On review: Microsoft's Tahoe

Tahoe enables users to publish Web content, collaborate with others on content, and manage documents using Office applications, Windows Explorer and supported browsers. Tahoe raises the ante by adding a mature search and indexing engine; document management features, including versioning and publishing; and integration into Microsoft's portal front end, the digital dashboard.

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By  Jon Tullett Published  January 24, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Microsoft has a new server-based Office companion on the horizon, going by the code name Tahoe. I took a close look at Tahoe beta 2. With one major reservation, I was impressed with its features and usability. Tahoe will be a boon to organizations that need to manage, classify and retrieve Office documents or other text-based information from a variety of sources, including Microsoft Exchange public folders, Lotus Notes .nsf files, and internal or external Web sites.

My reservation revolves around an issue that we consider a bug but that Microsoft characterizes as a feature. The Tahoe server now returns a VB Script error if the server's full domain name is included in the URL - for example, http://tahoe.mydomain.com/ workspace rather than http://tahoe/ workspace. I submitted this as a bug, but Microsoft replied that the first version of Tahoe is being developed as an intranet product and the domain name addressing may not be supported until later versions. This would be a serious mistake that would greatly limit the usability of an otherwise good product, and you should look at this issue carefully as the features shake out in release code within the next few months. If FQDN (Fully Qualified Domain Name) resolution addressing is in there, give this product a close look.

So what, exactly, is Tahoe? Tahoe runs as a service on Windows 2000, relies on IIS (Internet Information Server), and is compatible with NT Domain or Windows 2000 directory security schemata. Tahoe enables users to publish Web content, collaborate with others on content, and manage documents using Office applications, Windows Explorer and supported browsers. Tahoe raises the ante by adding a mature search and indexing engine; document management features, including versioning and publishing; and integration into Microsoft's portal front end, the digital dashboard.

Information needs to be presented in a way that makes it easily accessible. Tahoe uses Microsoft's digital dashboard portal technology to make this goal a reality. A digital-dashboard-based portal is made up of "Web Parts."

Microsoft defines Web Parts as "reusable components that deliver Web-based content to a digital dashboard by wrapping XML, HTML and scripts with a standard property schema that controls how the Web Parts are rendered in a digital dashboard."

Microsoft and numerous partners are building Web Parts, with unbridled enthusiasm. Simple Web Parts can be built by end users, and, for developers who want to build complex Web Parts, Microsoft supplies Web Part Builder as part of the Digital Dashboard Resource Kit (see www.microsoft.com/business/digital dashboard). Tahoe relies on Web Parts to present its primary user interface; Windows, Apple Computer Mac OS and Sun Microsystems Solaris users can participate fully as Tahoe clients as long as their browsers are up to specification. The Tahoe portal requires Internet Explorer 4.0 and later or Netscape 4.7 and later on Windows systems. Mac OS and Solaris users running Internet Explorer 5.0 or later can join in as well.

||**||Out of the box|~||~||~|Out of the box, Tahoe presented me with a Web portal interface that included all its parts. I easily added additional Web Parts to the base Tahoe portal; branded the portal for Network Computing Editorial; tied authentication to an existing Windows domain; and moved parts around on the screen, customizing the look and feel of the portal.

No One Behind the Curtain

The second interface into Tahoe is via Windows file system extensions that integrate into Windows Web folders. When I installed Tahoe beta 2, there was a selection to install the server software and a selection to install the client software.

I installed the client software, then went looking for the program icon. To make a long story short, an icon couldn't be found - the Tahoe client installation simply adds functionality to Windows Web folders.

The extensions enable Tahoe administrators to manage and create Tahoe portal content, security data, search-content sources and document profiles. This particular interface isn't available to Mac OS or Solaris users.

The client extensions let users manage documents in the Tahoe document library using Web folders and to integrate Tahoe functionality directly into Office 2000 applications by adding checkout/check-in and publish options to the file menu. This functionality is also available via the portal, providing users without Office or Windows full use of Tahoe's features.

The Tahoe client is needed to perform administrative functions. I used the Web folder view to customize Tahoe's portal content, and in 15 minutes I included document sources indexing the entire editorial content of the Network Computing Web site. (See the portal screen.)

Put info where it can be used

Document management and search technology are Tahoe's core features. Documents that are checked in to the document library are available for review and editing by authenticated users. Tahoe's storage mechanism for documents, indexes and other content, the Web Storage System, is also used by Exchange 2000. This storage technology adds a host of capabilities to Tahoe, such as data access via XML and CDO (Collaboration Data Objects) version 3.0, which includes extensions to the OLE DB and ADO (ActiveX Data Objects) development environments.

The publishing process can include approval via Tahoe's built-in work-flow feature, and the approval process can be serial or parallel. Parallel approval can be set up so a document is published when any user approves it, or publication can be delayed until everyone involved gives approval.

Users are notified via the portal or e-mail of documents awaiting approval. Security is roles-based and specifies coordinator, author and reader functions, and document access is granular - rights can be assigned on an individual-user level. Coordinators determine who constitutes the "public." I used the portal interface to manage these functions and once again found it clean and simple to use.

A document that is checked out may still be viewed but can be revised only by the user in possession of it. Published documents are available to the public. Tahoe automatically controls version numbering throughout a document's life cycle.

I used Microsoft Word to take documents through the publishing process. I was annoyed, however, at the number of times I was challenged for authentication during a single session.

||**||Search and retrieve|~||~||~|To be productive, users need to retrieve relevant information in a timely fashion. To meet that need, the only real choice is electronic access, which enables anytime, anywhere retrieval and provides relevant information based on search criteria. I used Tahoe in the lab to index and retrieve documents from a document library and from multiple external Web sources.

Tahoe's search engine performs keyword, Boolean and natural-language searches, and it indexes Office 95 through Office 2000 documents; HTML files, including meta-tags; PDF files; Corel files; TIFF files via OCR (optical character recognition); plain text; Exchange 5.5 and Exchange 2000 public folders; Lotus Notes databases; and any other file format for which there is an IFilter available.

Using the content source wizard, I pointed the Tahoe server to our Web site to create a new source to index. The wizard selections were limited; I was unable to set Tahoe to search the site only one level deep. The only options the wizard offered were to index the current page or the whole site. I could, however, enter the properties page of the new content source to fine-tune the depth setting for indexing.

Besides offering the standard settings, Tahoe provides adaptive updates that perform re-indexing based on a statistical model that predicts which content was most likely to have changed. Neat stuff.

Tahoe offers a mechanism for coordinators to create and force the use of document profiles. Profiles help organize a document library by providing a specific set of information that is collected from authors and stored with each document. When I checked documents into a document library, Tahoe presented me with a profile form to fill out. The coordinator determines which profiles are available and what information is collected on any particular profile. I used a wizard provided by Tahoe to create new profiles - a simple procedure. Tahoe also synchronizes Office document properties with Tahoe document profiles once the document is checked into the document library.

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