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How to handle Virtual Documents within SharePoint?

Though not limited to any one content management product, the concept of virtual or compound documents is mainly a Documentum based option. But in today's environment some organizations who have both Documentum and SharePoint are at times grappling with the issue of how to manage some activities especially if certain core functionality is on one platform but not the other. One such core functionality happens to be virtual documents where a direct equivalent doesn't exist in SharePoint.

A virtual document structure is a compound document that isn't per se an independent object as much as a parent to one or multiple children documents of any possible file type. Though at first glance it might sound like an odd situation limited to a few business sectors, applications of virtual documents is literally all around us. Imagine a book where it takes a great deal of collaboration to publish. The editor or publisher can assign independent chapters of the book or even possibly smaller sections to multiple collaborating authors leveraging a table of contents like structure that organizes and consolidates each authored piece via the use of a virtual document. Hence each section of a book could be a separate document and the master virtual document would be the book itself with all the children sections which sum up into chapters.

In the manufacturing sector for example, a common application of a virtual document could be in the usage of a Build-of-Materials (BOM). Imagine a chair. There could be multiple pieces that make up a chair where each has its own detailed specification document(s) though the business need calls for the complete set to be reviewed as a consolidated complete product. The chair could consists of multiple sub-assembly such as a frame, seat or back and in turn each of them could possibly consist of multiple components. For example the back by itself could consists of multiple components such as cloth or cover, padding, or possibly screws, nails or stables.

Ultimately though one might use virtual documents readily on offerings such as Documentum, there is no direct equivalent for SharePoint. Whether it is in SharePoint 2007 or SharePoint 2010 for that matter, in most instances organizations at times decide to use directories and sub-directories, as many as needed to achieve a simulation of this structure. But, this approach has a series of irreversible issues beyond the fact that they are simply inapplicable in SharePoint. Though virtual documents are important in other content management products, efficient use of them in SharePoint is even more critical because of the way SharePoint organizes content internally.

This paper focuses on a couple of areas. First it discusses why organization rightfully should have serious concerns about using directories or equally so Document Sets in SharePoint to simulate virtual documents. It discusses not only the challenges in deploying that strategy but also the significant complexity it creates when attempting to maintain such content. Beyond the intra SharePoint strategy on how to handle virtual documents, the paper investigates issues to consider if migrating such content from other platforms over to SharePoint.