Magazine Article | June 23, 2008

Open Source ECM: Growing Through Disruption

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Advanced social networking capabilities are helping open source options stand out among the ECM (enterprise content management) status quo.

Integrated Solutions, July 2008

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen coined the phrase 'disruptive technology' in his 1995 article Disruptive Technologies: Catching The Wave. The term has gained traction over the years and refers to a technological innovation, product, or service that uses a 'disruptive' strategy, rather than a 'revolutionary' or 'sustaining' strategy to overturn existing dominant technologies or products in a market. Occasionally, a disruptive technology comes to dominate an existing market by filling a role that an older technology cannot, much like smaller-sized flash memory is currently doing for personal data storage. Other times, a disruptive technology successively moves up-market through performance improvements until finally displacing the market incumbents. Digital photography's gradual replacement of film photography is a good example of this pattern.

Many pundits have recently identified two disruptive technologies in the ECM space — Microsoft SharePoint and open source ECM software. Both of these platforms redefine how content is managed and shared and threaten the dominance of ECM legacy systems in the business community. Open source ECM software, for example, is software where the source code is available to users and permits them to study, try, modify, and improve the software. This model is changing the ECM paradigm and generating interest among the business community because of its free availability, community framework, and innovative features such as social networking capabilities. These characteristics are increasing the popularity of open source ECM and solidifying its reputation as a disruptive technology to watch closely.

Price, Programming Advancements Spur Open Source ECM Adoption
The first open source ECM software platforms became available in 2005, and adoption of this software has been impressive over a short period of time. For example, Alfresco, one of the noteworthy open source ECM vendors on the market, claims to have had more than 1 million free downloads of its system to date. However, this figure provides little indication of how many of these downloads have been nurtured into production-level ECM implementations. A better measure of the traction open source ECM platforms have made in the market can be made by looking at the company's paying customers.

"Currently, we have 500 customers that decided they need the services, updates, and support we provide for a monthly charge," says John Newton, CIO of Alfresco. "These businesses place value in the ability to have their bugs fixed quickly in a production environment." On the surface, 500 customers may not sound like that impressive a number. However, Newton says Documentum (a notable legacy ECM software company that Newton cofounded) only had 12 to 20 customers at a comparable point of development back in the early 1990s.

According to Newton, the primary adopters of open source ECM technology tend to be departments in Fortune 1000 organizations. These users tend to have the critical mass of document and electronic content that require an enterprise-scale ECM system. Newton also indicates that several factors are leading these businesses to lean toward open source ECM options rather than their legacy counterparts.

First are the cost benefits of open source ECM options. While open source software isn't free, it is free to try, and enterprise editions of the software are typically less expensive than legacy ECM systems. This model is making open source ECM a popular choice in today's struggling economy.

Second, open source ECM applications are becoming easier to program and implement. For example, many open source ECM vendors have built their platforms on a Web-based REST (Representational State Transfer) network architecture and invested in scripting and templating languages such as JavaScript, PHP (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor), Ruby, and FreeMarker. The ability to use any and all of these languages to build an ECM solution makes it easier for developers to add rules to the system or extend the application to other platforms.

"With the REST architecture and a wide selection of scripting languages from which to choose, I believe the burden of development in an open source ECM environment has been reduced by 80%," says Newton.

Finally, open source ECM systems can allow organizations to execute applications that are impossible in legacy ECM environments. "One of our clients was trying for years to extend a segment of its legacy ECM system so that it could be accessed openly by its customers in many retail locations throughout the United States," says Mike Vertal, president and CEO of Rivet Logic, an open source ECM systems integrator. "The technology and the licensing model of its existing ECM infrastructure made it impossible to execute this application. However, with open source, it was not only able to build the application, but it did so cost- effectively."

Social Networking Drives Future Open Source Growth
While the previous examples provide a clear explanation of the growth of open source ECM to date, it is the software's emerging social networking capabilities that may have the most profound impact on the future growth of this disruptive technology. "A new generation of employee is entering the workplace and demanding to work with the same type of blog, forum, and wiki tools they're used to using as consumers," says Vertal. "In response, businesses are looking to take advantage of these Web 2.0 features as a means to engage and collaborate with their customers, partners, and other stakeholders on enterprise content."

Web 2.0 collaboration capabilities such as social bookmarking and tag clouds are some of the most common tools open source vendors are using to extend their ECM systems. Social bookmarking is a method for Internet users to store, organize, search, and manage bookmarks of Web pages on the Internet with the help of metadata. In a social bookmarking system, users save links to Web pages that they want to remember and/or share. These bookmarks are usually public and can be saved privately, shared only with specified people or groups, shared only inside certain networks, or another combination of public and private domains. Tag clouds, on the other hand, are a visual depiction of user-generated tags used typically to describe the content of Web sites. Tags are usually single words and are typically listed alphabetically, and the importance of a tag is shown with font size or color. The tags are usually hyperlinks that lead to a collection of items that are associated with a tag.

In addition to these tools, some open source ECM vendors are also working to extend their platforms to external social networks like Linked In, Facebook, and iGoogle. With these capabilities, organizations can take the content in their ECM repositories and export it into one of these social networks that serve as a collaborative extranet between the organization and its partners and customers.

According to Newton, social computing features will be a big factor in exposing ECM to the masses and truly making it a mainstream technology. "At the moment, I believe 95% of large organizations have an ECM system in place, but at most, only 10% of each organization actually uses the system," he says. "The social networking features offered by open source platforms will help increase the penetration of ECM in the enterprise because they allow users to manage content using an interface they're familiar with from their daily lives. Furthermore, managing content in a social network actually works more like a business does because the process becomes more focused on human interaction rather than just a function of the underlying ECM system."

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Social networking capabilities can do more than just make ECM more consumable to the masses. They can also help make the technology more proactive. For example, an important feature in most ECM systems is an audit trail that provides a system administrator, records manager, or auditor with a clear picture of when certain employees accessed specific content, and what revisions (if any) they made to that content. This is great information to have, but in most current ECM systems, a user has to seek out this data by viewing a report. With social networking capabilities, this type of information can actually be pushed to an individual through a series of live feeds that show a user the real-time, content-related activities of employees of interest. For instance, a corporate CIO or records manager can be aware the second the director of sales is updating the sales plan or when the president has modified the strategic plan for review. These  capabilities make ECM an active, rather than passive, technology and can alert you to content-related activities in your business you may never have been aware of before.

A primary reason open source ECM systems have been able to embed social networking into their platforms more readily than legacy ECM systems is a result of the open source model itself. Open source ECM software is new and a product of the Internet age. The software is written in Web-based programming languages, and there are no old legacy platforms or programs to be maintained or evolved. Furthermore, a community of open source developers is always adding to the platform to drive innovation. These factors, in particular, are what's making open source software a disruptive technology in the ECM space. So disruptive in fact, that many legacy software vendors may soon be forced to follow suit.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see some major ECM or other legacy software vendors begin to make at least some components of their architectures and product sets open source," says Newton. "You're actually starting to see this already with Microsoft. This model has already proven to resonate with today's businesses, and traditional vendors don't want to be left behind."