Day on the Death Star

We spent the day with a consultant specializing in MS Sharepoint. Yes, after a meeting about open source social networking tools, I climbed out of Luke Skywalkers X-Wing fighter into the heart of the Death Star.

My tongue is firmly in my cheek. The longer I do this kind of stuff, the more I realize that I can’t count anything out. The religious wars in which I’ve been a part — open source vs. proprietary environments — seem to be entered into with large blind spots based on myriad agendas.

I’ve spent two months having trouble accepting that an enterprise Web authoring and document management solution, much less one from Microsoft, could ever be a viable alternative to the PHP-based solutions we have now. But, I’ve come to a point to have to open my mind or feel shackled by my own biases.

Solutions like this seem more attractive when you’re dealing with a now-dated environment of manually-managed shared drive directories, an unrelated homegrown open-source Web environment, with a loosely-related portal/ERP frontend, and a completely unrelated totally cool academic and personal Web authoring platform where the stuff that IS the University online is happening.

And the answer is, it depends.

I’m more squeamish about Sharepoint CMS than the collaboration and document management features. I fear a lock-down in creativity that could result. I fear training and staffing continuity issues for proprietary platforms like .NET, programmers for which are highly paid in relation to folks who churn out PHP. I worry about vendor lock-in, about the ability to migrate in the future when the inevitable happens and a new tool is invented.

But, in keeping with the notion from yesterday’s post that the institutional Web site has to offer clarity, functionality, and easy access, along with creative charm, the locus for creativity seems to shift from the pride in the clever code backend/snappy graphics thing (which is always fun, in a narcissistic developer kind of way), to managing and delivering CONTENT. Imagine that.

Perhaps, then, the backend of the enterprise need not be super, duper open source, but rather stable and supported, able to read and serve RSS, which Sharepoint does. And it sure would be great to have ready documentation instead of spending hours debugging something that the last guy wrote. That kind of open-source, roll up your sleeves, we got the barn let’s put on a show is essential for creative, academic and personal authoring, and I love doing that stuff. Gladly, we are living in the end times for the FrontPage and Dreamweaver hegemony. Free open source, no coding needed unless you LIKE that kind of thing, is the ultimate barrier-reducer in the personal Web publishing context.

For most Universities, the content on the Web site begins and ends in the public Web environment. Now, I’m starting to be persuaded that enterprise Web site environments (organizing and delivering audience-aware content) no longer need to OWN the content. In that context, I’ll climb out of the X-Wing for a while, but, I want the keys back 🙂


#1 Paul Grenier on 12.04.08 at 8:48 am

I also work in a University environment–on SharePoint. That’s only possible because I don’t work in central IT. Central IT actually refused our request for some simple applications citing not enough resources, so I was forced to the dark side.

Our department went with SharePoint to, with our meager skills, move past static HTML–quickly. As an application platform, SharePoint rocks. As a standard’s compliant, public-facing, CMS juggernaut not so much.

For public-facing stuff, we still live in the php-based world because SharePoint licenses costs money and central IT doesn’t support it on their infrastructure.

I think my institution could really use the BDC and SharePoint’s APIs for better data management. We have a new PeopleSoft version but it seems integration architecture here is stuck in 1995. They have all this data but hardly any systems communicate (unless you count nightly flat file dumps).

After 17 months of SharePoint, my suggestion is to get it for what it does well and either fix (with programming and markup overhaul) what it doesn’t or use something else. Wikis, blogs, and public-facing pages seem to be those sketchy areas.

So in public, I’m a light-side jedi but behind the firewall I’m a Sith lord.

#2 Cathy Finn-Derecki on 12.04.08 at 9:17 am

That’s pretty validating for me. I, too, was chagrined at the lack of wikis and blogs, as well as the kind of entry-level quality to the public web page issue. As a CMS, Sharepoint is clearly in its infancy. Since we already have a viable blogging platform (WPMU), we can use RSS to communicate. But, maybe by the time we get this thing up and running, the Sharepoint CMS will have come a little further. Thanks!