John Newton, CTO and chairman of open source enterprise content management
(ECM) vendor Alfresco, is certainly no stranger to the industry.
Newton was one of the founding engineers at Ingres working on one of the
first commercial relational databases. In the ECM space, he’s best known as
the co-founder of ECM vendor Documentum, which was acquired by EMC for $1.7 billion in 2003.
Two years after cashing out of Documentum, Newton started Alfresco with John Powell, former COO of Business Objects.
Newton recently discussed his challenges and outlook for Alfresco with
Q: What are the biggest myths or misconceptions about what Alfresco actually does?
We started off by focusing on document management as our first application.
And some of the larger ECM players would like to say that Alfresco is still
just document management. That’s not true anymore; that was just our starting
point. Our vision was to fill out the entire suite of capabilities.
Since then we’ve added Web content management, image management, records
management and collaboration capabilities.
Also people coming from more of a traditional enterprise background are
confused about open source. I had people from EMC sending me e-mails: “Why are
you doing this for free?” That’s not the case. It’s about being open and transparent but it’s also about making money.
Another misconception that is out there is that we’re not really open
source. There is an open-community version and an enterprise version, and
everything that we do becomes open source. For enterprise customers we fix
their bugs faster, because that’s what they are paying for.
There are people that are contributing code to Alfresco that are not
Alfresco employees. I would guess that somewhere around 10 percent of the
code was contributed by other people.
Q: Is there a difference between what you’re doing at Alfresco and what you
did with Documentum? Is it just open source?
Openness is a big piece, as is the open source distribution model. From a
technology point of view, it is an opportunity to start from scratch.
Having access to a lot of different open source components to build the
Alfresco system was a huge boost and a real accelerator in terms of
development of the system.
So things like object relational models, which we built from scratch with
Documentum, we got from open source with Hibernate from JBoss.
Spring was one of the most important open source choices we made, as it’s
inherently aspect-oriented. By making it modular, you can automatically turn it on and off — different functions. In existing ECM architectures, you get a lot
of metadata baggage that you don’t necessarily need because you might need
It’s the “don’t use” that makes Alfresco a whole lot faster than the other
We can use open source components to build and innovate a whole lot faster
and it’s a lighter-weight aspect oriented architecture.
Q: Where is the growth coming from? Is it taken from proprietary vendors?
Greenfields? What’s the target?
Penetration in Fortune 1000 for ECM is in the low double digits. Reason for
that is when users have a choice of where they want to store and manage
content in either an ECM or a shared file drive, shared file drive almost
When you look at what is out there and how people want to take and deploy
enterprise content management, and fill in the other 90 percent of the
employee base, that is a greenfield for us — to provide a simple alternative
to the shared file drive that provides ECM capabilities. Getting people to
use ECM with not very much effort other than what they had done before with
a shared file drive.
Q: Has the move to GPL for Alfresco been a positive experience?
It’s been a very positive experience. We saw a pretty healthy uptick in
terms of new contributions coming into the Alfresco community moving to GPL.
It has also helped to simplify the perception of Alfresco in terms of is it
really open source or not. It also probably helped to simplify our OEM
business, as well, which is a healthy piece of business.
Q: What is your biggest personal challenge in growing the company?
The business model itself is more demand driven than demand creation, which
means that we get better visibility on what the business is going to look
like in a quarter’s time.
So far it’s been an upward surprise in terms of new business coming in. So
far we’ve exceeded our quarterly targets, so that helps me to sleep at night if
Then it’s also just keeping our eyes on the ball and continuing to execute
and not get complacent. I tend not to like to congratulate ourselves too
often here. And that’s probably a bad management trait on my part. But I just
like to make sure that we continue to execute, as we’ve got very aggressive
goals going forward with the ultimate target being an initial public
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.