Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yesterday the August meeting of the Sydney SharePoint User Group was held. The speakers were Han Duong and Brad Saide, both from LivePoint.

Han spoke about Themes in SharePoint. He gave a quick example of how to change a SharePoint site using the existing Themes in a MOSS installation, and suggested some tools, such as Heather Solomon's blog posting about all the SharePoint CSS classes, Firebug and web developer plugins for FireFox, and the IE Developer toolbar for Internet Explorer.

He then showed how to customize Themes using SharePoint Designer.

  1. The first step is to copy an existing theme set from the Office 12 hive on the file system (<installation drive>\Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\web server extensions\12\Templates\Themes) and rename it to the name of the new theme you want to create ([Theme Name]).
  2. Next, modify the name of the .info file contained within this new theme folder to be the [Theme Name].info. This is what SharePoint will look for when it tries to load your theme.
  3. Next step is to tell it about the new theme: to do this go to 1033 folder in your hive and edit the SPThemes.XML file. Just copy one of the existing Theme element entries and rename it to reference your theme name.
  4. Create a thumbnail for the them by copying an existing theme thumbnail from \Templates\Images and renaming it to whatever you specified in the SPThemes file.
  5. Reset IIS
  6. View the Themes in the Site Settings section of the SharePoint portal. You can apply your new custom theme to a site and then take a screenshot; you can then use this as the thumbnail to overwrite the one you copied.

An interesting point Han mentioned is that when you make changes to Theme css files in SharePoint Designer, it is making those css changes to the database. However, on initiation or cache expiry the the css and other theme information is loaded directly from the file system.

Therefore any changes made subsequently to the file system will overwrite the work you've done in SharePoint Designer. So he suggested that once you've made any changes you are happy with in SharePoint Designer, immediately copy them into the file system version of the css file to protect yourself.

Han mentioned that Themes are a good fit for simple design changes to the look of a SharePoint site, while Master Pages are more useful when changing the functionality of the site or the way it is organized.

Another good tip that was raised was using Themes as a quick way to mock up a client's site when doing demonstrations as it helps them relate to what they are seeing (rather than just viewing the out-of-the-box SharePoint installation).

Next, Brad gave us an overview of the Business Data Catalogue in MOSS 2007 Enterprise, and showed how it can be used to surface Line-of-Business information and provide dashboard views of disparate data.

He first explained the challenges of integration line-of-business code into SharePoint. These challenges include:

  • Developers have to write integration code
  • They communicate directly with the native API
  • Each attempt is a single-purpose effort
  • There is an ongoing maintenance and update burden
  • It is difficult to create "one place to go" when there data is in many places
  • Each new business system requires new effort

The BDC is a good solution for all of this. It provides a unified, consistent way to expose data within SharePoint by surfacing it from backend applications. It is declarative, requiring no code. It is also a centrally-managed system. I would also suggest it is "universal" or a contract that all developers will follow.

Brad pointed out the things the Business Data Catalogue is good for: surfacing LOB data, mashing up the information from multiple Line of Business apps, searching on all of this data at the same time, and pulling LOB data into libraries and lists where it can add to the existing portal information, and it can help populate user profile information.

What it isn't good for:

  • It isn't a replacement for existing Line of Business functionality
  • It isn't transactional or a message broker (a la BizTalk)
  • It doesn't do data transformation (SQL SSIS)
  • It isn't a data adapter (iWay)

Brad then presented a demo of how the BDC could surface HR system data stored in Oracle onto the MOSS portal. He showed how easy it was to use the free version of BDC Meta Man to build the initial BDC app schema file, and showed us how the BDC web parts could present and filter this information.

Updates to the Oracle database appeared upon refresh, and the BDC information could be added as metadata to existing lists and libraries. BDC Actions allowed HR staff to view the profile data of the records or even launch custom actions using URLS, such as launching a window to search on for job candidates when a particular job title was selected on the SharePoint page.

I think the BDC is one of the best features of Office 2007 with some of the least documentation and fewest tools! A painful paradox.

Both Brad and Han did a good job and I think we all enjoyed the session.

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