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1/17/2006
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The Portal Makes the Platform

Vignette's portal unites the V7 content management suite.

PROS
• All Java-based suite offers potential development efficiencies.
• Capable and affordable portal consolidates access to Vignette repositories and can surface records and documents.
• Vignette Records and Documents is mature, stable and easily implemented and customized.
CONS
• Flagship Web content-management (WCM) product is extensible but overly complex.
• Varying systems requirements and search engines across the suite work against infrastructure consolidation.
• Portal integrates better with other Vignette products than with non-Vignette repositories.

When Adam Smith first opined, "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production," he was probably referring to tangible goods, but 230 years later, the same could be said for content.

Few enterprise content-management (ECM) vendors have taken this dictum to heart more than Vignette Corp. The company focuses on not just managing information, but also delivering it to the end user.

Vignette began as a Web content-management (WCM) vendor. After surging and deflating along with the dot-com bubble, the company settled down, rewrote its flagship product in Java and acquired related technologies to become an ECM player. Like its competitors, Vignette sells dozens of modules as part of its ECM suite, the V7 Platform; the main product set comprises Vignette Content Management, descended from the company's "StoryServer" WCM tool; Vignette Portal, acquired with the purchase of Epicentric Inc.; Vignette Collaboration, acquired with purchase of Intraspect Software Inc.; and Vignette Records and Documents, acquired with the purchase of Tower Technology.

With its focus on content consumption, Vignette has differentiated itself from other ECM vendors by promoting its portal as the meeting ground for content across formats and repositories. The cost-effective portal and easily deployed record- and document-management module are among the platform's best features, but Vignette must smooth over disparate infrastructure requirements and stabilize its complex environment.

Vignette Content Management

Vignette Content Management (VCM) capably performs all the tasks you would expect from a WCM tool, including authoring, versioning, tagging, workflow and publishing. VCM also boasts advanced features, such as the ability to process batches of content together so you can build and deploy groups of pages or entirely new site sections at one time.

Some important pieces are missing, though. Its XML support is poor, likely owing to VCM's strict relational model, which works well for catalog-type content, but not so well for large, text-rich information sets, such as corporate knowledge bases. These need a more hierarchical, object-oriented approach that lets authors and managers access content at different levels within a tree — something VCM does not do easily.

Following its Java rewrite, VCM was bedeviled by performance problems and hitches in its publishing engine. Recent point releases seem to have addressed these but not before causing heartburn among customers who complained about immature code.

The biggest knock on VCM is that simple tasks, such as modifying author in-boxes or search results, can be too complex. Many customers have an unusually deep reliance on Vignette's professional services arm, even by the standards of the services-heavy ECM market.

The flip side of complexity in Vignette's case is extensibility. VCM has perhaps the broadest core API next to Documentum's; consequently, you can get the product to do what you need, including developing unusually detailed workflows and creating routines to clone subsites. Unfortunately, access to lower-level parts of the API requires an "extension kit."

The Rest of the Suite

Vignette's record- and document-management product is more mature than VCM. Those who are used to VCM marvel at VRD's reliability, ease of use and the experience of supporting Vignette consultants.

HealthSouth, one of the nation's largest health-care services providers, is using VRD to manage medical records. The company selected Vignette because it offers all required tools from document capture to document management to records management without third-party software.

HealthSouth implemented a system for scanning and processing 80,000 invoices a month in just a couple of days. Other customers report even larger document-management installations in surprisingly short timeframes. "You don't need a Vignette [consultant]," says Brent Quick, HealthSouth's director of records management. "You can do it yourself." That's music to any CFO's ears.

Vignette Collaboration is designed to provide capabilities, such as threaded discussions, task tracking and alerts, using customizable project workspaces. The product is comparable to collaboration tools from Open Text and EMC, and Vignette faces stiff competition in this arena. Portal vendors, for example, tend to embed similar collaboration facilities. Moreover, Microsoft SharePoint offers many of the same features — albeit not in Java — at a lower cost.

The Vignetter PortalVignette's Portal is the gem of the suite. Compared with VCM, Vignette Portal is lower priced, has a slimmer footprint and carries less overhead (developers can install it on their desktops). Compared with heavier-weight competitors, Vignette's Portal is simple to configure. It may lack some of the enterprise application integration tools that portal products from BEA Systems and IBM can offer, but Vignette Portal is simpler to configure. Customers rave about how businesspeople can easily create new content and service packages through browser-based interfaces, and they note that it's much easier to customize than VCM.

Vignette sees Portal as the front end of its disparate components. Employees can manage content from other Vignette repositories within the Portal interface. For example, a Portal user can work with another colleague using Collaboration services, complete a document in VRD, then publish that document to multiple Web sites through VCM. A Portal fronting a VRD repository can be used to let authorized customers search for documents.

The Vignette Portal is particularly adept at surfacing content from VCM in different contexts. Managers can administer VCM from within the portal admin interface, but that's not yet possible for Collaboration or VRD.

Putting it Together

Like many of its ECM competitors, Vignette still has work to do to make its suite greater than the sum of the parts.

Unlike most ECM products, all Vignette's major offerings are based on Java, but different products bundle different search technologies and have divergent system requirements.

VCM, VRD and Portal are bundled with a run-time version of BEA Systems' WebLogic application server. IBM WebSphere shops also have licensed VCM and Portal, but they must treat the Vignette implementation as a black box, rather than an integral part of their systems infrastructure. Vignette Collaboration only runs on Windows (though Vignette is porting it to Linux).

Confused? You're not alone. The company only publishes technical specs for the entire suite, rather than for each product.

Among ECM suites, Vignette's portal-oriented approach is unique and promising, particularly for consumer-oriented companies that want to surfacing Web content, documents and imaged records in custom packages.

Despite the checkered track record of its WCM product, Vignette has married several mature technologies to what is now a broad ECM suite. The Vignette V7 Platform is best suited to organizations that have not yet settled on a portal product but have made a commitment to Java. What Vignette Portal lacks in EAI tools it makes up for in ease of use and tight integration with the content-management tools.

Vignette V7 Platform. Here's a rough guide to entry-level costs: VCM, $75,000 per installation and $1,000 per named user. Collaboration, $50,000 per installation, plus $300 per named user. VRD, $50,000 per installation and $2,000 per concurrent user. Portal, $70,000 per installation and $125 per administrator or developer. Vignette www.vignette.com.

Tony Byrne is the founder of CMS Watch, which evaluates major content management, search and records management products.

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