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Can SharePoint eDiscovery Center meet your company's legal needs?

SharePoint provides useful native e-discovery capabilities, but they might not be adequate for companies dealing with complex cases and a wide variety of content types.

One of SharePoint's more useful features is its eDiscovery Center, which makes it relatively easy to perform e-discovery against a wide variety of content. Even so, it is worth considering whether the native capabilities in SharePoint eDiscovery can meet your organization's legal needs, or if you might be better off using a third-party e-discovery product.

Although every organization's needs are different, many organizations have found that SharePoint's eDiscovery Center works well. Some of the product's key features align with typical e-discovery needs and business processes, making it user-friendly in many ways.

One of the eDiscovery Center's more useful capabilities is its ability to define multiple cases. Since organizations may be involved in more than one legal proceeding at a time, SharePoint allows those tasked with e-discovery to set up multiple cases as a way of keeping the cases separate from one another.

The eDiscovery Center can also query a number of different data types. Some of the types of data that can be searched and exported as part of a query include:

  • Documents (including those stored in file shares)
  • SharePoint lists
  • SharePoint pages
  • Exchange Server objects (such as messages, tasks, calendar items and message attachments)
  • Lync conversations that have been archived within Exchange

SharePoint's eDiscovery Center can also enable an in-place hold. When an in-place hold is applied to SharePoint content, the content remains accessible to the users, and the users can still work with the content. However, an underlying versioning mechanism preserves the content as it existed at the time when the hold was initiated. In most cases the in-place hold mechanism is able to work without consuming a significant amount of additional storage space because SharePoint does not have to create a secondary copy of the data (hence the name in-place hold).

The downsides of SharePoint eDiscovery Center

Even though there is a lot to like about the SharePoint eDiscovery Center, it does have its shortcomings. For starters, the eDiscovery Center does not exist by default. It has to be created by an administrator. Creating an eDiscovery Center is no more difficult than creating any other type of site, but it is an extra hoop to jump through.

Another potential shortcoming of the eDiscovery Center is that it can only index certain types of data from certain sources. As a general rule, eDiscovery Center can index data if it resides on a SharePoint server, an Exchange server, a Lync server (Lync conversations can be archived in Exchange), a file share or a Web server. Likewise, SharePoint is able to index the contents of Microsoft Office documents and some other common document formats. However, SharePoint cannot perform e-discovery against other line-of-business applications. For instance, you probably won't be able to use SharePoint to perform e-discovery against your HR application.

SharePoint also lacks the ability to perform e-discovery against image files. While image files can be included in a data collection, SharePoint doesn't have a native mechanism for indexing them. Some of the commercial e-discovery products perform OCR against image data in an effort to extract data.

It's also important to note that eDiscovery Center is based on the SharePoint Search service application. The advantage here is that the eDiscovery Center can unearth any content that has been indexed by the Search service application. This opens up a lot of possibilities for crawling non-SharePoint data. Some organizations configure the Search service application to crawl file shares or even external websites that were not created by SharePoint.

However, the Search service application also adds a level of complexity. Administrators must index a location before e-discovery can be performed against that location. Furthermore, the eDiscovery Center must have the required permissions to access the data source, and depending on the source of the data that is being indexed, an in-place hold might not be an option.

Finally, in some situations an administrator may be required to create multiple eDiscovery Centers rather than using a single eDiscovery Center for the entire enterprise. For example, if the organization has a local SharePoint deployment but also uses SharePoint Online (Office 365) then the organization will require two separate eDiscovery Centers.

SharePoint's eDiscovery Center isn't a best-of-breed eDiscovery solution. Large enterprises that are routinely involved in complex legal cases may be better off using different e-discovery software. For smaller organizations however, the SharePoint eDiscovery Center is likely to get the job done.

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