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Using SharePoint, Office to develop portals and mashups

SharePoint 2007 and Microsoft Office aren't just for the desktop anymore. A recent conference showed how they can be used to build portals and business mashups.

A number of presentations at the Microsoft Office System Developer Conference 2008 highlighted the simplicity of creating portal applications on top of SharePoint server and Office Live services. Here we summarize two such sessions, which focused on both customer-facing applications (in this case, a travel portal) and business mashups that can leverage services such as Microsoft Virtual Earth or MapPoint for both data access and an enhanced UI.

The next-generation travel portal: Powered by Office, Live and Silverlight

In this session, Mehul Shah, solutions architect at Blue Star Infotech, demonstrated how to create a consumer portal using a combination of ASP.NET and Java. There are three main participants in this type of portal: the portal provider or aggregator, the seller of the service or agent, and the consumer.

Shah said that consumers are familiar with functions that let them search, compare, buy, and share (or rate) their experience with others. These are all included in their view of the portal.

The sellers, meanwhile, have a different view of the portal, for they need to be able to manage content, update inventory, and survey the effectiveness of the user experience. Assuming they are working with multiple portals and agents, they need to be able to manage their inventory via Global Data Synchronization with services like Galileo or Sabre.

Using BizTalk Server, it is possible to exchange information with these outside services using standard APIs -- the developer does not have to write custom code for each service. The model also makes life simpler for the travel service seller, since it are able to post changes to their inventory once, and have these changes registered by all the different portals and travel agents it works with.

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Additionally, in special cases, such as booking groups, the seller might need to deal directly with the customer. The portal needs to provide a way to enable this kind of direct communication, format the data to simplify the seller's ability to create price quotes, and ensure that the portal provider can receive its commission.

The portal provider, the third portal participant, works with both consumers and sellers. It needs to be able to manage the intranet to streamline communications, secure the system, run reports and automatically satisfy contracts between sellers and consumers. Shah noted there is a business relationship between the providers and seller, which requires partner management on an ongoing basis. There needs to be metadata built into the portal describing the contracts and commissions required for partner management.

In the scenario that Shah laid out, the portal provider manages the information about the inventory and also creates packages combining inventory from multiple suppliers. For example, instead of just selling an airline ticket, the provider could offer special discounts when a consumer combines airline, hotel, car rental and tour services to a particular destination.

At the middle of this portal is a Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, which provides support for enterprise security, Ajax Web parts, and blogs and wikis for the user feedback. The provider can access this server to manage the website and use other business intelligence capability to generate reports. The portal also needs to be able to communicate with other Internet services, such as MapPoint, for generating maps. In the demonstration, this allowed the portal to generate a destination and route map for the consumer in real time.

Customer support can be streamlined via Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, so the user can get in touch with a service provider to make an offline request. In his demo, Shah showed how the server could be set up to take a customer's request and send a customized report, tailored to finding packages for a group of travelers, to a selling agent via Outlook. He said this kind of streamlining could reduce the time to generate a quote from a few days to only 10 minutes.

Shah's team also showed how to use Silverlight video controls to make destinations pop out and further entice users. Other parts, such as RSS feeds, can send updates to the portal about regional news and events from selected destinations.

The portal provider can help streamline the creation of content using a template format that allows destinations to fill in information about their own services, which is automatically formatted into the right place in the portal. In addition, this information can be dynamically accessed to control Web parts, such as the aforementioned MapPoint.

On the client side, it is possible to build integrations into Outlook that automatically overlay calendars so the agent can cross reference meetings and local social events, so that he can provide more useful information to the customer.

In the scenario, information from the email is filled into a special view using the power of Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). Shah said you could use WPF and Outlook to really jazz up the user interface. This allows various types of Outlook users to take advantage of services on the backend SharePoint server, and Internet cloud, without any special knowledge.

In Shah's demo, WPF integration enabled the agent to easily find out more information about the customer such as past sales data by time of year and types of services. If the agent notices that the customer typically rents a car, then he can make suggestions of additional options. When the agent sends a query to a hotel, he can use the same Outlook interface, which sends the query via the BizTalk server that communicates directly with the actual provider of the service.

Building mashups with Office Live Small Business

In this session, Robert Green, a consultant with MCW Technologies, discussed building internal business mashups, showing how it was possible to build a mashup that integrates customer information with mapping services like Microsoft Virtual Earth.

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He noted that the general idea behind a mashup is to combine features from multiple sources to provide a new service. This goes a step beyond a portal that simply aggregates data, to allowing a control in one container on the screen to drive changes in another container.

In his example, a bed and breakfast wanted to find out where its customers were coming from so it could measure the success of its advertising, determine new markets to advertise in or see if its sales territories need to be divided.

The Office Live Small Business services are essentially Internet version of applications based on SharePoint, Green explained. The one key exception is that the service prevents developer from uploading new .NET controls or Web parts, so the developers need to rely on the capabilities built into SharePoint components, call existing Web services offered by third parties, or write new Web services which are hosted on a company's external site.

Green said the skill set for this particular kind of development is not particularly new. Programmers need to know how to write SharePoint applications, and they should have some familiarity with JavaScript, Ajax and XSLT. The tools for this include Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007, Visual Studio 2008 and the Web 2.0 editor of choice.

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