Microsoft SharePoint 2010, is it a true Document Management System?

Although this seems a fairly fundamental question, we will first need to agree on a definition of a “true” document management system before answering it. When Microsoft gave us Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 back in 2006, they claimed it could be used as a document management system. In the pure sense of the word, it could of course. It would handle (manage) large amounts of documents and metadata. With the Record Center Site Template and features such as Information Policies it provided functionality enterprises were looking for.
But did it really compare with what I thought a true DMS should be? To be honest? No, it didn’t. Coming from products that at the time were considered market leaders (OpenText, Hummingbird, Documentum) SharePoint always fell short. Now with the release of SharePoint 2010, Microsoft again tries to enter the market for enterprise document management. Being fully aware that the SharePoint product is much more than just a DMS, I’d like to focus on just that part.

Many discussions about document management products tend to grind to a halt when we encounter disagreement about the features of such a system. So, let me start by compiling a small list of features, what I believe should be the foundation of any true DMS. I know there are other definitions, some of them thorough and scientific, but I’d like to keep this simple.

1. In its unique form, a document can only exist in the system as a single object
2. A document should be retrievable without knowing its location
3. A DMS provides ways for adding metadata to objects
4. A DMS provides ways for object versioning
5. Share metadata and versioning by grouping or linking documents together
6. A DMS provides ways for applying workflows to documents
7. A DMS provides Basic Records Management
8. A DMS provides powerful Search
9. A DMS enables collaboration on documents
10. A DMS integrates with directly with other applications

 

1. In its unique form, a document can only exist in the system as a single object.

In other words, a single unique document can have no duplicates. It can have (read-only) copies and multiple versions though. SharePoint 2007 already made this possible to comply with, although not so straightforward. Every Site (Collection) could have numerous document libraries and there was no easy way to retrieve a document without knowing its location. If a document needed to be “present” in more than one location, the only option we originally had was through “Managed Copies”. The way it was implemented made it hard to work with and most users would upload the document to more than one location instead.
There was also no way of enforcing uniqueness by title or contents. The same is still true for SharePoint 2010, although some of the new features enable better handling.

 

2. A document should be retrievable without knowing its location.

In SharePoint 2007 a document had no unique document number. Every discussion I had about DMS products always seemed to end prematurely because of this. To me, this has always been one of the biggest omissions. SharePoint 2010 gives us the Document ID Service! This unique document identifier enables us to trace a document throughout its complete lifecycle. It even retains this ID across sites, site collections and web applications. Best part of it: it can be custom formatted or even leveraged programmatically!

3. A DMS provides ways for adding metadata to objects.

SharePoint 2007 enabled the use of metadata with the help of Site Columns and Content Types and SharePoint 2010 basically builds on the same principles. By adding the Managed Metadata Service SharePoint now also supports the use of structured taxonomies. Companies will able to create consistent metadata repositories throughout the enterprise. Microsoft also made it easy for end users to apply metadata through the use of tags. These tags can then be used for navigation and filtering.

4. A DMS provides ways for object versioning.

Versioning in SharePoint 2007 was up to its task. We could have minor, major, draft and published versions. We had some degree of control on how the versioning was done and this usually covered our requirements. Sadly, we could not control versioning on folders. SharePoint 2010 tries to solve this issue with Document Sets (see item 5).

 

5. Share metadata and versioning by grouping or linking documents together.

The only way we had to group documents in SharePoint 2007 was either:

  • By Document Library or
  • By Folder

Both options didn’t give us shared metadata or shared versioning though. SharePoint 2010 introduces Document Sets and simply put: now we can. Document Sets can have custom metadata properties, versioning and permissions and get a unique Document ID. The documents as a set can also be used in workflows, which is a big feature! Biggest drawback: Document Sets cannot contain other Document Sets.

 

6. A DMS provides ways for applying workflows to documents.

Both user-initiated and business rules workflows were already part of SharePoint 2007. Out of the box, SharePoint featured feedback and approval workflows as well as ways for creating custom ones. In SharePoint 2010 this has matured in so many ways, turning it into an extremely powerful platform. Custom workflows can now be designed with Microsoft Visio 2010, authored in SharePoint Designer 2010 and further customized with Visual Studio 2010. The high level of integration between the Office applications allows a power user to design a workflow without ever needing development or even SharePoint skills. The development of a workflow really becomes a team effort!

7. A DMS provides Basic Records Management.

Although Records Management is usually seen as an entirely separate concept, a good DMS provides ways for managing the entire document lifecycle: from creation to destruction. SharePoint 2007 provided the Record Center Site template which made it possible to route documents and apply retention policies. All documents however needed to be routed to this records center to have the policies applied to them. With SharePoint 2010 a pretty new approach is introduced: In Place Records management. This way, documents stay in the document library and can still be classified as records. The Document ID feature and Document Sets mentioned earlier complement this approach to form true Record Management.

8. A DMS provides powerful Search.

Search is one of the areas where SharePoint never really excelled in. It was fast and reliable, but not very scalable or configurable. And it natively omitted wildcard search! A good DMS should provide the following search features:

  • Solid metadata search
  • Wildcard search
  • Full text search
  • Taxonomy based search

Microsoft invested in the improvement of Enterprise Search in all above areas. Some of the key features of SharePoint 2010 Search include: wildcard search, related searches and an improved user interface. Regarding to search relevancy, Search now takes social tagging and usage into account. All this is built on top of a very scalable search infrastructure making it one of the best in the business. For organizations needing even more, FAST for SharePoint adds features like thumbnail previews and visual best-bets.

9. A DMS enables collaboration on documents.

Collaboration features have been the heart and soul of SharePoint from the very beginning. A DMS cannot do without fundamentals as document versioning, access control and information sharing. SharePoint 2010 adds a compelling number of features to this list: among them are social tools like Blogs and Wikis, managed metadata and multi user editing.

10. A DMS integrates with directly with other applications.

All document management solutions need to integrate with applications at some level. By choosing the internet browser as the primary client, Microsoft clearly embraced the low impact approach. End users only need a browser for interacting with documents and metadata. Of course, the Office applications provided a rich integration set, but they were never required.

With the addition of integration with Office Web Apps, Microsoft further focuses on the internet browser (now even supporting Apple Safari, Opera and Firefox).

On the server side, the ways of interacting with SharePoint 2010 are heavily extended compared to SharePoint 2007. A solid object model API accompanied by very rich Web Services should provide developers with everything they need to create impressive applications.

 

Concluding:

SharePoint 2007 never was a real enterprise document management system. It just lacked too many fundamental features. SharePoint 2010 tries to fill the gap and in many ways does. Although there are still probably lots of specific areas where other products outperform SharePoint 2010, it has its place among them. The flexibility and extensibility of the platform, combined with the rich Office integration make it a serious candidate for any DMS requirement.

 

Disclaimer:

This is my personal blog.

The views and opinions expressed here are my own and not those of the people or organizations that I am related to (unless explicitly stated).
Further more, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time as I come to learn more and develop my understanding about the issues addressed in this blog.
Blog articles can include links to other sites/blogs operated by third parties. These are provided as a means of convenient access to you to the information/opinion contained. I am in no way responsible for the content of any other sites or any products or services that may be offered through other sites.

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3 comments

  • Hi,

    No doubts SharePoint 2010 out of the box provides number of features those makes it very close to a complete document management system. You correctly mentioned that SharePoint 2010 provides a powerful search. Still one issue I am facing in implementing SharePoint 2010 with a Legal firm is it’s inability to perform search on historic versions of a document. From a DMS point of view it is important that all historic data should be visible in search but SharePoint 2010 and FAST returns only last approved version o document in search result. Although I have not found any way to implement a custom solution to enable version searches but finally I found a product which enable version search in SharePoint 2010 and FAST. Their demo at link http://stoictech.sharepoint.com/Pages/VersionSearch.aspx looks quiet promising.
    Any view on Stoictech’s search or any other suggestion to enable version search?

    • Hi Vikas,

      Having worked with other Vendors DMS solutions (Documentum, DocsOpen/OpenText) in the past I can certainly see your point. Stoictech’s solution looks promising, but I have no experience with their software.
      If you were to enable version search yourself, you would first have to look at where to implement the customization. It seems best to only extend the already available SharePoint search infrastructure. Somehow we would need to serve the crawler multiple versions of a document. Because the crawler identifies itself through the User Agent string, we could find out if there are multiple versions before the document is retreived from the content database. But the crawler will request a certain document only once per crawl, so that is a big challenge.

      Interesting idea, thanks for the comment!

      Yuri

  • Can you revisit this topic now that SharePoint 2013 is available? We have just deployed 2013 and there is a project budgeted to upgrade our legacy Hummingbird DM system. I believe we could migrate away from Hummingbird and use SharePoint 2013 as it’s replacement now.

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