New book preview – SharePoint 2007 Developers Guide to the Business Data Catalog

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I’ve been busy on a number of fronts and some of the fruits of that work will appear soon enough, but I thought that I would pop up to let you know about a forthcoming book written by Brett Lonsdale and Nick Swan on a SharePoint component that has until now, been seriously under-represented in the plethora of SharePoint books out there in the marketplace.

The Business Data Catalog is one of those SharePoint components that is easy enough to understand conceptually, but then will scare the utter crap out of you when you delve into the guts of its XML based complexity.  At least that was my experience the first time I toyed with it in early 2007. Luckily for me, my ass was saved by a tool that had just been released as a public beta called BDC MetaMan. I downloaded this tool and within around 15 minutes I used it to set up a BDC connection to Microsoft’s Systems Management Server v4 to pull software package details into a SharePoint list and felt very proud of myself indeed. 

Fast forward to mid 2009 and BDC MetaMan has come a hell of a long way, as have its creators. Nick and Brett are about as world-authoritative as you can possibly get on the BDC and if you wish to become a Jedi in the dark arts of the BDC “force” then you now have your official bible. This book is absolutely crammed with detail and the expertise of the authors in this feature shines throughout.

The book is split up across 11 chapters and although it is not explicitly stated by the authors, seems to be made of 3 broad parts. Chapter 1 introduces the BDC, how it is architected (web parts, BDC column, BDC Search, and integration with User Profile import and the SDK). Also covered is the range of data sources, an introduction to Application Definition Files (ADF) and how it all integrates into the Shared Service Provider model.

Once the intro chapter is done with, Brett and Nick don’t waste too much time in diving deep. 

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the structure of BDC Application Definition (ADF) files, and follows up with the complex world of how authentication plays out with the BDC. Chapter 2 delves far more into the ADF files than I ever wished to tread, but Nick and Brett somehow manage to describe a long, boring XML file in a logical, easy to follow manner and there was a lot of stuff that I learned here that I had simply missed from trawling MSDN articles. The authentication chapter is covered in excellent detail in Chapter 3 and goes way beyond the usual NTLM/Kerberos double-hop stuff. Authentication in the Microsoft world has become very complex these days, and there are various options and trade-offs. This chapter covers all of this and more, brilliant stuff.

After the deep dive of ADF and authentication, we surface a little from the previous two chapters into what I think really, is part 2 of this book. That is, several chapters that deal with how you leverage the BDC once you have connected to a line of business application. Chapter 4 introduces the built-in web parts that come with the BDC, shows how they are used and how they can be modified either using SharePoint Designer or tweaking XSL styles directly. Chapter 5 explores the BDC column type, how it can be used in the Office document information panel, in SharePoint Designer workflows, as well as its limitations. Chapter 6 explains how to leverage the BDC for allowing SharePoint to crawl your back-end line of business data and present it in search results. In addition to this, chapter 6 has a lot to offer just from the point of view of customising the search experience, whether using BDC or not. Finally, Chapter 7 examines how the BDC can be utilised to add data into user profiles that is leveraged via audience targeting.

Next we dive back into “real programmer” territory and what I think makes part 3 of this book. Chapter 8 delves deep into the BDC object model, for those times when the out of the box stuff just won’t quite cut it for you. The example used to demonstrate this object model is a web service that exposes BDC data via several methods. Chapter 9 then covers the creation of a custom web part that is in effect, an Ajax version of the out of the box “Business Data List web part” that refreshes data every few seconds without requiring a page load. Chapter 10 is particularly interesting because it examines how the BDC is used in conjunction with another oft overlooked suite of technologies known as “Office Business Applications”. The combination of BDC and OBA offer many interesting capabilities and among the examples, there are examples of Excel and Word leveraging the BDC as well as creating custom task panes, custom ribbons and the like. Finally, chapter 11 deals with using the BDC to write data back to the line of business applications and finishes with a great example of using InfoPath to submit data to a line of business application via a webservice that calls the BDC. That is hellishly cool in a nerdy developer kind of a way.

Phew! First up, *man* these guys are smart! I have to say this is the hardest SharePoint book that I have reviewed. It is obviously aimed at developers but it has so much to offer beyond the BDC. The content is very technical at times and obviously low-level. That, itself, is not the problem. Conversely, complex topics are handled really well and everything is extremely logically organised and flows well. The book is simply very, very comprehensive! There is plenty of meat for developers to sink their teeth into and this book will keep you going for a long time.

The preface of the book states that it has been written for an audience of “Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Information Workers and Developers who need to learn how to use, customize and create solutions using the Business Data Catalog”. I would agree with this, but I hope that information workers do not get put off by chapter 2 (and to some extent, chapter 3). This book dives deep straight off the bat and it is actually the middle chapters that offer the sort of insights that information workers will find the most useful.

So, if you think that the BDC deserves more than one single chapter towards the back of a SharePoint book, then this is your answer. As well as becoming an expert on the BDC, It will open your eyes to many possibilities beyond it.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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Why do SharePoint Projects Fail – Part 6

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Hi again and welcome to part 6 of my series on the factors of why SharePoint projects fail. Joel Oleson’s write-up a while back gave me 5 minutes of fame, but like any contestant on Big Brother, I’ve had my time in the limelight, been voted out of the house (as in Joel’s front page) and I’m back to being an ordinary citizen again.

If you have followed events thus far, I covered off some wicked problem theory, before delving into the bigger ticket items that contribute to SharePoint project failure. In the last post, we pointed our virtual microscope at the infrastructure aspects that can cause a SharePoint problem to go off the rails.

Now we turn our magnifying glass onto application development issues and therefore application developers. Ah, what fun you can have with application developer stereotyping, eh! A strange breed indeed they are. As a group they have had a significant contribution to the bitter and twisted individual that I am today.

The CleverWorkarounds tequila shot rating is back!

image imageimageimageimageimageimage for a project manager in denial 🙂

imagefor the rest of us!

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"Guru of governance?"

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My old mate from employers yonder, Mike Stringfellow is one of those developers who always liked to take a step back and think through the bigger picture implications of various design/coding decisions. It’s just a pity that at that particular company we worked at, he was in the minority. (Not helped by some unbelievably poor executive level management wacky views of reality).

So I became one of those bitter and twisted anal infrastructure guys who always seemed to default to "No", when asked a question. (Usually "no" was the right answer nonetheless). I was told by another colleague that some of the (web) developers were scared of me… but Mike at least understood why 🙂

He recently blogged the idea of using features to modify web.config file of a web application. After all, the SharePoint SDK offers the WebConfigModifications property (of the SPWebApplication) class. He suggested that as a governance nazi I might have issues with this idea. As it turns out I do, but only for you developers that have been slack-arsed and not done your homework! 🙂

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SharePoint for Cisco Fanboys (and more developers) – Part 4

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Welcome to part 4 of my series on demonstrating SharePoint’s usefulness for storing Cisco configuration backups. What a hard slog it’s been! The last article (part 3) of this series focused on how to modify an open source C# TFTP server to upload files into a SharePoint document library using the SharePoint SDK.

Here is the quick recap on what we have covered so far

  • Part 1 illustrated how it it possible to use SNMP to tell a Cisco IOS device to dump its configuration to TFTP. We talked about the version control feature of SharePoint and why it makes sense to TFTP your configs to a SharePoint document library. We covered the WEBDAV network provider supplied with XP and Win2003 and finished off with a basic example using the TFTP server TFTPD32.
  • Part 2 went into more detail about the issues you can face when using the WEBDAV network provider. It also went into more detail on 3 TFTP server products (WinAgents TFTP, SolarWinds TFTP Server and TFTPD32 and why TFTPD32 ended up being the best choice for this purpose.
  • Part 3 then looked at a wonderful open source TFTP server written in C# called TFTPUtil. We modified the source code of this TFTP server to use the SharePoint SDK and upload files to a SharePoint document library.

Now both the WEBDAV and SDK methods had some issues. The WEBDAV method was obviously easy to set up because pretty much any application (theoretically anyway) can be made to work with it. I, however, had reliability issues with this method as part 2 detailed. The SDK method was much more reliable, but had its own problems. Many people would be uncomfortable with having to perform custom modification of an existing open source TFTP server, but more importantly, there are security implications with this method too.

So we have one remaining method that we can explore. This method is still based around modifications to the TFTPUtil source code but instead of using the SharePoint SDK, we instead use the SharePoint web services.

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