Eight benefits of using SharePoint as an Extranet

SharePoint has a long history of being put to work as an enterprise grade Intranet platform, allowing organisations of all shapes and sizes to drive employee collaboration and communication. Its use as an Extranet tool isn’t quite so common, which is mainly down to some companies not fully understanding the nuances between Extranets and Intranets. The good news is SharePoint actually makes an excellent Extranet platform, with a whole host of useful features and functions. In this post we will look at eight clear benefits to using SharePoint for such a purpose.

Defining an Extranet

Firstly, what exactly is a SharePoint Extranet? In essence an Extranet is functionally identical to an Intranet but is accessed in a different manner. Extranets are used by third parties and partners, outside of the primary business or organisation, to collaborate on specific projects or pieces of work. An Extranet needs to allow these users controlled access to appropriate functionality and content, whilst securing away the main Intranet or internal business systems.

With that in mind, let’s look at eight benefits to building an Extranet with SharePoint.

1. Managing third party access

SharePoint typically uses Active Directory integration for user access, which works well in standard Intranet scenarios. But for Extranets, where third party users need to be added, secured and controlled in a slightly different manner, Sharepoint benefits from tools such as Extradium from RioLinx. This powerful enterprise product allows administrators to add third parties to SharePoint using the standard end user interface. This removes the often time consuming process of getting an IT department involved, and doesn’t clutter up company user directories with temporary accounts.

2. Security model

Tools such as Extradium, create standard user accounts, so once added third parties can be subjected to the same out of the box security model as any other SharePoint user. SharePoint supports assigning permissions directly to users, as well as to groups. Groups offer the most control and flexibility, and can be used to easily manage distinct sets of people with the same role e.g. All external Project Managers. Different levels of permissions can then be applied to users or groups, allowing a high level of control over what third parties can access or modify.

3. Document management

SharePoint offers a complete set of document management and collaboration features, that work extremely well in an Extranet scenario. As well as the standard feature set – including check in/out, version control and publishing approval workflows – SharePoint 2013 supports the extremely powerful Office Web Apps. This is an excellent way for third parties to work on and collaborate with documents in real time with other users, via the web browser or mobile apps.

4. Social communication

SharePoint 2013 offers a range of social collaboration and communication tools. Both users and content can be ‘followed’ and ‘liked’, which provides a really simple means to track and be notified of updates. A central Newsfeed keeps everyone in the loop, and a dedicated Community site template is a great way for multiple users to comment on group discussions.

Extranets typically involve collaboration between multiple teams, and the latest social tools in SharePoint are a really effective way to break down boundaries.

5. Secure controlled publishing

SharePoint 2013 supports the notion of ‘publishing sites’, which is a controlled way for content to be authored, branded, and published out to an Extranet. Content can be created centrally by a specific set of approved users, pushed through a dedicated workflow, and then published for consumption.

6. Powerful search

More and more users choose search over navigation to get to content. In an Extranet scenario, where third party users will be much less familiar with a systems structure and content classifications – search is even more relevant.

SharePoint 2013 offers some truly amazing leaps in search functionality over previous versions. Search has been rebuilt in this latest version, and it is now central to how content can be published across sites and pages. SharePoint 2013 is also the first version to include, for free, the complete FAST search product. This previously separate add on provides a real turbo boost to search indexing and results, meaning users find what they are looking for that little bit quicker.

7. Mobile support and access

Extranets typically support ad-hoc working between large numbers of different users in geographically disperse locations. In these scenarios mobile working is really important. SharePoint offers mobile friendly versions of all of its out of the box site and page templates. In addition Microsoft makes available a number of mobile apps across devices, such as the Newsfeed app for keeping people upto date on news and events.
Third party offerings, like SharePlus from Infragistics, offer even richer functionality with full offline support for documents and lists and easy editing tools.

8. Extend functionality with third party tools

Throughout this post we have referenced a number of really useful add ons to SharePoint that make it even more suitable for Extranet systems:

  • Extradium for easy management of third party users
  • SharePlus for rich mobile access
  • Our very own DocRead and DocSurvey for mandatory document acknowledgments and testing understanding.

SharePoint has an incredibly varied and mature community of third party products around it. With the release of the SharePoint 2013 ‘App Store’ these extra features have become even easier to manage and deploy. With such a rich native feature set, SharePoint is for many a great Extranet platform. With the addition of trusted third party products, like those in this post, its comes even better.

Find out more about how DocRead and Extradium can reduce the risks of working with third parties in SharePoint Extranets.