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11/16/2005
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Stellent Survives Among Giants

Nimble Stellent delivers easy-to-deploy content applications.

The most recent story line in the enterprise content management (ECM) software category has seen the steady emergence of big infrastructure vendors — Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, SAP and EMC — as serious competitors for a variety of content management use-cases. Nevertheless, smaller ECM suite vendors continue to thrive.

For example, Eden Prairie, MN-based Stellent is easily the smallest of the pack in terms of annual revenues ($106 million in fiscal year 2005), yet it continues to make plenty of RFP shortlists and win its fair share of deals.

Stellent's flagship product is the Universal Content Management (UCM) suite, but despite the moniker it tends to be purchased to solve specific business problems such as managing intranet documents, achieving regulatory compliance or supporting multiple Web sites.

At the Core

Stellent's core repository, called Content Server, provides base services — versioning and version control, workflow, security and access control, and repository search — to a variety of applications that ride on top. The Content Server is comprised of four repositories:

  • A contributor-facing, file-based content store dubbed "the vault"
  • A database to hold metadata and system settings
  • A Verity search engine
  • A consumption-oriented cache for content delivery.

Stellent exposes a variety of APIs here, including Java and COM, but developers are likely to find a deeper set of interfaces in competing products from EMC|Documentum, Vignette and IBM. Stellent is shooting for ease of customization over lower-level depth. Like competitor Open Text, Stellent uses its own proprietary scripting language, "iDoc." Developers use iDoc in Content Server to manipulate input screens, develop content output templates and define workflows beyond the simpler browser-based configurations. iDoc is easy to learn, but on complex implementations, developers may long for a more sophisticated, open toolset.

For repository search, Stellent uses a customized version of Verity that indexes both content and metadata. Here again, Stellent has favored expedience over scalability. The Verity implementation works well out of the box, but collections tend to hiccup or experience substantial performance limitations as the content store grows — a problem some customers address by upgrading to the full version of Verity.

In short, Content Server is easy to customize, but offers less of a development platform than many competing offerings. Where Stellent shines is in delivering content applications that fix specific business problems out of the box. Two of the company's more noteworthy products — Multi-Site Management and Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) — reflect the solutions-oriented approach.

Compliance Starts with SOX

Compliance with SOX requires solid, auditable processes. In particular, Section 404 requires documentation of key control procedures, presenting a document management problem to corporate CFOs and comptrollers. The Stellent SOX application encapsulates process elements — rules, issues, tests and documentation — as objects. Organizations can actively manage these elements by creating versions, spawning workflows, archiving where necessary and reporting on activity.

For users, action centers around schedules of risks, which are entered into the system as part of initial configuration, and processes with associated documentation, which are managed through a control-panel interface.

Compliance demands reporting, so the SOX application offers a broad set of internal reports, including dashboards with "heat" reports and drill-downs highlighting risks. Stellent also OEMs tools from Cognos that provide ad hoc reporting and drag-and-drop analytics.

Sarbanes-Oxley also requires control testing, for example, that an assertion that a CFO makes in a quarterly filing has been adequately documented. That test itself generates documentation and results that can be managed in the SOX tool. If a test fails, the system can kick off a new "issue" for the process owner, invoking new workflows as necessary.

SOX is relatively straightforward to use, providing a "one-stop shop" for Section 404 compliance, according to Chris Schneider, CIO at Stellent customer First Industrial Realty Trust, a provider of industrial real estate. Previously, the firm's Word and Excel documentation about financial controls was scattered. "Now we have one place to go for everything," Schneider says.

The flow among SOX interface tabs won't be intuitive to all. Early adopters are auditors who have a strong understanding of compliance concepts. As companies extend the application to business process owners or beyond SOX compliance, they'll have to do more employee hand-holding on the Stellent user interface.

Note that SOX doesn't manage instances of a process, just the process itself. Individual transactions — say from within accounts payable — can be tracked in Stellent's separate imaging/business process management (BPM) suite, but exceptions in that system can't be logged automatically into the SOX product. Stellent says it's working on this integration.

Similarly, there's no prepackaged integration with Stellent's Records Management product. The company says there's little demand to do so, but this may simply reflect today's desire for expedient compliance solutions. In the long term, process documentation, tracking and related records management regimes should be intertwined.

Stellent SOX customers say the application meets their needs more or less out of the box. "We hardly had to customize it all," notes Schneider of First Industrial, "and I can't think of any other product where we can say that."

The Multi-Site Reality

With its Multi-Site Management application, Stellent recognizes that the typical enterprise produces more than one intranet or Web site — often a lot more. So the ideal Web content management system for a distributed company should let some system aspects be centrally controlled while others are distributed to site authors. That is what Stellent has done, with good success.

Like the SOX application, Multi-Site Management is built atop Stellent's core Content Server, but it also delivers several additional products:

  • Site Studio provides templating, in-context editing and other editorial services.
  • Content Publisher converts non-HTML content to Web formats while Site Studio Publisher provides a content delivery engine.
  • Connection Server deploys content from the repository to a production environment.

Site Studio provides a user-friendly overlay for managing content across multiple Web sites. Authoring, editing and access privileges management, for example, can be delegated to individual administrators rather than maintained by a master gatekeeper, as many other products require. Users can also create new content types (such as press releases) without the aid of developers — a plus in distributed environments.

Stellent offers a variety of choices about which interfaces to expose to which users at what times — a choice that some customers find confusing. Content Server lets you build custom forms interfaces. Site Studio delivers prebuilt interfaces as well as in-context editing, meaning contributors can browse to a page, log in and pop up a form to edit the content. Moving between interfaces sometimes inconveniently requires reauthentication.

PROS
• Core Content Server product provides flexible repository services, workflow and strong access control for multiple applications
• SOX product works well out of the box with little to no customization
• Multi-Site Management application offers flexible governance and publishing models — as well as multiple user-interface options — across diverse Web properties within distributed enterprises
CONS
• SOX product isn't tightly integrated with Stellent's records management module nor imaging and BPM tools, limiting usability for broader compliance needs beyond the financial domain.
• Significant customization requires proprietary "iDoc" scripting language
• Bundled "lite" version of Verity search engine may beget expensive upgrades
• Stellent has a comparatively limited developer/integrator community

Developing page templates in Site Studio seems simple at first blush but can get complicated. Graphic designers can drag in components and build Web page templates, but the underlying logic is complex enough to require developers. The templating system is quite powerful in that developers can set various permissions and triggers at the element level, and here again you can delegate authority. Once templates are built, authorized business managers can modify which templates are applied to any set of content items. They can also alter some site structure, all via a browser interface.

Platform versus Product Needs

Stellent is a nimble vendor that has focused on solving business problems — SOX and Multi-Site being two cases in point. However, the company's small size isn't without drawbacks. Stellent lags in building international users networks and lacks the large-scale developer networks and deep integrator ties that help larger ECM vendors sustain their more complex offerings.

Do enterprises require an ECM platform on which to build custom content applications, or simply a manageable collection of functional products? The Fortune 100 may be looking to standardize on a single ECM infrastructure, but most other enterprises buy piecemeal to fix specific problems. In this market, Stellent is not always going to win on technical elegance; but the company has held its ground by focusing on easy-to-implement products.

The Stellent Content Server is priced per server and per user, starting at $50,000. SOX implementations run from $100,000 to 200,000, including the Content Server. Multi-Site Management packages start at about $200,000, including the Content Server.

Tony Byrne is founder of CMS Watch (www.cmswatch.com), which evaluates major content management, search and records management products.

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