Open Source ECM in a Windows World

Despite having a completely Window-based network, a technical publishing firm uses Alfresco, an open source enterprise content management tool.
Posted September 12, 2006
By

James Maguire

James Maguire


Informa, a technical publishing company with some 7,000 employees, straddles the worlds of Linux and Windows.

The company uses Linux in all its applications that interface with customers. The London-based Informa has very active Linux development teams in its Dutch, German and UK offices. These developers create software for uses ranging from content distribution to marketing.

“They’re all Web apps that deliver something to the broad public,” says Bob Hecht, the company’s VP of content strategy.

The Windows-centric side of Informa is its internal network, which supports its production and management functions. Although the company has open source developers based in Florida and New York, “We tend to, for expediency, write to the Windows platforms, because our infrastructure is all Windows boxes,” Hecht tells Datamation.

Despite the company’s clear dividing line – Linux for customer apps, Windows for its internal network – Hecht decided to take a major step: He introduced an open source element into Informa’s Windows-only internal network.

Surprisingly, the open source tool he introduced was an enterprise content management (ECM) application. In most companies that’s a critical app, but for Informa – whose entire business is content distribution – its ECM program is a defining element of the network.

Why did Hecht want Informa to take such a major step? Cost was the key consideration. Additionally, “I’m a huge Linux fan and supporter, and what has been happening in open source is just an incredible move.”

A New Tool

The open source ECM tool Informa chose is Alfresco Enterprise Network, developed by Alfresco. Launched in the fall of 2005, the software is not quite yet a year old. In its short life, the ECM tool has been adopted by companies like Boise Cascade and Knight Ridder Digital. The application is designed to run in the Linux, Mac, Unix or Windows environments.

One of Informa’s goals in adopting Alfresco was to allows employees to use the editor of their choice to participate in any stage of a document’s creation, from authoring to reviewing, approval to distribution. The company wanted support for EXL-FO (Extensible Stylesheet Language Formatting Objects) and Web services standards. It wanted its content management system to be open source so that it could incorporate third party tools without being limited to a proprietary software model.

Alfresco enables a network manager to apply an array of content management rules to virtual folders. For instance, “You say, ‘anything that goes into this folder, do this with it,'" Hecht explains. So any file can be automatically translated into the correct file format, locked, or versioned. The software also handles an array of security rules. It uses the Lucene Text Search Engine.

Alfresco employs CIFS (Common Internet File System), a protocol for allowing users with different platforms to share files. “It uses a CIFS mapping tool to make the Alfresco content repository look like a Windows folder,” he says. So users navigate within the comfortable, well-known Windows environment.

Because Alfresco supports the JSR-168 portlet standard, users can work in their native portal when necessary. The application employs a configurable Aspect-Oriented system where rules are defined to prompt actions.

The Cost Factor

Some users might expect a relatively new open source app running in a Windows environment to create network snafus. On the subject of Alfresco’s stability on a Windows network, Hecht says it’s hard for him to say, chiefly because he’s never run the app on top of Linux. Not that Alfresco isn’t stable, he explains, but “The only thing I can say with confidence is, I’d feel that it’d be more stable under Linux.”

Actually, there are some Alfresco tools that work better in a pure Windows environment, he says.

In Hecht’s view, Alfresco offers a cost advantage over comparable enterprise content management programs like Documentum. "I was a Documentum person before I came into this company. That’s straight Windows stuff, very powerful – the No. 1 management solution on the market, depending on who you talk to – but nobody in Informa wanted anything to do with it, because they couldn’t envision repurposing it across the company without breaking the bank.”

The Alfresco enterprise-level product is priced at three tiers: silver, gold and platinum, or $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 per CPU. (Alfresco is also available as a free, unsupported download.) The software doesn’t need to be implemented onto all a company’s CPUs, Afresco sales director Jason Hardin tells Datamation. “Let’s say they have 200 users, and two CPUs with back-up would be just fine.”

Hecht, for his part, says Informa is moving at a “very cautious” pace with its new ECM tool, but that “I’m viewing Alfresco as a long-term solution for my company.”

“I’m putting in small systems, because the product is not even a year old yet,” he says. “There’s a tremendous amount of functionality that’s in the technical road map for this product and almost all of it is important for a mature enterprise content management solution.”






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