Is Free SharePoint In Your Future? Surprise! It's Already Here

With the recession, all of us are looking for ways to save dollars on software costs. Tools like SharePoint are not only a great collaboration and productivity tool for users, it can also be a very low cost alternative to developing software applications in traditional .NET, Java or other languages. You can be up and running on SharePoint in a very short period of time, often in the same day you start the install if your requirements are basic enough. That means both a savings in time and dollars, and is one of the reasons the SharePoint services part of my business is experiencing a big uptick. It seems everyone has frozen or reduced budgets, usually fewer people due to layoffs, but still the same plate of projects and responsibilities that must get done or be maintained. You may not have realized it, but there's a free version of SharePoint sitting right there inside your Windows 2003 or 2008 Server ready for you to use, at zero additional cost.

The core of SharePoint is something called Windows SharePoint Services, or WSS, and is included free with Windows Server 2003 SP1 and as a role in Windows Server 2008. No additional software license purchase required, no user CALs required. When most of us think of SharePoint, we think of the paid for version (license and CALs), SharePoint Server (Standard and Enterprise versions). But both SharePoint Server Standard and Enterprise simply add functionality on top of what WSS already provides. Some of the features not part of WSS, that are in SharePoint Server, may be critical to your needs, so a software purchase may be in your future. Or you may be able to start by using WSS and upgrade later to the more feature rich paid for version. Let’s take a quick look at what WSS provides to help get you started down the path leveraging SharePoint.

1. Collaboration: At its core, SharePoint is about enabling collaboration, which is why many of the collaboration features in SharePoint are part of the free WSS. Standard templates for setting up team sites, document workspaces, meeting workspaces, wiki's and blogs are all in WSS. Managing people and group lists, calendars, email integration, project tasks, surveys are there as well. Document collaboration, something that's essential in most collaboration situations I encounter, are in WSS for checking in and out documents, version number tracking, workflow processes, and auditing.

Amazingly enough, all these things are included in WSS for free (with Windows Server 2003 and 2008) and can get you pretty far down the road with SharePoint. The collaboration features are the biggest area where WSS and SharePoint Server overlap.

2. Search: One of the most powerful features of SharePoint are its search capabilities. WSS provides basic search features to retrieve SharePoint content. What's not included are additional advanced search features, like searching other enterprise content sources (Exchange Public Folders, 3rd party repositories, and interfaces to 3rd party apps, called BDCs), search relevance for improving search, people search, and better indexing and administrative controls.

3. Content Management: Many of the content management features are part of the paid for SharePoint Server, but WSS still provides important, fundamental features like storing and archiving approved file types, access control and security, logging of actions, workflow processes to define expiration, and customizable policies. 

What WSS doesn't provide and SharePoint Server does are more sophisticated document workflow, templates for large document management sites, retention policies, integration with Microsoft Information Management Rights, content authoring, publishing and deployment (i.e. automated and scheduled content publishing, such as on a web site or portal.)

4. Handy Stuff: Things you'll want and enjoy as part of WSS are integration with Microsoft Office (Outlook, Work, Excel, PowerPoint and Access), user alerts, RSS feeds, automatic notifications, Web Parts for customizing pages, list indexing, document libraries and administrative features (backup and restore, for example.)

Other features only in SharePoint Server.

Probably the biggest feature you'll miss that SharePoint Server has over WSS are the portal capabilities. Beyond the basic team and document site pages, portals allow you to deliver individualized portals, distribution lists to users and audiences, and use more extensive portal Web Parts and templates. As you get into more internal, extranet, intranet and custom portal sites (such as for business intelligence or other uses), you’ll start to miss having SharePoint Server’s additional portal capabilities.

One of the big gains by upgrading to SharePoint Server is the forms capabilities. With InfoPath Forms Services, now a part of SharePoint, you can create a wide variety (and some pretty sophisticated) web-based forms, which can be used to create a wide variety of apps in SharePoint. There are also wizards for creating and importing forms, making it quicker to develop SharePoint forms-based apps. 

Another area SharePoint Server distances itself from WSS is in business intelligence, which includes BI dashboards, dashboard filters, Key Performance Indicator (KPI) Web Part, reporting center interface, and the ability to interconnect to Microsoft and 3rd party data sources through Office Data Connections (ODC) and Business Data Catalog (BDC). One of the most powerful BI features in SharePoint Server is the Excel Services that integrates Microsoft Office Excel features directly within SharePoint. Lastly, extensibility through APIs is something you'll need SharePoint Server for when developing deeper, more powerful applications within SharePoint.

Wrap Up.

I hope this summary has given you some insight into what you can do with WSS included in Windows Server and what are the advanced features included in the upgrade to SharePoint Server. I know I haven't detailed every difference, and frankly some things are a little tough to discern until you see them in action. I know I haven't used them all... yet. Frankly, I couldn't have put this blog post together without the help of this SharePoint Products Comparison spreadsheet available on Microsoft's site and assistance from the SharePoint experts I work with.

I'm sure Microsoft would like you to buy SharePoint Server rather than just hang out using WSS, but in the end there's a very good chance that once you use WSS, you'll be upgrading down the road to SharePoint Server. It's one of those addictive, “this is your brain on WSS… this is your brain on SharePoint Server,” kind of experiences. WSS gives many organizations a great place to start using and experimenting with SharePoint.

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