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Team Collaboration Open Source Options - Where Do I Start?

It’s a privilege to join the team of bloggers here on Collaboration Loop.  I consider myself a collaboration practitioner; I work for Novell as a Senior Knowledge Manager, responsible for the company’s collaboration architecture and infrastructure.  For the last two years, I have led a project to help Novell understand its employees’ collaboration requirements and determine what infrastructure would best fulfill them, and to establish a collaboration infrastructure at the company -- one that will give us a strategic advantage over our competitors.  My work has included documenting requirements and processes, creating a collaboration architecture, conducting a gap analysis of our current collaboration systems, working to secure executive funding and commitment, getting internal organization's commitment and alignment, conducting a request for information that was sent to thirty six collaboration vendors, conducting several pilots, and selecting a system.  In this, and future blogs, I will share my experiences with you. 

In addition to my experience as a collaboration manager, I am working with Brigham Young University on several research papers on the topic of online communities.  My most current paper is on the topic of how to motivate people to contribute to online communities.  You can download the paper at http://e-business.fhbb.ch/eb/publications.nsf/id/390.  Also, I am an enthusiast of, and contributor to, Open Source collaboration technologies.  I will share my findings from this research as well.  

Let me begin by sharing what I learned from my research on asynchronous team-based collaboration solutions. My evaluation focused on enterprise requirements for these systems, and therefore my analysis is biased towards enterprise IT management.  Some of the most popular vendors in this space include Akiva, Alfresco, Basecamp, Drupal, Mayflower, OpenACS, phpCollab, Ramius, and Xoops

In order to better evaluate these products, I broke them down into three categories: 

1. Community-built collaboration systems
2. Mixed-source hosted vendors
3. Enterprise collaboration vendors

Community-Built Collaboration Systems. This category includes Open Source projects like Drupal, Xoops, OpenACS and phpCollab.  These tools are developed and supported by a large community of developers.  The primary development language used by these projects is PHP.  Several companies have adopted these Open Source technologies in their internal collaboration infrastructure.  The downside is that they are challenging to integrate, do not include object-level security, and take additional resources to customize.  Additionally, because companies must deal with the Open Source community that supports the product, a regular request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) can be challenging to execute.  In the future, you may see these vendors making their way into the enterprise, but for now they specialize in large Internet content and collaboration deployments.   

Mixed-source hosted systems. This category includes Open- and mixed-source vendors whose main focus is on hosted applications.  These vendors, which include Ramius and Basecamp, have created low-cost alternative to traditional ASPs by leveraging Open Source components.  These products are great for departmental collaboration, or for collaborating with external partners and customers.  These vendors don’t provide a downloadable version of their product, hence development kits are not available and customization generally isn’t possible.  My perspective is that as these vendors perfect their products, they will offer enterprise versions of them.
 
You have a better chance of getting these companies to reply to an RFI or RFP than with community-supported Open Source tools, but basically it’s “what you see is what you get” with these tools.  You can submit requests and the vendors will add it to their development queue, but their core audience is the larger non-custom market.

Enterprise collaboration systems. This category includes vendors that provide solutions targeted at the enterprise customer.  Vendors include Alfresco, Akiva and Mayflower.  Less than a few years old, these companies provide a low-cost solution equivalent to that of the big enterprise collaboration vendors.  Their business model differs from that of Open Source solutions since they employ developers to build their products, and rely on the community to test their products and provide the requirements.  These companies are primarily Java based, abide by open standards and release the majority of their platform to Open Source.  Trying to get an RFI or RFP reply from these vendors can be very challenging as well, unless you are seriously interested in purchasing many licenses of their technology. 

In my next blog entry, I’ll cover non-open source asynchronous collaboration vendors and provide a similar categorization that can help potential buyers to better narrow their vendor analysis. 

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