(Rating: 5 out of 5) by Kevin Gunther-Canada, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Working in higher education, I see the need for business process automation on an almost daily basis. Unlike traditional businesses, academia is a difficult environment to attempt to create or impose standardized automated business processes in any real way, since such institutions tend to be highly decentralized and complex environments. SharePoint is a tool that seems to have been developed to address these kinds of business needs: it offers a foundational architecture that suffers from relatively few of the restrictive rules of turnkey solutions, while still providing much of the flexibility of custom-developed applications to address the myriad of unique needs academic institutions tend to have.
Indeed, SharePoint 2007 has demonstrated itself to be among the most extensible and customization applications ever developed, especially when coupled with SharePoint Designer 2007, giving end-users unprecedented ability to define and automate business processes from within SharePoint without expensive add-ons or consulting. Except, that is, with respect to workflow.
The “out of the box” SharePoint workflows are clunky and confusing to use at best, and custom solutions developed in Visual Studio are often expensive to develop and error-prone, requiring a very steep learning curve before proficiency is gained. To be sure, SharePoint Designer (SPD) has significant functionality to “develop” end-user defined workflows, but the vanilla conditions and actions are fairly limited. Microsoft has often touted the SharePoint workflow engine as more than a simple human-to-human workflow tool, focusing on the macro-like capabilities in SPD workflows that allow users to automate things like email notification, item check-in and check-out, item updates, etc.
Unfortunately, the SPD workflow designer tools often fall short when it comes to automating most commonly needed processes. There is a set of custom open source activities available on CodePlex, but these are very limited in number, and really just toolkits for developers to use as starting points. The only alternative has been to spend thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on expensive, complex third-party Workflow products (targeted primarily to developers), leaving business process automation beyond the reach of ordinary user. In short, the options for easily creating SharePoint workflows are few and far between.
Solution: Workflow Activities Kit by Virto
Enter Virto's Workflow Activities Kit (WAK) for SharePoint. Starting where the CodePlex Custom Workflow Activities left off (they are a free part of the Virto solution, incidentally), the Virto Workflow Activities Kit adds over two dozen additional workflow conditions and activities, greatly expanding the possibilities of end-user managed workflow solutions through SharePoint Designer.
While the list of activities and conditions is certainly not what one might call “exhaustive”, it is substantial enough to give workflow designers a number incredibly useful options, and push SharePoint workflow to a new level. For instance, there are activities to extend communications (enhanced email activities, twitter, SMS and other messaging solutions), Active Directory (lookup and update), SharePoint security group management, site creation, list folder management, InfoPath activities, list item text management, copy/move item between lists and sites, and more.
Like playing in SharePoint itself, the combination of these new options means that the possibilities it opens up are impressive. For instance, a major pain point for power users in SharePoint is getting user information automatically from Active Directory, removing the need for users to tediously re-enter things like address, phone, email address, etc. With the workflow Activities Kit, this is a snap – simply create variables for the AD fields to be retrieved, enter the domain URL, and then do as you wish – compose email, update lists, etc.
Email in SPD workflows is another major annoyance in MOSS/WSS 3.0, since one must rely on the preset application-wide outbound email name, and one cannot send attachments (document or list item). Again, Virto to the rescue. For those who need finely-controlled permissions for documents and list items, Virto helps in several ways, providing activities to add or remove users from SharePoint groups, create unique list item security, re-inherit list item security, or even delete all permissions.
Text activities can be used to extract and/or replace strings (using RegEx), and even provide validation and re-formatting. While we’ve not tried the translation and currency conversion activities, these look to be very helpful tools when working with trans-national audiences.Two of my personal favorites are the Loop and Folder activities, the former allowing bulk updates in lists and libraries (including subsets based on views of CAML), and the option to trigger secondary workflows after update; the latter to create and delete folders automatically. The use case for the Looping activities is (at last!) the ability to provide database-like cascade update functionality in SharePoint.
Finally, in this Web 2.0/3.0 world, communication and messaging are just as much part of the collaborative experience as content itself, so Virto has introduced SMS and Twitter Send activities – definitely a powerful addition to the SharePoint communication functions.
Overall, the Virto Software Workflow Activities Kit is an excellent and valuable addition to any WSS or MOSS environment – it really enhances the SPD-based workflow design experience, and makes workflow and business process management accessible to regular business users. The different combination of activities and new conditions greatly expand the capabilities of SharePoint workflow.
Significantly less expensive than its competitors (only $995 US), it is able to provide the much of the functionality most SharePoint users - and even IT people - need from SharePoint Workflows but cannot get out of the box. Even if you already own other products, it is still a valuable tool, since it enables end-users to create useful workflows on their own in a familiar and constrained SPD environment. Try it, buy it – you won’t regret it.
Review Provided by:
University of Alabama at Birmingham
UAB IT Support Services
Technical Web Services Division