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SharePoint's Secret Sauce: Business Connectivity Services

Why Microsoft's new technology for surfacing diverse backend data sources and processes in SharePoint and Office could spur robust application development.

Microsoft Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 have enjoyed a warm reception since the official May 12 launch of the key application platforms. The new versions present a host of upgrades and improvements targeting IT administrators and.NET developers alike. In a report published on May 7, Directions on Microsoft Managing Vice President of Research Rob Helm broke down what Microsoft delivered with Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

His findings? Microsoft successfully improved key areas of both Office and SharePoint, though many features do require the presence of updated servers, tooling and other Microsoft software. From a development perspective, Helm found that SharePoint 2010 carries significant value, specifically when paired with the updated development tooling in Visual Studio 2010. With the latest versions of Visual Studio and SharePoint, dev shops are in a much better position to create applications for SharePoint than ever before, the report finds.

But Helm is quick to identify one technology as a vital underpinning for successful development for both SharePoint and Office - the new Business Connectivity Services (BCS). The follow-on to the Business Data Catalog in Office 2007, BCS enables SharePoint to connect to diverse external data sources so they can be displayed and manipulated in SharePoint lists and Web Parts, as well as in Office Outlook and Word 2010 clients. Using BCS, developers can extend the collaboration experience of SharePoint and the UI experience of Office to external data and processes.

BCS Uncovered
BCS provides a standard interface for developers, making it easy to tap into diverse targets. BCS supports a variety of external data sources, including SQL Server databases, SAP applications, Windows Communication Foundation and Web services, as well as custom applications and Web sites based on SharePoint. By surfacing external data in native, Office UIs, BCS helps Microsoft realize the goal of making Office a viable front-end for legacy, backend data systems.

Arpan Shah, director of the SharePoint Products and Technologies Group at Microsoft, said Visual Studio templates for BCS make it easy for developers to integrate applications with backend systems like SQL Server, Microsoft CRM or SAP. "That integration allows developers to integrate with data to bring it back into SharePoint or Office in a read-write capacity. That really improves productivity for the end user, and gives the developer the flexibility to integrate with any backend system," Shah said.

Helm described BCS as a one-stop shop for Office 2010 application development, noting that Microsoft has struggled for years to establish an effective platform for this activity. With BCS, Helm said, Microsoft has finally gotten it right.

"That's the one way to build Office oriented applications as well as Web-based applications on SharePoint that access critical backend systems," Helm said. "I think for corporate developers the message is, they finally have a stable set of Office and SharePoint technologies, especially in this Business Connectivity Services scenario."

Importantly, Microsoft has delivered quality tooling for BCS, both in the SharePoint 2010 Designer and in Visual Studio 2010. By contrast, Helm said, working with the Business Data Catalog was unreasonably difficult for developers. "You basically had to do XML editing with embedded SQL Server code with XML escapes inserted. It was really brutal."

The biggest obstacle facing BCS adoption could be the effort required to explain it, Helm said. To that end, Microsoft has been active legitimizing the technology. Microsoft and SAP worked together on a BCS-based interoperability solution for SharePoint 2010 and SAP, called Duet Enterprise, that enables SharePoint to access and manipulate SAP data. Helm also said that it is very likely Microsoft will leverage BCS for its Dynamics CRM and AX products.

Ultimately, Helm advises development shops to look closely at BCS when assessing SharePoint 2010 and Office 2010 as targets for application development. "If there is one SharePoint technology to focus on, it's Business Connectivity Services."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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