DAVID AND GOLIATH
Alfresco offers an enterprise content management platform built on open source software, which companies use for document management, Web content management, and collaboration. Alfresco isn't the only open source ECM platform, but on the document management and collaboration front, it's the biggest. Other players include Jahia in Geneva and Nuxeo in Paris.
Content management is a hot growth market, so there's no shortage of big proprietary vendors, including EMC, IBM, and Oracle. But Alfresco's archnemesis turns out to be a familiar open source foe, Microsoft.
Microsoft SharePoint has blitzkrieged the ECM market thanks to the same powerful weapon Drupal is using: collaboration. SharePoint makes it relatively easy for sales, marketing, and product development teams to access and share content using common Office tools. SharePoint thrust itself into the ECM space by wrapping essential document management capabilities, including access control, authorization, and workflows, around this collaboration environment. SharePoint is on pace to be a $1 billion revenue product this year.
Conventional ECM providers might quibble that SharePoint shouldn't be considered an ECM platform, but many companies have tuned out any semantic argument. More critical is to watch how companies react to SharePoint's success, and that's where Alfresco is one to watch, by trying to beat Microsoft at its own game.
In October, Alfresco launched Share, a collaboration system built into Enterprise 3.0, its ECM platform. Share lets employees and people outside a company set up workspaces to collaborate on documents and files. Like most collaboration apps, Share also offers blogs, wikis, and calendars, and it includes a fairly easy way for people to upload and manage documents in a library that includes a Flash-based viewer, so people can preview documents before downloading them.
Most interesting, Alfresco has used a bit of technological jujitsu against its brawnier opponent. Share uses the same network protocols that Office 2007 uses to communicate with SharePoint to connect to Alfresco's servers instead. This means employees can create content in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and collaborate as they would in a SharePoint environment, but without the need for a SharePoint back-end infrastructure. Companies can run Share on the operating system and database software they want, instead of being locked into the Microsoft stack.
But this might be only the start of more wide-open competition. A proposed standard promises to crack open ECM silos and let developers create a new generation of apps that can pull content from heterogeneous repositories. The Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) specification is backed by most of the industry and is expected by late next year.
Today, companies must buy or build integrations to link applications to competing ECM products. Alfresco CTO John Newton says CMIS will have the same impact on the ECM market that the SQL standard had on databases. "Until there was a standard, you were beholden to vendors to create applications on top of a repository," he says. "Now you'll get a variety of wider applications, search tools, publishing tools, and integration with the Web."
- Web 2.0 features built in from the start, making collaboration more vibrant
- Use of open standards means some can plug into proprietary platforms
- Companies need to choose and vet modules knowing what in-house development skills are needed
- Proprietary vendors are adding collaboration features quickly, so open source's early lead might not last
- Alfresco, Drupal
"It's hard to see how a legacy player will counter a platform that's high-quality, free of charge, and based on a standard everyone is going to," says John Powell, president and CEO of Alfresco.
Those are bold words from a company that's not yet profitable, particularly when it's up against EMC, IBM, and Microsoft, which are growing fast and are backed by some of the industry's richest R&D budgets. From a product basis, Alfresco still has work to become a well-rounded ECM product. It doesn't yet have certification for DoD 5015.2, a Defense Department records management standard used by all federal agencies. It also lacks the European records management certification. Without these stamps of approval, government agencies may look elsewhere to manage official records.
Still, big companies' willingness to use platforms like Drupal and Alfresco shows how they're leveraging collaboration to drive open source into new territory.
Gone are the days when companies fretted over the viability of open source development business models, or when political or cultural ideals played a part in whether to use open source. Open source companies have proven they can go toe-to-toe with proprietary vendors to solve real business problems. Today, companies size up these open source content management products with bottom-line objectivity. And that's progress.
Photo illustrations by Sek Leung