Sunday, August 18, 2013

Evaluating SharePoint Forum products

At one of the organizations I consult, there is a business demand for forum functionality in their external facing websites. The organization has selected SharePoint as target architecture for webapplications, including public websites. SharePoint as platform itself contains DiscussionBoard as a (kind of) forum functionality, but this is not qualified for usage on external facing websites. Among its criticisms are the look & feel which is very ‘SharePoint-like', and not what endusers expect and typically are familiar with on public websites. Also DiscussionBoard lacks forum functionalities of moderation, sticky posts, avatars, lock a post, rich text editing, tagging, rating, vote as answer. And an important restriction for the usability on public websites: a SharePoint DiscussionBoard in practice requires authenticated users (ok, you can allow anonymous access, but as posting topics and answers occurs via SharePoint forms you then will have to give anonymous users access to layouts folder. Not a wise decision to make from security perspective).
One option would be to custom develop forum functionality that satisfies the extended business requirements. But because we regard forum as commoditiy functionality, this is not something we want to develop and maintain ourselves. Therefore instead I did a market analysis and evaluation for available SharePoint forum products. It appears a very tiny market, with only 5 market products found:
  • TOZIT SharePoint Discussion Forum
  • Bamboo Solutions Discussion Board Plus for SharePoint
  • KWizCom Discussion Board feature
  • LightningTools Storm Forums
  • LightningTools Social Squared
In each product evaluation I addressed the following aspects:
  1. Product positioning by supplier (wide-scale internet usage, scaleability?)
  2. Installation of the product
  3. Effect of the installation on the SharePoint farm (assemblies, features, application pages, databases, …)
  4. Product documentation: installation manual, user / usage manual
  5. Functional Management: actions involved how-to provision a new forum
  6. Functional Usage: using a forum, in the roles of moderator and forum user
  7. User Experience and internet-ready
  8. Branding capabilities (CSS, clean HTML)
  9. Product support
For the requirement set of this customer, Social Squared turned out as the best fit. It has a rich forum feature set, on the same level as what you see in other (non-SharePoint) established internet forums. Also considered a strong point is that the forum administration is done in own SQL database(s), outside the SharePoint (content database). This allows to easily sharing a forum between multiple brands of the customer, each with their public presence in an own host-named site collection. And LightningTools is an well-known software products supplier, which gives the customer (IT) trust that the product will be adequatly and timely supported. As a demonstration of this: during my evaluation I already had extensive contact with their product support, answerring on questions and issues that I encountered, and also give me insight on the Social Squared roadmap.

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