During the process of developing a seminar for one of my customers — national training company, New Horizons — I found myself digging into Microsoft SharePoint both broadly and deeply. While there are a lot of interesting things one can say about SharePoint Services, I find its omnipresence potentially quite valuable to companies that operate their own Web sites, either for internal and/or external use and access. (Note that SharePoint Services is an add-on to Windows Server 2003 that's bundled with all versions of that operating system, from Web Edition all the way up through DataCenter Edition.)
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One of the key ingredients in SharePoint is the Web part. It looks like a window with a title bar, a frame, and specific, associated content. However, it is built using the .NET Framework and ASP.NET, and is designed to integrate not just with SharePoint, but also with MS Web services of all kinds, Microsoft Office, and Microsoft BizTalk Server. Web parts consist of an XML-based description file (.dwp, short for what I suspect is "description of a Web part"), and a Web-part assembly file, which packs the associated executable code into the form of a shared, dynamic link library (.dll).
What Web parts are comes straight from .NET, but what they can do is what makes them both powerful and interesting. SharePoint comes in two version: SharePoint Services, bundled with all the Windows Server 2003 releases, and SharePoint Portal, which runs on Windows Server 2003 but offers added capability and functionality. And yep — you guessed it! — the number and type of Web parts included with Services and SharePoint differ, where key functionality that's not given away with SharePoint Services appears in Web parts that are included with SharePoint Portal.
Among the myriad of things that Web parts can do include the ability to display the Outlook inbox, plus its Contacts, Tasks, and Notes data; to create links to Great Plains software components that include the Company, Customer, and Vendor Directory lists; the ability to display news items, announcements, and events on Web pages for members to see (and respond to, when appropriate); similar tools for managing schedules and calendars are also available, as are custom page and site views, alerts, and more. And again, all of this rests squarely on the .NET Framework and ASP.NET technology.
What's more, Web parts are designed to be easy to enhance and customize for those with access to VS.NET and the necessary tools to do the work. Personalization is just the tip of a big iceberg of potential possibilities. It's also possible to redefine the metadata that drives document libraries, and to create new types of (and templates for) documents that SharePoint will organize, track, and manage for its users. This probably also explains why lots of third parties offer SharePoint extensions that offer ready-made customizations and enhancements, as well as enabling more intrepid organizations to build their own.
Whatever road works to bring your organization to more interactive, effective Web sites, you'll probably find SharePoint worth at least a once-over. That that end, check out Microsoft's SharePoint pages and links at www.microsoft.com/sharepoint/. You'll also find numerous books available on this topic, of which I've found Lynn Langfield et al's Microsoft SharePoint 2003 Unleashed (SAMS, 2004, ISBN: 0672326167) to be the best of the bunch.
Ed Tittel is a full-time writer and trainer whose interests include XML and development topics, along with IT Certification and information security topics. E-mail Ed at email@example.com with comments, questions, or suggested topics and tools to review.