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Choosing an External Collaboration Solution

Published: February 28, 2008

 

Introduction

The way that people and teams work together is changing. One of the biggest changes is the dramatic increase in collaboration between organizations. Organizations now collaborate with external business partners in ways that would have seemed inconceivable even 10 years ago.

In the past, most work was done by employees and on-site contractors, whereas it is not unusual today to have project teams made up of a widely dispersed mix of on-site and off-site employees, vendor personnel, and consultants all working together on a project. The benefits are obvious: teams can leverage a wide variety of perspectives and insights from experts and stakeholders wherever they are, whether inside or outside the organization. This level of collaboration can lead to better decisions, improved product designs, more effective marketing campaigns, and so on.

Microsoft is committed to helping its customers’ collaborative efforts by providing tools and products that can address the needs of a variety of collaboration scenarios. This guide is intended to help you choose which Microsoft collaboration option is appropriate for your organization, given your specific requirements. This document takes a quick look at real-time collaboration options but primarily focuses on those solutions that provide the features and functionality that are important for long term projects. These features include document storage, workflows, and version control.

Real-time Collaboration Options

Microsoft provides a variety of tools to help organizations collaborate with a few partners in real-time. These include:

  • Microsoft Office Live Meeting
  • Microsoft Office Communicator

Office Live Meeting

Office Live Meeting is a hosted Web conferencing service to connect groups of people for online meetings, training, and events. With meeting attendees participating from their own computers, you can deliver a presentation, kick off a project, brainstorm ideas, edit files, collaborate on whiteboards, and negotiate deals without travel.

For more information, see the Microsoft Office Live Meeting site.

Office Communicator

Office Communicator 2007 is a unified communications client that helps people be more productive by enabling them to communicate easily and instantly with others in different locations or time zones using a range of different communication options, including instant messaging (IM), voice, and video. Integration with programs across the 2007 Microsoft Office system gives information workers many different ways to communicate with each other via a consistent and simple user experience.

For more information, see the Microsoft Office Communicator site.

Real-time collaboration solutions are obviously useful, but they don’t work well for those collaborative efforts that involve more then a few people, span a longer time line, or involve shared documentation. The remainder of this document focuses on collaboration solutions that provide a long-lived shared workspace for collaboration amongst many users and offer capabilities for document storage.

Collaboration Options That Include Document Storage

Many collaboration scenarios require the capability for a larger number of people to communicate with each other and also the ability for them to work on and view a number of documents. Collaboration solutions that scale efficiently to large numbers of users and that provide document storage capabilities include:

  • Microsoft Office Live Workspace
  • Microsoft Office Groove™
  • Microsoft SharePoint® Products and Technologies
  • External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint

Office Live Workspace

Office Live Workspace provides basic document collaboration capabilities for individual users and small organizations. You can use Office Live Workspace to collaborate on Web-based documents, notes, spreadsheets, presentations, and lists. For more information, see the Office Live Workspace site.

Office Groove

Office Groove 2007 is a collaboration tool included in the 2007 Microsoft Office system that enables teams to collaborate even when team members work for different organizations, work remotely, or need to work offline. Office Groove is a dynamic collaboration environment that works best for short-term projects that have concrete deadlines, such as a product launch or bid preparation.

Office Groove 2007 is the client software that enables individuals to work as teams within virtual workspaces to accomplish collaborative tasks. Individuals can form a team by creating workspaces, adding tools and data, and inviting other Office Groove users to join the workspace as team members. Project team members can use the workspace to store and update documents, presentations, and other essential information.

An Office Groove workspace doesn't reside on a server. Instead, every team member has an identical copy of the workspace on their desktop. When someone makes a change, Groove automatically distributes it to the other team members, keeping everyone's information synchronized. This locally stored workspace content enables project team members to view and update documents even when they don't have Internet or network access.

Even if connectivity is available but slow, Office Groove is a good choice for collaboration because its synchronization engine distributes only file changes rather than whole files. If a colleague edits one label on a 10 MB blueprint, for example, Office Groove will send just the few altered bytes instead of the entire massive file.

Office Groove requires that each team member have Office Groove installed on their computer before they can begin to collaborate together.

For more information, see the Office Groove site.

SharePoint Products and Technologies

SharePoint Products and Technologies comprise a large set of technologies with a wide range of uses. Windows SharePoint Services is the technology available for Windows Server that provides the infrastructure for collaboration. Office SharePoint Server 2007 relies on the Windows SharePoint Services technology to provide powerful search features, sophisticated content management functionality, and advanced business intelligence capabilities. These features make Office SharePoint Server 2007 an ideal tool for building rich intranet and extranet sites. Both Windows SharePoint Services and Office SharePoint Server 2007 provide a consistent, familiar framework for lists and libraries, site administration, and site customization.

Like Office Groove, SharePoint Products and Technologies help project teams manage documents and other information centrally. However, they also include robust workflow capabilities for managing structured business processes, such as expense report approvals and document reviews. In addition, SharePoint offers the ability to make documents and information available to large groups of people, and, unlike Groove, does not require the installation of client software (beyond a typical Web browser).

Windows SharePoint Services is a versatile technology that organizations of all sizes can use to increase the efficiency of processes and improve team productivity. With tools for collaboration that help people stay connected across organizational and geographic boundaries, Windows SharePoint Services gives people access to information they need.

Windows SharePoint Services also provides a foundation platform for building Web-based business applications that can flex and scale easily to meet the changing and growing needs of your business. Robust administrative controls for managing storage and Web infrastructure give IT departments a cost-effective way to implement and manage a high-performance collaboration environment. With a familiar, Web-based interface and close integration with everyday tools including the Microsoft Office system, Windows SharePoint Services is easy to use and can be deployed rapidly.

Additionally, there are two different ways to use SharePoint in your organization: hosted by a third party, or self-hosted. Third party companies can host SharePoint sites for your business so that your organization does not have to undertake the complexity of deploying and managing the SharePoint services. The alternative is to deploy SharePoint and the related services in your own network.

SharePoint Sites Integrated with Office Groove

Sometimes, organizations need the secure offline capabilities of Office Groove and the online capabilities of a SharePoint site. In this case, you can connect an Office Groove workspace to a SharePoint document library. Thereafter, if someone adds or edits a file in the SharePoint site, the changes appear in Office Groove, and vice versa. SharePoint and Groove integration extends the ability to maintain a SharePoint document library content from either Groove or SharePoint and beyond organization boundaries without breaking either security model.

You can use a similar approach to link field teams with the head office. For example, an insurance company can create a SharePoint site for its claims inspectors at headquarters, and include it in an Office Groove workspace that its mobile claims adjustors use. As adjustors complete claim forms on their laptops during the day, they can store them in Office Groove. When they reconnect with the Internet, Office Groove automatically uploads those forms to the SharePoint site for claims inspectors to review.

Third Party–hosted SharePoint

Using SharePoint hosted by a third party solution provider is a option that allows an organization to use SharePoint while avoiding the infrastructure impact of establishing SharePoint using your own organization’s resources and network. Because the characteristics of a third party–hosted SharePoint solution can vary, you should compare your specific requirements with the functionality offered by different service providers.

External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint

The External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint from the Solution Accelerators – Security and Compliance team provides guidance for setting up an external collaboration facility based on Windows SharePoint Services. In addition, it provides tools that make it easy to create new collaboration sites and add external users to new and existing sites. You can download the toolkit from the External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint page.

Choosing a Collaboration Solution

When deciding on what will be the best solution for a particular collaboration scenario, you must consider a number of factors. For example, which solution you choose might vary depending upon the funding for the project or how much infrastructure impact you are willing to tolerate.

Considerations

Consider the following when choosing a collaboration solution:

  • Solution cost
  • Infrastructure Impact
  • Scalability
  • Data ownership, control, and confidentiality
  • Auditing and reporting
  • Automatic synchronization for offline access
  • Precise access controls

Solution Cost

To determine the feasibility of any project, you need to consider the actual cost of the solution. Solution costs include the short-term costs of setting up the solution and the long-term costs that you incur as long as the solution is active.

In general the initial setup costs are higher for internally hosted solutions that require changes to your organizational infrastructure whereas externally hosted solutions usually have lower setup costs.

Long-term costs, however, are usually higher for externally hosted solutions whereas the initial cost of setup for internally hosted solutions is amortized over the duration of the project. Remember to include personnel overhead when calculating the cost of an internally hosted solution because your employees will need to maintain computer systems and such.

Infrastructure Impact

The impact to the IT infrastructure is another factor to consider. Internally hosted solutions may require fundamental changes to the organization’s network infrastructure and possibly even whole new infrastructures if critical components do not exist. For more information about the kind of infrastructure changes that may be required to host a collaboration solution in your organization’s infrastructure, see the companion document, Planning for External Collaboration with SharePoint.

Because externally hosted solutions, such as Office Groove or a hosted SharePoint site, require little infrastructure change they are both less expensive to establish and can come online faster to provide immediate capability.

Scalability

Scalability includes several related factors to consider when choosing a collaboration solution. For example, hosted solutions can scale to provide any amount of data storage for your collaboration projects. There may be additional costs associated with storing more data on external sites, whereas data storage capacity is relatively inexpensive to add to your own infrastructure. Conversely, data throughput should never be an issue with an externally hosted solution whereas high data throughput requirements might force an upgrade of a small organization’s connection to the Internet.

Another factor to consider is the amount of data to be shared during your collaborative projects. If you plan to share thousands of documents or documents that are very large, it may be better to use a SharePoint site to store those documents centrally rather than to store them on every workspace user’s desktop as Office Groove does.

Scaling to support a large number of users might also impact which collaboration solution you choose. Because current licensing models for Microsoft products include a flat fee for external users, an organization, in general, need not make allowances for an increase in the number of external users who use the solution. This may not be true of externally hosted solutions, however, so careful attention should be paid to per-user fees for any solution being considered.

Data Ownership, Control, and Confidentiality

When you choose a collaboration solution, there may be additional factors to consider if the data to be shared is confidential or subject to regulatory compliance issues. If you are considering an externally hosted solution, you should carefully examine your contract with the hosting provider to understand what assurances they make with regard to the security and integrity of data that is placed on the external site both by the employees of your organization and your external partners.

Questions to ask may include:

  • If sensitive data is lost because of a fault with the hosting provider’s systems, does the hosting service assume liability?
  • How often does the hosting service back up your site’s data and what is the process for recovering lost data?
  • What types of encryption (if any) does the hosting service provide?
  • What types of techniques with respect to physical security, auditing, and segregation-of-duties does the hosting service use to prevent its employees from accessing and copying your data?

If you choose an internally hosted solution based on SharePoint technologies, you must ask these same questions, but it is your organization that will need to provide the answers. Remember to factor the cost and infrastructure impact of creating the processes that will provide the necessary level of information assurance.

A full-featured solution could be to use a SharePoint site or Office Groove supplemented with Windows Rights Management Services. This would allow users to share documents with other people while preventing these collaborators from changing or copying those documents. For example, you can protect a file so that the author has full rights to read, edit, and print it, authorized people can read the file, and unauthorized users could not even open it.

Finally, if your project requirements include the need to retain documents—for example to comply with regulations or for other reasons—you should consider using Microsoft Office SharePoint Server. Office SharePoint Server has strong capabilities for long term document storage, version tracking, search, and so on. In addition, because these products use Microsoft SQL Server® for data storage, they can be backed up easily using widely available tools.

Auditing and Reporting

In cases where your collaborative effort involves very sensitive information or if the data falls under very strict regulatory compliance controls, you will likely require robust auditing and reporting capabilities. Activities that could be audited and reported on include:

  • Adding users to distribution lists.
  • Users accessing documents.
  • Creating new collaboration sites and environments.
  • Making changes to site structure and document libraries.
  • Granting and removing user permissions.

It will be important to consider what level of support for auditing and reporting is provided with a internally hosted or external solution before choosing a collaboration solution.

For internal SharePoint-based solutions, determine what it will take to implement your requirements—especially if additional software is required to provide the necessary functionality. For example, a high level of access audit reporting can be provided with System Center Operations Manager 2007 Audit Collection Services (ACS). For more information, see Audit Collection Services (ACS).

Automatic Synchronization for Offline Access

When a collaboration project involves a large number of files that users work on frequently, a solution that provides automatic synchronization of the files amongst your team members will be very important. If your solution has this requirement, Office Groove is likely the better choice because it ensures that each user has the latest version of all files on their desktop. When a network connection is reestablished, Office Groove automatically sends the updated files to each user’s workspace.

A SharePoint site can also provide offline capabilities (but not automatic synchronization of files), either by linking a list or document library to an Office Outlook® folder or by checking out files from the SharePoint site before working offline.

Precise Access Controls

The degree to which your team requires the ability to specify levels of access control (for example, read-only or read/write) to the files they plan to share with external users can affect the collaboration solution you choose. If your project does not require very specific access control (for example, down to the individual file level) either Office Groove or a SharePoint site should be adequate. Office Groove provides the basic ability to differentiate various levels of access to files. Generally, users can either have read/write or read-only access to all the files in an Office Groove workspace. By default, a SharePoint site also provides similar access levels. However, a SharePoint site can provide significantly more precise levels of access control, down to specific rights to individual files or folders.

Making Your Choice

To determine the most appropriate collaboration solution for your particular needs you should do the following:

  1. Understand the collaboration scenarios that apply to your organization. Note that because more than one scenario might apply to your situation, your needs could require more than one solution.
  2. Next, review the considerations discussed above. As you review them, think about which are most important for your collaboration scenarios, as well as the relative importance of each of the considerations for your situation.
  3. After you identify the more important considerations that apply to your scenarios, map the considerations to the following table and select the best fit.
  4. The following table compares the various collaboration solutions against the typical considerations and requirements for an external collaboration solution.

Table 1. Collaboration options comparison

 

Office Live Workspace

Office Groove

Hosted SharePoint

SharePoint

SharePoint w/ECTS

Solution cost

 

Free

Per client license for each user

Varies by number of users

Fixed

Fixed

Infrastructure impact

No

No (optionally Yes)

None

Yes

Yes

Scalability

Limited number of documents

High (additional users add cost)

High
(additional users/storage add cost)

High

High

Data control

Low

Low

Low

High

High

Auditing

None

Varies

Varies

Yes

Yes

Automatic synchronization

No

Yes

No

No

No

Precise access controls

No

No

Varies

Yes

Yes

Collaboration Scenarios

The following scenarios illustrate how a few sample organizations might choose a collaboration solution that meets their needs.

Professional Services Firm

Employees at professional services firms (such as engineers, architects, and so on) regularly collaborate with employees of their clients. In addition, these professionals must often work in a variety of locations, with and without network access. To further complicate matters, they often travel to client locations, and need to work while they are on airplanes and in airports. The project team that services a client might come from a single office, or could rely on expertise as needed from around the firm.

Analysis of Considerations

In analyzing the organization’s collaboration needs, the IT manager at the professional services firm made the determinations represented in the following table.

Table 2. Professional services firm collaboration considerations

Consideration

Scenario Requirement

Explanation

Solution cost

None

For a professional services firm, the business benefit of improved collaboration capabilities would offset the costs of any of the solutions described.

Infrastructure impact

Low

Small professional services firms have limited infrastructure and IT resources. 

Scalability

Low

The collaboration solution must support a moderate number of small files such as documents and spreadsheets.
Each team is relatively small, typically 4–12 people.

Data control

Medium

Professionals require a moderate degree of data control and confidentiality because they handle documents that belong to their clients.

Auditing

Low

Professionals do not require a strict auditing and reporting infrastructure for the day-to-day manipulation of the documents they work with.

Automatic synchronization

High

Because consultants often travel and are on site at the customer location, it is important to have offline access to documents and that documents be updated without having to manually synchronize each file.

Precise access controls

Low

Generally, there is not a strong need for precise access control. It is reasonable for all team members to be able to see most of the shared documents.

Recommended Solution

For this scenario, we recommend that the professional services firm deploy a solution based on Office Groove. Office Groove is a good fit because the collaborative team is not too large and automatic synchronization of files would be very useful.

Research University

At a research university, the IT department regularly receives requests from professors and other research staff to be able to collaborate with researchers outside the university. These researchers might work at other universities or government or private sector research facilities. The university’s researchers need to collaborate on a variety of projects that range from the simple—peer reviewing articles for an academic journal—to complex multi-year research projects that have large budgets and collaborators from numerous organizations.

Analysis of Considerations

When analyzing the requirements, the IT manager for the university made the determinations represented in the following table.

Table 3. Research university collaboration considerations

Consideration

Scenario Requirement

Explanation

Solution cost

None

The costs to support the collaboration solution should not be an issue because of its importance to effective research and collaboration. A solution should scale well without adding excessive cost to the solution.

Infrastructure impact

None

Universities often have a large IT support staff with diverse and specialized skill sets. The impact of a self-hosted collaboration solution should not be an issue.

Scalability

High

The solution must support a large number of large files including documents, spreadsheets, and data files. Solutions that can’t support large amounts of data or involve significant additional costs are not acceptable.
The number of users in any project could range from just a few people to dozens or even hundreds. The solution must be able to scale to large numbers of users without driving up costs.

Data control

High

Depending on the type of research, requirements could range from very low (collaborating on an article for an academic journal) to highly confidential (various sorts of medical research that might involve patient records). The solution must support high levels of confidentiality.

Auditing

High

The collaboration solution should support detailed auditing and reporting for sensitive or regulated research activities.

Automatic synchronization

Low

Generally, automatic synchronization is not extremely important to university researchers. The number of files might be large but they change infrequently and most researchers access them while online.

Precise access controls

Moderate

Collaborative projects will have varied needs for access control specificity. For example, not every person in a medical research project will need to access the private medical records of the participants.
The solution should support research activities in which people require a variety of levels of access to data.

Recommended Solution

This scenario requires a high level of scalability, data control, and access controls. Because of these requirements, we recommend that the university deploy a SharePoint site to address their collaboration requirements. A SharePoint site can provide the flexibility, scale, and security required for such a wide variety of users. In addition, the environment can be customized by each collaborative group to meet their specific needs.

The IT manager should also consider using the External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint to help deliver the external collaboration capabilities that the university requires. This solution accelerator provides software and guidance that can make operating in this environment more efficient. You can download the toolkit from the External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint page.

Software Company Customer Support

A customer support organization for a software company needs to be able to exchange data and other files with their customers to help solve the software problems that their customers experience. They need to be able to allow the customer to upload large files to the software company, including dump files or traces that may contain sensitive information. In addition, the software company needs to be able to provide security updates and custom software builds to the customer to resolve their issues. It is important that the customer support organization be able to set up these collaborative efforts quickly to help solve their customers’ problems rapidly.

Analysis of Considerations

When analyzing the requirements, the IT manager for the software company made the determinations represented in the following table.

Table 4. Software company customer support collaboration considerations

Consideration

Scenario Requirement

Explanation

Solution cost

Medium

Customer support, while important, is overhead against the core business of software sales. All else being equal, a less expensive solution would be much better.

Infrastructure impact

Low

Software companies have large numbers of technical employees and significant hardware resources.

Scalability

High

Many files, such as crash dumps and installation packages, could be gigabytes in size and there may be large numbers of support cases at any one time.

A solution that did not get more expensive as the customer base grew would also be desirable.

Data control

Medium

The files being exchanged may contain confidential data and should be protected while they are sent to and stored in the collaboration system.

Auditing

Low

There is little to no requirement for auditing.

Automatic synchronization

Low

Most interaction takes place in almost real time between users who access the support site while connected to the Internet. The number of files to be uploaded and downloaded is relatively small and the files themselves are different for every case.

Precise access controls

Low

Because the number of users for each effort is small, there is little need for specific access control.

Recommended Solution

This is a classic scenario for leveraging the External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint. The toolkit allows the customer support person to quickly provision a new collaboration site and add the customer to it. The customer can then upload dump or trace files to the site for analysis by the support organization. In turn, the customer support person can use the collaboration site to store software updates that the customer can download securely.

Summary

Microsoft provides a variety of products, tools, and technologies to help customers collaborate safely and securely with partners both inside and outside their organization. In addition to using e-mail, Office Groove workspaces, and SharePoint sites, organizations can rely on the External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint to set up collaborative environments based on SharePoint Products and Technologies.

For more information about the toolkit, see the External Collaboration Toolkit for SharePoint site.

This accelerator is part of a larger series of tools and guidance from Solution Accelerators.

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