The rise of Alfresco: ECM that people will really use

A new enterprise content management system started with the bright idea of working like a shared drive for Windows clients. Add open source robustness, and Alfresco has some happy users on their hands.

Alfresco is an enterprise content management system that, according to some users, is beating legacy content management systems in speed, quality and ease of use. It has been around since 2005, but the open source, open standards, enterprise scale content management system offered by Alfresco is winning the trust of the marketplace.

“While other Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions are burdened with the concerns and constraints of managing the baggage of legacy code and mergers, Alfresco has seized the opportunity to start over; building a state of the art ECM platform on top of some of the most popular and powerful open source components available,” says Terry Barbounis, CTO for The Christian Science Monitor, who uses Alfresco.

Barbounis emphasizes the autonomy that Alfresco allows in letting the user shape their solution. “Technology aside, the Alfresco team has adopted a strategy of transparent content management -- let the user work the way they want to work,” Barbounis explains. “Many ECM solutions force the hand of the user when it comes to workflow, metadata and interaction with the repository.”

For the The Christian Science Monitor, Alfresco lets users work with their content through an interface that works like the same kind of Common Internet File System (CIFS) shared drive they are accustomed to using outside ECM. In the background, Alfresco is able to execute rules, workflow, enforce policies and extract metadata. According to Barbounis, ECM is only effective when users use it. Alfresco makes it easy for users to adopt and use ECM, since interacting with the system works just like saving a document.

“We had the opportunity to create this from scratch by a group of professionals who had built these systems before,” says John Newton, Alfresco co-founder and CTO. “We aren’t necessarily smarter, we just have the benefit of hindsight. We modularize out a lot of functionality that is not necessary and that helps the system move faster. We can also combine components into single Java systems that can help eliminate a lot of communication overhead. The result is definitely a faster system.”

“By making the system more modular and configurable, we can replace systems that need to be reworked or refactored,” Newton says. “This helps us build better systems without rebuilding the entire system. We have built this on top of some of the best, most robust and scalable components available in open source." Alfresco uses well-tested subsystems, including Spring and Hibernate.

The quality in Alfresco may be attributed to its many beta cycles and the human capital that performs its tuning and refactoring. “The entire open source process tends to be inherently higher quality when built by professionals,” Newton says. “The beta cycles have an order of magnitude more beta testers. The cycles of release are more frequent to provide more interactive tuning and refactoring and the code is more visible, holding the developers more accountable.”

Malcolm Teasdale, the director of content management for Eye Street Software, also feels that legacy content management systems have “baggage” that stands in the way of efficient implementation and use.

“At this stage in the Alfresco product evolution there are some very appealing aspects, that at the very least, mean that Alfresco is not carrying some of the ugly legacy baggage of other vendors,” Teasdale says. He outlines two key points of how this is visible to the developer and users: standards and ease of use.

The technology is built and designed upon industry accepted standards and is not so dependent on specialized resources. As a result, developers are more willing to work with and use familiar technologies. And Alfresco may be the first truly ECM-designed applications created with all areas of ECM in mind. According to Teasdale, other ECM applications turned into an ECM vendor by acquisition. For the end user this growth by accretion just means confusing user interfaces.

Facility of use is key with an ECM system and Alfresco was mindful of this in its development. “We used an investment banker as our example user in developing Alfresco,” Newton says. “These are users who must get their content under control, auditable and easily available to those who need it. Yet they hate content management and use shared drives instead. From the beginning, we made Alfresco look like, and [be], as easy as a shared drive. But [we] put intelligent rules to handle the automation and control of content.”

Newton emphasizes that the "shared drive" design makes the whole process of content control invisible to the user. Search, audit control and workflow happen behind the scenes. All are critical in designing it for a regulatory environment such as investment banking operations.

“Simple access to the repository via CIFS and Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning [Web DAV], will go a long way in achieving this goal,” Barbounis says. “It's still early in the evolution of Alfresco as an application and there is room for improvement, but usability and capability has improved with each release.”

A key benefit of the open source Alfresco solution is the interaction that Alfresco affords when there are problems with a platform. This is not something typically offered by proprietary ECM vendors. “One of the benefits Alfresco has over proprietary ECM solutions is the fact that its community can download and evaluate the platform as it's being developed -- when something isn't working for users, Alfresco hears about it very early on which allows them to evaluate and act on the feedback quickly," Barbounis says.

Tackling glitches as early as possible is an important benefit of working with Alfresco and provides the developer an easy means to “hitch on” other technologies to use. Teasdale explains that from a developer’s point of view, Alfresco combines a number of open source tools and familiar technologies. Therefore, the developer needs a working knowledge of Web development, Java and XML. The interface with other technology sets the way for a versatile technology for both the technical and less-technical user.

Designers can continue to use existing Web development tools such as Dreamweaver, while placing the resulting files in Alfresco via the CIFS interface, thereby getting the benefits of versioning, workflow and deployment.

The less technical business user, Teasdale says, may create content entry forms and simply enter content in the fields, saves, allowing a workflow to get triggered. This facilitates review steps and deployment, and requires no interaction with IT, he says.

The growth of online content continues such that publishers increasingly rely on their online published rather than a traditional print venue. This trend is expected to accelerate and empower content management systems.

“Web 2.0 has accelerated the whole process of bringing products and services to the market faster, but in a way that is easier and more engaging for the users,” Newton says. “New online Web presence establishes a conversation with the customer making them part of the development of new products and services and providing the organization with feedback on how they can do better. This makes an online presence more important than just a Web version of traditional print.”

Newton believes that the acceleration or “turbo charging” of this process has already happened. “Most companies are taking a look at their electronic storefronts and wanting to be at least with the curve if not ahead,” he says. “This is certainly helping our business as we have released our new Web Content Management system and with Web leading customers whose Web sites were pretty cool to begin with.”

Alfresco customers also concur that an online presence is in place and are hungry for technology to enhance it. “It's clear that a transition towards an online presence is in progress with many publishers. ECM/ Web Content Management (WCM) vendors are well positioned to support and add value to this transition,” Barbounis says. “Alfresco WCM and the ‘mash up’ capabilities [REST, RSS, micro-formats] that can be found on the publicly available road map are a clear indication that Alfresco is a contender for any publisher looking to become Web centric.”

Newton says that open source will drive infrastructure for a growing number of online publishers. “What is clear is that online presence is driven increasingly by open source,” he says. “Enterprises are looking for a robust and flexible online presence. Most Fortune 1000 companies and government organizations want a robust, scalable, IT platform that provides the features to engage their customers and end users. Given the burst in development of online presence with new Web 2.0 techniques, this is a big driver for online publishers.”

Content management technology, in general, has been something to be desired for sometime now, Barbounis says. “Systems are just not easy enough to use and as a consequence customers either don't use them or get little value from what they do,” he says. “ECM when properly leveraged can stretch the value of an asset to its full potential.”

Barbounis adds that ECM mitigates the risk and legal implications of misuse. “The key to an ECM platform’s success is not only that it works well from technical perspective, but that it's easy for the users to learn, use and embrace.”

This story, "The rise of Alfresco: ECM that people will really use" was originally published by LinuxWorld-(US).

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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