Why do you need a Microsoft SharePoint Alternative?
You Don’t Need Microsoft SharePoint, You Need Collaboration Technology
Today, executives are pressed from all quarters. New realities like outsourcing, off-shoring, distributed teams and telecommuting require them to work with distributed teams, vendors, partners and clients. On the other hand, business is increasingly information driven and “social” which necessitates a greater need for communication, collaborative teamwork and information exchange. This underlines the importance of collaboration technology for running an efficient business.
At the turn of this century, enterprise collaboration became synonymous with Microsoft Sharepoint, because it was the most prominent solution around (There were “SharePoint alternatives” like HyperOffice around even then, but they didn’t have MS’s visibility and clout).
However, SharePoint was crafted for a very specific segment - big businesses with thousands of employees and mega IT budgets. Enterprise information technology has also advanced since then, most specifically the software-as-a-service approach, which allows SMBs access to big business on-premise software like MS SharePoint, through simply a net connection and at low cost. SharePoint has tried to keep up with the changes with its subsequent avatars – SharePoint 2003, SharePoint 2007, and SharePoint Online. Is SharePoint 2010, the latest version, any better? Well, "SharePoint 2010 may be overkill for some", says a recent Forrester study.
Although SharePoint has whetted the appetite of businesses for enterprise 2.0 (the next generation of enterprise collaboration software), it fails to keep up, as Thomas Vander Wal famously said in his 2009 article. This is especially true for growing businesses.
SharePoint & Growing Businesses – A Match Made in Hell
Staggering Setup Costs – SharePoint is on premise software. Since you need to set up servers in-house, SharePoint total cost of ownership (TCO) is actually much higher than SharePoint license costs, since you also have to pay for hardware, maintenance, antivirus, back, and IT staff.
Working out SharePoint license costs it itself quite a task. Companies have to purchase a SharePoint server license - having the option of many different flavors of (SharePoint Server, SharePoint Server Search, SharePoint Server for Internet Sites and many others) – as well as Client Access Licenses (CAL) for each user. Costs can range from $5000 to beyond $50,000. You can use the following SharePoint Cost Calculator. And these are merely the license costs. The following table of SharePoint Server 2007 costs from sharepointforum.com gives you an idea.
Complexity - No doubt SharePoint is very powerful, as it can act as an application development platform, but its wasted power in many cases, as the complexity leads to many of the features just lying waste. A 2009 study from AIIM found that Sharepoint is primarily used for file sharing. As Dion Hincliffe puts it in his well known article “SharePoint and Enterprises 2.0: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, SharePoint needs "highly trained implementors, administrators, and technical support staff are required to deploy and run it, which all add to the total cost of ownership." and adds "inherent sophistication can also mean slow adoption and low engagement by users". This goes against the new trend of “consumerization of IT” where end users can now use software tools without IT intermediation.
SharePoint Works Best Only With the MS Family – SharePoint is designed to tie you into the Microsoft technology stack. Which means, if you upgrade SharePoint, you need to upgrade the entire stack. For example, to run SharePoint you first need Windows Server. Also, it integrates best only with the Microsoft family (Windows OS, MS office, IE etc). Office Web Apps, the new web version of MS Office also works only with SharePoint for businesses.
A 2008 Forrester study found that “SharePoint is a pure Microsoft server stack that closes off any opportunities to substitute third-party databases, Web servers, and other products for Microsoft components”. This works well for an internal solution for a company which mainly has Microsoft systems. But when a company is looking to set up a SharePoint portal which is, "internet facing", i.e., looking to collaborate with traveling teams, clients and partners; and the possibility of having to operate on diverse platforms, browsers and mobile devices (mac, linux, different browsers) one has best keep ones fingers crossed. As Hinchcliffe says in the above article “The wilds of the open network can be a challenge for Sharepoint.”
No Mail Functionality - The last straw on the growing business’s back is that SharePoint offers only a partial deal, lacking email capability, which forces companies to purchase communications and collaborations tools piecemeal. This means additional hardware, more licenses, more IT staff time, and more costs! In contrast, many modern Sharepoint alternatives offer integrated communication and collaboration software capabilities.
Support & Training Issues – An additional problem area is SharePoint customer services. Given its clout, Microsoft is able to demand a price for its support services, which is otherwise unheard of. As if this is already not a major disincentive for smaller firms, there have been reports of Microsoft being dogged by support issues such as being unable to cope with the quantum of service requests it gets. Due to the complexity of SharePoint and the inadequacy of the high level training it provides, its support staff has been incessantly battered.
SAAS, Online Collaboration - Win-win for Growing Businesses
Although it would have been true 8-10 years ago that growing businesses did not have many alternatives to SharePoint, the landscape is much changed now. The software-as-a-service approach allows companies to access their software over an internet (or mobile) browser for a reasonable monthly fee, rather than having to set up servers, and assign IT staff. SaaS has revolutionized business software, and opens incredible opportunities for SMBs, who can now access expensive software traditionally available to large enterprises for a monthly fee.
This holds true not just for collaboration software, and hosted SharePoint alternatives, but for just about any software technology, with web based office suites, video editors, telephony solutions, operating systems and what have you.
Online Collaboration Software - The Benefits
Online collaboration software offer a very compelling alternative to Microsoft SharePoint, and bring some undeniable benefits to SMBs.
Zero Setup Cost and Effort – SMBs can simply access all their collaboration tools over the internet, without the expenses and bother of setting up servers to host SharePoint, assigning IT staff to maintain it etc. Initial capital costs are completely done away with, and shifted to the vendor.
Ready to Use – SharePoint alternatives offer “out-of-the-box” functionality. All users need to do is sign up online and get started. These solutions are designed for end users, and need just days, if not hours to set up a workable intranet, portal or shared documents solution.
Automatic Upgrades – Traditional on premise software need to be upgraded every couple of years, along with the entire technology stack needing upgradation. In software-as-a-service solutions, upgrades happen seamlessly in the background, for free, with users not even noticing.
Security - The hosted model also scores from a security point of view. These solution providers often have security expertise and technologies not available to smallish firms.
Low Cost Commitment - Almost no upfront monetary investment is needed. The cost structure is usually a low monthly user based subscription fee. This ensures that companies pay only for what they use, and there is no obligation of carrying on with a bad solution to recover initial investment. Companies have the flexibility of opting out whenever they please.
Get all that is good about SharePoint
A good SharePoint alternative duplicates most of the features of SharePoint, and offers many features that even SharePoint does not have (like messaging features). It may not offer the intricate application development capabilities of SharePoint, but heck, which SMB needs those?! Expect the following features in a good SharePoint alternative.
Document Management – Online document management features include the ability to organize, store and share document folders online, along with document collaboration features – document version control, access permissions, change notifications, comments etc – which let you work together on documents with remote team members. .
Intranet/Extranet Portals – Intranet publishing capabilities allow you create a customized company intranet with dedicated workspaces for groups, or partner or customer extranets to collaborate and interact with external groups like vendors, suppliers, traveling employees or customers. These tools are simple and allow you to easily and intricately customize portal design, look and layout; and add collaboration modules like shared documents, online calendars, contact management and online address books, or a project management tool. Some solutions even allow users to build entire websites.
Wikis – Wikis are web pages, which allow for collaborative authoring of content. Wikis are known to allow super simple collaboration, where a user can simply log in online, add content to a page, and it is instantly available to all other collaborators as soon as it is published.
Task Management – Task management allows team managers to create tasks, assign responsibilities, set timelines, attach resources and track progress. This is a great way to manage distributed groups and keep them accountable.
Workflows – Earlier SharePoint alternatives did not have this feature, but the better online collaboration software have added the ability to build simple web based workflows. You might not be able to build intricate applications like SharePoint, but you can automate common business tasks like CRM, order processing, support ticketing etc.
Beyond MS SharePoint
Some SharePoint alternatives even go beyond SharePoint collaboration features, and offer a whole tool box of features for almost the entire range of small business needs. For example, one SharePoint alternative has a business email system inbuilt in its toolkit and also allows customers to set up custom business email for their companies. Microsoft Exchange like features such as the ability to share contacts, calendars and tasks; Outlook online access and Outlook synchronization, and push email are also included. Extra features like online polls and surveys and discussion forums are also part of the mix. This saves companies the need to purchase solutions piecemeal for different needs.
Even within vendors who provide hosted SharePoint alternatives, a decision is to be made. A comparison of various SAAS SharePoint alternatives is provided in the next page. Some important criteria that need to be considered while making the selection are:
- Do they provide the basic SharePoint feature set?
- What kind of initial investment is involved in terms of effort and costs?
- What are the costs?
- Is the solution scalable as the organization grows?
- What kind of security do they provide?
- Are there additional features? (relevant to needs)
- How well are features integrated within the solution?
- Can their system communicate and integrate with commonly used software like Outlook?
- Do they provide support and training?