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Robust Extranet Collaboration on a Budget

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a technologist at a law firm who doesn't see the value — indeed the necessity — of being able to collaborate with clients through a secure extranet.  Furthermore, when that value is explained in plain English, most attorneys will also see the necessity.  The problem for many small- to mid-size firms, and in some cases large firms, is how to get there on a limited budget.

There are many software products that provide a way for law firms to open collaboration on an extranet.  Historically, however, many of these products have been expensive to acquire and relatively complex to set up and maintain.

Fortunately, over the past four years, Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration platform has begun to drive down the costs of collaboration software in general.  But it wasn't until the release of the latest platform, SharePoint 2007, that the product provided a robust tool for extranet collaboration that firms of all sizes could afford and easily implement.  This article explains the new extranet-enabling features of SharePoint 2007 and the software licensing costs.

Two Flavors of SharePoint 2007
Before jumping into the features, it is important to explain that SharePoint 2007 comes in two flavors.  The first, Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 (WSS v3), is a component of the Windows Server 2003 operating system.  It is installed on a Windows 2003 server just like you would install File and Print Sharing, Internet Information Server or any other optional component of the operating system.  Since WSS v3 is simply a component of Windows 2003 Server, it relies on the licensing model of the operating system itself.  In other words, the client access licenses (CALs) that you purchase for Windows 2003 Server also cover your usage of WSS v3.  Therefore, some people will refer to WSS v3 as a "free" product, since you do not need to purchase additional licenses to use it.  There is one caveat to this which applies specifically to extranet usage, covered later in this article.

The other flavor of SharePoint 2007 is Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS 2007).  MOSS 2007 is not covered by your Windows 2003 Server licenses.  It is considered a "premium product" and, as such, requires additional server and client licenses.

The good news is that for 99 percent of most law firms' extranet collaboration needs, WSS v3 will do the job quite capably.  The additional features of MOSS 2007 would rarely be needed for the purpose of extranet collaboration with clients.  If you have already purchased MOSS 2007, you can certainly use it for extranet collaboration because it is built on top of WSS v3.  However, for licensing reasons, you probably will find it much more desirable to use only the WSS v3 functionality of MOSS 2007 on the extranet.

New Features Improve Extranet Collaboration
What are the new features in WSS v3 that make this version more suitable for extranet collaboration?  WSS version 2 (the previous version), provided an extremely robust and easy-to-use set of tools that helped users collaborate effectively with each other including:  Document Libraries, Task Lists, Contact Lists, Issues Lists, Discussion Boards, Surveys and many other collaboration tools.  It also provided tight integration with the Office desktop programs.  All of these popular features and tools have been carried forward to the new version, with new improvements such as easier branding of individual sites, RSS feeds for all lists and enhancements to the document management features.

What WSS version 2 did not provide was an easy way to maintain user accounts for extranet users (i.e., nonemployees) and a more friendly and bulletproof way for extranet users to log on to their sites.  Two key features that have been added in WSS v3 that address these issues are:

  • Alternate Authentication Providers
  • Forms-Based Authentication

The Alternate Authentication Provider feature of WSS v3 removes the limitation that all SharePoint users be authenticated through Active Directory.  This limitation was imposed in WSS version 2 primarily because the software was designed for intranet rather than extranet applications.  Unfortunately, most organizations using SharePoint on an extranet would prefer not to store extranet user accounts in Active Directory for security reasons.

In WSS v3, this is no longer an issue as SharePoint sites can be configured to use Active Directory for internal users and a non-Active Directory user database for external users.  This capability overcomes the security concerns of network administrators since the user accounts for external users can easily be kept separate from the user accounts for internal users.  It also makes it possible to use your master client database as the authentication provider, which eliminates the need to create a separate client authentication store.

The Forms-Based Authentication feature of WSS v3 was developed in response to another limitation of WSS version 2, the requirement that all users log on via the standard Windows login pop-up box.  This approach works fine for internal users who are using Windows Integrated Authentication on the local network, but it doesn't work as well for external users who are not members of the local network.

WSS v3's Forms-Based Authentication feature removes this requirement and allows you to configure a standard-looking Web page external users can use to log in to the extranet sites.  This approach overcomes login issues for extranet users who are behind a firewall that isn't configured to allow them to log in to a Windows domain outside their local area network.

Links to Web resources to further understand the workings and benefits of these two new Extranet collaboration-enabling features are available at http://sharepointsolutions.com/collaboration.html.

Additional Licensing for Nonemployees
Returning to the licensing cost issue referred to earlier, it is important to remember that when using WSS v3 or MOSS 2007 on an extranet, it is necessary to purchase additional licensing for nonemployees.  These users are not covered by the CALs you purchase for your employees.

In the case of WSS v3, you can obtain additional licenses by purchasing the Windows 2003 Server Internet Connector license which retails for around $2,000.  This is a one-time, flat-fee purchase and gives your clients unlimited access to your extranet sites.  MOSS 2007 has a similar extranet unlimited-use license for nonemployees, but it is quite a bit more expensive (about $40,000-$50,000 retail).  You can see that it is much more cost-effective to use WSS v3 on the extranet.  Again, in 99 percent of cases, the collaboration tool set in WSS v3 is sufficient for most extranet collaboration needs.

With WSS v3, Microsoft has provided the tools necessary for any law firm to provide extranet collaboration sites for their clients securely and cost-effectively.  No longer are these tools out of the reach of small- to mid-sized firms.  Take advantage of what WSS v3 has to offer, and realize the benefits of tighter, more secure online collaboration with your clients.

About our author . . .

Jeff Cate is Founder and President of SharePoint Solutions, a training, consulting and software company based in Nashville.  For the past four years, SharePoint Solutions has been a nationwide leader in expert-led public classes on SharePoint products and technologies.  The company also professionally develops high-quality commercial add-ons for SharePoint, including the award-winning Extranet Collaboration Manager for SharePoint 2007.  He can be reached at jeffc@sharepointsolutions.com.

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