Monday, August 29, 2011

Working with Acrobat Shared Review and SharePoint

I guess you could say I'm something of a stick in the mud. Acrobat peaked for me around version 5. Years ago, probably around the time that Adobe began insisting on using a download manager to download a copy of Reader, I threw my hands up and started using GhostScript/GSView, and PDFCreator when needed. If I really needed to use Acrobat Reader for something, like to fill out a PDF Form, then I have a sandbox VM with Reader installed for that very purpose.

Flash forward to today. My new workstation has Acrobat X installed, and several people in my company use a specific feature offered since Acrobat 8 called Shared Review. Pretty simple, you can annotate PDFs and those annotations are shared so that other users can view them. The annotations can be recorded on a driveshare, or naturally on if you feel like engaging in that sort of thing. You can also store them on SharePoint as it turns out, and this is how things are done within this particular department.

When the comments are refreshed, the local copy of the PDF is rewritten with the comments cached within, so the "offline" copy travels with the most recent available annotations. Because each of the PDFs with Shared Review configured also points to a saved location for comments and updates on launch (as well as at will with a button inside Acrobat), you can have 30 copies of a PDF distributed about, and given a network connection, everyone's comments should be visible.

We're in the process of rebranding our primary SharePoint instance and restructuring it to adhere to a new "Information Taxonomy" as my boss calls it. New URLs, content relocation, the whole nine yards. We were all set at the 11th hour to pull the trigger and deploy our updated site when we discovered that we hadn't accounted for how the Shared Review PDFs would work. When a PDF is set up for Shared Review, a new copy of the file is saved that contains connection information to the location where the comments data is stored.  It turns out that when this environment was set up, the location for those comments was buried two subsites deep, since the staff members originally working with this product worked in that location in SharePoint.

So now, we have several hundred PDFs that have connection information embedded within them (encoded, naturally) which points to http://server/department/section/Comments, and tomorrow, this site will instead be stood up at http://newserver/division/office/department/section/ , and Acrobat appears to offer no way to change where that connection is pointed. We had a number of ideas about how to tackle this issue, but other questions started to come up. These files are being used around the world, with some offices that don't have reliable bandwidth. Are they using the "master" copy being maintained within the project site? Are they using a local copy? Are they using something else?

It turns out that when you set up Shared Review, you have three options on distributing the updated PDF (which contains the location of where the comments go):
  1. Send an e-mail with the new PDF as an attachment
  2. Send an e-mail with the PDF hyperlinked
  3. Don't e-mail it at all
In all three cases, Acrobat creates a local copy of the PDF. In the second case, it also uploads a copy of that PDF to the same document library where you requested it to save comments. In our case, the users were putting the review-enabled PDF up on SharePoint in a different location anyway, so now we have a few hundred PDFs that are effectively orphaned clones.

Anyway, since Acrobat does not appear to offer an easy way to manage this data connection for Shared Review, we now have to go back and touch all of these documents to point them to a new location where comments will be stored. In order to insulate them from any further path changes, we're going to create a new web application/site collection solely for Acrobat documents, and host the documents there, outside our current setup.

So, the moral of the story is - it's a nice feature, but use some caution when planning if you intend to stick with it in the long haul.

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