SharePoint and Atlassian Confluence, side-by-side scenarios

September 16 2010 27 comments

image Many large organizations in Finland use both SharePoint and Confluence for managing their internal content. This article explains why Confluence can be a good partner for SharePoint and what are the scenarios when you might consider using both systems.

Confluence is an enterprise wiki product from Atlassian. Atlassian is a software company from Australia. Atlassian is also the creator of very popular ticket management system called Jira. Confluence and Jira are Atlassian’s most important products and naturally they work together well. But Confluence also works extremely well combined with SharePoint.

Commercial add-on for Confluence called SharePoint Connector does three things:

  • SharePoint’s search center can include Confluence’s content using federated search functionality (respecting usage rights if both use Active Directory and same groups).
  • Confluence’s wiki pages can be embedded to SharePoint team sites and intranet sections.
  • List views from SharePoint libraries can be embedded to Confluence wiki pages.

After successful configuration even key areas of internal content can be managed with Confluence and still be visible and searchable from company intranet running SharePoint. Compared to many other products that boast about their ‘SharePoint compatibility’ Atlassian’s marketing promises also hold true in most cases. (And probably Atlassian is well aware of this and that might be the reason why their SharePoint Connector costs real money instead of being just a little free add-on to boost marketing talk.)

If these described functionalities are not yet familiar it is recommended to view couple of introduction videos before continuing:

Watch the introduction video to SharePoint Connector.

There is also another good video where Atlassian representative explains the difference with SharePoint and Confluence and then describes some use cases for using them side-by-side.

Atlassian’s representative makes a good point during the video. Confluence and SharePoint have very different origins. Confluence is a wiki product and SharePoint is a document management centric platform that wants to solve a huge amount of different information management problems. SharePoint and Confluence are sometimes used in similar ways, but their approach to many things is very different from each other.

Main differences between SharePoint and Confluence (high level differences):

  • Platform vs. product. The biggest difference compared to SharePoint is that Confluence is a compact product and Atlassian does not recommended organizations to tailor their own applications to be run on Confluence. Confluence is an enterprise-level wiki product meaning that it supports Active Directory and has a lot of capabilities outside basic editing capabilities for simple wiki pages – but Confluence has not really been created to solve all information management problems of enterprises. In short: Confluence does not want to be a platform.
  • Organization-wide system vs. department level system. Secondly Confluence has merely developed some capabilities to also work in larger enterprise scenarios. The ideal use case for Confluence is still within one department of large enterprise. Naturally this can be argued, but I am guessing that there are not many Confluence installations that have thousands of active users and which have their different departments, business areas and country areas all using the same system. In short: Confluence does not scale well to a needs of a very large and heterogeneous organization.
  • .Net vs. Java. Thirdly Confluence is based on Java technologies and SharePoint is a .Net platform. This is notable mainly because development knowledge for these platforms rarely can be found from one address. Therefore using both systems usually requires working with different vendors and having different points of contact for support issues.

My personal view is that Confluence can be a great social intranet for a company with less than 100 employees, and this is the scenario where SharePoint has the most to fear from Confluence. Mainly because Confluence is quite affordable and is very complete product instantly after it has been taken out of the box.

SharePoint is much more focused to solving a large variety of information management problems for very large enterprises. Also the origins of SharePoint are strictly in document management world and that heritage is still strongly present in SharePoint 2010. There is also a large marketing machine within Microsoft which tries to convince the world that SharePoint is a platform where every organization should run their own business applications. So even though some clients are trying to compare Confluence and SharePoint it should not really be recommended. An ideal use case for Confluence is probably something where SharePoint is not such a good fit – and vice versa.

For a side-by-side use scenarios on the other hand there are few cases where we have seen Confluence work well or we could easily see it working. Here is our list:

  • Specialized internal knowledge base. For example research groups, IT department or R&D teams can appreciate the free-form editing and content creation of Confluence. And from an organizational perspective it can be sometimes easier to let those groups use the tools they prefer. These pages can then be embedded to main intranet and normal users might not even notice the difference in most cases.
  • Providing advanced wiki functionality for SharePoint team sites. Some research groups and R&D teams can have special requirements for presenting information on wiki pages and the default wiki of SharePoint is not very advanced (not even in SharePoint 2010). It might be easier to just purchase Confluence and teach these special groups to use wiki markup and editing tools of Confluence.
  • Stand-alone intranet for a special department of a large organization. For example universities can have very independent departments or research centers. Sometimes those departments can also choose their own tools quite freely. In these kinds of situations it might be a good compromise to both sides to use a wiki platform that can integrate easily to SharePoint (which is often the default choice for departments and centralized functions). This way documents could still be saved to one, central location, but the list view to those documents could be embedded to many locations. Also the search function would be a shared function without any additional work or need to setup a more expensive enterprise search solution.
  • Extranet site for outside partners or a student work area. In some cases the needs for extranet site can be different from intranet usage. For example a student work area for a university might benefit from Confluence’s social features and free-form approach to editing, commenting and creation of new content. And teachers could still embed document views from other locations if necessary. Sometimes it can also be easier to users to understand the different purpose of extranet area and intranet area if the areas use a different software tool.
  • Specialized knowledge base and group work area for outside partners. Confluence is quite good product to support an open community that has a shared purpose. For example large seminars, MBA courses or planning initiatives might use Confluence to interact with each other and share ideas and store material. This could be a sensible solution even though internal systems would otherwise be on SharePoint. At least the material would be easily findable from intranet search also.

Summary: Confluence is a great wiki product that can have a lot of use scenarios side-by-side with SharePoint, but each case should be considered carefully. It is not an ideal state to have several different kinds of information silos in one organization, but if it helps the big picture then Confluence is a solution that causes exceptionally few headaches.

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27 comments to “SharePoint and Atlassian Confluence, side-by-side scenarios”

  1. Kevin Parker says:

    You make some good points. As with any and all information management scenarios, tools (e.g., SharePoint and Confluence) must be chosen from and architected by strategy (i.e., information governance, information architecture). The best software in the world will fail as a “solution” in an organization that does not take information architecture and enterprise content management seriously. Sadly, according to AIIM around 50% of enterprises that have implemented SharePoint (including mine) have done so without creating a business case first. Neither SharePoint nor Confluence is some kind of ECM utopia.

    That said, I’m working on a business case for an Enterprise Portal in my company that includes both SharePoint and Confluence (as well as JIRA, Microsoft AX, and other vendor and custom applications through SOA). I’d like to see some sharing of these business cases with some appropriate level of detail (obviously nothing that compromises company secrets and security, but some generalizations that would help the whole community as you’ve started here).

  2. Perttu Tolvanen says:

    Thank you for the excellent comment Kevin. I fully agree with your point that neither SharePoint nor Confluence is some kind of ECM utopia. They can however complement each other quite well. Unfortunately project stories are hard to come by since in most cases SharePoint integrator and Confluence integrator are two different companies which are competing with each other – even though they would have shared clients and shared installations. And in many cases there is a competitive situation within the company also. For example official IT organisation might prefer SharePoint, but certain individual departments are pushing Confluence.

    For an enterprise portal scenario (that has both SharePoint and Confluence) I have seen at least two different approaches. The most common is having SharePoint as the main intranet/portal and then using Confluence as a complementary product for knowledge bases. The second approach is having Confluence as the main interface and only using SharePoint for document management purposes. This usually means having some kind of centralized document libraries for documents and then using Confluence for everything else. For example if the company is using JIRA heavily then the second approach can be more flexible and easier to set up. The fact that you are also using Microsoft AX makes the decision a bit more difficult in your case.

    Also another key choice is to decide which “MyPage” concept you prefer more. Confluence has a very flexible personal site system which allows users to create their own working areas. For many companies this flexibility is a bit too much and they prefer SharePoint’s more controllable approach. Also if there are real plans (and I mean real plans, not some long-term vision statements) to build custom web parts for MySites and encourage people to use the MySite as a personal dashboard then I would recommend going with the SharePoint approach.

  3. Cindy Rajhel says:

    Informative, thanks. This compelled me to point out how many companies use SharePoint’s lists and views for a variety of initiatives, e.g., tracking requirements, projects and discussions. I was program manager at a large consulting company for a new kind of legal portal built in SharePoint that managed discovery projects for large, well-known corporations and Big 4. It’s still being used today. I also had great success building functionality roadmaps in SharePoint and communicating the status of our projects.

    It seems like the Lists and Views in SharePoint aren’t leveraged enough or people are unaware of how simple and powerful they can be in improving collaboration and productivity. The Views give you instant reports that would otherwise take some wiki markup coding to produce in Confluence. Even if produced in Confluence, changes add much more configuration time than the same changes in SharePoint to for example, create views based on different fields.

    I’ve seen companies try to use Confluence to track projects, ideas and tasks. It doesn’t even come close to the out-of-the-box, easy to learn capabilities of SharePoint for tracking. Yes, the SharePoint Connector links the two but it sounds like you canb only view SharePoint lists using this setup?

    My take from the trenches.

    Recently, a client of mine decided to nix Confluence for Jive, replacing the wiki for a Jive Intranet. The people that can’t live without the wiki are left to fight for it to remain for their teams and departments. Bottom line is each organization chooses what capabilities really hit home for them. Let’s hope that choice is user-driven.

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