A few days ago… Frankly, that makes absolutely no sense because the majority of people will read this article at an arbitrary point in time, in which ‘a few days ago’ will likely be weeks, months, or years ago. Let me start again.
I was talking to a non-SharePoint friend who was fascinated with SharePoint and its raving success. Being an IT person, he does understand tech stuff, but seeing SharePoint as it is most commonly presented, he never saw the huge killer-app that many SharePoint professionals know it is.
“So”, he asked me, “in a single statement, can you tell me what SharePoint is?”
I’ve thought a lot about this in the past and have read a lot of suggestions. I’m not saying that everyone is wrong, but all the explanations I’ve seen are still not accounting for the success of SharePoint.
My response this time, as I think I’ve responded every time, is this:
SharePoint is a database.
It is nothing more and it is nothing less.
You can call it a lot of things, a collaborative solution, a development platform, an enterprise content management system… None of these, however, are accurate, any more than you can say that SQL Server is a game, just because someone uses SQL Server to store game data. Nor do these explanations explain why SharePoint is so powerful and has received the adoption it has.
So how does the glorified database explanation account for these thousands of end users, developers and other professionals loving so passionately a series of bits? I think it has to do with simplicity.
I think, and this is just my personal opinion, that when you want to understand something, you need to understand the basics first and then move from that basic to the more advanced. You can’t understand quantum physics unless you know the basics of Newtonian physics. You can’t understand graph mathematics unless you understand basic math.
Building on that analogy, there’s nothing preventing you from using both quantum physics and graph mathematics, or at least reap their benefits, even if you don’t know the first thing about why that damn cat is both dead and alive. To use something, you don’t necessarily need to understand how it works. You flip a switch and light comes on. You dial a number and someone answers. Who cares what electricity really is or why your voice travels thousands of miles in a fraction of a second.
This accounts for SharePoint as a user adoption thing. Users merely see it work. They click a button and some poor bastard gets a new task. They drag an icon and an invoice gets sent to a recipient.
I’m starting to lose myself a bit from the original statement, that SharePoint is a glorified database, so let me get back to what the heck I was talking about.
You see, all of the stuff that SharePoint does is related to information, which is just a marketing term for data. A page is at its core just information. An invoice is just a series of columns defined in a schema we call ‘Invoice’. Tasks, contacts, documents, everything that we see as complex entities with behavior, appearance, and all the other stuff, it’s all just data.
Now, I’ve made this claim to some pretty hard-core SharePoint experts, and they immediately start comparing SharePoint to SQL Server and claim that SharePoint is nothing like that, and although there are technical differences that makes the use of these two types of databases different, at its core, SharePoint is very much the same as SQL Server is at its core. It’s a matter of data, stored in lists in the case of SharePoint or in tables in the case of SQL Server. Items in lists are rows in tables. Columns in items are columns in rows. Views in SharePoint are views in SQL Server.
The similarities do not extend forever, and both SQL Server and SharePoint has distinct differences that makes them each suitable for a specific type of task. For example, SQL Server has nothing that compares to content types, while SharePoint lacks a clear counterpart to stored procedures. These are just features of the platform, however, and doesn’t change the fact that both platforms serve one purpose, which is to store, manipulate, and retrieve data.
Once you understand that SharePoint is a database, you can start to understand why it is so powerful. SharePoint takes data driven application development and solves all the ugly stuff that you’d normally need to consider as a developer. Further, it takes all of this and makes it readily available to users of all skill levels. This is where SharePoint clearly distinguishes itself from anything else; it is equally friendly and powerful to end users and first tier developers as it is to hard-core programmers like myself.
So, despite what many of my colleagues claim, I’ll still stick by my simple explanation that SharePoint is, at its very heart, a database.
Why is this a critical factor in SharePoint’s success? Well, we live in what is lovingly called the Information Age. Much of our society revolves around gathering and processing data. If you have a tool that makes that process easy, stable, and understandable to a lot of people, you have a winner. That’s exactly what SharePoint does, and that is why I argue that SharePoint is the killer app that it is.
Agree or disagree? Let me know… You know where the comment box is.
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