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Create composite applications with Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010

Microsoft SharePoint 2010 includes some valuable yet largely underhyped technology for creating composite applications, according to speakers at a recent AIIM user group meeting.

New functionality in Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 makes it easier for organizations to create composite applications, but few users are aware of this fact, according to speakers at a recent AIIM user group meeting in Waltham, Mass.

Composite applications save time and increase productivity by combining workflow requirements with bits and pieces of functionality from various systems. The idea, experts say, is to give users a one-stop shop for the information they need to make decisions and collaborate with peers.

In SharePoint 2010, the ability to create composite applications is powered by the popular content management and collaboration platform's business connectivity services (BCS) capabilities. BCS lets users access information in various systems and bring it into SharePoint.

Microsoft says BCS is different from its SharePoint 2007 predecessor -- the business data catalog (BDC) -- in that BDC only offered read-only access to back-end systems. With BCS, the connections are read-and-write capable.

"SharePoint can really connect to a lot of different systems," said conference speaker Scott Jamison, the managing partner and CEO of Jornata LLC, a Boston-based consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations with SharePoint deployments. "[It] has that [BCS] capability, but Microsoft tucks it away into this thing called Composites and doesn't really advertise it well."

SharePoint composite application helps Red River speed up sales

Earlier versions of SharePoint offered some limited ability to create composite applications and team workspaces, but it was a difficult process and didn't always deliver the required results, according to end users and published reports.

That's why Claremont, N.H.-based Red River Computer Co. -- a systems integrator for the government, health care and higher education sectors -- decided to completely scrap its SharePoint 2003 implementation and start over with SharePoint 2010 and its new enhancements.

"SharePoint 2003 was horrible," said conference speaker Sarah Stratton, Red River's corporate program manager. "We went in and manually found all of the good content and brought it forward and just started fresh."

With the help of Jamison's team at Jornata, Red River began implementing SharePoint 2010 last August and went live with the content management system in December.

Red River runs its sales-to-order processes through a combination of siloed backend systems. They include a pipeline calculator that allows salespeople to examine sales leads and determine the possibility of closing a deal as well as a commission processing system that determines how much money the salesperson will make. The company also uses factored calculator functionality, which allows salespeople to play around with "what if" scenarios and determine how sales outlook might change if they lower or increase the profit margin on a particular sale, for example.

Salespeople were spending too much time accessing the various systems, and Red River wanted to bring those capabilities together in a single and easily accessible place, Stratton said. The company ultimately solved the problem by building a new SharePoint powered intranet site called "The River," which included a composite application that combined all the necessary functionality and workflows.

"They are completely separate systems [on the back end], but the user has no idea," Stratton said.

For security purposes, Stratton added, Red River's SharePoint composite application is also filtered by the user who loads it, so salespeople see only their own information.

"They can see their information and they're able to manipulate it," she said. "Even as your sales assistant, I can't see your mission statement."

Key components of composite applications in SharePoint 2010

According to Microsoft, some of the key features that complement BCS and can help organizations build composite applications include:

  • Access Services, which allow users to publish Microsoft Access databases in SharePoint
  • Browser-based Customizations, which allow users to customize pages via a Web browser
  • SharePoint Designer, which includes tools for customizing composite applications without making back-end code changes
  • Silverlight Web Parts, which allows users to upload Silverlight XAP applications to a document library
  • Sandboxed Solutions, which allows users to manage system performance and maintain security

Mark Brunelli is the News Editor for Follow him on Twitter @Brunola88.

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