Sunday, August 28, 2005

OneNote and SharePoint

From October of last year through March of this year, I was part of a project at a large law firm to move their data center onto new hardware in a colo site. Originally I had three other coworkers working with me but ultimately two dropped off as they were not needed and moved onto other projects. Our role was primarily to assist the client with the new server builds and application migration by holding meetings and assigning and following up on work. Sounds boring but it was a challenging and fun project and was completed on time to my great personal satisfaction.

I started the project having recently become a convert OneNote, using it to take all my notes and do all my brainstorming, even though at the time I had no idea that I would be given a Tablet PC in January. I thought that it would be entirely logical to make a technological leap and have my team members use OneNote as well, so that as we attended different meetings, we could store notes centrally and share them. It turned out to be a good idea, but there were some drawbacks.

Here is what was good about it:

1) SharePoint is accessible via HTTPS so you don't need to connect through a VPN (some combination of the client's firewall and ours conspired so as to not our VPN traffic outbound)

2) There are some cool things you can do in OneNote (and I guess all of MS Office) with the Shared Workspace, such as adding tasks and links

3) Of course, having notes for every meeting in a single place, regardless of the participant, with the ability to search them quickly, was invaluable for all parties

4) OneNote note flagging was great as well; for example, we used Ctrl-2 (the star normally meaning "Important") as a Decision, and Ctrl-1 for Tasks. Then you can use View->Note Flag Summary to find all of these to quickly run down the decisions made and tasks assigned in the meeting. This is just a nice OneNote feature that doesn't necessary have anything to do with SharePoint except that, with the file accessible to everyone, they can review the tasks and decisions quickly.

5) More non-SharePoint-specific stuff: You could easily, when someone said "oh, we'll have to ask the SQL team that question", just put the question on the agenda for the SQL meeting, a few OneNote pages below. You could do this with any technology such as Word or Notepad or pieces of paper so I'm not going to say this is a radical OneNote innovation. But somehow I never realized this (or else I never really attended this many meetings for this long of a period of time) and so I think of it as a strength of OneNote -- store meeting minutes and build meeting agendas so that you can seamlessly access any of them for reference or to add agenda items as needed. I guess the SharePoint nod here is that you can do this even for meetings you don't attend as long as everyone keeps the file up to date.

Having said all that, here's what didn't work and why I ultimately will have to deal with OneNote and SharePoint very differently:

1) Human issues: unless you are me and either type 100 words a minute into OneNote in real-time during the meeting or hand-write everything on your Tablet PC, most people don't like to type up notes after a meeting, particularly if they are not being delivered to a client as formal "minutes". Thus I mostly felt like not only was I the only one on my team typing up meeting notes into OneNote, but I also was often the only person looking at OneNote to review old minutes. No technology isn't going to be all that successful unless everyone fully participates.

2) OneNote + SharePoint is SLOW. It worked great for our first month or so of meetings, but then as pictures got pasted into our OneNote file and the file got bigger, OneNote's habit of automatically saving plus the latency introduced by an internet line, SSL, and our perhaps underpowered SharePoint server back in the office meant that my OneNote would freeze for 30+ seconds while I was typing notes into it. Sometimes it would be a short period and it would buffer your typing to pick right back up. But sometimes it would really freeze (icon in top left turns into a white square, the maximize/restore button would disappear) and then there was no sense typing until the OneNote file slowly saved over the wire. Now that I handwrite in my files using the pressure-sensitive pen settings (it looks way better than the thin little line that you get without it) they are getting too big too quickly to save them to networked storage for those of us who are out of the office a lot.

3) Only one person can write to a OneNote file at a time, though multiple people can have read-only access. This is really a OneNote rather than a SharePoint problem; a .ONE file can't be opened read/write by multiple parties through SharePoint or a file share. OneNote SP1 introduced a mechanism to better control who can "Allow Others to Edit" so you should even be able to control this. However, when you spend a lot of time working remotely, you sometimes get booted out of OneNote or out of your network connection gracelessly, and thus you can't easily reestablish ownership of the OneNote file. You can keep clicking "Allow Only Me to Edit" all day and nothing happens. I believe the secret is to close OneNote and forget about it for 10-15 minutes. How many meetings do you attend where you don't need to take notes or refer to old notes for 15 minutes?

4) Since I work in the law firm IT world and my firm uses systems as similar to those of law firms as possible, I have a big problem in that OneNote does not integrate with the two primary document management systems, Interwoven WorkSite and Hummingbird DM5. SharePoint is great and all, but it is not a full-featured DMS like these two, and my firm has an investment in WorkSite and everyone expects to find "client knowledge" in one of two places, WorkSite and the client's Exchange public folder. In other words, I am not going to be able to force my firm to adopt a third information storage bucket which is not part of the existing "KM repositories" (if you will). So you can't blame OneNote and SharePoint for the fact that my firm doesn't use them as standards, and that vertical DMS vendors have not jumped to support an application with only a million seats sold, but that has held off adoption of shared OneNote files as client knowledge repositories at our firm, and if we haven't adopted it for these legitimate reasons, we are unlikely to suggest that our clients go down this route.

5) Can someone tell me how individual SharePoint files can be restored in case of error? Does SharePoint integrate with VSS or the SAN vendors' snapshot manager software so you can take snap copies the data store? In other words, if I screw up "My Important Client", can I ask our IT support team to restore it? My understanding is that the SharePoint document repository is all one big blob. You know what that reminds me of? GroupWise DMS. Say, that was a real big success. Anyway, besides the business reasons outlined in the previous point, this restricts my adoption of SharePoint to store anything but OneNote files which I know are automatically backed up by the OneNote client itself. I can't just say "hey, IT support, change your backup software around so that I can start to use SharePoint to store important documents despite the fact that you already support two mission-critical repositories, Exchange and Interwoven, as well as traditional shares on the file cluster".

So, to try and make this a useful post rather than complaints about trying to fit SharePoint and OneNote in where they may belong, what conclusions can be drawn?

First, I believe the proper way to share notes among a team is to keep a "shared" OneNote section on SharePoint but to "publish" pages into it from your local section. I have just joined a team of two other consultants on a large data center consolidation project, and at least one of my team mates takes all of his notes in OneNote already. I have created the SharePoint site with a OneNote file on it, and have already copied my individual note pages into it. This way we can individually take notes without the long delays for saving, and then share them afterwards.

Second, I have a suspicion that the next step for OneNote is to capitalize on the "shared session" feature introduced in SP1 to allow more radical sharing capabilities. Imagine all MS Office apps using shared sessions with SharePoint providing the server functionality, rather than the individual applications on user PCs. This would be a really cool way to let people collaborate. You could even go so far as to say that the Live Meeting acquisition could allow pieces of its feature set to be scattered to the Office apps and to SharePoint for this purpose. I don't have a great handle on the Microsoft roadmap but I bet that OneNote is an ideal home for some of this collaboration, and the limit of one writer per .one file will go away.

Finally, I believe the DMS vendors will embrace SharePoint as Microsoft is so aggressively pushing it (EA customers have found that they all of a sudden own it, how convenient!) and the law firm-specific portal solutions are so expensive and shitty that people will just ask that things be integrated with SharePoint by default. Interwoven made an announcement, but it's difficult to figure out what it actually will involve: is it just that I can publish a WorkSite document to SharePoint? Or is it that someone outside can edit that document and they're really editing the WorkSite copy? Or can I now use all my SharePoint-integrated programs like OneNote against real WorkSite document databases? We'll see.


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"My understanding is that the SharePoint document repository is all one big blob. You know what that reminds me of? GroupWise DMS. Say, that was a real big success."

GW DMS is not a success and there are many reasons, but this aint one. Each separate document version is a separate blob. All blobs are NOT stored monolothically in one file, which I think you are saying.
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