where an editor or translator can modify it prior to publication
As you can tell, I'm pretty jazzed about all this, as it's going to make my job a lot easier when customers want to design solutions which span firewalls and organizations!
This posting is accurate to the best of my knowledge based on information available to me at the time I wrote it. This product is in Beta - anything can happen!
This posting is provided "AS IS" with no warranties, and confers no rights.
Thank you for reading it!