As in true Microsoft’s form, SharePoint is the ultimate stealth application platform that caught the world by surprise. Originally, a web based document repository for Office, it has grown into a full fledged application development platform. Their seeding strategy; making it a free add-on for Microsoft Windows Server was brilliant. Now, anyone who had Windows only needed to download the installation bits and install it to get it working within an hour.
The fact that Microsoft Office provides many hooks into documents stored in SharePoint to offer better collaboration and information sharing made it even harder to resist. We didn’t and started to build solutions wrapped around SharePoint and business started to flourish. Then the new version of SharePoint came along; together with it a new revised object model and programming tool (Visual Studio). Overnight, we had to scrapped years of development because of platform changes. We had to change to accomodate the changes; many old API was made obsolete. New ones that worked differently and concepts never seen before. Such is the risk of building on someone else code.
Therefore many vendors choose to build .Net applications and then hosted it on SharePoint as iFrames. But they never really took advantage of the dynamic nature of configured web parts or SharePoint. Every little changes required code change but they were “safe” from upgrade blues associated with SharePoint. But then again, they never really took advantage of SharePoint resources so much of the platform improvement did not benefitted them.
Our decision to work natively within SharePoint dictated us to build Webparts360 AppStudio as a site feature. We implemented three (yes, only 3) highly configurable webpart that made it easy to work with ALL data. From SharePoint, SQL, cloud based data sources such as SQL Azure and even Open Data services so that you can create a single view of information. These webparts provides the essential functions to handle everything from data entry, workflow, navigation and reporting.
You use AppStudio to configure your solutions; describing the solutions from a data model, process workflow and site navigation map. Essentially, the solution gets build as you “document” it. The web parts provides the user interface that users see. Developers sees a complete view of the solution visually. This not only simplifies development, it makes the solutions much easier to understand and manage.
When you are finished, this solution can be packaged and deployed to another server. Here’s the great news. Because we only have three webparts that represents a complete solution, we simply need to rebuild these web parts in the next version of SharePoint and all the solutions built with it will port over. That simplifies the whole task of migrating solutions to a new platform. That is why our customers will able to move all their SP2007 apps over to 2010 within just weeks after the new version were made available.
Another benefit of having a solution framework is that you can publish these solutions unto the solutions gallery so that other departments or teams can use your template as a base for their own solutions. When they deploy the solution, the system makes a new copy of the solution which they can customize to their exacting needs. Customized solutions at the speed of standard apps deployment, how cool? In fact, from our experience one way to measure the success of SharePoint is to measure how many solutions are built and how many transactions flow through it. How many solutions do you have in your portal?
To showcase the versatility of SharePoint as an application development platform, we built a solutions showcase at http://socialapps.webparts360.com so that you can see it in action. You are welcome to create your own account to try the various different modules or if you just want to browse through the examples, login as demo / password.
We will add more apps as we build more demonstration solutions. If you have any suggestions or needs for interesting collaborative solutions, do share them with me. We always on the look out for great ideas. If we implement yours, you may have it for free.