August 16, 2012 - 9:10 AM
Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: I don’t use Microsoft SharePoint. I’m not saying that it’s a bad product or that it doesn’t satisfy anyone, quite the opposite in fact. SharePoint is a good product, serving millions of customers and at the same time a nice platform upon which a lot of developers are making a living building extensions and selling integration services. It is especially interesting in full Microsoft shops, where it integrates natively with Microsoft Windows and Office, and allows customers to have a single vendor to deal with. The main problem is that Sharepoint is a tool trying to satisfy many demands to once including file sharing, content discovery, document management, collaboration, web content management, web site building and some social tools. A more focused solution might be a better choice as a complex platform may also be a burden for IT to deal with. This article is really about looking at the SharePoint alternatives, and why you may want to consider them.
In order to understand which software might serve you or me better, first we need to go back to the actual needs or wishes that you might have. Do you need a powerful document sharing solution, which includes workflows, retention policies or granular access control ? Or quite the opposite are you looking for an alternative to sending all the files to your co-workers by email ? Do you need the data to be hosted internally or do external hosting services such as cloud hosting seem acceptable to you ? Personally I find that my file sharing needs are often quite basic, and it is only seldom that I need an advanced workflow or a retention policy. But of course this depends greatly on the job you are doing, and the corporate requirements you might need to follow.
Another new variable in the equation is the actual platform you are using as a main work computer. As the iPhone grew popular, so did the platforms it was integrated with, and we are now clearly seeing growth in the Mac market share. Also, some content producers are also becoming a lot more mobile, and it is not rare to see some use tablets or netbooks where previously laptops or desktop were the rule. So integration with these new platforms are now a strong requirement, and this implies support for the Mac, Linux (Android, Ubuntu) operating systems.
SharePoint has grown up to become quite a powerful solution, but with that power has come complexity, and despite Microsoft’s effort to bring the user interface in line with the latest ribbon UI from Microsoft Office, it remains a daunting product for users with little computing experience, and that is a real shame for a collaboration tool. In order to promote usage, UIs need to be simple, out of the way and efficient. So it seems that the very audience the product was initially targeted at is now lost, and it is now more accessible to advanced users, which have advanced requirements. This also reflects itself in the product’s pricing, that now has a much wider range of options, going from the very basic needs to an extensive enterprise offering. It is also possible to extend the product using third-party tools or customize the platform, which will make the total ownership cost rise some more.
So in effect, depending on your requirements, alternatives to SharePoint might be acceptable or even more interesting. There are a lot of valid options to choose from, and I’m only going to go over a few, ranging from the personal to the more corporate.
On the personal usage side, we now have a healthy competition of file hosting services such as DropBox, Microsoft Skydrive, Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud just to name the best known ones, that range from free hosting to large storage solutions. These type of services may include client software to install on your computer that will help synchronize the data with various computers, and make it easy to access data on the go using mobile applications. This is a great alternative to “transporting” all data manually using a USB drive, but at the same time also means that you are trusting some external company with your data. This is an option I really like to use when I need to quickly work on some data from different locations, and for example this blog entry was written directly in Google Docs using their storage solution. One interesting project I should mention is an open source one: Syncany. This is an open source client that you can install locally on your computer and that will sync against many file hosting services (Google, Amazon S3, FTP, IMAP, Box.net, WebDAV), encrypting the files to make sure that they are secure even if the remote server suffers from some security problem. It is a student project still under development, but it is worth watching and it should be available once released for Linux, Windows and Mac.
On a more corporate side, file hosting services may of course also satisfy some basic usage patterns, but they might also be unacceptable because of the implied trust issues, or more commonly the confidentiality issues such as keeping customer contact information and employee lists private. Again in the alternatives there are a lot of solutions to choose from, ranging from the very simple to the powerful. One of the most common ones still out there is simply a shared network storage, basically a disk drive that everyone can access. There may or may not be security configured, but they will not be any additional functionality such as searching, which is usually the first requirement that arises quickly. Open source projects are again very interesting to look at since they allow to setup and customize solutions to fit various needs. An interesting basic project is SparkleShare which is basically just a desktop client that syncs to a Git repository, offering the possibility to version your data files out of the box.
On the other side of the spectrum, full-blown alternatives to SharePoint are of course products such as Alfresco or Nuxeo. These include functionality that is close to SharePoint and in some cases even more powerful. They are also open source and quite well known and accepted, and make for serious corporate alternatives. Huddle is also an alternative, it is not an Open Source project but it is fully accessible in the cloud, so it helps reduce the burden on IT. The three mentioned products have the same objectives as SharePoint, mainly sharing and managing documents but they are not strong contenders in building corporate web sites - then again that is not their primary objective. They do instead integrate well with desktops, and can handle advanced usages such as government data management requirements.
Some customers might actually be using a web content management (WCM) solution already, and might not know that most of these have file hosting and sharing built-in. Sometimes an acceptable solution is to simply expose this functionality and use it, or ask an integrator to build a custom user interface to fit some basic needs. This might prove a valid solution for file sharing and document management knowing that any good WCM provides version control, versioning, advanced rights management, indexing, searching and sometimes even retention policies built in their core. And of course to create web sites, WCMs are a much better fit than SharePoint.
Now that I’ve plugged pretty much the entire industry apart from my company, I can mention the fact that we actually use our own WCM to share files with the public or internally and we are very focused on some of the issues I have discussed in this post, so stay tuned to our website if you’re interested in learning more.
And you ? Do you need SharePoint ? What do you really use day-to-day ? Feel free to share your experience and comments below.
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This post and comment(s) reflect the personal perspectives of community members, and not necessarily those of their employers or of AIIM International