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There are some major differences in the way that public folders and SharePoint manage and retain documents. In this article, I compare and contrast Exchange public folders with SharePoint Portal Server and explain when it is appropriate to use one over the other.
Public folders are generally better suited for documents that are static in nature -- typically a document or collection of documents commonly used throughout the organization.
For example, one of the companies I used to work for used an Exchange public folder to store all of the various forms used by the Human Resources department -- e.g., forms for requesting time off or for hiring additional staff. The public folders were set up so that only authorized personnel within the Human Resources department could post to them, but anyone in the company could access those folders to view or print forms.
SharePoint Portal Server is better suited to environments where documents frequently change.
Rather than using a hierarchical collection of folders, SharePoint relies on a document library that's accompanied by a rather elaborate search engine. Users access the document library through a Web interface.
Once users locate a document, they must decide whether they want to just view it, or if they want to modify it. If they want to modify the document, they must check it out of the library, and then check it back in when they're done. Nobody else can modify a document while it is checked out.
Another unique SharePoint feature is versioning. When a user modifies a document, the previous version is retained within the library. If someone happens to make an undesirable change to a document, other users can backtrack through the document's history to retrieve a version that existed prior to the change.
Public folders exist on an Exchange server and can be replicated across multiple servers for optimal performance. Users access the folder contents directly through Outlook.
Using Outlook to access public folders has its good and bad points. A good point is that public folders can be mail enabled. This means that an e-mail address can be assigned directly to a public folder and users can make posts to the folder by simply sending an e-mail message to the folder's address.
On the flip side, you must be careful to apply the appropriate permissions to the folders and train employees to use your public folders properly. I have seen users do some pretty bizarre things because they didn't completely understand how public folders work.
For example, once I saw a user send an e-mail to everyone in the company. The problem was that he had a couple of public folder addresses in his address book, so his message was also posted to those public folders. I once saw another person treat public folder content in the same manner he treated his personal Inbox. Once he read a post, he deleted it, not realizing that doing so would impact other users.
SharePoint's document versioning helps to prevent users from accidentally deleting documents from the library. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer the convenience of being able to access the document library through Outlook.
SharePoint is also unable to replicate data across multiple servers, and the document library is not mail enabled (although you can configure SharePoint to notify you through e-mail when a document has changed).
Public folders and SharePoint document libraries both have their places. I have heard of large organizations effectively using public folders to host static files and ongoing discussions, while using a SharePoint document library to host files that are more dynamic in nature.
If you want, you can even configure SharePoint so the search engine indexes the contents of your Exchange public folders in addition to its own document library. That way, users can use a single interface to locate data regardless of where it exists within the organization.
About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as the CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, TechTarget, CNET, ZDNet, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at http://www.brienposey.com.
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This was first published in July 2005