Content BOM: Going Open for ECM with Alfresco

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Content Copyright © 2009 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

The overlaps between the pigeon holes that we put software in are getting more and more common. ECM, Enterprise Content Management, is not something I normally cover. Alfresco however provides a Business Operating Platform (BOM) for content. In addition it has 2 interesting credentials: firstly it is an open source product and secondly the company is led by John Newton, founder of Documentum, and John Powell, former COO of Business Objects.

At a briefing I had in February 2009, Dr Ian Howells, Alfresco’s CMO explained to me, “Enterprise Content Management industry is driven by three factors. Firstly is high cost caused by application driven purchases with a high up-front investment and per user pricing. Secondly is the high complexity of applications and projects today, which results in long rollout cycles and in software either not being implemented or used. Finally, there is a lack of customer control as proprietary solutions prevent choice and ability to switch to other vendors.” So how does Alfresco tackle these challenges? The answer is by providing “Content as a Service” (get ready for a new acronym – CaaS!!). The business model is a low cost, open source, subscription model with minimal upfront investment that can be driven out of operating expense as opposed to capital expense. The other side of the equation is to make it simple and easy to use.

So what about the company itself? Alfresco was founded in January 2005 and has it headquarters in Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK and in Highland, Utah, USA. Its investors include the leading investment firms Accel Partners, Mayfield Fund and SAP Ventures. The first product launch occurred in October 2005 and in May 2006 it went completely open source. According to the web site, there have been 1.5 million downloads and with over 550 customers, there are some very impressive names, including FedEx, Swisscom Mobile Labs, Harvard Business School Publishing, the New York Stock Exchange and Fox. Howells gave me an interesting fact that around 80% of their customers were already users of ECM software when they signed up with Alfresco! Alfresco have set up a partner channel consisting of systems integrators (such as Unisys, Atos Origin and the Sopra Group), solution/OEM partners and hosting partners.

So what about the product itself? Alfresco is built using open source infrastructure components including: Spring, Hibernate, Lucene, and MyFaces, and is based on Aspect Oriented Programming. It is also built on standards that include REST, RSS, Atom publishing, JSON, OpenSearch, OpenSocial, OpenID, Web Services, JSR 168, JSR 170 Level 2, MyFaces, CIFS, FTP, WebDAV, DeltaV, SQL and ODF. The suite includes:

  • Document management
  • Web content management
  • Collaborative content management
  • Alfresco Content Platform

There are two editions: Labs and Enterprise Edition. The Alfresco Labs product is unsupported and intended for use by developers in non-critical environments. It has a daily build and serves as a vehicle for testing new features. Version 3d was release in January 2009. The Alfresco Enterprise Edition is production ready open source product that has a stress-tested certified build that is supported by Alfresco Software Inc. The Alfresco engineering team wrote over 95% of the source code, Version 3.1 was released during March 2009. The new version introduces a number of new components (shown in green in Figure 1).

Figure 1: Alfresco Component Architecture (Source: Alfresco)

Microsoft SharePoint and in particular version 2007, often referred to MOSS 2007, has as Bloor discovered in the BPMS Market Update published in December 2008 become the default portal. Alfresco Share can be viewed as an open source product which has the same capabilities as Microsoft SharePoint. Content can be viewed in the document library via thumbnails or in a Flash viewer or even through an RSS feed. Alfresco Share is the first ECM to offer Microsoft Office SharePoint Protocol support. Alfresco also includes a draft implementation of the proposed Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) specification, which is currently undergoing OASIS committee stage review. This includes:

  • Support for the CMIS REST and Web Services bindings
  • Support for the CMIS Query Language
  • A CMIS Test Suite to allow compliance compatibility testing

Alfresco Surf is a Web Application Presentation Framework written in Java and based on a Yahoo API. Howell described it as “a component market for gadgets”. It includes support for lightweight web scripting and templating. Its open nature means that SharePoint web parts as well Wikis and Blogs can be incorporated.

Alfresco Web Studio is the visual designer for Alfresco Surf. Howells pointed out that “the graphical overlays facilitate the build out of an organisation’s web site’s pages, navigation structure, templates and presentation layout”. Ajax-powered forms are used for in-context editing and previewing.

For any organisation in the current economic downturn whose CIO is looking to reduce their cost of support for content management, Bloor would suggest that they take a serious look at Alfresco and start by downloading the Enterprise trial and running a short test.