Perhaps the best thing about SharePoint is the platform’s flexibility. This flexibility is internal, allowing you to customise the ‘out of the box’ platform to your specific needs. At the same time, it can also be external—by using SharePoint Business Connectivity Services you can incorporate external data from applications, web services or databases in the cloud. SharePoint business connectivity services are useful when:
- You want to display information from external systems, such as a web part or application, within the SharePoint interface.
- You want to display data in a SharePoint list format, so users can interact with it.
- You want your back-end data sources to show up in your SharePoint search results.
- You want to connect up-to-date customer data in your organisation’s ERP system as a set of Outlook contacts.
And there are many other situations in which you might want to connect or interact with external data. The problem, however, is that this data is often restricted and can be difficult to access. That’s why Microsoft created the SharePoint Business Connectivity Services (BCS) infrastructure to allow users to create data integration solutions for both SharePoint and Microsoft Office. BCS will take your external data and dress it in SharePoint clothes, so to speak—providing users with Office-esque behaviours (like putting data in an Outlook Calendar or Word document) and bridge the gap between unstructured documents and structured external data.
In this post, we’ll explore how SharePoint Business Connectivity Services works within the platform: its strengths, weaknesses and what the future holds for BCS.
How to make use of SharePoint Business Connectivity Services
Your organisation’s SharePoint experience can be significantly improved by pulling in data from external sources. So, how do you get to using SharePoint Business Connectivity Series in your organisation? Unfortunately, there are no out-of-the-box Business Connectivity Services configurations or template you can use, because every external data source is unique and every business will have their specific needs. So, it requires you laying a little groundwork before you can surface external data within your SharePoint and Office environments. This involves three phases:
- Groundwork Phase
This is where you plan, prepare and set up how to access your external data. You’ll need to work closely with administrators and developers to identify the technical requirements, prepare the data source and ensure secure access.
- SharePoint Phase
This involves surfacing the external data in SharePoint products in a variety of ways including external lists, data columns, Web Parts, workflows, code-based SharePoint components and more.
- Office Phase
And once that data is in SharePoint, you can surface the data in your Office products like Excel, Word, Outlook and InfoPath as well as other add-ins.
Microsoft call these phases “half the fun” of implementing BCS, but we think that might be overdoing it a little. While SharePoint Business Connectivity Services offer a lot of potential to make the most of your external data, the process is quite complex. Combined with the evolution of the SharePoint platform, most notably the introduction of SharePoint Online within Office 365, has meant that some people have begun questioning if BCS is dead; debating whether there is any future for SharePoint Business Connectivity Services.
The fact is, the ability to use your external data in SharePoint is always going to be a need for users. But the problem, as we’ve mentioned, is the fact that elements of BCS require a lot of know-how and developer coding to set up, and more still to work effectively. This makes utilising SharePoint Business Connectivity Services a challenge for non-technical users.
External data, without the hassle
BCS Meta Man simplifies much of the process of SharePoint Business Connectivity Services, letting users generate External Content Types for SharePoint 2010 and 2013 without having to write a single line of code. BCS Meta Man lets you build connectors to nearly all your external data sources.
Using either the Chart Web Part or Data Viewer Web Part, users can display their business data using powerful grids and charts for the dynamic reporting of data. The Data Viewer Web Part lets you connect internal and external information such as SharePoint lists or data from an external source like BCS or OData. Once this is connected, you’re able to easily apply formatting and conditional formatting to your data with simple configuration, letting you:
- Build business-critical views
- Create conditional formatting without code
- Improve business data dashboards
- Support for BCS, Oracle databases, SQL Server and SharePoint lists and libraries
SharePoint users will always need to connect external data to the platform. But they won’t always want to if it becomes too difficult to do so. BCS Meta Man provides you with an easier way to connect external data to your SharePoint environment.
For more information on BCS Meta Man for SharePoint Business Connectivity Services and how it can help your business, contact Lightning Tools today.