Open source steps into ECM shoes

Forget web content management - open source can work at enterprise level as well

The former co-founder of Documentum is applying lessons learned in the commercial ECM (enterprise content management) space to open source software.

John Newton, CTO and chairman of Alfresco, says that tackling content management with open source technology isn’t new, but most of the open source offerings available today target web content.

Next month, after several months of gathering interest and building a developer community around the project, Alfresco will release its open source platform for ECM.

The company intends to offer a wide range of ECM functions and the capability to re-purpose content for a variety of uses, Newton says.

“ECM is about knowledge bases, document management, image management, records management and email archiving,” he says. “That is the direction we are going [in] ... providing the open source platform [for ECM].”

For enterprises the whole notion of content re-use is critical, Newton says.

“[You] don’t see re-use in open source web content management,” he adds. “Where people are starting to use Alfresco is where there is a high level of re-use.”

The Alfresco platform, based on Java and built with aspect-oriented programming, looks and acts like a shared drive. The repository’s functionality includes workflow, metadata support, hierarchical folder structure, content classification, rules-driven processing and indexing and retrieval, among other features.

Analyst Tony Byrne, founder of, says Alfresco is the first major open source effort he’s seen which tries to tackle document management directly.

“While Alfresco calls itself an ECM package, it is initially targeting very simple document-collaboration scenarios of the type that SharePoint has addressed so successfully,” he says.

The Alfresco platform does not yet have the kind of heavyweight document imaging and processing capabilities that can be found in an expensive system like FileNet, Byrne says.

However Byrne adds, “I think it is smart to target the simpler and more ubiquitous use-cases, and SharePoint has had no other real analogue in the Java world.”

Alfresco’s Newton says key benefits of employing an open source platform for ECM include lower cost and better code quality.

“We have thousands of people helping us with our QA [quality assurance] process. We have a much tighter cycle of testing and feedback. [Open source] enables a constant conversation between developers and users,” he says.

With his new ECM venture, Newton also took on the challenge of making a content management system that is easier to use.

“A big portion of ECM is not being used by [content] contributors [who] don’t want to fill in a bunch of fields but just want to go into a shared drive. We made our system look exactly like a shared drive and emulated the Microsoft shared drive protocol.”

Alfresco plans to make money by offering services and system add-ons such as clustering, caching and replication. The company plans to build in support for wikis, blogs, discussion threads and calendaring in future releases.

As the ECM industry continues to consolidate opportunities for open source technologies are emerging in the SMB area and the fringe of the Fortune 1000, which are currently underserved by ECM, Newton says.

“The lower end of the market is too fragmented and open source is a good way to consolidate that,” he says.

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