SharePoint 3rd Party Solutions – Trick or Treat?

By Ian Tait
Sharepoint Consultant

The SharePoint platform is continuing to increase its penetration into the business landscape, and with it a whole ecosystem of third-party add-ons (commonly referred to as Third Party Solutions, or TPS) has evolved.  

As you would imagine, there is a large variation in the cost, utility, stability and value within this ecosystem.

Properly selected and implemented, some of these third party products can add significant value to an existing or intended SharePoint installation.

Our experience working with clients to evaluate and select some of these products (or work with previously implemented products) has helped identify some of the potential pitfalls. The following observations are some conformity or gating guidelines that need to be highlighted when considering some of these applications.

1. There will be a SharePoint upgrade eventually, so understand the impact on your system

This is certainly a key factor in considering a particular TPS. Sooner or later, your system will be upgraded to the next version of SharePoint. You will need to understand the upgrade path and impact of the TPS and how it will accommodate the next version of SharePoint.

Most established vendors will have a published alignment with Microsoft, in particular relating to the SharePoint release program. Of course, this will be dependent upon the nature of the TPS you may be considering, as each will vary in potential for impact. A general approach would be to:

  • Check the vendor’s support history for previous versions
  • Check how quickly they were able to respond to the release of MOSS 2010

2. Avoid TPS products that add data into the SharePoint database

When working with clients to upgrade SharePoint, a recurring area of trouble has been TPS producst that store additional data in the SharePoint database.  In many (if not all) cases, the migration required a significant extra effort in terms of additional work required to architect a solution, implement it and then verify that the migration of all data was successful.  Often, this catches the project by surprise and has the potential to significantly impact on time and cost schedules.

3. Wherever possible, utilise standard SharePoint functionality

This is a sound philosophy that should be assessed with all TPS products. Is there another way to provide the requirement utilising standard SharePoint software?

For example, if an organisation requires to access a line of business application like an ERP, what are the pros and cons of the various approaches? A standard MOSS web part like the Business Connectivity Services should be evaluated as it will be supported in some form in the next version. Thus it is only the source of the data that needs to be maintained.

If a custom part is developed (which may be required), then in addition to the data source, the web part will also need to be upgraded.  This is only possible if the source code is available, so make sure that you have it.

4. Does the TPS leverage existing Windows/SharePoint features

Some TPS products only utilise standard Windows and MOSS features and thus represent a lower risk profile.

For example we often recommended the Content and Code People Directory web part. This is an excellent and intuitive web part that provides a function often required by organisations. This web part utilises standard Active Directory facilities that present a very low risk profile.

5. If you undertake custom development, get all the details

Custom development requires clear documentation about the development and access to all the relevant code. This includes a permanent right to use the code if applicable.

6. Understand the business impact of the solution

Some TPS products are more business critical than others. We work with Document Management add ins for SharePoint, in particular the Australian-developed Macroview DMF. These products provide greatly enhanced collaboration environments that become business critical to the way organisations operate. That is in fact the major reason for their adoption – to provide significant efficiency benefit in saving, retrieving and managing objects including email.

Thus any upgrade to the SharePoint system will be dependent upon the upgrade part for such systems.  

Fortunately such vendors also understand their obligations and provide strong support for the SharePoint and associated platforms. For example Macroview operates with SharePoint and Office 2003, 2007 and 2010.